Sunday, November 6, 2011

Super Afro Soul: Orlando Julius

My first introduction to African music was Fela Kuti many many years ago. Orlando Julius, a fellow Nigerian sax player, was both a predecessor and contemporary of Fela.  Tonight’s post brings Mr. Julius with two of the bands he led in the 1960s and early 70s: The Afro Sounders and the Modern Aces.

The evolution of 20th century popular music was propelled by the musical earthquakes which happened in cities across the world. For a few years a particular city became a musical epicenter sending waves, ripples and after shocks across the planet and then the quake would move on. The list is long but consider a few: 1950’s Chicago, 1920’s New Orleans, 1980’s Soweto, Harare 1985-90, Accra 1955-75, Kingston, 1965-1980, Liverpool 1962/3, 1970s’ Conakry, London 1965-68…just add to the list as you please. But one of the most profound seismic musical earthquakes had its epicenter in Lagos, Nigeria for a decade or so from 1965, five years after the country won its independence from Britain.

On Super Afro Soul you can hear the early musical tremors. It was Orlando’s first album, released in 1966, a head-on collision between highlife-the soundtrack of Independence in Ghana, and then in neighboring Nigeria (the music of West African political/social aspiration at that time, ‘the successful africanisation of a western structure,’ as Prof. John Collins says)-and 60’s Soul from the USA, the soundtrack of Afro-America’s struggle for civil rights and equality.  While Fela Kuti’s Koola Lobitos was experimenting with highlife and jazz with little response from Lagos youth, still 4 years and a spell in LA from creating Afrobeat, Orlando Julius unleashed this pioneering Highlife Soul gem and Lagos clubs responded to the new sound.
Orlando Julius

Orlando (some say he borrowed that name from Nigerian film actor, Orlando Martins) Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode started life in 1943 in Ijebu-Ijesha in the Osun State of Nigeria.  His first instruments were drums and later flute at school, and then he discovered his favorite instrument, the alto sax, which he studied for two years before he joined local highlife heroes the Flamingo Dandies of Akure. Highlife was the breaking wave and he surfed it, an unstoppable talent. At 19 he even briefly became leader of Juju music star I.K. Dairo’s Dance Band, but then he returned to highlife heaven with Eddy Okunta’s Top Aces in Lagos, and immersed himself in highlife and the jazz of Parker and Coltrane.

I used to follow the priests and worshippers to where they performed their traditional worship from where I picked up Kokoma music’”. In 1964 he formed his Modern Aces and on their first massive hit single, Jagua Nana, released in October 1965, you can hear that he had married  congas, bongos and the agigdigbo of Kokoma with the sax into his beats. It took the country by storm and spawned a host of evolving sensual wriggles and def dance steps in the clubs.  Three more singles followed. Topless (for a while he was ‘The Topless Man’), Oloufe and E Se Re Re.

Around this time, his two musical obsessions, jazz and highlife, were joined with a third, as the airwaves filled with the sounds of 60’s soul from the USA. Smoky Robinson, The Temptations, Otis Redding, Motown, Stax, Atlantic…and his Modern Aces became one of the very first in Nigeria to forge new directions with traditional highlife, alongside Fela’s Koola Lobitos, with whom he shared band members. On this first album, Super Afro Soul, released by Polygram in 1966 in the triumphant wake of his hit singles, its clear that he’d caught the soul bug  but he was going to play it his way.  Lagos transforms the Memphis Soul Stew!  Check his unique cover of Smoky Robinson’s  My Girl, the James Brown ‘echoes’ in Ijo Soul, the Stax-like brass riffs and dominant bass throughout the album but the highlife and kokoma are never far away.

Orlando recorded 3 albums for Polygram in Lagos. Orlando’s Idea and Ishe followed Super Afro Soul, each evolving its own sound along with the changes that were happening on the Lagos music scene. 

The outrageously successful arrival of Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats from Sierra Leone with their soul covers, tight choreography, slick costumes and expensive new sound system upped the ante for every band.  The Lagos scene countered.  Fela Kuti announced the creation of a new sound, Afrobeat, and then left for a tour of the USA which would keep him away from Lagos till the end of the decade, when he would return totally politicized, his band now called Africa 70, ready to change Nigeria and the world with full on Afrobeat.  Orlando, on the other hand, formed a much larger band, the Afro Sounders in the late 1960’s. They wore the sharpest suits, and began to explore an altogether funkier, deeper highlife fusion, responding to rock and psychedelia (Pyschedelic Afro Shop), the deeper funk grooves that were coming from the US (James Brown Ride On) and also to Fela’s new Afrobeat (Alo Mi Alo).  The tracks are longer, the sound mellower, the rootsier grooves profoundly hip shaking.
As the 70’s rolled on, corruption and militarism became business as usual in Nigeria and it was Fela, not OJ or Geraldo, who was now the epicenter of musical upheaval and radical social comment in Lagos, with a huge following across Nigeria. OJ decided to explore the country whose jazz and soul sounds he had fallen for all his musical life. He left Lagos for New York and Washington DC. There, he formed Umoja, (later Oja) in 1974 and toured with the cream of 70’s soul: Issac Hayes, The Bar Kays, the O’Jays, Chaka Khan, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron.
The doors to the jazz world opened when he worked with Hugh Masakela on his The Boys Doin’ It  LP.  OJ was just whom Masakela was looking for. “Hugh had just come back from Zaire…from doing the Rumble in the Jungle gig and had lost his Ghanaian combo Hedzolleh Soundz backing band.”
Now OJ was playing jazz festival gigs with stars like Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, Chick Corea and Art Blakey. It also led to more work with Masakela’s producer Stuart Levine which led to appearances on records by the Crusaders  and Lamont Dozier…check the Yoruba chant he wrote for Back to My Roots.
After a successful career in the USA, through the 80’s and 90’s, he returned to Lagos in 1999, set a recording and rehearsal studio in Surelere and formed The Nigerian Allstars with whom he recently celebrated his 40th anniversary as one of Nigeria’s funkiest musical pioneers.  Long may his Super Afro Soul light up our lives!! 
Max Reinhardt (May 07)
(Liner Notes)

            Track Listing:
            (Modern Aces)
            01 Mapami
02 Efoye So
03 Ise Owo
04 Solo Hit (Instrumental)
05 Oni Suru
06 Wakalole
07 Ma Fagba Seyeye
08 Bojubari
09 My Girl
10 Jagua Nana
11 Ijo Soul
12 Topless
13 Olulofe
14 E Se Rere
Listen here.
            Track Listing:
            (Afro Sounders)
            01 Home Sweet Home
02 Psychedelic Afro Shop
03 James Brown Ride On
04 Mura Sise
05 Esamei Sate
06 Alo il Alo
07 Ketete Koro
08 New Apala Afro
09 Igbehin Adara
Listen here.

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