Floods of Tributes for Benson Idonije at 85

From being the first manager to the legendary Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti to being a music mentor to a Grammy-winning grandson, Burna Boy, the ace broadcaster and music critic, Benson Idonije, now 85, has become a music colossus on his own unobtrusive terms, writes Yinka Olatunbosun.

The gathering was intentionally small; but there was access to more on the virtual space to join as family and friends gathered to celebrate the birthday of one of the most unassuming men to have ever influenced broadcast and music in Nigeria, Benson Idonije. Terra Kulture, Lagos was the venue. The visuals for the virtual audience was quite poor. And there’s no guessing who might turn up the heat in the room: Burna Boy- the beloved grandson whose popularity has understandably eclipsed his grand-father’s. In retrospect, Idonije had made a good name for himself long before Damini Ogulu (Burna Boy) was born. But many would remember him as a young boy who used to visit his grandfather while the latter worked at Guardian Newspapers.

“I wouldn’t have changed that surname for the world but you know sometimes as women we have no choice,’’ Burna Boy’s mother and manager, Bose Ogulu gushed during her remarks at the 85th birthday celebration held at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos. “Thank you for honouring my father. Thank you for sharing that documentary. I hope we make something bigger of it.’’

The name Benson Idonije echoes through history as the select family members, friends and associates read from the memoir titled ‘Dis Fela Sef’ by Idonije, revealing the layers of music generations that influenced the genre known as Afrobeat. First published in 2014, the book is an insider’s perspective of the disruptive musician’s sojourn into music and his global acclaim that resonates long after his passing in 1997. As many readers of this book would later discover, the book is not just about Fela but about the music landscape at the period of his evolution in music. Call it a music journalist’s bible, the 282-paged memoir in small print is just one in the series of books to be published by Idonije on Fela. Arguably one of the most comprehensive books ever written on Fela and African music, ‘Dis Fela Sef’ was at the centre of the birthday celebrations which was punctuated by performances from the theatre director and choreographer, Segun Adefila and the charming grandson to the celebrant.

Five years ago, when Idonije turned 80, Burna Boy defied the rain at Freedom Park, Lagos to perform at the Freedom Park stage. Last weekend, he re-evoked the spirit of Fela when he performed the classic, ‘Lady.’ It’s quite ironic because the song ‘Lady’ is regarded by some as an anti-feminist song and Burna Boy has been a very quiet feminist anyway- a large percentage of his team being women. In an interview with ArisePlay, Burna Boy once revealed that the strongest set of people he had ever encountered in his life are women. So, his performance of ‘Lady’ that evening was a tribute to his life-long relationship between his grandfather and Fela, not necessarily promoting that African view of women.

And that further thickens the story of many associates of Fela. Like Idonije, many friends and associates of Fela respected his musicianship but went on to lead very different lives from Fela, not entirely sharing his ideologies. Before Idonije met Fela in person, he was first an Engineering Assistant at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation before he became an on-air personality with programmes like The Big Beat and Stereo Jazz Club.

He had also met Fela’s mother, Mrs Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti who had given him some samples of his music to play. Before Fela left Nigeria for his study in the UK, he was playing highlife music, honing his skills with the likes of Victor Olaiya. But when Fela returned to Nigeria as a jazz musician.

Eventually, Idonije and Fela met at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation when Fela drove down to the station to meet the meet the presenter of NBC Jazz Club, Idonije in 1963. They had a long talk on air while Idonije interviewed him and played every song on his new album which would go down in history as the first ever jazz album to be recorded by a Nigerian artist. Their friendship extended beyond radio. When Fela formed his band, Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet, Idonije was his manager, sourcing for performance venues and recruiting musicians for the band.

Through those years, Idonije was the bridge between Fela and disgruntled his band members; Fela and the executives of Recording companies and bar owners where he had performed his live music. Even when Fela was an impossible government worker as a Music Producer at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, Ikoyi, Idonije was his backbone. In ‘Dis Fela Sef,’ Idonije recalled how Fela received numerous queries for coming late to work which he never replied but his good friend, Idonije wrote the replies to those multiple queries. According to the broadcaster, Fela’s interest in music superseded his desire for civil service.

Since Jazz music was a hard sell at that time, Fela’s mother advised that he should return to highlife music. That move led to the formation of another band, Koola Lobitos.

Part of the readings of the book at the 85th birthday covered Chapter five of the book subtitled ‘The Musical Odyssey.’ There, Idonije revealed how Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti wanted Fela to pursue highlife instead of the jazz music which was a hard sell. Koola Lobitos went on to perform at Surulere Night Club, Kakadu and Caban Bamboo, Gondola Night Club, and others. During the civil war, it was perhaps the only surviving civilian band as many musicians in the highlife had been conscripted into the army. Despite the odds of selling jazz and the modified highlife, Idonije insisted that those years were peaceful as Fela focused solely on his artistry and the quest to develop a unique sound.

Fela’s musical tour experience in the US would change his music trajectory for a lifetime. He met his collaborator, Sandra Izsadore who taught him about black identity, rights and political consciousness. That culminated into the development of Afrobeat and he released his first mainstream hit record, ‘Jeun Koku.’ EMI had Fela’s permission to promote and distribute the song but he didn’t sign a contract before the release of the song. It was a defining moment of Fela’s career and Idonije saw firsthand how Fela’s distrust of recording companies impacted on his reputation as an artist. By the time that his music became more politically-charged and was touring internationally, Idonije was no longer his manager. Still, they remained good friends.

Today, it is hard to tell the story of Idonije without Fela and now Burna Boy even after he had distinguished himself as a journalist. Idonije had been the director of music for his grand-son, offering critical pointers that Burna Boy had the liberty to accept or otherwise. The bond that music had nurtured between Idonije and his grand-son over the years had been widely publicized, validated by those moments of hugs and holding hands-reflecting love and mutual respect.

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