Mike Adenuga, Segun Osoba helped me without requesting for anything in return -Obey

Monday, April 5, 2010

Written by Adeola Balogun

Chief Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi, erstwhile Juju music exponent and easily one of the most accomplished musicians that Nigeria has ever produced, clocks 68 years today. Going down memory lane, he speaks with ADEOLA BALOGUN about his music career and his new life as a Christian evangelist.

Tell us about your relationship with Fatai Rolling Dollar.

In those days, in the process of showcasing my talents as a multi instrumentalist and composer, I played with various music groups. One day, I was opportune to listen to one of J.O. Araba's records and I observed that the traditional music instrument known as agidigbo, which was used in that record, was played by Fatai Rolling Dollar. Before then, anytime Adeolu played a record, I just needed to listen to it once and I would pick up my agidigbo and run the string. But I found this particular one difficult to match. It took some time, almost the whole day, before I could run the string of the agidigbo played in that record and that was how I became curious. I wanted to meet the man that played the agidigbo in that record. So I made enquiries and learnt that Fatai Rolling Dollar lived at Femi Odutola. Those who were living at Itire road told me that he always passed through there. One day, they introduced me to him and that was how we became friends. I told him I really respected his skill with the agidigbo. At that time, he had just left J. O. Araba and was learning how to play the guitar. We were fond of each other and we worked very closely together. In every club that he introduced me, I composed a song and that was how God used me as a tool to form the music band called Fatai Rolling Dollar and his Federal Rhythm Brothers. He was the band leader and I was the captain. We were just five. We started by releasing single albums in those days. My name was always written on the sleeves because I was the composer of the songs. We were together for about five or six years before I started my own band. I called it Ebenezer Obey and his International Brothers Band around 1963. Later I started recording with Decca West Africa. It wasn't long before the Lord put me in the limelight and the Ebenezer Obey became a household name. I thank God for His mercies and kindness, and the masses for accepting my music. Without acceptance from the public, no artist can be an artist. It is the recognition of what you do that makes you a celebrity. And once you are accepted as a celebrity, you have arrived. One criteria for measuring the worth of a star in those days was the number of records that he sold. If your records sold up to a certain minimum, according to the world standard, your record company would give you a silver disk. If you exceeded that figure, you would be given a gold disk. If you did much better, you would be given a platinum disc. By the grace of God, I didn't receive any silver disc. I started with gold and I had many gold discs and platinum.

Who were the musicians in the limelight when you started your own band?

At the time I started my band, I.K Dairo was doing his own thing. He started in the late 1950s and that was when he received the Member of the British Empire award. He was the first musician to be honoured with the MBE. So he dominated the music scene. Later Dele Ojo came up, but he didn't push I. K. Dairo away. Then Tunde Nightingale emerged at about the same time that Haruna Ishola was releasing Apala music. Rex Lawson was making it big with highlife alongside the likes of Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta, Billy Friday and many others. Of course, Bobby Benson held sway as the proprietor of Kaban Bamboo. Victor Olaiya used to have Victor Olaiya and the Cool Cats Orchestra and there used to be a Cool Cats Inn. It was a hotel. That was where he started his career. But the hotel did not belong to him. Like I told you, Ayinde Bakare was the band that dominated the 'party-party' thing. Of course, we had Victor Uwaifo who came up with his own style of music called Akwete music. In those days, everybody wanted to have an identity. Victor Uwaifo sang in Edo language and he was a versatile guitarist. I decided to create my own identity by making music that would cater for the young and the old, as well as students in the higher institutions of learning. I came up with a variety of highlife music that leaned on percussions; the kind of percussions that we had in Rexy Lawson's music. As a matter of fact, the captain of my band, Late Samson Ogunlade, was so friendly with the guitarist of the late Jimmy Lawson that he plucked his strings exactly the way the latter did.So that helped us, not only to gain a foothold in the market; but to appeal to non-Yoruba speaking people with our music. The Igbo loved my music and because of this, many students embraced it. Even as I played 'Ore Mi Se Pele Pele', I looked at what Victor Uwaifo was doing and adapted a bit of his style and finally got 'Palongo.' These music styles contained lots of percussions that attracted the youths of those days. When I saw that my experiment was successful, I created my own version of 'Owambe'. Because I knew that the elderly people would go for Owambe, so I created my own Owambe Miliki or Juju Owambe. Everybody wanted to play like Tunde Nightingale. But my own version of Owambe had an advantage: I composed my songs to suit every style of music I wanted to play. So that helped me and when I started, I would make one side of my music highlife juju and the other side, Owambe juju.

