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All gather to celebrate octogenarian Idonije

Benson Idonije

Benson Idonije

The 80th birthday celebration of the veteran broadcaster, quintessential music critic and writer, Benson Idonije begins tomorrow, June 16, 2016 with a workshop featuring music students of the Lagos State University (LASU) beginning from 11 a.m. Biodun Adebiyi will serve as coordinator of the workshop. The three-day event will run at three venues- LASU main campus in Ojo; MUSON centre, Onikan; and Freedom Park, Broad street, Lagos.

On the same day, there will also be tributes/colloquium session, with the theme, ‘Essential Benson Idonije’ at Agip Hall, MUSON Centre, Onikan. Time is 4pm. Dr. Christopher Kolade will chair the event while the lead speakers are Sir Victor Johnson and Mr. Kevin Ejiofor. Other speakers include Mr. Ron Mgbatogu, Mr. Tunde Adeniji, Dr. Dan Agbi, Chief Tunde Aiyegbusi, Chief Dele Ajakaiye, Mr. Tomprai Abarowei, Odion Iruoje, Osaze Iyamu among others.

Idonije’s three books will be presented also at MUSON Centre by Chief Rasheed Gbadamosi, and reviewed by Dr. Reuben Abati and Layiwola Adeniji. Time is 6pm. The books to be presented are Dis Fela Sef, The Great Highlife Party and All That Jazz. The screening of ‘The Essential Benson Idonije’ documentary is at 7pm in the same venue.

To wrap up the evening, there will be a concert at Freedom Park by 8pm, facilitated by First Marketing Services Limited, featuring a mixed grill of sound.

On Friday, June 17, there will be a conversation and keynote address by Prof. John Collins at 4pm, with theme ‘Highlife – The Evergreen: Looking Back, Looking Ahead.’ The panel discussants include, Odion Iruojo, Femi Esho, Ray Mike Nwachukwu, among others.

Saturday, June 18 will see a town hall meeting-and interactive session with COSON members at Freedom Park, with the theme ‘All That Jazz: The Standards, the Cross-Overs, The Trans-forma-ion.’ Time is 11am. There will be another conversation by 4pm, just to mention a few of the programmes for that day. A concert follows at 7pm at Freedom park.

On Sunday, June 19, activities to celebrate the music critic will wrap up at Freedom Park by 4pm, with a conversation on ‘Music Forward: Deconstructing. Reconstructing.’ Keynote speaker is Mr. Ayeni Adekunle and will be chaired by Mr. Laolu Akintobi. ‘A Toast to Grandad’ is the theme of a concert at 8pm same day featuring Idonije’s grandson, Burna Boy and Friends.

BORN on June 13, 1936, in Otuo, he attended schools in Otuo and Sabongida Ora and later Yaba College of Technology. The Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) employed him in 1957, as engineering assistant. He, however, did not move into the mainstream broadcasting until the 60s, when he became a producer and presenter of such famous programmes, as The Big Beat and Stereo Jazz Club.

The programme, The Big Beats, became a resounding success and he anchored it until 1976, when Radio Nigeria 2 started and he became one of the foundation staff.

He was a presenter and producer in Radio Nigeria 2 until 1985 when was posted to FRCN Training School to teach presenting and producing. From there, he retired as the head of production department at the training school, in 1992, though; he continued to teach in the school on contract.

After retirement from the FRCN in 1992, he began contributing critiques, opinions and commentaries to many major Arts-related journals in Nigeria and abroad. In 1996, he was formally invited by The Guardian (Nigeria) to write for the newspaper; and he maintained three columns — Evergreen (Wednesdays), Sound and Screen (Fridays) and All that Jazz (Sundays) — until recently. He was honoured with a fellowship of the Adam Fiberesima School of Music and Conservatory (AFSM) of the University of Port Harcourt in 2014.

Idonije And Jazz
IDONIJE admits his first time behind the microphone was not smooth. “One was nervous, but it eventually got better,” he says.

By then, he had been covering sporting events and writing reports that were read in programmes. The late Wole Eyitayo, who was in charge of the sporting desk, got him to cover sporting activities for his programme. However, when he moved to Lagos, music came up and he began to present jazz programmes.

