Yinka Olatunbosun reports on an illuminating session with Benson Idonije, Nigeria’s most revered music critic, ace broadcaster and first manager to the music legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who turns 80 in June and is specially honoured at this year’s Lagos International Jazz Festival
It takes a lot of grit to be a music critic. First, you must know your onions. Next, you articulate your views and finally, you voice them in total confidence. And heaven help you if you are wrong. In the case of Benson Idonije, his views always count where music is concerned for they are based on good knowledge, sound judgment and his benefit of hindsight. On June 13, he will be 80 years old. Undoubtedly, those years bore some significant history worthy of documentation which prompted this reporter to visit his FESTAC home recently.
There is a rumour that seems to be very true that he doesn’t grant interviews. This reputation travels ahead of him too many times but this writer summoned the courage to call him and surprisingly, he was accommodating. He was also patient to allow a couple of rescheduling and finally, we met. But he wasn’t dressed for a photo-shoot. In a few minutes, he left for the bedroom to change to a native garb and was prepared to reveal the details of his life and career that were actually turning points in Nigerian music and broadcasting history.
It’s no news that Idonije is passionate about jazz and highlife; much to the chagrin of his own critics who think he only loves classic sounds but not contemporary music. There sat a man who had studied music chronology, its composition and had worked with artists. He got his “grooming in the turf” when he secured a job at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, Ikoyi as an engineering assistant in the 50s after his study at the Yaba College of Technology. He buried his head in the music library, acquiring knowledge that would come in handy later as an on-air personality what with his successful radio programme, “Big Beats”. Idonije was part of the pioneering team for Radio Nigeria 2 known today as Metro FM, Nigeria’s first FM station. His friend Tony Ibegbuna, who died five years ago, was running shifts with him at the station where the likes of Jacob Akinyemi Johnson later cut their teeth.
Justifiably, he can’t and shouldn’t enjoy poorly arranged music. Since 1960, he had pushed the development and evolution of jazz through his music programmes on radio. Till date, he keeps tab on music as it has evolved into new forms. He is on top of his game, writing informed reviews on music, albums and performances.
“This generation is doing very well, I must say,” he began. “They play hip hop now. When they started, they were imitative of foreign music but they are beginning to be themselves; to be African and Nigerian. However, they need to improve on their lyrical content because they don’t arrange and do proper instrumentation. All that they do is to compose and sing. They should pay attention to song-writing and making message-driven songs, the kind that makes sense and will endure instead of ‘love, love, love’, ‘Fokasibe’ and the likes.”
The tale of how he waited so long to get on-air should inspire hard work in young people today. What typically qualifies most job seekers for the job of OAP is now a foreign degree, foreign accent, whether it takes off as cockney and lands as Southern American drawl or better still, the candidate’s father knows the owner of the station. But for those who have been at a disadvantage in getting desired jobs, Idonije thinks there is no substitute for hard work and resilience.
In his days of broadcasting, there were specialized music programmes for every genre. There could be an hour or less dedicated to country, fuji, juju, highlife, reggae and many more; a time that afforded the presenter to give the background to the music for the listeners. Today, everyone is presumed to be capable of research through online search engines and all kinds of songs are played on radio without recourse to the time of the day. Mid-tempo music programmes were scheduled then for evening belt of programming in the past but today, you can listen to fast-paced rap or even heavy metal rock on radio even as you lay your head to sleep. Idonije thought the metamorphosis came with the proliferation of private radio stations.
“Initially, it was only the government that owned broadcasting stations so it was possible to stick to these ideals at that time,” he said. “But now, it has become highly commercialized and people could do whatever they like just to make money. You will discover that it was when this proliferation started in the mid-90s that the radio programmes were fashioned to suit the station owners, running away from the ethics of the profession. I do not really blame them because they have to make money. But we lost specialized programmes because ideas such as more music less talk came.
“As a matter of fact, in those days especially for radio, you will find out that there were features and documentaries, they were also magazine programmes and proper interviews. They were discussion and drama programmes. We called them production format and that was what I used to teach at the FRCN training school when I was heading the production department of the training school. Maybe, times have changed and life patterns have changed and people don’t have time listen to serious programmes anymore. But there is a lot to learn from them because it took time to build such programmes. To do a feature programme could take six months. Same goes for the documentary programme.”
One of the moments that shaped his career was when he met Fela Ransome-Kuti in 1963. For someone as level-headed as the eloquent Idonije, his association with Fela might seem a bit strange and hard to picture. On his wall, this reporter found an actual picture of the young Fela and Idonije; both of them were sporting Afro hair and clad in the attire of the 60s. The musician was young but wasn’t as radical as he was in the 70s. Fela was just a very handsome musician who just disbanded his group in London and headed for his home country.
“I was presenting a jazz programme called ‘NBC Jazz Club’,” he disclosed. “Fela had listened to my programme on radio for a month. Then, one Thursday night, he drove down to the broadcasting house in Ikoyi to see who was behind the show. He came to the studio and introduced himself. That was how we became friends. He admired my knowledge of jazz and I admired his musicianship. He was a fine trumpeter. From that night, we bonded.
“We nurtured the idea of a quintet. I helped to assemble his new band until 1965 when his mother advised us to go back to highlife. In London, Fela was playing highlife before he began playing jazz. We went back to highlife. It is a very long story and we called the band ‘Koola Lobitos’. I was more familiar with the Nigerian music scene then so I helped him to manage the band.
