The Classics: The Story of Two Rivals; King Sunny Ade And Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey

sunny adeobey

THE decade of the ’70s was characterised in Nigeria by Afro-fusion music, with the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti as the major inspirer. But alongside this revolution, juju music was also flourishing with Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade as major exponents who were perceived at the time by their numerous fans as archrivals. An intriguing aspect of this development was that the two musicians had their different styles, backgrounds and approaches, a situation which made this perceived rivalry a healthy one that added value to the emerging juju music of that period. It was not the type of rivalry that engendered bad blood but that of competition, motivating each exponent into releasing records that were capable of out doing the other persons output. The situation forced both men to work harder on their lyrics and instrumentation, all of which in the end turned out great hits that have become evergreen The music which made it for Obey in the ’70s was Board Members recorded in 1972 upon the band’s return from Britain; and board members has been his best selling hit over the years. Other hits of the 70s include Iwa ika kope (1974), KeteKete, Epo ila (1973), Ota mi dehin lehin mi (1976), Eto Igbeyawo and Madele (1974) amongst several others. Some of the hits with which Sunny Ade competed with Obey include Esu biri biri, Ekilo fomo ode, Nitori awa, and Synchro system, a performer that was inspired by the emerging Afro beat influence of that period, among others. Even though they were not enemies, each made statements and claims that tended to portray the one as superior to the other. For example, they both re-introduced multiple guitars which were used as far back as the 1940s by the Jolly Boys Orchestra into their instrumentation, but Obey claimed responsibility for introducing these guitars Western drum kits, and the transition of the music from a neo-traditional form to an urban social type. Said Obey who made his first record in 1963, “I noticed that people like to stick to their own ways, especially old people. They don’t want to compromise. But the younger ones always want freedom from the old system. “They want new things; and knowing that, I modernized the music, and created my own fashion in music, the miliki system. And I happened to be the one who started the modernisaiton of juju music. The fathers of juju music only played one guitar. I introduced three guitars and arranged it in such a way that would catch the attention of the youth and cross to the older folk, so as to have both ears of listeners, and it worked. The three guitars are tenor, rhythm and lead.” In order to keep the competition aflame, Sunny himself would not only lay claim to the introduction of these multiple guitars, he emphasized the innovation of the tenor guitar which Bob Ohiri, who was exposed to it in Fela’s Africa 70 later played in Sunny’s African Beats aggregation. As a way of massaging his superiority, he began to pontificate and pronounce on the origin and actual essence of juju music, saying: “The name, juju music, was given to the particular music by the colonial people.” Continuing, the king of juju music said, “In the olden days, any black African medicine was called juju, any music played around there they called it juju music. But now it is a different type of music entirely and we still want the name to remain.” Even though this explanation is not in consonance with the more credible story of the’ origin of juju music, Sunny Ade was granted audience by a foreign interviewer who reckoned with his views because they were coming form one of the major exponents of juju music. The more credible story is the one told by Ambrose Campbell and Fatai Rolling ‘Dollar who spoke from empirical evidence because they participated in the ebb and flow of the music – from the 30s. Their version of the story ‘links the origin of the name, “juju” to the ‘tambourine’, an instrument which was thrown at will by its exponent whenever excitement and inspiration took over. The perceived rivalry between Obey and Sunny in the 70s inspired a lot of followers in a trend which enthroned juju music as mainstay in Lagos and the Yoruba speaking States of the West at the end of the civil war in 1970. The music flourished because of the absence of highlife, which had declined and gone with the war. The two have become legends. In a sense they can be referred to as innovators because they had the greater number of followers- musicians whose music became steeped in the system of Obey and Sunny, artistes they saw as their mentors. This was despite the fact that there were such individual styles by I.K. Dairo and Orlando Owoh, which could broaden the scope of juju music. As it turned out, the rivalry that took place between Obey and Sunny was the making of their different fans, some of whom were so fanatical and loyal, they were prepared to antatogise anyone who did not worship their idols or records because they preferred one to the other. The musicians themselves were friends but they fuelled and manipulated the situation to their own advantage. It helped to boost the sales of their records which they released one after the other, in quick succession. However, as a show of solidarity and friendship, the two made an effort to dispel the rumour and perceived feeling that they were antagonists. The venue was “Obey Miliki Spot” at Olonode, Yaba, Lagos, a night club which was previously patronized by Fela Ransome Kuti’s Koola Lobitos when the place was called “Crystal Garden”. The date was August 16, 1973 when Sunny Ade went to join Ebenezer Obey on the stage to play guitar solos and accompaniment to Obey’s music. The audience screamed with excitement. In order to convince their different fans that as musicians, they were friends in the same profession, Sunny released an album which had in it Oro tonlo, meaning “what people are saying”, where he further asked their fans to stop insinuating that the two of them were enemies, warning them to stop fanning the embers of hatred and antagonism where they did not exist. The perceived rivalry, which existed only in the imagination of the artistes’ fans, was obviously a gimmick of circumstance made out to drive the talents of the two great musicians. And it worked perfectly. Sunny Ade’s image and popularity since the 70s have reached tremendous dimensions. He has become one of the biggest stars not only in Nigeria and Africa, but also across Europe and America. In 1981, for instance, Sunny Ade blazed into global prominence when Island Records signed him on. On the other hand, his rival, Ebenezer Obey has since become an institution and big influence across West Africa. Even though now an evangelist, he is a successful entrepreneur and still comes out of semi retirement to perform ground- breaking gospel music.

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