You Must Obey: Nigeria’s Other Juju Superstar

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 04.06.11 in Spotlights

Anyone mildly acquainted with modern African popular music has heard of King Sunny Ade, the international star of Nigerian juju. While Ade, born in 1946, has long been juju’s primary technological innovator and global ambassador, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey has enjoyed more local success as Nigeria’s other juju superstar. If Ade has long embodied the music’s heady raptures, the somewhat older, devoutly Christian Obey shepherds its soul. Like Ade, Obey deploys large arrays of guitars and drums that play long, languorous grooves while indulging in intricate conversational interplay – an enchanting afro-orchestral psychedelixotica with deep Yoruba roots.

Born in southwest Nigeria in 1942, Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Obey-Fabiyi studied in Methodist schools before finding employment with the Oriental Brothers wagering firm in Lagos. He joined drummer Fatai “Rolling-Dollar”‘s group in 1958, formed his own seven-piece International Brothers Band in 1964, and released his first single in 1966 (Ade’s first hits would arrive the following year). Obey’s early music blended African styles like highlife, rumba and juju with Western styles – literally, in the case of his early single “Olowo Laiye Mo,” which is based on country singer Jim Reeves‘s “The World Is Not My Home.”

After adding electric guitars to his Green Spots Band in 1970, Ade upped the ante by hiring steel guitarist Demola Adepoju seven years later, adding a spacey country-Hawaiian layer to the group’s Yoruba tribal drums. Obey switched to electric instruments around the same time and, accordingly, added a steel guitarist of his own, the rougher-edged Yinusa Dauda. Like Ade, Obey also recorded tracks that spanned entire album sides during the early ’70s, doing little to dispel his reputation as Ade’s shadowing rival. In fact, Ade and Obey were equally successful competitors who used their presumed rivalry to gin up interest in their respective releases. In truth, Ade later admitted, the two were rather good friends.

Obey responded to Nigeria’s highly competitive and gossip-driven temperament in songs like 1970′s “E Sa Ma Miliki” (Just Rocking). This wonderful track consists of a typical multipart juju conversation between talking drum, other types of percussion, multiple guitarists, the lead singer and a chorus. According to a translation in Christopher Alan Waterson’s indispensable Juju: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music, Obey praises God, drops some choice Yoruban proverbs (“The mutiny has ended, the blacksmith cannot make paper”), observes that “at least James Brown is a person who uses a jet instead of walking on his legs,” and advises “just be psychedelic-oh.” If there’s any such thing as juju-funk-rock, Obey invented it in tracks like “Miliki/Ojeje.”

Obey renamed his band the Inter-Reformers in 1973 after rebranding his somewhat faster, harder-edged style “miliki system” to distinguish himself from the pack. His popularity grew alongside Ade’s, and Obey had already begun performing in Europe by the time his “rival” was signed to Island Records in hopes that he would become the monolithic “world music” successor to Bob Marley, who died of cancer in 1981. Ade’s thrilling 1982 album Juju Music was the first of a series of slickly produced, keyboard-flavored albums (with shorter tracks) created for Western audiences – a strategy Obey never adopted.

With more than 120 albums to his credit, where should an aspiring Obey supplicant begin? Well, the Evergreen Songs reissues sound better than the Lex Presents series, for starters. Too bad they’re not in chronological order. But there’s pleasure to be found almost everywhere, from the heavenly steel-guitar solos in tracks such as “Oro Mi Ti Dayo” to the unexpected “Strangers in the Night” interpolation in “Ota Mi Dehin.” Evergreen Songs volumes 1, 6, 16, 19 and 32 will not disappoint.

Despite his status-quo lyrics and spiritual conservatism, Obey is a remarkably playful bandleader, and many tracks blithely blend together nursery rhymes, pop songs, country standards, Southern spirituals and acid-rock moves into a bubbling sound that, to my ears, only improves with age. Ade may have temporarily conquered the world, but Obey ultimately mastered his domain. Paradoxically, Ade adhered to Yoruba lyrical content, even when playing for foreign ears, while Obey consistently preached the Christian life. Tracks like 1977′s 20-minute “Adam and Eve” deliver a religious experience, whether or not you buy into his faith. Obey began releasing theme albums such as What God Has Put Together and Joy of Salvation in the early ’80s and was eventually ordained as a minister in 1992 on his 50th birthday. He has devoted much of his subsequent career to African gospel music with a juju bent.

King Sunny Ade, it should be noted, also adopted Christianity – in early 2011.