“I managed the band till 1969 when he travelled on international tours. I still managed his band till the early 70s. My management work with him was on the basis of friendship and not exactly a business deal. I had to advise him, show him the rope and generally guide him because he was easily provoked. I worked with him from 1963 till 1974. But I didn’t quit. He just didn’t need a manager of my type anymore. He needed managers abroad that would link him into big shows. We were still friends till he died.”
Fela became a very controversial artist when he pulled out of the momentous Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1977. Idonije recalled that Fela, as a member of the Planning Committee, suggested that indigenous artists should be sourced in all the states and be selected for the performances only on merit. But the government officials disagreed.
“The government officials had their own way and corruption set in. So, he pulled out of it. They didn’t like him for that. Yes, he did not perform at FESTAC but his shrine where he was performing was even bigger than the festival itself. All the big musicians came to his shows and he had a mini-FESTAC at the shrine every night. As a matter of fact, he was FESTAC,” he said, smiling as he recalled the event.
On what accounts for Fela’s big stature in music till today, Idonije believed that Fela’s unusual talent and good knowledge of jazz elevated his musicianship in his varying styles over the years.
“It is music that speaks for the future,” he declared. “The fact that you make a lot of money doesn’t make you the best musician. There are a lot of guys today who make good music and their works are not patronized.”
Idonije also recalled some of the ideas Fela sold through his music. In the record, “Buy Africa”, he urged Nigerians to buy domestic products, a reality that has kicked in recently in the face of devalued Naira. Idonije also observed that all Fela’s personal experiences, including the explicit, constitute the themes for his music. Although some would argue that they preferred Fela in his Koola Lobitos days before he began militant music, his stance against the government remains peerless, making his music one of the best-selling, posthumously.
As Fela’s friend, he was supportive to the artist when in confrontation with the law enforcement agencies. He would accompany him to court alongside his lawyers such as Tunji Braithwaite and Femi Falana. And when he suffered brutilisation, he paid visits to encourage him.
Incidentally too, Idonije has been living in FESTAC town since 1977. FECTAC Town is a reserved community built especially for the artists across the world who participated in the festival and Idonije had won the ballot that the government instituted to allocate the building to new occupants at the close of the festival. He is well-known on his street and fondly called the chairman. However, what many do not know about him is the fact that he could have been a musician as well. He studied and passed the Grade Six of the Associated Royal School of Music (Theory) and plays piano. It was when he began to try his hands on the saxophone with the help of Fela that his girlfriend whom he later married raised a questioning eyebrow. He made a pivotal decision to choose between the love of his life and his passion. He’d probably chosen wisely, routing his passion to another platform and through his genes. Idonije introduced this reporter briefly to her before the hour-long chat.
“When I was courting her, she would come to the house and find me practicing the saxophone, the scales and exercises. At that time, musicians were seen as never-do-wells, charlatans and all that. I was discouraged to pursue that passion. If I had kept at it, I would have been a very good saxophonist today. A lot of things I learnt came from being a participant and observer. I loved going out every night. Fela and I would go to all the night clubs and sometimes, we would go to Ghana twice in a month and hang out with the musicians there. So, I knew the musicians and the movement of the music. From 1960 till date, I have participated in all the movement, the ebb and flow of music in Ghana and Nigeria.
At the Goethe-Institut, where he joined the team that trained a handful of journalists on culture writing skills, he proved to be a patient teacher. Most cerebral individuals lack the right temperament to impart knowledge but he drew the strength from Train-the-Trainer courses and workshops mounted by BBC to employ the right methodology in training young people with calm.
Although Idonije is most introduced nowadays as Burna Boy’s grandfather, he doesn’t mind even though he engraved his name in history before the grandson’s birth. In 2012, he received a Lifetime Award for Media Excellence from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism. Asides, broadcasting and artist management, he had co-ordinated the monthly Highlife Party dubbed Elders’ Forum run by O’Jez Club at National Stadium, Lagos.
“This generation doesn’t know who I am,” he said. “You know me because you are art-conscious. It is only my age mates and the people who had read what I write in Guardian and listened to my programmes that know me. You’d be surprised that Burna Boy is more popular than I am. He is known in South Africa.”
To unknot the riddle caused by the argument on Twitter shortly after Burna Boy performed in his white underwear in honour of Fela at the 2014 Felabration, this reporter asked if Fela had ever performed on stage in his underwear and his answered matched Seun Anikulapo-Kuti’s.
“Fela never performed on stage in his underwear. Burna Boy was just being a young boy that he is and he just wanted to entertain and he got the attention he wanted. I listen to his music. He is good and different from his contemporaries. He is not as popular as Davido and Wizkid but he is big abroad. He will be touring in July in Europe and America.”
A reprint of his latest memoir titled, Dis Fela Sef: The Untold Legends of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti will be released for his birthday celebrations slated for June.
There was so much to talk about with Idonije on music and new media and, like people would say these days, “let’s continue the conversation on twitter”, but will he?
“I am not a social media person. I am on Facebook. I have a lot of unread messages. I receive a lot of messages daily and I delete a lot of them. I have not been very active on Facebook for fear of being bombarded,” he responded cheerfully before enduring the few minutes of photo shoot in and outside his cosy apartment.