“Ayinla Omoniwura was a champion of the working class” -Interview with his biographer, Festus Adedayo – Dami Ajayi (Part 2)
Ayinla Omowura: Life and Times of an Apala Legend, written by Festus Adedayo, is one of the most authoritative texts on the life of the Apala crooner whose posthumous profile I recently published. In my research, I came across this important and timely book which is a necessary read for those interested in traditional Yoruba music and a snapshot of the post-colonial working class of Abeokuta. Read my review here. Dr Festus Adedayo, lawyer and veteran journalist, kindly responded to a few of my questions in the most exhaustive manner, in excess of what I needed for my piece. So here my full interview with him, a rare treat for lovers of Yoruba music. Enjoy the concluding part.
DA: What made Ayinla’s Apala particularly unique? Was it the boom of his voice, his lyrical concerns or just the response he could elicit from his fans?
FA: In the course of my research into the music of Ayinla Omowura, that question you asked was the major empirical enquiry I sought to resolve. As you have rightly said, Ayinla’s Apala was a variant that was far unique and unexampled among his peers. In that generation of Apala singers, as said earlier, were Muraina Alao, Ajao Oru, Sefiu Ayan, Ligali Mukaiba, Ajadi Ilorin, Adisa Aniyameta, Raimi Dogo, Lasisi Layemi, Aminu Olaribigbe, Lasisi Onipede, Nosiru Atunwon, Raji Owonikoko and of course, Haruna Ishola and Ayinla himself. In this league however, Ayinla’s song transcended all, in terms of his fast-tempo, depth and compositional ingenuity. On top of it all was that he was very bold, audacious if you like, and commanded a musical respect which verged on his estimation as haughty. He was indeed perceived as diffident, garrulous and too sure of himself. This probably was on account of his belief that none of his musical peers could withstand him musically. While doing the field work of the memoir on Ayinla, virtually all my respondents affirmed that Ayinla towered above all of his peers, in virtually all departments of musical composition. They even submit that his music was greater than that of Haruna Ishola. His voice was audaciously unique and his compositional technique, very far between among Apala musicians. Perhaps his awareness of this attribution buoyed what was said to be his sense of musical superiority which he wore on his shoulders like a lapel. While virtually all of my respondents who knew him agreed that his outlawry was also beyond comparison, they couldn’t fault all the gamut of musicality where he towered high; be it in his voice, lyrical concerns and the talismanic capture of the audience. If he ever made overtures to some persons to help him spiritually capture his audience, whichever babalawo he consulted must have unequivocally laid claim to have helped make his a huge success. A top banking guru I spoke to, who also hails from Ayinla’s Abeokuta home and who knew him then as a young boy, said that in look, Ayinla wasn’t a spectacle of fancy but whenever he stood behind the microphone, he became something in the realm of a denim, due to the wizardry in his voice. This prompted speculations that he was involved in a spiritual amplification of his voice and songs called Oso orin. One of his drivers I spoke with – perhaps due to his naivety of what Ayinla did in his closet – however told me that Ayinla only used to apply a sharp knife-like object to clear the phlegm stuck to his tongue and gaggled a local liquid concoction called ogun efu which he usually purchased from its sellers in a particular area of Abeokuta. He claimed that Apala did this ritual a few minutes before going for musical engagements. His cultic audience was such that, on any day that EMI released his albums, the company sold at least 50,000 before the close of that day and that was in bookings alone. The figure excluded actual retail purchases. My respondents also told me that wherever he went, Ayinla was always almost mobbed by an advancing crowd of fans. From what I also gathered, Ayinla’s compositions were not uniquely his. He had a group of composers on his retainership, ranging from Ateni Se Mesi, Bashiru Igbore, Bolodeoku and others. This made his songs eclectic and diverse. One of his band members told me that if you heard his songs that had incantations in them, they must have been the composition of Ateni Se Mess and if it had to do with culture, then Bolodeoku must have authored it. This is very rare among musicians of his generation.
DA: Your book is like a chorus narrative of those who were yoked in one way or the other to the man, including the son who felt he was his reincarnate and a daughter who strongly felt she could have converted from Islam to Christianity. Even the wife who felt he bewitched her. Ayinla Anigilaje had the capacity to elicit very strong responses from people and these views were often polarising. In your view, after undertaking these interviews, what made this man of quite humble means such a force of nature?
FA: I think it was basically his musicality, his talent, if you like. As I said earlier, Ayinla was your outlaw next door, an iconoclast who, one of my sources once told me, smoked marijuana while stepping into a court room. He was involved in virtually every tissue of violence that held the esophagus of Abeokuta during his time but this did not in any way affect his art. Though he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, he was never a practicing Moslem. He violated virtually all the injunctions of Islam – had more than four wives, embraced the drinking of liquor, was a major force in the celebration of Ogun festival (Ogun ajobo) in all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria and was also notorious for charms and incantations. Those he repulsed due to the above wouldn’t touch him with a pole. However, he was an extremely generous man who could give all he had to the needy. One of his wives, surviving band member and even Kollington Ayinla, told me that if he collected his royalty at EMI, he would begin to spend it right from the EMI office and by the time he got home, he might have finished all of the money. Such was the nature of his benevolence. To those he impacted from that angle, he was a major force. However, in all of these, the greatest force that made his persona attractive to his audiences was his unexampled talent. It was as if whenever he stood behind the microphone, a newness emerged. Someone told me that he was at a gig where Ayinla sang, somewhere in Surulere, Lagos. The audience had waited endlessly for him. He emerged in the wee hour of the morning, drunk and tottering, making many wonder if he could perform at all. The source told me that the moment Ayinla sat behind the microphone, what poured out of him was out of this world. He gripped the audience methodically until daybreak.
