A riff for Benson Idonije: The asiwaju of Nigeria’s social music commentators

Benson Idonije

Benson Idonije

I read Benson Idonije’s recent piece, ‘Remembering Eddy Okonta, the Obi of Trumpet’(Guardiannewsonline Wed. March 25, 2009) with a feeling of delight and deja vu. Delight because virtually every Idonije article on highlife leaves me with a feeling of exhilaration and gratitude; deja vu because his writing brims with such valuable information, such detailed anecdoting and sense of history that almost invariably leaves his reader with the conspiratorial exclamation: ‘oh I have been here before!’ Indeed, music and the melody of its history are Idonije’s province and passion, and he has an inimitable way of taking us with him even through a historical landscape that is clearly outside our temporal ken and making sure we experience no sense of unfamiliarity there. I have yet to encounter any other commentator on modern Nigerian music with the panache and effortless mastery that have come to characterize an Idonije commentary on Nigeria’s social music.

In numerous well written, well informed pieces orchestrated in danceable prose, Mr. Idonije tells the story of Nigeria’s social music with the disarming authority of a participant-observer, chronicler and commentator. With the incisive meticulousness of an insider, and the engrossing fervour of an aficionado, he explores not only the hearable flesh of the music but also the diverse and often chequered histories of its creators and the theory (or theories) behind their practice. Frequently and assiduously, Mr Idonije trains his focus on music as art and profession, vocation and special calling.

Without a speck of doubt, as far as music is concerned, Idonije is a Benson of all trades and master of all. Though highlife remains his starting point and frequent point of return, he has written with equal familiarity about jazz and blues, and seems to operate on a first-name basis with the phenomenal practitioners of these genres, invoking Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong and John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and BB King as though they were his next-door neighbours. And when he talks about the great Ghanaian highlifers, ET Mensah and Jerry Hansen and their influence on Nigerian highlife, you marvel at the ease with which this music commentator crosses borders on the scent of powerful melodies.

And within the Nigerian space, which notable musician has he not brought to our notice? Which of the musicians’ respective (and often distinctive) styles has he not analysed for the education and appreciation of the listening public? Idonije seems to know the provenance of the various genres of social music in Nigeria and the productive interactions among these genres. He makes us hear and dance again to the evergreen melodies of Bobby Benson, Rex Jim Lawson, Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Osita Osadebay, Adeolu Akinsanya, I.K. Dairo, Victor Uwaifo, Comfort Omoge, Orlando Owoh, Tunde Nightingale, Ayinde Bakare, Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Ade, Haruna Isola, Ayinla Omoowura, Dan Maraya Jos, Dele Ojo, Dele Abiodun, Orlando Julius. Under his gaze, at his prodding, the evergreens assume a more sonorous depth and richer resonance. The ‘oldies’ transform into eternal ‘goodies’. A whir of guitar, a saxy blare, a raunchy roar of the tuba, a phrase from an old lyric, the choreographic dexterity of an old dance-style, all live and throb in Idonije’s melodiously illuminating commentaries. Beyond the dance hall, Idonije wittingly or unwittingly highlights the role of music as glue in the crevices of a notoriously fractious Nigeria.

Memory and desire, regret and nostalgia: a Benson Idonije essay wakes us up to these feelings. Old tunes return with a needed suture on our fractured nerves, an urgent balm on contemporary wounds. Old places, old events, old faces, old jokes, old laughters, old tears . . . are here again, striding gingerly through the corridors of memory. The mere mention of a name conjures up an avalanche of back visions and impressions. For those of us now approaching our autumn years, who knew Nigeria in the 1960’s, Eddy Okonta (the specific subject of Idonije’s current article) has come to signify more than a mere name. For how can we hear ‘Okonta’ without remembering the man who blew the trumpet so loud, so long, so lustily that you thought he was never short of breath? Which member of my generation can forget in a hurry the wondrous way Okonta staples such as ‘Oriwo’, ‘Abele’, ‘Peewee’ commanded us to the dance floor and got us to spin and swing, and sway; our utter vulnerability to Okonta’s powerful rhythm; the endless hours we spent toasting him as Nigeria’s leading trumpeter while some of our colleagues would rather put that crown on the head of Billy Friday or Victor Olaiya or Rex Jim Lawson.

How can we talk about Eddy Okonta without remembering Ibadan City in the 1960’s when the Obi of Trumpet ruled the roost at Paradise Hotel (where Femi Johnson’s golden skyscraper now stands), a time when a slew of night clubs made night life in West Africa’s largest city such a rollicking delight? How can one forget the healthy rivalry between Okonta and fellow highlife veterans such as Victor Olaiya and Roy Chicago? (The fabulous Rex Jim Lawson was in a class of his own!). How can we forget the way we ‘pub-crawled’ from dusk to dawn in those days without the morbid fear of armed robbers or kidnappers who lurked ominously in the urban darkness?

But I digress. This is a piece on Benson Idonije, the Asiwaju of Nigeia’s Social Music Critics, the man who makes sure we never lose the memory of our sound – and sense. Just before my talk at the CORA-organised ‘Soyinka at 70’ forum in July 2004, I asked Jahman Oladejo Anikulapo (Sunday Guardian’s editor and indefatigable culture activist) jocularly but pointedly: isn’t it time we published a collection of Idonije’s essays? I repeat that question here and now with the hope that one of Nigeria’s numerous publishers will be ready with an answer before the next blare of Eddy Okonta’s unforgettable trumpet.

Niyi Osundare lives in Ibadan. First published in 2009, this piece is re-presented here with slight modifications as part of the activities marking the 80th birthday of the griot of our Republic of Music.

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