You used to sing songs that appealed to the youths. Now how do you feel when some people describe your music as belonging to the 'old school'?

Well, classification of music depends on who wants to classify the music. People are entitled to their opinion. If they look at it that way and they like to classify it, I don't have any problem. I'm saying this so that even upcoming musicians and those who want to be successful musicians will know that I worked hard at my music and it yielded positive results for me.

I am surprised that you did not mention King Sunny Ade.

I'm coming there. KSA happened to be a talented guitarist that came after me. I came before Sunny Ade. I mean, I established my band before Sunny Ade did. By the time he came up, we already knew each other. When I was with Fatai Rolling Dollar, he was with Baba Sala. He was a very humble person. He was aware that I was older than him and from the beginning, he respected me. I never played Dele Ojo's style. He adapted Dele Ojo's style, even a bit of Ayinde Bakare's style, to his own owambe. He had had a stint with Tunde Amuwo's band and then, with Jide Smith, before starting his own band. He is a genius with the guitar. That is why he is called the master guitarist. We thank God that He blessed this nation with so many talented musicians.

But it got to a point when the entire stage was occupied by only the two of you.

Yes. Let me shed some light on that. I was working hard on my own and so was he. I started releasing albums before him. At that time, the success of my music encouraged him to do more. I was not sleeping nor did he sleep. Both of us were working hard. But when two people are working hard and many others are not, the result is what you have just said. The stage became our world. It was either Obey or Sunny. And those who wanted to copy either of us played Obey's music or Sunny Ade's music. That was the situation in those days.

These days, only few musicians own regular performance theatres. What is the advantage of running such a facility, like you did with Miliki Spot in those days?

What you just mentioned is unfortunate. In those days, there were good night clubs everywhere and night clubs couldn't do without a band. As a result, music was commercially profitable. It added to employment because each band had not less than seven members. Large bands had up to 22 people. So music solved the problem of unemployment in a way. Fortunately, armed robbery hardly existed. So you could go out anytime in Lagos. We moved around a lot. In fact, we considered ourselves as those who worked at night. We worked in a night club that created an avenue for income generation. We had bar men and service boys all around and even people from the radio stations came to wherever we were playing to do shows. They called it Saturday Night Time. I had Miliki Spot and Sunny had Banuso. The clubs were located near each other. But all that stopped when armed robbers came into the scene.

In those days, were you making money from the sale of your records or from the entertainment spot or from both of them?

I made money from both of them, but I got more money from the sale of my records. That is when we talk about silver, gold and platinum disc. At that particular time, I started releasing between four and five music albums in a year. Everything that I released, was a hit. Of course, I captured the market. The volume for a silver disk is 100,000 copies, gold 250,000 and platinum was about 1 million. Then there was no piracy.

Is it true that you artistes always created crises among each other so that you would have something to sing about?

No, that was a big lie. In Nigeria, when two artistes are prominent, there are people who either like one or the other or both of them. Some people preferred Obey to Sunny. Similarly some preferred Sunny to Obey. The fans always want to show their love beyond imagination. In the process, they create imaginary crises among artistes. Such people almost turned it into politics. Sometimes when I sang a song, they' would misinterpret it and say that I was attacking Sunny. One day, the elders called us to ask if we were fighting. We said no, that we weren't fighting.

Why did juju music artistes sing other people's praises in those days? Was it for money?

Praise-singing is a trademark of juju music. That is how you know who is a good musician. We met it that way. In those days, the likes of Yusuf Babalegba and Haruna Ishola sang the praises of people they were interested in. People wanted that and demanded it. In a way, it publicized their businesses and helped in promoting them.

So such people actually paid you to praise them?

There is always a time to show appreciation. For some people, I would go into the studio and record an album. There were those who actually requested me to do it for them and I did it to show my appreciation. On the other hand, some made such requests, but I didn't do it because I couldn't accommodate them.

Is it true that some patrons sometimes handed the keys of their cars to you on stage, after they had run out of cash?

