80 garlands for Idonije, inimitable music critic

Broadcaster and music critic, Benson Idonije, who clocked 80 recently, was loudly celebrated across four venues in Lagos

AND then he was 80. And because of his immense achievements in those four score years, four days were set aside to celebrate him. From June 16 to 19, music critic and broadcaster, Benson Idonije was celebrated in four venues across Lagos under the theme ‘The Benjay Phenomenon’.

The opening event of the celebrations which included concerts, film screening, workshops for music students, conversations on highlife and jazz music, was a tribute/colloquium held at the MUSON Centre, Onikan on June 16.

Ex-Director General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (now Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria), and Nigeria’s former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr. Christopher Kolade, who chaired the occasion with the theme ‘Essential Benson Idonije’ recalled that when Idonije, popularly known as Benjay, “started troubling people with his thoughts on music, we thought who’s this young man telling us what we already know. He brought us information on music. It’s been long and by his performance, it’s been well.”

He disclosed that he accepted to chair the occasion for two reasons: the first is that he’s always happy to be where positive things are being celebrated and because it’s an opportunity to meet people who were with him in broadcasting back in the day. “Iron sharpens iron; I thought I was iron but they sharpened me. Benjay is one of the people for whom I have genuine respect and admiration for what they’ve done and I say God bless you.”

Moderator and chair of Troyka Holdings, Mr. Biodun Shobanjo, also relived old times with the celebrator, especially his Bohemian ways.  He highlighted the qualities of the presenter of popular programmes, ‘Big Beats’ and ‘NBC Jazz Club’, and the sense of loss people felt when Idonije was moved from programs department to the FRCN Training School in 1984.

Another veteran of the NBC/FRCN, Mr. Kevin Ejiofor, in giving the first lead talk, alluded to the Biblical ‘Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might’ and said that aside giving it his all, Idonije exhibited passion, diligence and rigor beyond the ordinary in his broadcasting days.

He explained that broadcasting is a sacred enterprise and that its cornerstone is the audience whom one grows to fall in love with. “If anyone had that diligence and love for the audience, that person was Benjay,” Ejiofor continued, adding that “Benjay is the quintessential summary of what we were taught at the FRCN. He also epitomises the lessons Dr. Kolade taught us; Dr. Kolade gave us diligence, heart and passion.”

Sir Victor Johnson, who gave the second lead talk, described Idonije as an enigma. He disclosed that he met him in 1964 when he joined the NBC and that it’s important to celebrate achievers while they are alive. Johnson, who also dwelt on the programmes Idonije presented, nostalgically said “then, NBC was the golden era of broadcasting. It was managed by giants with insatiable appetites for perfection.”

The speaker didn’t fail to highlight Idonije’s qualities as a producer, noting that he distinguished himself in producing dance music bands across all genres and that he is a very caring family man.

Mr. Ron Ngbatogu, another of the several veteran broadcasters at the event, hailed Idonije’s professionalism and love for family. He also let the audience in on why the celebrator, the grandfather of musician Burna Boy, wore a beret back in the day.  “He was balding,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Renowned music producer, Odion Iruoje also had nothing but praises for Idonije who maintains three weekly columns on music in The Guardian. He said: “The name Benjay is synonymous with highlife; he is the custodian of the highlife culture; he singlehandedly assembled members of Fela’s first band in Nigeria.”

Mr Dele Adetiba, another ex-NBC staffer said he was shocked to hear that Idonije has clocked 80 because he has always looked the same. “He is a quiet person, hardly spoke above a whisper but when he got behind the microphone he became a tiger. He had so much firepower behind the microphone; he was a darling and unique. I had no idea he was that good, knowledgeable about music until he started writing for The Guardian. He is a blessing to his trade. I hope one day, other people will recognise what he has done.”

In rounding off the colloquium segment before Idonije’s books were presented, Dr. Kolade responded to some of the comments about him from his former subordinates. He disclosed that managing the group of mavericks back then was no mean task and that it was tough surviving them.

Returning to Idonije, he said he “was not made by broadcasting; he had something in him. Broadcasting was only the medium of sharing it. In fact, the potential of a man is between him and his creator.” The former Pro-Chancellor of Pan-Atlantic University urged people to draw important lessons from Idonije’s life and that one of the reasons he must continue to be celebrated is that he’s “doing the things that keep us sane.”

The former diplomat also enjoined Nigerians to “work to bring improvement to the morale of our nation. Be mindful of your actions and consider the legacy you are leaving for your offspring.”

Though ‘Dis Fela Sef’, ‘The Great Highlife Party’ and ‘All That Jazz’  written by Idonije, were scheduled for presentation, Jahman Anikulapo, Program Chair of the Committee for Relevant Art, the main organiser of the celebration, explained that only two were ready. He explained that they had money issues and that it was Steve Ayorinde’s intervention that saved the day.

The chief presenter, the art patron Rasheed Gbadamosi, commended Idonije.  He noted that being appreciated in one’s life time is very sweet and that what the author has put together is a collector’s item.  Ex-chair, Editorial Board of The Guardian and presidential spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, thereafter reviewed ‘Dis Fela Sef’.