Reward Idonije with national honour, broadcasters, musicians, writers tell govt
Friends, family, broadcasters, music enthusiasts and critics turned out in a four-day event to celebrate the versatile septuagenarian and music critic, Mr. Benson Idonije as he turned 80 last week. The series of events, which ran from June 16 through June 19, and were held at MUSON Centre and Freedom Park, Lagos Island, respectively. The events ranged from workshops, tributes, presentation of books, conversations and panel discussions to concerts. The event was organised by Committee of Relevant Arts (CORA) in collaboration with Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), among others, and supported by the Lagos State Government.
The opening was dedicated to a highlight of what the man means to many people, as tributes poured in from everyone. Secretary General of CORA, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, said Ben Jay, as he is popularly known, was there when CORA started out together 25 years ago, adding, “Uncle Ben is an excuse for us to party”.
Idonije’s friends and former colleagues back at Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) were there to anchor and lead the tribute session. Chief Biodun Shobanjo anchored the session, while Sir Victor Johnson and Mr. Kevin Ejiofor were lead speakers.
Chairman of the tribute session and Pro-Chancellor, Pan-Atlantic University, Dr. Christopher Kolade, said the celebrant had made his mark in the history of Nigeria by bringing musical education and information to the platform of broadcasting.
He noted, “I respect him for contributing a counter force to what we are experiencing as a nation. If this country were to find people who would give genuine interest to what we do, we would be better off. Ben is one of the people I have not just respect for, but admiration”.
Kolade also noted that the celebrant was not made by broadcasting, but that broadcasting was only an opportunity of sharing what he was already made of. He further highlighted that a leader could not add greatness to people, but could only help bring out the greatness in them, adding, “Leaders must understand that the actual potential of any individual is between him and his creator”.
He also canvassed that the story of Idonije should be told in every corner of Nigeria, saying, “We must continue to celebrate people like Ben because they give us hope for tomorrow. They have brought so much value, intellectually contributing to the development of Nigeria”.
According to Ejiofor, “Idonije, a broadcaster who is 80 now, would have been witness to the great many, indeed innumerable changes in what he would later learn is the important area of human activity that is dedicated to entertainment, information and education of himself and his fellow citizens.”
Ejiofor shared their experiences in broadcasting which to him was more like a sacred enterprise, as it was all about people and the things they helped to put in their minds or imagination. He spoke about how attaining fame meant so little to them, noting, “What mattered was the real seduction, the learning of the wonder of speaking not to no one in particular as it earlier seemed but speaking to, playing a piece of sound effect or music for the pleasure or information of that one particular person, and doing so with great care, with passion and love”.
He continued, “As far as I can see, it all came down to the biblical saying: whatever thine hand findeth to do, do it with all thine heart. In other words, Ben Jay did do everything he did with everything he had – energy, diligence, passion and love, which is why he was so, oh so humble. I can’t even begin to describe that. He spoke quietly, and went about his mysterious doings quietly unlike many of our more flamboyant broadcasters of those days”.
Ejiofor, however, lamented the ingenuity of most broadcasters today, saying that the emergence of the internet dominating radio content is often mistaken by young broadcasters as innovation. “It is not innovative and can sometimes be so disruptive as to destroy any sense some of the discussions that might have been made,” he added.
To Johnson, “Idonije is level-headed and intellectually upright; he condoned excesses of some of us, looked the other way with an indulgent smile on his inscrutable face – a face which never betrays any emotion.”
He stated that Idonije’s intimacy with jazz music facilitated his meeting Fela.
Idonije’s books – Dis Fela Sef: The Legend(s) Untold- A Memoir, The Great Highlife Party and All That Jazz were also launched. Chief launcher, Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, said, “Benson had brought the kind of music I enjoy over the years. He has strived over the years, tribute in a lifetime is sweeter than any other time”.
Gbadamosi also proposed that the books be made available in all schools of journalism across the country.
In reviewing Dis Fela Sef, Dr. Reuben Abati, said the book appears to be a victim of the emergent crises of publishing in Africa in dispossessed economies, stating, “Ben Jay deserves to be congratulated on his tenacity in bringing out, against all possible odds, a memoir as he correctly describes it on Fela – legend, maestro, counterculture hero, mystic musician, philanthropist, iconoclast, rebel, patriot and one of Africa’s most significant contributors to the world of art and music in the 20th century”.
Abati noted that Idonije has also brought out some insider details about Fela’s essence – his relationship with music producers, his band, recording companies, the nature of his life as a committed artist and professional, and perpetual preparedness to raise art above commerce.
The second day saw a conversation on ‘Highlife – The Evergreen: Looking Back, Looking Ahead,’ and chaired by Chief Aremu Olusegun Osoba. Osoba stated that CORA was made up of people who grew up listening to Ben Jay, adding, “We were happy when we started working with him in the 70s, but we are happier to be celebrating him now”. He said highlife is a synthesis, fusion and cosmopolitan music that “incorporates afro-Caribbean music”.
In a keynote address, Prof. John Collins gave the origin of highlife music as well as the growth of the musical careers of icons such as E.T Mensah and Sir Bobby Benson. He said Afrobeat and Fela’s music were influenced by highlife, and illustrated his point by playing on his guitar. He displayed dexterity playing both the mouth organ and the guitar at the same time.
At a panel discussion, Ray Mike Nwachukwu treated the audience to the magic of highlife music with recorded narratives and clips of highlife music, saying it transcended the African continent. Also, another discussant, Femi Esho spoke on ‘Highlife Must not Die,’ arguing that his Evergreen Music group was a major fighter for the sustenance of and immortalising of highlife music. He rued the sad reality confronting highlight life music and lamented that when Nigeria turned 50, a maestro such as Victor Olaiye was not invited, but the young artistes instead.
On his part, Michael Odiong expressed sadness that many contemporary artistes do not have the icons to look up to because they had faded out or travelled abroad, and said, “This created a vacuum during which period Western music took over, and this influenced the creation of a new kind of highlife hinged on beats.”
COSON was not left out in the celebrations, as its interactive session had writers and celebrities and media practitioners. Culture curator and advocate, Mr. Jahman Anikulapo, maintained that Nigeria is a country that fails to celebrate legends and icons. Chairman of COSON, Mr. Tony Okoroji, who anchored the session, suggested that a petition be sent to the Federal Government urging it to give Pa Benson Idonije an honour at the national level.
On whether Idonije still retained his strong criticism of Nigerian music of yester-years and now, Idonije responded, “My tone of criticism in the last few years has reduced. In those days, the musicians did more of copying western culture, but in the last five years, they have been trying to Africanise the music. My quarrel has always been that we are imitating foreign cultures”.
He said he was responsible for Afrobeat, stating, “I started managing Fela in 1963; most musicians faded because they lacked originality”.
Author of Indigo, Ms Molara Wood said Idonije is a treasure-library of Nigerian music, noting, “It is a pity that people like him do not get recognition at the national level”. Also actor, Mr. Patrick Doyle, said, “Ben has been an inspiration to all of us in broadcasting and to all who love Nigerian music.”
At the grand finale held at Freedom Park, Mr. Ayeni Adekunle lamented that most Nigerian musician were not aware of their strength, arguing, “That is why people like D’banj and WizKid keep seeking international endorsements to get global recognition”.
He said Nigeria was in an era where the pioneers did not leave legacies, and as such, hard work was the only way to succeed.
Also, Mr. Laolu Akintobi stated that most talented artistes were their own limitation, and said, “This is because of the void created in 1989 when the music record companies fizzled out”.