No one has ever done that to me. But there were people who gave me gifts other than cash. Most of the time, I received wrist watches and shoes.

At the end of the day, you dumped music for Christian evangelism.

After a successful career spanning 30years, God called me into the ministry. When the call was coming, I didn't want to do it because I was very passionate about music. So, I struggled for many years before I finally said yes to the Lord.

How did you receive the call?

God has different ways of calling different people. In my own case, it started with hearing a voice at first. Sometimes when I sat with my wife, I'd tell her that I heard a voice telling me to leave what I was doing. I started hearing all that and it was confirmed by other great men of God. It came to a point whereby I could no longer resist. The day of the final decision, I heard God say "If you don't do what I want you to do, a lot of people sleep at night and are no more the next morning; what if you are not alive, will you play Miliki music in the grave?' Then late Arch-bishop Benson Idahosa, at that point , said he was in U.S and God spoke to him that there was a popular artiste that God wanted to work for Him. He said God told him, 'When you get back to Nigeria, tell my son I want to use him.' And I went to see him in Benin. He said to me, "Do you know Moses?" I said I didn't know him. He said Moses in the Bible and I said I know him. He said that people were still talking about Moses and they would keep talking about him because God called him and he answered. So, he advised me to go for an observation course on how to run a ministry.

Observation requires you to get an on-the-job training and I did that for nine months. That was in 1992. Before that time, I had served for three months. I still had some engagements that I had committed myself to. I went back for another three months. I had practicals to carry out and in my own case, it was done in an empty church, I saw all the empty chairs as congregation and preached to them. You have to prepare your outline and I had done all that. So when it came to the practical, it was so dramatic. You know, I was already used to seeing a crowd around me. Now I had to face an empty church. The Devil reminded me about that and I became depressed. But I knew that wasn't from God. So I said no and I started. The invigilator, who was a friend of mine, would peep silently through a door and assess me. I started preaching at midweek services and later, during Sunday services. By the time I returned to Nigeria, I was ready to go. That was how I started. God has been so good to me. Some of my sons are now pastors and it's all the Lord's doing.

How many of your children are pastors?

My three sons are pastors. The wife of my first son is a pastor, too. They have their own ministries now. Their names are Pastor Folarinde, Pastor Lanre and Pastor Rotimi Obey.

Is it true that you are now back to playing Miliki music full-time?

Some people have been saying a lot of things, but they are ignorant. God has His own way of dealing with man. God will not tell you all that will happen to you in life from day one. He may tell you this or that and He may give you another direction. I hope you remember the story of Elijah and the brook and that of the widow of Zarephaph. He gives us divine direction and when you obey, you are the only one who knows what He has told you. People may comment or write you off and all that. I don't blame anybody; I have walked with God and I know Him and everything I read in the Bible happened to me. What I told you here is exactly what happened, I started a ministry, I did that for two years, and God now led me to do special appearances for those who supported my ministry. I started special appearance seven years ago. You see, God who called me from music knew He made me one day and in obedience, I listened to Him.

What about your low moments?

Trials and temptation can happen to anybody. My own time of trial came four years ago. I lost my factory, my source of livelihood. I am not in the ministry to take salary; rather, I spend what I have on the ministry. The platform that God established for me, the thing He gave me, that was what I used. You don't even joke with God. Like I said, I lost my factory and it was difficult for me. I owed two banks and one of them said to me "We are taking everything". It was the most difficult time in my life. I was doing everything possible to cope when my condition was reported by a friend in a newspaper. He didn't mention my name. He wrote: "How are the mighty fallen from grace to grass". Although my name was not mentioned, the day I saw that paper, I wept. It was too much for me, I took it to God, I said "This is the latest news. God take charge. For me, I won't go back." I knew so many people that could have helped, but I'm a very shy person and I do not know how to beg. That was four years ago. The Scriptures was blessing me. I read my Bible daily, in the book of Acts30:29; where Paul said that he worked with his hands and he didn't covet any man's gold or silver. Even before that time, I had started special appearance for those who partnered with us. I do special appearance to make money, which I use in running my ministry. God allowed that situation to happen because He wanted to demonstrate something. Multiple of what I lost came back to me and God used an individual for these things that I am saying. If God calls you, He can never disappoint any man, no matter how it looks. God is a very good God.

Did you at any time during your career seek the services of a witch doctor?

