Orlando Julius is one of the living legends of African music, a genuine pioneer whose early fusions of highlife and soul paved the way for Afrobeat. All the more amazing, then, that his new release Jaiyede Afro, recorded with the UK-based band the Heliocentrics, is his first internationally released studio album that’s not a reissue of decades-old work.
Born in 1943, Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode was the fourth son of a family of merchants. In 1957, following the death of his father, he moved to Ibadan, the then-capital of Nigeria’s western region, to make his name as a musician. He started out as a drummer, but soon learned multiple instruments, including the alto saxophone, with which he’s most strongly identified today.
In the mid ’60s, Julius began to blend Nigerian highlife with Latin grooves and horn charts, inspired by soul acts like Sam & Dave; the result was a punchy, aggressive and ultra-danceable sound he called Super Afro Soul. His Modern Aces band had a regular gig at Ibadan’s Independence Hotel, where he met and mentored a young Fela Kuti, even giving him four musicians to help start what became Afrika 70. By the early ‘70s, Julius’s music — with his new group, the Afro Sounders — had become harder and even more groove-oriented, bringing in the influence of James Brown (who he met when the Godfather toured Africa) and ultimately pioneering what became known as Afrobeat.
Though he never released an album on a US label, Julius lived in America for over 25 years, in the Bay Area and Nashville (where he operated a club and a recording studio). He collaborated with trumpeter Hugh Masekela in the mid ‘70s, and co-wrote Lamont Dozier’s 1977 hit “Going Back to My Roots.”
Jaiyede Afro features reworkings of two Afro Sounders tracks (“Buje Buje” and “Aseni”), a song written in the ‘70s but never completed until now (“Be Counted”), a new version of a traditional chant he first recorded with the Modern Aces in 1965 (“Oma Oba Blues”), and a cover of the James Brown instrumental “In the Middle.” Grittier and more psychedelic than albums by Antibalas or even Fela’s sons (Femi and Seun Kuti), it’s a bracing, dense swirl of funk guitars, blatting horns, hypnotic percussion and Julius’s preacher-like vocals, delivered in both Yoruba and English.
We called Julius at home in Nigeria to discuss the new album, his early days and more.
How did this album come about? Did the Heliocentrics seek you out, or were you looking for a band?
I was doing a show in France and they wanted to back me up. So I was rehearsing with them, and they knew a lot of my songs; they made me happy, because they’re very good. So when they brought up the idea of recording, we got together.
The title track from this album, “Jaiyede Afro,” was written a long time ago, but never recorded before. Can you tell me the story behind that song?
When I was going to elementary school, my mom was the one who inspired me, who made me really like music. Every night after dinner, she would be weaving clothes, and she’d be singing. I would take my drums and go and sit with her and play, and she really helped make me happy. Every time she was going to a party with the ladies [in her band], I would go with her. I always loved to go wherever I would get a chance to play drums. So I would be drumming with my mother’s group, and that particular song, “Jaiyede Afro,” which is also the title of the album, [is about that, and] I decided I wanted to record it with these guys.
I’m very grateful to God that today I’ve been doing music for a lot of years, and I’ve been able to make music that’s made Americans happy, like the song “Going Back to My Roots.” I wrote that with Lamont Dozier. Right now in the studio I’m just finishing a recording of one of my old songs, “Ololufe,” that some young people want to do on their album, and they want me to back them up.
There are a couple of songs [on Jaiyede Afro], too, that I was recording when I was here [in the 1970s], and I wasn’t able to finish because of problems…when we [originally] recorded it, that was when there was some war in Nigeria. Philips Records recorded it, but we were not able to get it released at that time, because the factory was burned down during the war.
Tell me how your career got started — you were a drummer before you were a saxophonist, right?
Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the premier of Western Nigeria, he was a very good, close friend to Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and in Ghana they had music in schools, so Nkrumah, the president of Ghana, was telling Awolowo, “You should have music in school so you’ll be able to have a lot of musicians able to play a lot of instruments.” And so this guy, through his party, was able to put music in the schools, a big curriculum, they bought instruments that were enough for about 10 to 15 bands. And people could come from anywhere in Nigeria, they were welcome to come and learn. That was where I learned to play different instruments — drums, guitar, bass and alto sax.
In school I was able to learn more about playing Western drums, and played a few other instruments there. My father passed when I was young, and when he died, he had two wives. So I told them I was going to go to the city and look for a job. And the job I wanted was music. So I went to Ibadan, which is the biggest city in Nigeria. And when I got there, I started going to different clubs — I was so young, when someone gave me a chance to play drums, people started coming on the stage to give me money. They put money on my head [this is called “blessing” in Nigerian culture. — Ed.], ‘cause they think I’m a very good drummer, a talented little guy. So that was how it started.
That’s how my career began. I recorded my first song, “Igbehin Adara,” but my second one was a hit. It was called “Jaguar Nana,” recorded for Philips Records in Lagos.
You knew Fela Kuti all the way back in the 1960s, before he really got started as a musician, right?
In the ‘60s, when I started my band in Ibadan, the hotel where I was playing was called the Independence Hotel. This was around 1963. It was 1964 when Fela came back from the UK, and he was hired as a DJ at the NBC [Nigerian Broadcast Corporation] radio station in Lagos. So when Fela came from Lagos to Ibadan, the scene was happening. He’d go out, and my club was the last one that he would come to, at 6 a.m., when the vendors would be bringing in the newspapers. When I met Fela, I bought him a Fanta, because he wasn’t smoking, wasn’t drinking. He loved my music, and from there we became friends. Some of the musicians that were playing with me went with him to start his band in Lagos.
So like I always say, when you’re talking about my music, you’re talking about Afro. That is where Afro started from, from Afrobeat to Afro Soul, because my band at that time didn’t just play my music; we played Latin American music, and a whole lot of other things. If you listen to what I’ve recorded and released, you can tell that I started Afro. I don’t say that Fela is not the king of Afrobeat, but I am the father. And the father is the elder. And I’m glad that a lot of people know that.
Do you feel like Nigeria is different, musically and culturally, than it was in the ‘60s when you were starting out?
Nigeria is no different now. The young ones had started to copy rap, and then do sequencing to rap, not like the live recording they were doing when I started. So with that, it was a little different [for awhile]. But now, some of those younger artists who were doing sequencing, now they are coming to the elders — I’m talking people like myself, Victor Olaiya, Victor Uwaifo — they are now doing songs with them. They are coming back to live music. So I think that will help them. As I told you, I’m just finishing [a new version of] one of my oldies that I did in Nashville, Tennessee — I used to have a recording studio and a club there — and I did some songs (“Ololufe,” “My Lover”), and when I did them I had a steel guitarist. This guy played with a very popular country singer, and he came to my studio when I was doing that song, and I asked him to play on it. Country music, highlife music, disco, soul, it’s the same root because it brings happiness to people. So I am very, very glad that even now they want to do my songs.
When you were living in the US in the 1970s and 1980s, how aware were you of what was going on in Nigeria, politically?
Yeah, I knew what was going on in Nigeria, and was always in touch with people. I would come home once in a while, to visit my family and do some recording. Even in 1974, I came back home to record some songs called “Children of the World” and “Disco Hi-Life,” which are about to be released again in Japan. It [the album Disco Hi-Life] was just rereleased in France by [Hot Casa Records].
You, Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé are probably the three most famous Nigerian musicians, and each of you sounds completely different…
Nigerian music is a wide variety, because when you’re talking about Nigeria, we have three or four languages, from the East, the North, the Southwest. So you know that will make a lot of difference. When you’re talking about music in the UK or America, there is only one language — English — but here it’s a different thing entirely. And our culture, too, is kind of woven together with different people and different languages, but the music is in common [with similar instruments], even though the languages are different.