13 Jul 2013

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Orlando Julius and his wife, Latoya, performing at the concert

Orlando Julius Ekemode’s fiftieth  year grand live concert on stage is just as refreshing as it was when he first broke onto the highlife scene with his captivating songs and dance, writes ADEDAYO ADEJOBI who was at the concert held  in Lagos to celebrate the 70-year-old musician’s 50 years on stage

For Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode who Friday last week celebrated 50 years of playing music at a concert in Lagos, it was not just him music that brought him fame, he earned some renown too for his struggle to bring Nigerian highlife and jazz music into public consciousness.

Orlando Julius would rather feel the music he plays than read it off a page. All he needs is the rhythm and the rest is easy.
“The saxophone is a beautiful and tough instrument. But I had to master it,” Orlando said with a chuckle.

Better with age

For a man his age, one would ideally expect that the energy and skill that come with playing the tenor saxophone would have waned considerably. Rather, he gave the large audience - most of who probably haven’t watched him perform live in a long time - a compelling performance. Playing the tenor saxophone for Orlando comes with an accustomed ease. He still has the flow, energy and tonality and proficiency expected of a good sax player. He’s a very relaxed performer, and he doesn’t impede the rest of the band. The kind of energy he displayed goes a long way in this business.

Seeing Orlando Julius and his band perform, it’s very hard to say exactly what will happen on, or as the case was, offstage. An example: The singer and saxophonist waltzed through the audience as they played.

While playing a saxophone solo of his popular song, Jaguar Nana, Julius gave an unbroken performance of several notes for a couple of minutes. It was as though he made it a point to not remove the horn from his mouth between notes.

That same night three other vocalists — two female jazz backup singers and one male opera tenor — simultaneously performed and nailed selections from Orlando’s old tunes.

Live on stage at the Prince of Anthony Hotel, Lagos, I got drawn to the  aesthetic  of the well-crafted stage, effects lights  and an array of  professional  musicians, each instrument - brass, saxophone, trumpets, flugelhorn, keyboard, guitar, drummer and traditional percussionists - blending seamlessly with the whole. I couldn’t but mesh the sensibility of absurdity laced with intelligence - a collection of some of the most accomplished musicians in town, on the Julius band.

OJ as he is fondly called by all, drew his instrumentation cues from frontline young and energetic Lagos-based musicians’ band, built around  four brass men and two rhythm guitars, two percussionists, a drummer and a bassist. And each musician brings his own personality, signature, eclecticism to the band. They all sound distinct on their instruments.

Ekemode’s band is musically very sophisticated and very entertaining. No wonder guests were glued to their seat while he performed all the numbers. Over the years, Ekemode has built a repertoire of more than 200 original compositions.

Among the Big League

It is of note to mention that Ekemode falls in the categories of contemporaries and big names like Rex Lawson, Fela Anikulapo-kuti, Eddy Okonta, Bola Johnson, St. Augustine, Chris Ajilo, Tunde Nightingale, Ojoge Daniel, Dele Ojo, Eric Ekaeze and a host of others.
Ekemode’s first set of performance at the 50 years on stage anniversary featured his new compositions from the past year, and the second set featured great hits like Jagua Nana, Mapami, Efoyeso, Olulofe, E Se Rere Ise Owo, Yio Si Da Miliki Beat, Osika Ranti, Buje Buje, Aseni, Kete Kete Koro and Oni suru.

You could not help but notice, listen and pick up those licks and chord progression Ekemode’s solo bars. Orlando’s dexterity while speedily giving solo performances with his metal-plated tenor saxophone over minor triads, major scales, chord and easy sounding, but difficult intervals, were not something anyone could rip through.

The audience was no doubt held spell-bound by some, if not all of the notes Ekemode belted from his saxophone.
Wondering how it feels nearing 70 two months away, he said: “It’s very touching for me, because the youngster in me is still alive and kicking. I was infected by music at a very young age. So it’s always kept me younger than springtime. I’m very blessed in spirit, and fortunately my health is good always. I’m looking upon it as being in service, and it’s amazing to see the venue full of people.  I’m very blessed and really thankful. Highlife is music of freedom and wonder. It’s our indigenous art form, and I’m still blessed to travel around the world and people lay out the carpet for us, so it’s quite touching. Glory be to God for what I am doing today, and I have no regrets being a musician.”

Quest for originality

Continuing, he said: “I think when you love music, you love a lot of it. Now when it comes to jazz, it’s very much in the hyperions of height. I explore our indigenous music, harmonies and the rhythms of Nigeria, Africa and that beautiful melodic thing. For me, I am always moved by good music. It is rather unfortunate that the music of now, lacks substance, depth, creativity and true African soul. They are not original. Their rhythm is doctored through music software. That’s why whites do not accept the Nigerian hip-hop; instead they want something different from what they have been listening to in their countries.

“What the whites want to hear is African percussion that sounds different from their own musical instruments. That’s why the late Michael Jackson remained an original musician and legend till his death. All his albums were recorded through live band, and anywhere he performed it was live band on the stage throughout. It is only the likes of late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, King Sunny Ade, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and few others that were and are watched by whites whenever they travelled to the United States or Europe. Their rhythm is thoroughly African. I have lived in every part of the U.S, and I have taught many Africans and Americans how to play African instruments. Today in America or Europe, you will see many afrobeat and highlife bands that feature purely African rhythm and they have a lot of audience. It’s all a question of time, real Nigerian music will be restored to its old glory.”

The veteran musician has lived in the US cumulatively for over three decades. He is presently in Nigeria though. Commenting on his relationship with the legendary Fatai Rolling Dollar, he said: “That was another great blessing.  I’m always around these great geniuses, and to realize their humanity is such a touching thing. His death just tore my heart apart. We were very close and so my wife and I had to dedicate a song to him. Fatai Rolling Dollar was a great soul and musician.”

In the approximately 4,200-square-foot building occupied by The Prince of Anthony Hotel, the club has a flexible layout, with plain-coloured walls that accentuate its disco lights. It was an exhilarating experience seeing the musician who will turn 70 in September race through intricate old highlife tunes. Sighting him blow the tenor saxophone reminded one of his American contemporaries like Louis Armstrong, Charley Parker, John Coltrane and Groover Washington. Ekemode’s concert can be described as both an openness of spirit and an instinct for pragmatism.

A highpoint of events marking Ekemode’s 50 years on stage was a special performance and minute silence observed in honour of the Fatai Rolling Dollar.

“My life as a musician is very interesting and memorable. You know, when I look back to all the songs that I wrote, I feel grateful to God and my fans who appreciate my talent. I thank God for the talent he gave me in music and His guidance for being able to use it well. Honestly, I thank God for making people happy through my music,” he said.

Following popular demand for Ekemode’s oldies, the compilation which are now in compact discs were launched and sold at the concert.

On the rollcall at the VIP table at the concert were captains of industries, entertainers and media practitioners who stormed the event to celebrate the legend, singer Yinka Davies, Afro-highlife artist, Buga, Segun Odegbami, Sola Adeniyi of ExxonMobil, managing director of Quadrant, Bolaji Okusaga, highlife promoter, Femi Esho, and managing director of National Mirror, Steve Ayorinde.

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