Juju: The stagnation of a musical genre

From I.K Dairo’s refreshing contribution, to King Sunny Ade and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey’s reign, this piece traces the evolution of a musical genre which spanned the oil boom of the 70s, as well as the draconian period of economic austerity occasioned by military rule in the 90s, while lamenting its current gradual decline.

THE origin of the name juju is an interesting one. Early juju musicians played an array of instruments majorly drums, guitars and their voices. It was not unusual for singers to sing and beat the tambourine. And sometimes in the heat of the groove, they would throw their tambourines high in the air and catch. The translation of the verb throw in Yoruba is “ju” and Yoruba, being a tonal language, repetition is often used to lay emphasis, hence the doubling of the verb throw which is “juju”. This brand of music derived its name from the showmanship of performers who beyond singing throws the tambourine with the view to catch and thrill the crowd. Although the tambourine is not much a consequential instrument tied to the sound of juju music as a whole, it also gives insight to the roots of juju music especially in the early African church.

Juju music is believed to be a syncretism, a marriage between traditional practices and western instruments like highlife and in some places, it is believed to be highlife. The idea that highlife is actually a genre of music on its own is quite bothersome, especially as it is more of an aesthetic than it is a definitive sound. After the influential West African tour of Ghanian Highlife maestro, E.T Mensah in the 1950s, it became possible to musicians that a cocktail of their culture can be made using western instruments and highlife music of this era could be identified by the substrate of the culture from which it was drawn. The highlife of the Ijaws is markedly differently from the Yorubas and the Igbos too had their own sound.

In this same vein, juju music could easily be referred to as the south-western Nigeria’s derivative of highlife but again this declaration is problematic in its simplicity. Juju’s early precursors —ashiko as well as agidigbo — did not so much as have Western influences in their sound. Those sounds remain distinctive today, even if its practitioners are aged and dying off.

The bail-out will be that modern juju music is a close variant of south-western Nigerian highlife. With practitioners like Tunde King, Tunde Nightingale, as well as the influential & Kehinde Dairo, juju music became updated to the modern status of a highlife sound. I.K Dairo, an Ijesha man who had worked as an itinerant cloth-seller and barber, formed his band called the Blue Spots band, which played a distinctive role in the invention of modern juju music. With his background in the early African church of Cherubim and Sepharim, he introduced Christian hymns into juju music. He was also said to have mastered the accordion which he also brought into juju music. His falsetto was not so much a new addition or his tendency to sing in his dialect or his demure style of praise singing, but he updated juju music by refreshing it to aspire to the standard of highlife music. His mastery of the rpm records also helped him to cut short tracks and ensured his fame as the first juju superstar.

It will not be unusual today to draw blanks when you mention the name I.K Dairo. The more likely response will be to mistake the father for his son, Paul Play Dairo, a decent Nigerian rhythm and blues singer who has scored quite a number of hits remaking some of his father’s old tunes.

Forty plus years after the Nigerian civil war and the boom of juju music (along with oil sales in Nigeria),  the juju superstars that linger on our lips are King Sunny Ade (KSA)  and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, both  one-time apprentices of Moses Olaiya, the musician/comedian, and Fatai Rolling Dollar, the agidigbo music maestro respectively.

Their musical journey was that set for greatness even though they started from a humble scratch. King Sunny Ade, born into both royalty and poverty in Ondo Kingdom, had a love for music so intense that he was more willing to sing than to get a western education. His sojourn to Lagos led him to the highlife band of Moses Olaiya. He would break away from this apprenticeship to start his own band, first called Green Spots band, a name curiously reminiscent of the influential I.K Dairo. Ebenezer Obey’s journey is quite similar, even though it began about five years earlier than Sunny’s ; his apprenticeship with Fatai Rolling Dollar’s band culminated in his forming the International Brothers who became the Inter-reformers after they switched their initial style of music from juju-highlife to the definitive juju that characterised Obey’s oeuvre.

As time would have it, the rise of juju music coincided with the oil boom of the 70s, so that praise singing became a prominent aspect of the music. This ensured that KSA as well as Chief Commander, honey-tongued griots, became not only superstar musicians but millionaires. Hugely talented and prolific, it is best to imagine them as the ying-yang of juju music. Whilst KSA is the graceful entertainer with nimble feet, Obey’s music is more reflective and philosophical—both are accomplished guitarists. As one would expect of music made for dance, KSA’s music is sometimes fast-paced and suffused with innuendoes that conflate dancing prowess with sexual activities. Obey’s closest attempt to a booty call was from his early numbers and his most successful love song, Paulina is at once a sultry appeal and a lover’s prayer.

If the 70s was for oil boom and mirth-making, the 80s was a very unsettling period in Nigeria’s politics and economy, fraught with coups and countercoups. Music and precisely juju music was one of the casualties of this era, the tune of the music moved away from merriment to more reflective and meditative themes, however this was after KSA signed a deal with Island Records. In the wake of Bob Marley’s death, Island Record’s attempted to raise yet another global superstar and the easy charm and charisma of KSA had drawn them to his sound which they re-engineered into a sonic masterpiece which became characteristic of King Sunny Ade’s music. It is this remake that Rolling Stone Magazine referred to as “gently hypnotic, polyrhythmic mesh of burbling guitars, sweet harmony vocals, swooping Hawaiian guitar, and throbbing talking drums”

Whilst KSA was moving his frontiers into the international market, Ebenezer Obey had made an influential album that took care of all ceremonial events known to the party-loving Yorubas. Weddings, birthdays as well as naming ceremonies were part of his all inclusive long-playing record which is still played or covered till date.

Of course there were other musicians doing juju music.  A good number of them released influential albums, the likes of Kayode Fashola, who was at a risk of sounding too monotous; Dele Abiodun, Segun Adewale, who was in duo with the less-speaking and more guitar-strumming Shina Peters, but the soil was stifling as the competition was keen and way above their heads, it was covertly between Sunny and Obey.

Names like Dayo Kujore, Mico Ade, Dele Taiwo cluttered the juju musicsape in the 90s, a draconian period of economic austerity occasioned by military rule. In the face of unrestrained hunger and hardship, by all means, culture is one of the early casualties. In this period ironically, juju music enjoyed the fresh breath of Sir Shina Peters(SSP). His triad albums Ace, Shinamania and Dancing Time were so successful in south western Nigeria that the widespread popularity trekked to Midwestern states and dared to cross the River Niger!

Shina Peter’s strategy to the juju of his forebears was quite enthralling. As with every genre of art, individual talent and insight was important and what Mr Peters did differently was to quicken the pace of juju music with a column of heavy percussion like the music had never had. His nimble feet and love for sexual innuendo was very reminiscent of King Sunny Ade but his percussion pattern was deliberately different. Even his snare drummer brought a distinctive sound that juju had never known. His percussion seemed to aspire to American rock music and Shina did not pursue this sound with guitar strums; he had little interest in the Hawaiian guitar that KSA had brought into juju music presumably after his contact with the sonic alchemy of Island Records. Shina Peters would go on to release a slew of albums and notably his climax was after “Dancing Time” with a music video with video clips of his huge concert at the Obafemi Awolowo University.

However, that juju music has not produced a single influential practitioner since SSP is a reason to assume that the genre has remained stagnant for about two decades. This does not take away from the continual practice of this style of music by local bands and even by its former practitioners, or the thousands of LPs of the albums churned out still enjoying its fanatic audience till date.

  • Dami Ajayi is an entertainment journalist.