The Love Songs of Juju Music, Revisited – Dami Ajayi
The year is 2021. The day is February 6. Valentine’s day looms. And a self-proclaimed and redolently single music critic has taken it upon himself to revisit his essay about juju love songs.
Juju music is that variant of palmwine highlife music popular in South-west Nigeria since the 1930s. It evolved from a griot tradition, local percussion and a blues began initially as an earnest workman reflection on the vicissitudes of life but always with an optimistic lilt.
The music may exist in its primordial form in the hands of Kokoro, that blind minstrel (Cyprian Ekwensi based his book, The Drummer Boy, on him) who beat the hell out of a hexagonal tambourine drum. But it earned the onomatopoeic juju name during the reign of Tunde King whose performance at the burial of Dr Sapara was the first of many wondrous Juju outings. You can’t ignore Ayinde Bakare who replaced the mandolin with an electric guitar, forget that he came to his gruesome end in the hands of his band members.
You cannot ignore the Ijesha man, Baba Aladura, Isaiah Kehinde Dairo, under whose watch juju acquired its sizzling modernity, or his progenies, Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade, who brought juju music to its peak of popularity and a mainstream audience in the 70s.
Juju music at its most modern was music for the Yoruba elites when they hosted their peers at societal events, hence juju musicians were known to be decorous from their earliest iterations. Even then, juju music was best known for praise—praise of God, praise of the musician’s prowess as either a song writer or guitar strummer and, of course, praise of their esteemed patrons.
Praise of love or lovers was not an usual occurrence. Check IK Dairo’s discography and you will find a slew of love songs. On “Taxi Driver”, he sings direction to a chauffeur, imploring him to be ferried to his girl with white teeth interrupted by a diastema. How original you think, then you listen to Julius Olofin and his mellow song about going on a ferry to Calabar. Then you listen to J.O Oyesiku who probably shouted this directions first on “Baba Oni Taxi”. Elderly taxi-driver, please, for the sake of God, take me to Lagos. In the urgency of his imploration, we understand the importance of his destination, not the journey. There is no space for the vulgarity of descriptions except at the end of the song, when he admits that he is going to see his unnamed baby.
Since Oyesiku, juju musicians have been brazen to name. Since IK Dairo, there have been “Sumbo”, “Caroline” and the ever-youthful and jaunty “Salome”. And there was Paulina, Ebenezer Obey’s early classic remains one of the most under-appreciated love songs ever written.
It is mellow and humid and references the Marina. A song about a chance meeting and a predestined affection—this song is both prayer and promise to the eponymous Paulina, a future mother of the singer’s unborn children.
And now, we shall go, you and I, into the vast discography of King Sunny Ade, the most prolific juju musician of all time, which is disappointingly lean on love songs.
First we must visit his short, if not inconsequential song “Wa Wo Yan” off his 1972 album, which speaks to voyeurism. A repurposing of a church hymnal, Sunny Ade sings rather passionately about the fawn breasts of married women arduously doing laundry. The sole place where male folk can have that kind of access is at a communal stream—but that is another matter. The more urgent question is this song is disappearing from public domain.
His 1980 album, “Searching for Love”, is brazenly about love. Having recently discovered the Hawaiian guitar, King Sunny Ade recruits its twang and wail for a sprawling love song that stretches its polyphonic odyssey into an endless trek in search of love.
The delight of the song lies in its earnestness, the search is being undertaken with a prescient sense of discovery. And so the song becomes more about the musical journey than the fervent search itself—Sunny Ade reminding you at every instance of his love and his longing as the song disappears down a rabbit hole.
“Synchro System” is no love song but that unforgivable groove was made for a mating dance. Its sputter and shuffle was designed to lead you and your partner to a bed or a similar arrangement. One can only wonder how many early Millennial children were a product or aftermath of a synchromatic encounter, especially when you remember the song’s caveat and insistence of “face-to-face”.
“Sweet Banana”, popular for being KSA’s biggest hit of the 80s, was more excited about the prospect of having fun (Ariya) than it was inspired for love—but Sweet Banana, a stand-alone phallic metaphor, remains an important fixture of modern day affection. In fact, some scholars have theorised that Sweet Banana as KSA explores it on the song extends beyond heteronormative interpretations.
Argue with your Sumec generator as much as you can but what is beyond dialogue is Sunny Ade’s vibrant vision from which our new artistes draw from—think Tekno’s Cassava or D’Prince’s Banana as in “Take Banana”.
“My Dear”, another 80s offering, begins as a placatory ditty that promises love-making, before it goes on to highlight its procreational importance. The song’s tangential take on affection, once settled on the female anatomy does not look back —and as if by Freudian coincidence, the Side B is a paean to mothers.
“Jealousy” which contains his tribute to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo on its Side B is better remembered for “Sokoyokoto”, which loosely translates to fattening Husbands. As expected, there are food metaphors that will leave both Yemisi Aribisala and Ozoz Sokoh dazzled.
This song confirms the influence of tradition on the prurient pool from where the likes of Flavour are getting their crass Jollof-rice and sour tomato-juice metaphors—but KSA’s handling of food metaphors in Yoruba is somewhat delicate if not sophisticated. He was neither aiming for melodrama nor shock; his purpose was to serenade—and serenade he did, with his poetic use of food metaphors nicely interpolated with affectionate possibilities.
“Sokoyokoto” is definitely his best love song but detractors may challenge this. They may mention “Ololufe”, a bonus track on his 1993 Glory album, with a pixelated music video on YouTube for those who either court nostalgia or reincarnation.
“Ololufe” brings back the Eja Osan metaphor from “Sokoyokoto” but hardly renews or invigorates it. The song with its thumping percussion, long-drawn pauses, melodious calls and responses is a second best. I mean, what will a critic do with the enigmatic Bourdillion Baby Sunny invites to come and lavish him with post-coital joy.
In quiet Covid times, where lovers don’t bubble, Bourdillion becomes possibilities becomes Hackney becomes Lincoln becomes Fulham becomes Borehamwood becomes the sad reminder drumming out of a Smart Television stereo, that this essay was written in happier times, for happier moments.
It is February 6 2021. I don’t know how many people died today, but I pray that they felt loved.