I have a very good God and He drew me closer to Him. He didn't allow all those things you mentioned to attract me. Don't forget I am Fabiyi (meaning Ifa is the one that gave birth to this one), and my compound in Abeokuta is "Agbole Olori Imole". But right from childhood, I have always preferred God. And I'm saying this to those who are wasting their time practising occultism, God is a God of mercy. When the storms hit me, I knew I had God beside me. People should move closer to God. God used just one person and he was the one who asked because I didn't tell anyone what I was passing through.

What exactly did he do? Did he give you money or a contract?

I started Praise Altar eight years ago when I was 60 years old. The first person that gave me money for the crusade ( the first one I did) gave me N2.5million. When I was celebrating my 60th birthday, God showed me that I should start the crusade and I needed money. He directed me and I shared it with one man and we started. The person who gave me N2.5millon was Chief Olusegun Osoba. Later another person who would be sent to lift me up gave me N5 million. I didn't go to him; God laid it on his heart. He was no other person than Mike Adenuga. He was the one God used and he delivered what God sent him. I can't give you the details, but I must mention that he helped me to repurchase and re-establish what was lost.

So can we say that the album you did for him was in appreciation of what he did for you?

That is what people don't know. He didn't ask me to do any album, but I deemed it fit; he is somebody who has always been there for me. He didn't even want anybody to know what God has used him to do for me in life. He only requested a collection of my old numbers but instead, I went to the studio to produce some of the old numbers, introduce him there, but I didn't release it to the public. I handed it over to him. Instead of the old numbers he wanted, I added some more and thanked him. That's why many things people say about me you have to ignore. This man didn't ask me for anything, he only asked for a collection of my old numbers.

People have been saying that you almost went blind recently. What happened?

Well, I had glaucoma and cataract in my eyes. I should have taken care of it long ago, but I didn't and if it's not for God, by now, I won't be able to see you all. I had an operation but I was never blind. The only problem I have is that I easily miss my footsteps on staircases. Whenever I come across staircases, I am very careful because the steps appear double. Apart from that, I am okay. At least you can see me now and I don't think I am any close to being a blind person.

Fatai Rolling Dollar accused you of abandoning him. Is it true that you are not grateful to him?

I don't talk anyhow. This issue has been cleared by him and we are in good terms.

What would you say is your highest point in life?

My highest point was when I had the breakthrough that turned me into a star. I'd always seen myself and behaved like a star right from elementary school. I had been saying I was a star and I had been looking for an opportunity to get recorded. It was not like today that you can take a demo and go into the studio. I didn't have money because of my humble beginning. I had to walk most times in those days because I couldn't afford transport fares. I remember when I was in search of a recording deal. I walked all the way from Mushin to Abibu Oki. I passed Yaba, Oyingbo, Carter Bridge, Idumota and when I got there, the gateman was the first obstacle that I encountered. He didn't want me to enter the premises. I told him I had come to lift up his company. The second obstacle was the secretary who tried to prevent me from seeing the artiste manager. She said he was on leave and would not be available for five weeks. The MD was a white man and at that time, no one saw the white man. I told the woman that I had walked all the way from Mushin and that I was a future star. I told her that I came to record in her company and if I did, my records would lift up the company. Then I said I wanted to see the MD. Luckily the MD was on the intercom inquiring what the noise was all about and the secretary told him all I said. The man said the secretary should send me in. I went in, prostrated, forgetting that he was a white man, and I kept saying, 'Just record me, I'm a future star, my music will lift your company'. He spoke with the secretary on the intercom again. That was how I was given a trial. I took my band for the audition at Abule Oja, Akoka. They didn't allow us to enter the studio. We did it under a tree outside. I was auditioned and was given a chance. What I told the white man that day became a reality. From being an artiste of the company, I became a shareholder, then a director and later I became the chairman. When the company closed up, I became the owner of both the property and instruments too.

Do you support Tolu's music career?

Tolu is doing well, playing Miliki music. Some promoters took him to London and he is doing very well there.

How did you come about the name Obey?

My surname is Fabiyi. In those days, when I was a school prefect, the teachers used to flog the pupils with a cane and we were used to pleading when asked to bring our hands for caning. I used to say obey first, and then complain. So, Obey became my nickname.

Source: www.punchng.com

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