April 15, 2018by Dami Ajayi

Juju’s Finest Maestro: Profile of Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey

On April 3rd 1942, an important event quietly happened at a Government Hospital on Lagos Island. A mother delivered her second child, a son, after twenty years of being barren. This mother, an Owu indigene, had left her place of domicile in Idogo, a border town in today’s Ogun state Nigeria.

Idogo held an indelible place in her mind. She had been previously married to a husband with whom she had no children. In what can be described as a diplomatic rather than amicable resolution, she was let out of that 20-year marriage so that her husband could have children. She had gone to hide ‘her shame’ in Idogo, where her older siblings lived. In that same Idogo town, she met the man who will father her two children; her first son whom she named Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Fabiyi is better known today as Chief Commander Obey.

At 75 years, Obey’s fruitful life as come to a full circle. Obey, better known in his later decades as a Christian evangelist, will be remembered for his exploits in Juju music. For those unfamiliar with Juju music, it is that brand of music that rose into unparalleled popularity in south-western part of the oil-rich-and-fresh-out-of-civil-war Nigeria.

The widespread popularity of Juju music can be partly attributed to the duo of King Sunny Ade and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. Now both in their 70s, these two dynamic musicians have aged rather gracefully and have continued to champion the course of a genre of music which they charted as young men.

Obey’s music career began expectedly as a young man in church. He lent his voice to hymns, cantatas and divine praise songs as a young vocalist. Fate paved his path out of Idogo to Lagos where he began his tutelage to becoming an accomplished musician. That journey led to playing with a lot of notable musicians including the Agidigbo exponent, the late Fatai Rolling Dollar, whom he played with for about six years.

Obey formed his first band called Royal Mambo Orchestra in 1957 but it was not until 1964 did he score his first Juju hit. Obey was a prolific musician whose sound has evolved over the years many times to suit the era and explore the diversity of Juju music. His early offerings had the markings and influences of Highlife music; in fact, one of his most evergreen hits, Ori Bayemi, borrows its tune from Rex Lawson’s Twi number, Jolly Papa. In the 60s, Obey was doing what he called a fusion of Juju and Highlife music.

Perhaps the most accomplished song from this period is that love song, Paulina, named for the lady with whom he had a seaside exchange with. The coincidence of Obey’s scenic encounter and the fascinating experience of Victor Uwaifo with a mermaid at the marina is catching. If Uwaifo’s response in his fantastic tale was to flee, Obey’s impulse was to subtly woo Paulina so that he can wife her. The song Paulina, less than 3 minutes, is a Juju gem with rhythmic and robust melody scaffolding a burst of local percussion. The song entirely structured in a call-to-response format enjoins participation in a love-at-first-sight story where a man’s visual percept becomes a life fixture in an effortless manner of dance and prayers.

Quite expectedly, Obey’s style moved away from short and set pieces that the rpm technology dictated to the more expansive orchestra-like medleys of the 70s. One of his funkiest releases at this time was “Board Members”, a big hit throughout Nigeria and one of his most memorable tunes.  Juju music is typically soulful and mid-tempo but Obey’s style was deliberately mellower as years passed. He calls his style of Juju, Miliki, an onomatopoeic adjective that probably derives meaning from the Anglophonic word, “Meek”.

Obey began to tell expansive and subtly didactic stories that span the entire length of his medleys. Perhaps the most accomplished song of this era—The Horse, The Man and The Son—was a delightful parable about how satisfying mankind was a herculean if not impossible task.  Obey’s brand of Juju music, in being mellow and reflective, became more interested in becoming a social conscience. The message of Obey’s music, even before he became an evangelist, had a subtle charge to listeners to be good to themselves and each other.

In the early ‘80s, Obey released a series of albums that took care of all social events that the party-loving Yorubas engaged in.  This was quite timely because Juju music fell out of popularity on account of the rise of Fuji music as well as an economic decline that sharply contrasted the oil boom of the ‘70s that ensured Obey had become a superstar millionaire.

The 90s found Ebenezer Obey in the church where he consecrated himself to God. He began his own ministry where he used both song and sermon to win souls for Christianity. Although he kept waxing albums at this time, the music began more somber than mellow and intensely preoccupied with Christian themes.

At 75, Chief Commander Obey has more than 100 albums to his name and he has sons who, like him, make music.  He has left indelible footprints in our national consciousness.


N.B: First Published in April 2017, OlisaTV