DA: Egbaland has produced three very great musicians: Fela, Obey and Ayinla Omowura. Ayinla is believed to have been the griot of the working class. Why is this so? Does it have anything to do with his lack of formal education and why indeed was Apala affiliated with the working class?
FA: Ayinla Omowura was an extremely talented musician who rose from nothing to the apogee of the musical world. That question you asked is an aspect of Ayinla that you cannot but marvel at. You could understand that, while growing up musically, he embraced the working class and appealed mainly to the lowly class of artisans, many of whom were illiterates. He sang the praises of bricklayers who had conquered the fact of their low class to build ile olola (home known only with wealthy ones), butchers who built ile alarinrin (houses of renown) and other previously-not-considered members of this struggling class. What is baffling and interesting is that, later in life, when he rose to the pinnacle of superstardom, he still did not ditch the working class and sang their praises to high heavens. Yes, he was the toast of the emerging immediate-civil war period nouveaux riches of the post-colony, but he still spiced his songs with praises Oyinbo onibaba ni’gboro Mushin (famous barber in Mushin). He did not ditch this working class constituency to which he himself was a noticeable member. The surviving remnants of the working class, even after Omowura’s departure, also requited his love by having an evergreen flirtation with his songs, over 40 years after. The upper class has noticeably snatched the phenomenon as it is no longer an exclusive preserve of the working class. His songs have become the fancy of academics and those who celebrate traditional African culture, music and arts. That Ayinla didn’t ditch the working class could be as a result of his sparse formal education. He didn’t trust the buoy and embrace that the upper class gave him and was more at home with his working class constituency. In some of his songs, he was almost very pacifist, uncritically amplifying virtually every policy of government, ranging from census, transition from right to left hand drive, Udoji award, transition to civilian government, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson’s tenement rate policy, etc. When rumours that that same government allegedly banned the wearing of lace materials emerged, he pilloried it as incongruent, illogical and urged his fans to ignore it, singing “ika to ba se l’oba nge, bi e ba lowo, bi e ba ra lace, bo wu yin, e fi ran’gbada – “Government should punish whoever is an outlaw, a criminal who uses proceeds of crime to purchase lace material. My people, if you are rich enough to purchase a lace material, go ahead and sow the agbada flamboyant style out of it.” His sticking to the working class, even when he had attained fame, wealth and societal endorsement, could be due to his constitution as a person. In my research, I was told that at a point in time, attempts were made to snatch him from the EMI recording label he pitched his tent with but he stuck to the outfit. He never left EMI since he signed with it. This loyalty could be gleaned from an ad-lib in the track… where he sang, “won npe me, mi o lo ni, odo oyinbo ni ma wa, ma ma je, ajed’ale – “They are making overtures to me to ditch my benefactor, but I will forever stick to my English benefactor.” It might well be that Ayinla was a very loyal person and didn’t believe in ditching his roots.
DA: What were the challenges of gathering material for this book? And how was this resolved?
FA: People have condemned my research into Ayinla Omowura as not overtly positive about him. They are right. I conducted a holistic and very critical scan of the late musician. I didn’t spare anything about him. That is why I say that the book is his unauthorized biography. Those who know my writing inclination will readily say that I cannot write a hagiography. Never. When I write about personalities, I conduct critical examination of them. Ayinla’s wasn’t different. The most prominent challenge I faced in gathering materials for the book was that I was writing about a man who had died about 40 years preceding my research into him. Thus, virtually all the primary sources that should have given me more authentic information had passed on and the ones that were alive had their memories affected by time. Even his lead drummer who was recently deceased, Adewole Oniluola, didn’t want to volunteer information about Ayinla. As I interviewed him, an old woman, who was most likely his wife, hummed out warnings to him to be careful in the information he volunteered to me. I suspect it was as a result of the sweeping violent hold that Ayinla used to have on Abeokuta as a whole. I thus had to rely on secondary sources, thus affecting the authenticity of some of my claims on Ayinla Omowura. His children who were old enough to know him while alive were not forthcoming in giving out negative information about him. For instance, in an interview with his eldest child, Kuburat, nee Anigilaje, she told me point blank that her father never smoked marijuana. Virtually all other people I spoke with however confirmed that Ayinla was unapologetic in his consumption of the banned substance. To meander out of this, I adopted a journalistic narrative technique which involved giving my reading audience what my respondents said wholesale, leaving them to sieve the wheat out of the chaff. Where information from my respondents sounded illogical and inaccurate, I did not shy from attacking such. So I still believe that I had actually scratched the Ayinla persona and his music on the surface and some other researchers should take the work from where I stopped.