Michael Jimoh

There are those for whom striving to become famous is almost anathema. In both their private and professional lives, they eschew popularity because of the very thing it stands for. Not for them the earned or undeserved public adulation for any accomplishment. They prefer to stay out of the limelight, carry on with their work assiduously like a computer and quietly like a Hoover.

To this class of non-strivers for fame, distinct from ambitionless folk, belongs Funsho Ogundipe, whose pedigree alone entitles him to as much recognition accorded some famous families today in Nigeria.

The first time my path crossed with Funsho’s was sometime late last year in an out-of-the-way close somewhere in the heart of Ikeja. We acknowledged each other with direct eye contact and a casual tilt of the head, the way new acquaintances react in a relationship that may or may not develop. Ours did.

One day, I asked if he was an artiste.

“Yes,” he said. It was obvious. There was the hair in locks, the long fingers and unusual sartorial effect. He wore African fabrics, a sort of loose and airy aso-oke worn over custom-made orange trousers. It wasn’t outlandish but different, giving his entire sartorial expression an understated elegance in a purely African way.

We have become closer as time lengthened, talking about this and that most times. Also in abundant supply are the books in his library, books by authors you never heard of, or authors you know but never read except one or two works by them.

Funsho’s library does not quite occupy an entire section of a wall in his room, but the collections are as diverse in titles and authorship as can assuage any bookworm thirsty for knowledge on just about any topic. His eclectic taste in books, he says, has a long tradition, which he traces to his family.

A family of readers

“My parents were teachers,” Funsho told me one Friday evening in his studio-quiet sitting room in a part of the family compound, an imposing clay-painted, storey building on Obokun Close, Ikeja. As any rookie designer knows, clay is the colour of mud and mud is a unique feature of African architecture across the Sahel through the savannah down to some parts of the coastal region.

The sitting room itself is an extension of Funsho’s sartorial bias. Instead of imported rugs, there are mats on the floor, mats for table tops on the dining; there are woven baskets here and there, either as receptacles or as decorative pieces; in place of lace curtains, a dozen printed African fabrics billow like sails as the evening breeze wafts through the open windows.

In his 50s, at 6’ 5” in socks and with a disciplined physique, Funsho has the waistline of an adolescent without the teenage swagger, stepping gingerly around his house with the quiet dignity and unobtrusive confidence you see in the well-born and well-groomed.

The privileges of life, JF Kennedy once quipped, are distributed unevenly at birth. By virtue of his birth to a banker father who knew influential people in Nigeria, Funsho had more than a fair share of childhood privileges. “I was very fortunate” Funsho says of his years growing up under very protective parents. “And you have to have the grace to accept that. Because of what our parents were doing, you ended up knowing what was going on in town.”

Funsho was only 11, for instance, when he travelled abroad, courtesy his father who wanted him to see the world.  This was the late 70s through the early 80s when old Money meant exactly what it was – with a dollop of culture thrown in for good measure. It was the equivalent of the golden age in Nigeria, unlike now when parvenus of all shades flaunt their wealth gaudily – either to show they have arrived or as status symbol.

The Ogundipes didn’t have to impress anyone.  There is a spiritual side to the family which acts as a counter balance to whatever money tries to offer. A Methodist Ogundipe Senior was singular among the bankers of his time for not having landed assets outside Ikeja and Ilesha. There are no houses in Lekki or London or New York or financial assets in foreign currencies. He had an almost puritan-like aversion to excess and flamboyance and lived as simply as he could.

 For Funsho, the most enduring legacy today is the rows and rows of books shelved in the family house at Ikeja.

Funsho himself is not particularly money-focused. He comes across as a thoroughgoing Africanist, guided by Ahmadou Hampate Ba’s philosophy that, in the Africa of yore, long before Western civilisation disrupted things, “the most important thing regarding a man was nobility of birth and behaviour.”

On this particular weekend, Funsho is sitting opposite me, wearing a Yellow T-shirt fringed with adire print around his arms and a matching design on the breast pocket, lending an African motif to a Western-style shirt. From a set somewhere, Bembeya Jazz, the great musical group from Guinea, serenades the room with string instruments accompanied by a soloist, reminiscent of the vocal virtuosity of singers like Salif Keita and Habib Koite both of Mali or Youssou Ndou of Senegal.

Now and then, Funsho rises from his seat to fetch a book or two from his library, on request by me or to support an argument, a learning process he is quite familiar with starting from his own house.