He started writing for newspapers in 1953 with the Morning Post Newspaper. “I was writing about jazz. Then, I was using it to promote Fela. I would zero in what he was doing. I wrote for Spear Magazine with Tony Momoh as editor. The most regular one was with The Guardian. My writing has been that of recalling past experiences and falling back on residual knowledge. Some people have interpreted it to mean that I am a researcher.

The truth is that about 10 per cent may be on research; while the remaining 90 are always on something I took part in. They were something I saw, did and listened to; I still buy magazines. Though, my son now sends me Downbeat and Jazz Town, to update my knowledge. I feel happy that some people are reading me and recognise the little I have done in music.”

His encounter with jazz was spiritual. He used to listen to radio a lot, and Congolese music on Radio Brazzaville was his staple in those days. He whispers, in a pitch that seems to rival the earlier, “the station used to play music throughout the night. I also listened to somebody called Willis Conover; he was presenting a jazz programme called, Voice of America Jazz Hour and Music USA almost every night. Conover played music for two hours every night.

He would play popular music for an hour and then start with jazz for another; thereafter, he had questions he sent out to his listeners all over the world at that time and I was one of those that used to answer them. He had a way of sending albums and Downbeat Magazine to the United States Information Service (USIS) for me to listen to, as well as read. That helped me to be the president of a charter of Music USIS, Ibadan. I had a group of people who used to come together to listen to jazz and talk about it. I bought my first jazz album in 1958, Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and that opened my eyes to the movement of jazz.”

He continues, “though, I could play a little piano and saxophone, music was a passion for me. What I had done over the years was appreciation of music. I have been falling back to the residual knowledge acquired over the years, because there was this passion of going to the nightclub almost every night, especially, when Fela came into my life. We used to travel from Nigeria to Ghana, almost every weekend, to see what entertainment looked like.”

He met Fela in 1963, though, before then, he had heard about him through his mother, the late chief Olufunmilayo Ransome-Kuti. She had brought her son’s highlife album that was jazz oriented and wanted the radio station to promote it. She went through the director of programmes, who directed her to him.

While in Nigeria, Fela listened to radio and heard Idonije’s programme, NBC Jazz Club, which aired every Thursday night. “One night, he came to the Broadcasting House, Ikoyi, with an album of jazz music recorded in London. The album had no record company name on it and I played it and also interviewed him. He respected me for my knowledge and I respected his for his musicianship. He was happy for the interview and that was how we became friends. We started seeing each other every day. We floated the idea of forming a jazz group, the Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet, in 1963. The group lasted for two years and later transformed to Koola Lobitos, in1965,” Idonije explains.

While in London, Fela played highlife, because before he travelled in 1958, he used to sit-in with Victor Olaiya All Stars and even sing. Olaiya influenced him a lot and when he got to London, he formed a highlife group. He recorded some singles, which people loved, before he changed to jazz.

He says, “I have a book on him titled, Dis Fela Sef. The preview was done some years ago at the Freedom Park and would be launched at my 80th birthday celebration. It is different from what others have written about him; in fact, it is his Memoir. It covers his life and times.”

Why Nigerian Artistes Must Know The Rudiments Of Music
“Ideally, if you want to play music, you must learn the rudiments, and know how to apply it. That takes you further and makes you perfect. You will discover that most of these musicians are merely entertainers; they cannot arrange music and most of the beats are computerised. All they do is write songs and sing. If you know how to arrange, know the nuances of music, you will go far, which is what most of them do not have or know,” he says.

When you first heard your grandson, Burma boy’s songs, what came to your mind?
“At first, we had a lot of disagreements. I wanted him to go to music school and qualify, because he has a lot of talent and knows the theories of music. But he came up with some beautiful stuff, but I said it is not enough that he has to do more. I wanted him to go to school of music. He has his stuff and passion for what he is doing. I am happy that he has his own approach, which is different from what others are doing.”



1 Comment
  • eyobaba

    It was in the early 70s when I first heard the sweet voice of Benson and later at the batakoto nite club. Such a wonderful era, it’s nice that one of the pillars of the Nigerian music industry will be so highly honoured.

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