By Eric Elezuo
Commendations and recommendations are rewards available to individuals who have proved beyond reasonable doubt their prolific nature in their given fields, individuals who have stood, and are prepared to stand the test of time. Such individuals are hard to come by, and one of them, a rare breed, is the music maestro, Ebenezer Obey, who just celebrated 75 years of productivity recently.
Born Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Obey-Fabiyi on April 3, 1942, in Lagos, he is a native of Idogo, Ogun State, Nigeria. Obey, as he is popularly known, is a house hold name in the Nigerian music cycle, majoring in the genre referred to as jùjú music. He is nicknamed the “Chief Commander“, as a result of his overriding influence.
More so, he has explained variously that the name ‘Obey’ was a nickname as well which became a part of him. He got the name while as a prefect in secondary school, he demanded absolute obedience to his instruction, using terms like ‘they must obey’. A lot of people started calling him ‘Obey’ and the name stuck.
His musical talent was recognized early when he was asked to lead the band at his Methodist Primary School.
The maestro, like most children, was not born with the proverbial golden spoon. He struggled his way through life to make it to the top.
In an interview granted a popular newspaper, Obey described the circumstances leading to his birth, how his mother was married to her first husband for 20 years without an issue, how she was thrown out of her husband’s house, why he loves his mother more among others. He told jis story:
“They want their son to marry another woman and they want my mother to go. So for a woman who loves her husband, it was a shock, and that was too much for my mother to bear. And when my mother’s relations saw her situation, she was crying, all the time, they told her to go to Idogo and hide her head. Her two elder brothers were living in Idogo then. That was what took my mother to Idogo.”
He continued: “On getting to Idogo, my father proposed to marry my mother and God answered their prayers. The woman, who never got pregnant before became pregnant with my late sister, then myself. My father later left Idogo. He wanted my mother to go with him but my mother said, ‘no, Idogo is a place where God covered my nakedness, when they said I couldn’t have an issue.’ So, she stayed there.
“But the fact is that my mother was coming to Lagos for maternity care (while pregnant with me) because at the time, there was no hospital in Idogo. And that was why I was born in Lagos at Mercy Street Hospital. By birth I am a Lagosian and immediately, my mother took me back to Idogo.
“I grew up in Idogo, schooled in Idogo; my everything, music everything, career, started there. That is why I say that I am a Nigerian. God has given me the whole world as my territory. My parents are from Ogun State, both of them from Abeokuta. I was born in Lagos, taken back to Idogo and grew up in Idogo. That is my story.
“I didn’t know my father until I was seven years old. But yet, I love my father, I did everything for my father. I built a house for him. I made him happy. And I equally made my mother happy. But I cannot forget the woman who paid my school fees, the caring and all that she did was something that I can never forget.”
Obey officially began his professional career in the mid-1950s after moving to Lagos. After tutelage under Fatai Rolling-Dollar’s band, he formed a band called The International Brothers in 1964, playing highlife–jùjú fusion. The band later metamorphosed into Inter-Reformers in the early-1970s, with a long list of Juju album hits on the West African Decca musical label.
Obey began experimenting with Yoruba percussion style and expanding on the band by adding more drum kits, guitars and talking drums. Obey’s musical strengths lie in weaving intricate Yoruba axioms into dance-floor compositions. As is characteristic of Nigerian Yoruba social-circle music, the Inter-Reformers band excel in praise-singing for rich Nigerian socialites and business tycoons. Obey, however, is also renowned for Christian spiritual themes in his music and has since the early-1990s retired into Nigerian gospel music ministry.
Leon Jackson, a biography writer, describes him as ‘prolific’ and ‘influential’. “Since the 1960s, Ebenezer Obey has been one of the most popular, prolific, and influential musicians in Nigeria, releasing over fifty albums, developing juju style, and conducting an informal and highly creative campaign against his competitors in the musical world.
He went further to trace his development in the music world. “Obey’s first band, the International Brothers, was formed in 1964, and played a slow and music composed of layered guitars and Yoruban percussion sounds. Always a cultural and religious traditionalist, Obey worked within the praise song mold, vaunting both Christianity and the various heads of state for whom he played. But while his lyrics were traditional, his musical direction was highly innovative.
“In an effort to rise above his competition, Obey began to develop new musical “systems,” adding as many as 20 new musicians to his ensemble at a time, extending the length of his album tracks, and pumping out hit after hit. A stylish and bluesy guitarist whose music had been contagious in Nigeria for years, Obey finally enjoyed international success in 1980 with Current Affairs.”
Obey was not only rising ‘above his competition’, he was also creating jobs for the teaming population when he added 20 new musicians in one fell swoop to his crew. In other words, he started very early in his career to give back to the society what the society gave to him. His ability to weave gospel in his music made it easy for him to switch completely to gospel when he became ‘born again’
Obey married Juliana Olaide Olufade in 1963. His wife, known as Lady Evangelist Juliana Obey-Fabiyi, died at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital on 23 August 2011, aged 67. They are blessed with several children and grand children.
According to former Nigeria President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, “I am always intoxicated by Ebenezer Obey’s music. When I want to do serious business, I play his music, I am always inspired and encouraged. His music teaches morals.”
In the words of former Lagos State Governor, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, “As a musician with a deep Christian spiritual bend, Obey’s music is unique in the way and manner he turns Yoruba axioms, bearing rich religious messages into dance-hall compositions.
Sir, for your consistency and ability to improve human life, physically and spiritually, you are our boss of the week. Congrats!