By Akin Adekosan
The setting was a night party somewhere in Old Yaba, Lagos, in February or March 1993. I was sitting backstage with the fuji musician Alhaji (Chief Dr) Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, still in his forties, but by now self-described as “Alhaji Agba” (Grand Old Alhaji), and was having quite a task getting him on tape. I was researching a magazine article on the state of popular music, at a time when, on the evidence of what was booming from the roadside record store, the field seemed to belong exclusively to Sir Shina Peters and Abass Akande Obesere, barring the occasional croon of Orits Wiliki. What happened to the singers, those tenuous links to the old highlife greats, who overwhelmed synthesizers by the sheer power of their singing?
Having interviewed Obesere and been assured by Peters’s bodyguards that “Star” would smile on me, I sought out the Fuji Exponent equally revered by the two current raves.
But Barrister would not grant me an interview, citing the unsuitability of the venue. “I won’t be able to concentrate,” he intoned repeatedly, the last word ringing as in a chant. After the performance, then? Oh, but he would be too tired. The point, however, was that I had been invited to this owambe by his PR manager, after several futile visits to the Fuji Chamber, in Isolo. Our conversation was constantly interrupted by people, mostly women, coming to pay homage, whisper something, lodge an appeal, each departing in what appeared like an unvarying state of grace.
I quickly realised that the few hours between the star’s arrival and the start of performance were sacred, reserved for holding court and priming for the show. He remained courteous and exaggeratedly respectful throughout, addressing even me as “Dear mi” and instructing his aides to allow me to sit near the dais as the show took off. Like every journalist worth his transport allowance, I remained hopeful of an interview until dawn. Then I headed home, sleepy and disappointed.
It was my first encounter with Ayinde Barrister, one of the musical idols of my childhood. From listening to the narrative homily “Itan Sunmoila” (on the 1974 album Ori Mi Ewo Ni Nse?) while standing outside a record store in Inalende, Ibadan, and promptly forgetting I was on an errand, I followed Barrister’s career through the mid-1990s. By this time, of course, I had seen through the ideology, but music is habit-forming in the extreme, and detesting the politics of a song does not mean that you quickly get it out of your head. Hardly a day passes when I don’t hum one of his tunes.
Barrister was one of the most prolific musicians Nigeria has known, releasing about 60 albums between 1972 and 2008. He viewed himself correctly as an exponent, an innovator, a bridge across traditions, genres, and generations; styling himself poetically as “Fertilizer” (the title of his 1985 album), and fine-tuning this self-description by inventing others (“Manure”, “Garbage”, “Waste-Dump”) because, in the philosophical orientation of his milieu, an evocative expression was first declared, then explained as an afterthought. He was the Fertilizer because, as master of fuji music, it was his natural place to soak up all sorts of insults and dirt from everyone. He justified this with the proverb “Akitan ti o gb’egbin ko nii kun” (A dumpsite intolerant of waste will not fulfil its destiny). But he was the Fertilizer in a more telling way, as the one who synthesized different forms to create a hybrid genre: fuji. Barrister was canny enough to propound the theory of the genre in “Fuji Reggae Series II”, released in 1978.
“Hello ladies and gentlemen, who can tell the full meaning of fuji sound?”
“Eni f’oyinbo, Ayinde n’ile ana re, nilati tumo re o.” (The person who goes to his in-laws’ home to speak “grammar” is obligated to translate for himself.)
Then: “Fuji sound
Is the combination of musics,
Consisting of apala, juju, aro,
Gudugudu, Afro, possibly highlife.
Mo le gbe t’Olatunji Yusuf yo,
Mo le gbe t’Obey Commander yo,
Mo le gbe t’Afro-Fuji yo…”
The track continued in this vein, each mention of a master of a genre (“apala”, “sakara”, “juju”, “Afrobeat”) becoming the pretext for incorporating a tune from that genre. This was a foundational moment in Nigerian popular music for several reasons. First, he was drawing attention to the inclusiveness of a genre yet to be born, “a combination of musics”. Second, he was paying homage to those masters who, by the way, were his superiors in age and experience, and to acknowledge them was to declare his resolve to imitate or “copy” them (and vice versa), while implicitly announcing himself as an emergent force. Claims of superiority were the driving force of the popular genres. Third, he was doing what none of the genres, with the exception of Afrobeat, could do, that is, sing in English “grammar”, a move understood as a gesture toward the increasing proliferation of dance-hall disco songs in urban Nigeria. He began to release songs with titles in English, and the scale of his beats was raised at least two levels above apala and sakara in tempo, thus lending itself more easily to dancing. Finally, this song was musical praxis at its best; with it, Barrister was practising an art as he preached it.
