Remembering OJ Ekemode – Michael Kolawole

When Afrobeat is mentioned, the late iconoclast Fela naturally comes to mind. But for the true devotees of the genre, the easygoing singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader the late Orlando Julius Ekemode, a pioneer with a significant impact on the genre, is equally held in admiration as his iconoclastic contemporary. 

In the 1960s, Ekemode’s innovative fusion of highlife and other African styles with American influences revolutionized the Nigerian music scene, resulting in highly successful and groundbreaking blends. Arguably, his experimentation heavily influenced Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat genre. When Fela returned from his studies in the UK, he was a regular visitor at Orlando Julius and his Modern Aces band gigs at the University of Ibadan or the Independence Hotel. “Fela came to my club every week to check out what we were doing,” OJ said in an interview with the UK magazine, Songlines. “He sat in with us; he was still playing the trumpet in those days and hadn’t taken up the saxophone. Then when he was ready to form his own band, I gave him some of my musicians – Eddie Fayehun, Isiaka Adio, and Ojo Ekeji – to get him started.” OJ also explained that “he would sometimes bring him (Fela) on stage to play. According to OJ, it was because of him that Kuti learned to play the saxophone because of him. In another interview, OJ explained that “what Fela launched back then wasn’t Afrobeat; it was jazz-highlife. He only started playing Afrobeat after he went to America at the end of the 60s. 

Ekemode’s music was the music of my father’s generation that trickled down to me. I was a little boy when I first heard his supplicatory song, ‘Adara’. At first, I saw no sense in the song. I stumbled upon it in adolescence and grasped its subtle messaging. ‘Adara’, a polyrhythmic song, is an upbeat tune imploring Yoruba deities to bless and protect him and his loved ones.  

Following the lively tune of ‘Adara,’ I was immediately drawn into the timeless and captivating ‘Jagua Nana,’ a song celebrating a passionate and rebellious lover. The song’s infectious melody, coupled with a dynamic rhythm section, a robust horn section, and powerful vocals, propelled it to become an immense success throughout the country.

Like ‘Jagua Nana’, ‘Mapami’ deals with the donor fatigue of a lover’s incessant demands. Humorous lyrics complement the song’s jazzy rhythm. ‘Jagua Nana’ and ‘Mapami’ would inspire other musicians to record songs about femme fatales. One song is ‘Iyawo Asiko’ by the late Orlando Owoh. 

Ekemode wasn’t just one of the most influential musicians in Nigeria; he was also an integral part of the Highlife, Afrobeat, Afrosoul, and Afrofunk movement on the continent. From the 60s to the late noughties, through his ability to infuse traditional African rhythms with audacious arrangements and polyrhythmic sounds of American pop, soul, funk, and R&B, Ekemode established himself as a sterling performer in Nigeria and Africa. 

Orlando Julius was born in Ikole Ekiti during the British colonial period to the family of Adeojo Ekemode, a trader and shopkeeper, and his second wife, Tinuola Dorcas, a farmer and cloth weaver. As a child, while her mother would sing as she worked on the yarn or walked him to school, Julius would play the drums and sing with her. Before his father’s death, he played the drums and flute at St Peter’s Anglican School in Ikole but quit when he was 14, after his father’s death. 

Ekemode left home and went to Ibadan, where he worked at a bakery and joined a local band. He began playing drums in the Action Group band run by Jazz Romero and studying at the Ibadan music school. He later learnt the saxophone and started playing highlife with talented musicians like Jazz Romero, IK Dairo, Rex Williams, and Eddie Okonta. These musicians played highlife and juju styles, but Ekemode had other impressions. “We started out playing highlife, but I was listening to American soul music like Sam & Dave and Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and I was the first to modernise Nigerian music with rock, jazz and soul and R&B,” OJ said in an interview with Nigel Williamson of Songlines magazine. 

Known affectionately as “OJ” among his peers, he honed his highlife skills in Ibadan during the 1960s, resulting in many musical styles, tones, and experiences. Unsatisfied with the musical styles of his masters, he started experimenting by combining traditional Yoruba folklore music with horns, guitar, and American genres, which birthed Afrobeat. “It was Afrobeat but my record company named it Afro-Soul.” In 1965 Fela’s band, which featured the ace drummer Tony Allen on drums, adopted the name Koola Lobitos. “But what Fela launched back then wasn’t Afrobeat; it was jazz-highlife,” Julius further explained. “He only started playing Afrobeat after he went to America at the end of the 60s.

“From late ’58 to ’60, I’d gone through many changes. You know, many bands. And I didn’t really like playing too much highlife music by that time. I like to learn, [but all my goal was just to put traditional music that I started with, and add a little bit of horns and guitar, and then do my own thing,” OJ said. Tony Allen, the man who Fela said was the brain behind Afrobeat, admits that Julius was a key innovator in the early evolution of the Afrobeat sound. “What Orlando was doing was a bit different from everyone else,” Allen said in the same interview with Nigel Williamson. “When we started doing Afrobeat, everybody said they were doing it first. But he’s right that what we did was a highlife/jazz fusion. That’s what everybody was trying to copy, and Afrobeat came out of that.”

