Barry, Wonderful!: A Post-Humous Profile of Fuji’s Great – Micheal Kolawole
Fuji pioneer and legend, Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, popularly known as Mr Fuji or Alhaji Agba, gave us several classic albums.
One of those albums is, Reality, his 38th studio album. Part autobiographical, part revelatory, he accounts for his troubling domestic issues – his failing health and siblings’ feud – especially on the eponymous title track “Reality”.
The record is frenetic, vivid, and sometimes didactic. A disconcerting but definitive performance before his death, Reality relies on stunning imagery, wit, existential questions and philosophical sayings.
Reality is the touchstone, vérité-styled Fuji album from the late Fuji maestro, gripping us with intimate scenes. Released in 2003, it however remains fresh. The insistent opening percussion surrenders to brisk guitar licks. Then the shrilling brass adds flourishes in tandem with ludic cymbals before Barrister scintillates us with his signature dulcet drawl.
Fuji albums often begin with a prayer, as if paying tribute to its origins, that Islamic music popular in the Holy month of Ramadan called Ajiwere or Ajisari.
Deviating from that tradition, Barry begins with a proverb “Oro ti nse ogofa ni nse orun/ Eyi ti nse ogoji na lo nse igba (a misfortune that befalls the minority also affects the majority). His lyrics are primarily sung in Yoruba but he occasionally garnishes them with English or Pidgin English. After that grand entry, he offers a prayer for expectant mothers, before paying attention to the newborn, who before birth is a victim of hate, and ultimately has to wage a lifetime battle against hatred.
Beaming with the enthusiasm of an achiever, Barry chronicles his life before he became a superstar. He takes us through his very humble beginnings; Barry worked as a bus conductor, motor boy, stenographer before enlisting in the Nigerian Army.
There is hardly any fame without adversaries. While some controversy could wreck a career, some serve as a catalyst to bolster others. Barrister courted a series of life and career-threatening controversies.
One of those controversies was the 1975 accusation that he had killed someone at a masquerade festival. A few months later, he addressed the accusation in a career-defining album, ‘Ori mi ewo ni nse?’.
The record is reflective and supplicatory, sneering and jubilatory. Lyrically and instrumentally, it is a stark contrast to modern Fuji music.
Though recounting an actual event, the record is enigmatic. Confused and uncertain about his fate after the allegation, Barrister’s voice overflows with emotions.
He opens the record with a question. “Ori mi, ewo ni nse o/ Eleda mi, ewo ni nse,” (My head, what should I do?/ My creator, what should I do). Before speaking about his ordeal, he references Chief Ebenezer Obey Commander and King Sunny Ade who were once accused of wrongdoing and how they were triumphant after their trial.
Half-way through the record, blending prayers with incantations, he berates his accusers. In the end, he is acquitted of the murder charge. Drummers tension the hide towards the song’s end, replacing the somber mood that opens the record.
The uncertainty that heralds the record morphs into a celebratory tune as Barrister offers gratitude to family and friend who stood by him during the travail. The ordeal culminated in a series of victories for him: he wasn’t only acquitted of wrongdoing; he made huge record sales and became sought after.
Before his death, besides breathing folk songs with memorable melodies, Barrister was a griot chronicling the lives of ordinary men and women. Through his albums, he serves as a social critic reporting on trendy issues and criticizing when needed.
Years earlier, on Aiye!, we caught a glimpse into his difficult beginnings. In Fantasia Fuji and The Truth, he spoke about the protracted presence of military men in our administrative space and the consequent hardship that resulted in the state.
In Questionnaires, he asked a series of stumpers, many of which are rhetorical, dazzling and dynamic about the nation’s socio-political issues. But it was his Fuji Garbage series that modified Fuji, changed the face of Nigerian music and influenced a lot of musicians.
Besides being a master griot, Barrister is Ciceronian. His lyrics are recherché, esoteric, and figurative; typically evoking emotions and profound thinking about life and death. His poetic aptitude on death is genre defining. In his heydays, after singing about the mundane aspects of life, he would sing about the ephemerality and futility of life. In “Agbara Iku” (“Power of Death”), off the upbeat Fantasia Fuji medley, he croons about death. Listening to the record conjures introspection and existential dread.
“Bi’ku se lagbara to (Death is mysterious and powerful),” he sings, “Ko so’loogun to le ri ti‘ku se (No shaman can provide medicines for death). “B’ola ‘Ku se to, Olorun Oba ki be ‘se wo” (Death is so powerful that God doesn’t question its work). After eulogizing death, talking about the impartiality of death, he sings about his preparedness for death. But death deferred. It granted him decades to ply his art.
After eulogizing death on “Agbara Iku”, as though contemplating his death, Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister performed his ‘Salat al-Janazah’ (burial rite) on his 2007 offering, Image & Gratitude.
Sounding weary, he recounted his life and career; thanked everyone who had helped him in his career, and said a prayer of commendation for himself. Some will say that Barry wasn’t talking about his death on the record.
Of course, I understand what Barry was doing. If carefully dissected, one will grasp the subtle messages of the song.
There is an oracular texture to the song, a pitch capable of different interpretations. Take, for instance, the soothing instrumentation, the solemn lyrics and offering of thanks, all blended to create an impression of someone tired and ready to bow out of this world. He was in a pensive, pitch-less tone all through the last medley as he glanced back at his humble beginning.
Image & Gratitude is a brilliant record relying on Barry’s self-styled personal last rite.
At the heart of Barry’s discography lies Orimi Ewo Ni Nse, Aiye! “Agbara Iku” (off Fantasia Fuji), Okiki, “Reality”, the titular track of Reality, and Image & Gratitude, beautiful records exploring the meaning of life while at the same time entertaining. While his other records provide a mythological sense of adventure and escapism, these records are poignant and profound: they look inward and provide the pain behind his fame.
Barry’s albums did not only appeal to the oldsters, the youngsters also enjoyed them because they are revealing and make for a beautiful contextual feeling. Pioneered by Wande Cole, most Afrobeats acts, including Barry’s son, Barry Jhay extrapolate Fuji into their lyrics and melodies.
Burna Boy’s “Wonderful” may wear a thin disguise of South African rhythms but when he sings, I go show you wonder/wa ri wonder, he is channelling Barrister.
It is no surprise that even in death, Barry continues to perform wonders.