There were other innovations. He expanded the size of his band, bringing in more percussive instruments for sonic variety, like dundun (Kamoru Ayansola) and gudugudu (Shamsideen Adisa), and incorporating the jazz drum set (Tunde Balinga), the four-tone gong (Kola Kazeem), and the tambourine (Sessy Show).
It was said that older musicians like Yusuf Olatunji and Haruna Isola felt affronted by him because he failed to attend (or arrived late at) a meeting called around this time. But there were other contexts for Barrister’s emergence as signified by this aesthetic positioning. Olatunji died in 1978, and Isola, the next person in seniority, was well engrossed in institutional work with the establishment of Phonodisk, the record-pressing company. The only serious challenger was the Abeokuta-based apala musician, Ayinla Omowura.
The battle for supremacy was fierce. When Barrister complained in a song that his music “had disappeared from where it was kept”, Omowura derided him and called him out by name, which was unusual. In 1980, the mercurial Omowura died violently, stabbed by a band boy (who was subsequently convicted and executed), while the fuji master was performing in Kano. According to Omowura’s camp, Barrister’s failure to pay a condolence visit to the family was a convenient ploy, and in his recorded tribute, he was compelled to absolve himself through a string of maledictions. Following Isola’s death in 1983 and a tourist visit to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Barrister was now unchallenged. Although Ayinla Kollington was to prove an implacable rival for much of that decade, the rivalry was actually more social than musical in a strictly aesthetic sense. They fought over women and patrons, and bragged about foreign concerts. Barrister charged through that decade doling out homage to the living and the dead, defending the profession of “were” music, stating and restating his claim to “supremacy”, the title of another album from 1985. Of three people he remained forever reverential: Victor Olaiya, Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade. “Fuji Creator”, one of the songs from this period, was reportedly judged a “classic” by a friendlier competitor, the late Dauda Epo-Akara (d. 2005).
The other context was sociological, the dawn of Nigeria’s Second Republic and the advent of a particular type of patron. This was the Lagos/Ibadan/Abeokuta socialite with ties to the politicians, mostly belonging to the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). Barrister was so close to the members of this group that he often sang their praises in his “live plays”, but his political skills were so sharp that he rarely praised them in albums. He came closest to outing this intimate group in a highly coded reprise of his tribute to Bobby Benson, the late highlife maestro:
“Be ba ti r’eja
Be ba ti r’eja
E ma d’odo ru rara
Be ba ti r’eja, e ma d’odo ru rara o.”
(“Once you’re done fishing, folks, please do not muddy up the waters.” Several names were mentioned, all of them men most likely to know what he was talking about.)
Barrister was gifted with fantastic lungs, an inestimable asset which enabled him to stretch syllables, change tones and emphases while articulating phonetically complex structures. He excelled in the social satires (“efe”) having to do with the sexual, and he sang these in acceptable ways. But he was also a great social commentator, fulfilling the basic role of the artist as a dispenser of “imoran” (advice), art as a form of example. In albums or songs like “Iwa”, “Suru Baba Iwa”, “Ka f’owo ran omo nile iwe” (on the importance of education), “Ise Loogun Ise” (on work), “Destiny”, and many others, he enjoined his listener to strive for a well-adjusted, purposeful life. His elegiac tribute to the late footballer Muda Lawal was a masterpiece.
The philosophy of his music was conservative, reactionary even, although it was partly redeemed by recourse to allegory in songs addressing political issues of the day. A whole album, Omo Nigeria (1978), focused mainly on Yoruba cities and even more exclusively on places where his patrons came from, with fleeting mentions of “Hausa Ina kwana” and “Agbor”, hometown of one of his wives. The most embarrassingly evergreen remains his rejoinder to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Zombie”, in which he defended soldiers on the grounds that he was a retired staff-sergeant, while remaining blind to the song’s critique of militarism, and to Fela’s personal woes.
He influenced many fuji musicians, especially Alhaji Wasiu Ayinde (KWAM I) who adopted his oriki in homage, Adewale Ayuba, Wasiu Alabi (Pasuma), and Barry Showkey. The career of Tajudeen Alade (Deputy Commander), the one person who worked with him as an apprentice, did not really take off. Barrister more than excelled in his chosen profession and he clearly made his mark. By any artistic standard, he was successful, and outstandingly so.
Will his legacy endure? Nigerian artists have often faced serious challenges in terms of sustaining tradition; so abysmal is the organisation of the society’s productive forces. This is tied to another intractable problem, the social orientation of the class to which Barrister belonged, as exemplified in my encounter with him at the owanbe at Old Yaba.
This article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.
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