Ebenezer Obey: Philosophy On The Wings of Music

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Tunji Olaopa writes that Chief Ebenezer Obey at 75 has achieved immortality while still alive through his brand of music that entertains the bodies and agitates the minds

The French poet and philosopher, Jean Francois Saint-Lambert, once remarked: “Often I am still listening when the song is over.” He may have had Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi in mind. From the 70s until he joined the Lord’s commission and now back in the wings, every single album Obey waxed leaves a pulsating thought in the memory of those who understand good music. To start, this is perhaps the only opportunity I have to pay my debt of gratitude Chief Ebenezer Obey for the honour he graciously extended to me when he played at my mother’s 90th birthday in 2014.

A friend of mine had offered to pay for a band and knowing that I am a quiet fan of Obey, he contacted him saying he did on my behalf. Obey not only cancelled his earlier commitment on the day, he instructed that I be told to pay just a token to cover the cost of logistics alone. My mother cannot fathom still what wand we pulled to bring down Obey to perform the way he did on that day. I remain ever grateful Commander.

Today, when the elderly, the reflective minds and the music connoisseurs listen to the fast tracked, hip hop and rap music that categorise the present generation, they only shake their heads in regret and amazement. How do you enjoy any music that lacks meaning but only leaves you either sweating or tear-eyed melodramatic? Sometimes, my children have a good laugh on me and what they have chosen to call “old school”. It would appear to me however that the “old school” has its honour and its senses which, unfortunately, will take some of the children years to catch up with. One of those senses derive from thoughtful music. And I have musicians like Haruna Ishola, Yusuf Olatunji and Ebenezer Obey in mind. A good music can’t just be summed up by the dance or the sweat. Two elements endeared Obey’s brand of juju music to me.

Obey’s music is philosophical music; it commands your critical attention. You are invited by the guitar and the drums not only to tap your legs but also to bend your mind to philosophical reflection. You get entertainment and deep thought for the price of one album! Unlike the commercial music and the profusion of sweat and aches, it is as if the content of Obey’s music compels you to take it easy on the dance so as not to miss out on the message!

Where do you get that kind of music any longer? Thanks to the Asa – Bukola Elemides of this world, and I had celebrated her for this for giving contemporariness to Obey’s genre of music. Our age is an age on the fast track. Make as much money as you can by pandering to the obscene taste and degenerate desires of the people. Modern musicians seem to exploit the people’s uncouth nature for selfish gain. On the contrary, Obey’s music is an evergreen challenge; a corpus of reflective gems and thoughts. One could almost say that an unreflective person will not find Obey’s music fascinating. The music pushes you to the brink of thought.

Second, Obey’s music is an exercise in social experience and national orientation. His songs are not just the regular sycophantic praise singing for the sake of money. What you hear is what you have seen around you. Or what you should be expecting, for good or for ill.
After commencing his music career in the mid-50s, Chief Ebenezer Obey quickly mature over time from the normal dancehall melodies of the 60s and 70s to a richer cadence of a mixture of spiritually invocative themes and philosophically rich social analysis. This metamorphosis of Obey’s music also coincided with his transformation from a mere apprentice under the tutelage of Fatai Rolling Dollar to the formation of the Inter-Reformers band in the early 70s.

The strength of Obey’s music, for me, is its ability to draw you close within the ambit of shared cultural, social and national experiences. The songs weave rich Yoruba sayings into an intricate musical complexity. The result is a music that speaks wisdom for living. Again, for me, the culmination of this unique style of music is The Horse, the Man and His Son (1973). This song portrays the mature and quintessential Obey at the height of his musical prowess. This is an existential song that rehashes the theme of man’s journey through life, and the albatross of ruinous expectations we often carry with us.

The moral lesson, Obey counsels, is that no matter what you do, the world still sees you as essentially incapable, weak and foolish: “Kosogbon to’le da, ko si’wa to le wu, ko so’na to le gba, to le fi ta’ye lo’run o!” (No matter the wisdom, or the good behaviour, or the manners and ways you explore, you can never hope to satisfy the world). This lesson cuts to the heart of the African world where the extended family system and the social reciprocity framework conduce often to the impoverishment of a person. Such deep themes can equally be found in Ewa Wo Ohun Oju Ri (1964), Aiye Gba Jeje (1965), Ore Mi Ese Pelepele (1968), Alo Mi Alo (1975), Eda To Mo’se Okunkun (1977), Aimasiko (1987), etc.

Apart from the fascination with philosophically inspiring songs, Obey’s musical corpus is divided between spiritually sensitive songs—which defines his latter efforts—like Orin Adura (1965), Orin Ajinde (1966), Edumare Dari Jiwon (1975), Adam and Eve (1977), What God has Joined Together (1981), Count Your Blessings (1990), etc; and socially tuned songs like Paulina (1967), Pegan Pegan (1969), Esa Ma Miliki (1971), In the Sixties (1979), Je Ka Jo (1983), Womanhood (1991), etc.