In his lifetime, OJ produced a timeless musical legacy that will forever outlive him. On his first album, Super Afro Soul, released by PolyGram in 1966 in the triumphant wake of his hit singles like ‘Adara’ and ‘Jagua Nana’, and ‘Mapami’, it’s obvious that he was influenced by the American soul, but he chose to play in his unique pattern. That was obvious on his unique covers of Smokey’s ‘My Girl’, James Brown’s ‘echoes’ in Ijo Soul, and the Stax-like brass riffs and prominent bass throughout the album while keeping his earlier influence highlife and kokoma within reach. 

While he was revered as one of the pioneers of the Afrobeat and funk movement, OJ’s artistic journey took him to different countries. He moved to the United States of America in the mid-70s, where he worked with accomplished musicians like Ambrose Campbell, Hugh Masekela, Lamont Dozier, and James Brown, who he first met while playing at Paradise Hotel in Ibadan. He met his wife Latoya Aduke through Ambrose Campbell, who was a father figure to her. He also recorded a joint album titled The Boys Are Doing It with Hugh Masekela. 

After being introduced by producer Stuart Levine, Orlando collaborated with Lamont Dozier in 1977 to co-produce the hit track “Going Back to My Roots”. Although Orlando’s music, including his hit song “Ashiko”, chants, chorus, and percussion arrangements, were used, Lamont Dozier and his producer only credited Orlando with translation, rather than composition, arrangement, and performance credits. This groundbreaking song marked the first time a Nigerian artist recorded in their own language with an American counterpart for commercial radio in the United States, and it achieved great success. The London group “Odessey” also covered the song, reaching number five on the world chart. Additionally, Orlando Julius was given the opportunity to appear in the classic film “Roots: The Next Generation” through his connection with O.J. Simpson, the famous footballer. He worked alongside James Earl Jones, Shamsi Sarumi, and Peter Badejo. 

Besides his funky and jazzy blues, OJ recorded songs with memorable melodies and messages. Through his albums, he serves as a social commentator who reports on crucial human conditions and condemns sordid deeds. In songs like ‘Igbehin Adara’, ‘Alo Mi Alo’, and ‘Esa Ma Sate he sings in Yoruba and encourages tolerance and self-empowerment, modest attitudes in polygamous homes, and the cruelty of mankind. 

In ‘From Sema To Soweto’, he pleads for the end of racism and apartheid in Sema and Soweto. On ‘Stop War’, and ‘We Pray for World Peace’, he did, like the songs’ titles imply, plead for an end to the war and sue for global peace, love, and unity. 

Orlando Julius & The Afro Sounders, a phenomenal album that was recorded at Ginger Baker’s studio in Lagos and initially had a limited release by Philips in 1973, was of exceptional quality and is comparable to the fantastic material that the group had produced in the few years leading up to its release. The audio quality is incredible, displaying a vibrant and lively character. The fusion of drums and percussion in the composition is exceptional, complemented by the captivating bassline. The brass instruments, organs, and emotive vocals add a punchy and soulful dimension to the overall arrangement.

The outstanding tracks from the album include “Yio Si Da Miliki Beat”, “Afro Instrumental”, “Osika Ranti”, “Buje Buje”, “Aseni”, and “Kete Kete Koro”. As a songwriter, vocalist, electric organ player, and alto saxophonist, OJ led his band to explore depths of melodic patterns, an impeccable blend of Yoruba/African rhythms, and Black American R&B/Soul. With his adept instrumentalists playing on the high hat and snares, dexterous shekere rhythms, crisp clave beats, congas, and energetic guitar riffs perfectly synching with OJ’s peculiar horn arrangements and sleek, laid-back lyrics. 

In 2014, OJ released his impressive last album Jaiyede Afro (Pt. II), with the London cosmic collective The Heliocentrics. The album’s joyful opener, ‘Buje Buje’, a stunning remake of his earlier song with the same title, is coatings of skronking horns, delicious guitar chirps, and strumming bass and drums while OJ urges the listener with intense but soothing vocals. The song is so surreal. It’s like living in a daydream. As the soporific groove twirls on, absorbing the listener, OJ cleverly shifts in dynamic and rhythm to keep things fresh and delightful, despite being long-winded. He cleverly established his grooves, and once he ascertained that the groove is grounded, he allows it to unfurl and draws the audience in, making the song an instant classic. The band is skilful at organizing a compelling groove within just a limited beat and a wide array of sounds, both organic and electronic, to capture the listener’s attention. 

Before his serene passing on April 15th, 2022, OJ had retired to his birthplace of Ijebu Ijesha, Osun State, with plans to establish a facility called the “Ojahh Orlando Afrohouse of Highlife.” This structure would incorporate audio and visual studios, as well as function as a space for hosting various concerts and events.


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