Listening to the muse

One thing Funsho also grew up with was music, sort of presaging his future métier, after reading law at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), working briefly in a law firm (Badejo & Co in Lagos) and a stint in his father’s bank. Along with the books, his father had a collection of LPs, the Obeys, Sunny Ades, Emperor Pick Peters, as well as a sheaf of highlife, jazz, country and classical music.

More influence was still to come by way of a neighbour who lived next door to the family home in Ikeja. As Funsho recalls, the man in question used to play highlife and Igbo classics such as, Oriental Brothers, Osita Osadebey, Celestine Ukwu, etc. “I used to go close to the fence as a young man and listen to all that.”

But the most influence came from none other than Fela Anikulpo-Kuti himself, after he relocated to Ikeja from Jibowu. His first place on Atinuke Olabanji Street was near enough but the next abode on Gbemisola street was just 500 metres away from the Ogundipe household. In retrospect, the lawyer-turned-banker-turned-musician saw a “pattern to my introduction to music,” that is, from his father’s collection to the Sunday, Sunday vibes across the fence and now Fela literally next door.  On his visits to Afrika Shrine, Funsho noticed that he could hear independently everything that was being played.

“I could hear what the guitarist was doing, the bass player and the rest of the twenty-something or so band distinctly. It was mind-boggling.”

He soon realised he wanted to play the music. There is a tradition that Afrobeat shares with that other great improvisational vehicle jazz which is that of sitting in. Aspiring musicians come and test themselves on the same stages with their heroes. Sometime in 1988, while about to graduate from the law school Funsho got a chance to sit in with the mighty Egypt 80 orchestra.  Venue was Afrika Shrine on a Friday night with Abami Eda himself presiding.

Funsho walked up to Fela and asked to be given a solo spot. Fela took him on stage and asked him to play.  Left alone on stage, the young man could do no more than tap his feet, as if his fingers were paralysed. As a debut performance, it was a disaster.

Mortified about his maiden show that never was, Funsho didn’t give up. The next weekend he spoke to Fela to at least get another opportunity to play, if only once. A busy man in every sense of the word – what with the music, politics, his harem and much else – Fela could have kept refusing but in another twist again, he sent him to Baba Ani, the bandleader. “If Baba Ani clears you, then you can play,” Fela declared with the certainty of an Ifa priest.

––Jimoh writes from Lagos

After some weeks of waiting his turn again, Funsho got his second chance and took it firmly. He dazzled the audience becoming one of the favourite piano players at the shrine following an illustrious line of Afrobeat keyboard players like Duro Ikujenyo, Dele Sosimi and Keji Hamilton.

Baba Ani, Funsho says today, “was my real introduction to the craftmanship side of Afrobeat.”  After hearing him perform on the keyboard on several occasions and listening to his demo tapes, Fela took notice and became a supporter making sure that he became a permanent fixture in jam sessions at Afrika Shrine. And so from that initial unimpressive and unpromising note, Funsho mastered his art and soon began to cut his tunes.

No fame, no pain

Fame, as any publicity hound knows, has its downsides. Sometimes, it comes with a price, sometimes not quite inexpensive and with hard lessons. Kurt Cobain, the golden-haired phenomenon of rock group Nirvana was mama’s boy until overwhelming public frenzy drove him to premature death when he committed suicide in 1994. Most people would have thumbed their noses at whoever had predicted Michael Jackson’s physical deterioration from the round-faced lad he was in his early years to the gaunt spectacle he became later in life.

For Funsho, it is all a waste of time, all vanity and he wouldn’t trade his privacy or the privacy of those around him for any kind of popularity. “I like my privacy. I don’t like any kind of intrusion. I don’t want to come here and play popular music. I don’t want to be a Michael Jackson. I don’t want to be a Fela, either. The same fame carries its own wahala that messes everything up. We would have liked to have Fela for much longer. We would have liked to have him talk to us, share things with us. I think that is what fame does. Me, I don’t want that thing o.”

Since his primary audience is Nigeria, isn’t he bothered that his music will not be known, not popular? In short, isn’t he worried about the future of his music?

“I am not bothered. What is music for?” he asks rhetorically. “Is it to be popular?” In his view, music, African music specifically, is a communal thing, like art that is shared and enjoyed by all and never competitive.

––Jimoh writes from Lagos