Tribute: Orlando Julius Ekemode & the Rest of Us – Dami Ajayi

It is no longer news that Orlando Julius Ekemode has passed on.

It happened in the wee hours of April 15, 2022, in his country home at Ijebu-Ijesha. He died in the hands of his long-time partner, Latoya Aduke. It was described as a peaceful, painless transition. He was 78 years old.

An end to an illustrious life, tributes have been trickling in from fans and younger colleagues all over the world, each one a testimony about Orlando Julius’ generosity, his warmth, his talent, and industry.

OJ, as he is fondly called by his older fans and colleagues, was one of the last musicians who lived through the Golden Age of highlife music. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer, he favoured the alto saxophone. In his over fifty years as a professional musician, he toured the world, leading an eventful life in several countries including United States of America and Ghana.

His towering achievements would have humbled his younger self. Born into a modest family in Southwest Nigeria, OJ was always interested in music. In his song, ‘Jaiyede Afro’, his lyrics are reminiscent of his childhood. He evokes the nostalgia of singing alongside his cloth-trader mother, accompanying her on his drum. He played his way through drums and flutes till he settled for the triumphant horn, the alto saxophone.

He played in several bands including those of juju stalwarts JO Oyeshiku and IK Dairo before moving on to Eddie Okonta’s band, Top Aces. His first single, ‘Igbehin Adara’, was recorded in 1960  while leading Dairo’s band but it was ‘Jagua Nana’, his single in the mid-60s, that was his first big hit. A fast-paced rhythm taunted by a bellowing bassline, OJ’s soft tenor furnishes us with a modern tale of notoriety. Assuredly, it is about the femme fatale extraordinaire, Jagua Nana, who may have inspired the titular character of Cyprian Ekwensi’s novel. These kinds of stories about dissident modern women dot the discography of 60s highlife, but Jagua Nana stands out as the first, and perhaps, the only female antihero with both a first and second name. His cheekier ‘Mapami’ deals in a similar theme—the feeble complaints of an enchanted but exasperated swain choking from his woman’s financial demands. The jazzy twists, replete with fine horn parts set in call and answer mode, is dramatic and humorous.

A cultural activist, OJ utilised Yoruba regularly in his songs, framing the Yoruba worldview for the appreciation of his global audience. Although he started out playing juju and highlife music, his formal innovations were cutting-edge, future-gazing and genre advancing. This leads us to the age-old argument about the ownership of afrobeat, named by the legendary Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.

Vignettes about OJ’s relationship with Fela abound. One often told by OJ was how Fela, fresh returnee from England, jammed with his Modern Aces band at the Independence Hotel in Ibadan. Indeed, Fela was said to have recruited members from OJ’s Modern Aces to form his highlife band, Koola Lobitos.

Fela’s aesthetic departure from his maverick highlife-jazz fusion to early afrobeat was a slow burn distinctively noticeable after his famous Los Angeles tour was immortalised on his LA 69 Sessions album. To this end, OJ’s claim to hoisting the afrobeat flag first has evidence in clear timelines.

Both Fela and OJ had their sojourns in America. For Fela, it was in California where the arousal of his inner activist happened. OJ, perhaps disillusioned by the Nigerian Civil War (Biafran War), also moved to America, circa mid-70s where he played as OJ Ekemode, acted minor roles on television and worked alongside accomplished musicians like Ambrose Campbell, Hugh Masekela, Lamont Dozier, James Brown, and The Crusaders. He recorded the album, The Boys are Doing it with Hugh Masekela. He was uncredited for his work on Lamont Dozier’s massive hit song ‘Going Back to My Roots’ with popular award-winning cover versions by Odyssey, FPI Project, and Linda Clifford.

His standout album of the 70s funk era was Disco Hi-Life.  Recorded between Ginger Baker’s studio in Lagos & The American Star Studio in west Virginia, USA in 1976, guest vocalist Theodora Ifudu hoisted timeless tunes ‘Disco-HiLife’ and ‘Children of the World’ with her velvety voice. Ambrose Campbell, an unsung major figure in juju/highlife, introduced him to Latoya Aduke in America. She joined his band and later became his partner. Again, a mischievous and needless comparison to Fela lurks here.

OJ’s lyrical concerns hardly strayed from the ethos of his Yoruba forebears. This approach was best realised in hit song ‘Adara’ released on his 1984 album, Dance Afrobeat. With a compelling music video shot at the Osun Groove in Osogbo directed by Tunde Kelani, this song carries an overarching social message shaped by eco-friendly approach to living and the praise of the gods in the polytheistic Yoruba pantheon.

In his later years, OJ would tour the world backed by The Heliocentrics,  a space funk collective based in London and indeed release his last original album, ‘Jaiyede Afro’. Thom Jurek in his excellent review wrote that this album “…marks a welcome return for Orlando Julius and overall is an excellent, finger popping, ass-shaking collaboration.” Now that description is a homage to dance music that was highlife.

Despite his formal interventions and genre-blending, OJ’s ultimate use of his horn was to lure revellers to the dancefloor.

Rest in power, OJ.

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