Chief Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi also comes from the stock of that generation who were truly patriotic and care about the progress of the Nigerian Project. Again, that is a dying practice in Nigeria. Musicians today have become adept in pandering to the desires of the powerful for gain. Music is, for them, no longer a stentorian tool for generating strong constructive and reconstructive feelings about one’s fatherland. In music history, Peter Wagner did this to a glorious though tainted height. Ebenezer Obey inserted himself into the patriotic circle with Gari Ti Won (1965). This was followed successively by To Keep Nigeria One (1967), Isokan Nigeria (1969), Operation Feed the Nation (1976), Current Affairs (1980), The Only Condition to Save Nigeria (1984), Formula 0-1-0 (1989), and so on.

Chief Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Obey-Fabiyi is now 75, and he has achieved immortality while still alive. Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, once exclaimed, “Art is long, life short.” Obey has lived a good life, and he no longer need fear death. He has already outlived himself. He has expended himself for music, for God, for Nigeria, for family, for others. It is now time for music to expend itself for him. It is time for music—and for us—to appreciate this great legend in a protracted applause that will make all his effort a worthwhile one; and all his life a beautifully written sonnet on the wonderful grace of God.

At 75, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey is accomplished in every sense. What characterised a good life more than that a person is able to serve God and humanity in whatever little ways he/she knows? We have had politicians, civil servants, business people, lawyers and clerics in Nigeria who have all contributed their own quota to the advancement of humanity. Ebenezer Obey has done more. And his success derives chiefly from the fact that he has invaded the homes and minds of Nigerians with music that entertains the bodies and agitates the minds. He did this with music, and this began at a period in our social history when musicians…and other artistes were relegated to the lowest rung of the social ladder. You can’t dare aspire to be a musician!
Obey dared…and he conquered. At 75, he could sit back and hear the reverberation of musical and non-musical accolades.

One could say that his success is a function of a powerful combination of a gentle deportment and a deep experience of the ways of the world. He knew right from the start what he wanted his music to do. He knew what he wanted to say. The persona of Chief Ebenezer Obey is far from being commercial. This is not to say that the commercial intent was absent in his career. In the days when he started singing, it was really a hard going. And only very few made any significant impact on the society, and for that matter on their own pockets. Yet, his music gives you more than you pay for. We could even stretch the claim that in those days, there were serious things to say with music than now. Obey stands out in this regard. And after the album has gone the ways of old albums, your mind takes up the refrain until you can reproduce the entire songs without pause. Such was the power that Obey commanded through his juju brand.

Every attempt to bring him into ruinous comparison with others failed. He can’t be rushed…just like the music. The musician and his music are the product of a tranquil attitude that is patient without being impassive. You retain your poise even when dancing! The Miliki brand of juju is the only kind of musical statement that someone like the Chief Commander could have made. The word “miliki” signals enjoyment that is not boisterous; an enjoyment within the limit of economic and social reason. This is exactly where some other music brands fail. You are constantly cajoled to “spray” the hard earned money budgeted for something else. Your ego is rubbed and your pockets emptied. And you are not the better for it.

And when it was time, as if the Lord has been whispering into his soul, Ebenezer Obey switched musical content and genre while retaining the Miliki rhythm. This move in favour of the gospel of Christ was a painful but unsurprising move for most admirers and Nigerians. It was painful because people see in it the impoverishment of the Nigerian music scene. The questions started flowing: How do we now get the good kind of music Obey is known for? Who get to replace him? Why did he stop? Is there any viable replacement? Can the replacement be like the original? The elders of Israel who wept bitterly when a new temple was built to replace the Solomon Temple destroyed by the Babylonians would understand this dilemma of Nigerians. No copy is like the original. If this is so, why then must he abandon what he knows how to do best? What he’s been doing so well that he has ever rendered to glorify the name of the Lord.

And in the final analysis, when the pain had subsided for the people, it appears as a move that was really long in coming. Again, this uneasy expectation of the people derives from the kind of music Obey plays and his peculiar manner of playing it. It is tranquil and measured…as if he is being careful not to make the music transgress against God and the people. There must have been spiritual intimations behind the music. It was therefore easy for the man to transit from the secular to the gospel without any problem. It was even easy for him to retain the Miliki tune.

Well, if we can’t always have the man and the entire package of Miliki, we can still collect the entire music corpus that still retains their power to speak after decades of continual playing. That is another test of the genius of Obey’s music. It is still communicating to us. It infuses us with nostalgic longing.

And we will be wise to listen and continue learning. The reason is that much have not changed in the Nigerian society that could make his music irrelevant to us. What he sang about then are still with us—the social rot; personal profligacy; spiritual hypocrisy; political stagnancy; and the likes.

For all his achievements, I dip into my bag of personal awards and honour this illustrious Nigerian with a septuagenarian order of merit (SOM) for a job well done. I hope others will join me in applauding this young old man for a life of service to God and mankind. Life begins at 75. May you live long to reap more fruits from the trees you have spent the past seventy five years of your life watering!
Dr. Olaopa is the Executive Vice-Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public Policy
Email tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng