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My Fear Nigerian traditional music faces Extintion – Odion Iruoje, Foremost music producer

Odion Iruoje, Foremost  Nigeria music producer with credits for  producing some of the greatest hits this country ever had  working with Nigerian music icons like Fela, Sonny Okosuns etc  in this interview bares his mind on the golden age of the music industry , the present hip-hop era and the country’s body polity. Excerpt:

The last time we met at Benson Izaoye’s birthday, I asked you if you were planning to come out of retirement…
I’m not planning to come out of retirement because I’ve never retired. It’s only the grave that can retire me.

It’s been long since you produced an album. When was the last time you did ?

I think it’s in the 90s. I can’t remember exactly.

So why the break?

The point is that if you go back, since the 90s till date, there’s nothing really in the pool for me to put my effort on. There’s no originality. There’s no talent show, instead everybody is imitating American music and I can’t do that. I’m very adventurous in music production. I like to pick a brand new talent and develop it. That’s what suits me.

But in your time, you also did copyright…The Chris Okotie stuff.
No, no that’s Afro rock. We only did one copyright song in that album. Which western music can you relate to that song, I need someone, tell me?

And what about Ofege?
It’s no western music. In fact, that’s the beat they call galala music now. Ofege beat is purely Afro rock.

Odion Iruoje

Which was your first major hit?
I think it was O Jesu which we translated into English to mean ‘Help’. That one is a folk song but we translated it into English with the same melody. It’s in Ishan language meaning Help.

Some guy laid claim to that song?
That is Perry Ernest. You know, I had to speak to the press on what really happened. Okosuns wrote ‘O Jesu’ but I found out that his performance wasn’t so good in English as it was with the native language. So I called him and told him that I wanted somebody else who’s voice was better to take it. And at that time, the man I recognized as a lead vocalist then was Dan Ian. If you remember, he was the one who did ‘Fuel for love’ and he agreed.

Then Okosuns called me and said look, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do but listen Dan Ian, cannot sing my song.”
I said okay but somebody else will have to do it and he agreed because he was professional and that was what really brought him out. The song came out well and Okosuns was born. Right then, we did the video of the album.

Was the guy paid?
Yes, we paid him. There was an organised system in the music industry then. It’s not like today where somebody can just wake up and go to the studio to produce any song, whether he has the talent or not.

You were known for producing some of the greatest hits this country ever had. What was the magic?
It was the talent from God and the discipline. It was just talent and discipline, finish.

But sometimes, it could be difficult…
If you have the talent, you must be able to recognize a talented artiste. As a producer, you must have ear for good music when you hear one. When you see a talented artiste, as a producer, you have to ask yourself some questions? Is he just an instrumentalist? Is he a performer? Is he a singer? Is he a composer? and above all, you have to find out why he’s unique from every other person.

It is when you have found out all these elements that you can put things together to develop him as a good artiste for the market.

Some of them were quite difficult like Fela…..
No he wasn’t. He was difficult to people but we were able to relate when we met. Maybe, because of the circumstances that brought us together but I don’t want to go over all that again.

But I really want to know…
No, no, no, I cannot go over that now.

All I want to know is how did you make it?
I’ve said that over and over again and I can’t go back now.

But you’re not telling me what I want to hear…
You’re here because you want to get what I have. You know, Fela became notorious with record companies and nobody wanted him. So, when he got this new sound ‘Afrobeat’, he looked around and saw that it was only EMI that could release it for the world. So he came to us at EMI. He was stopped by the security man at the gate. So the MD called me and said Fela was at the gate but he didn’t want to see him. And I asked him why. But he kept saying he didn’t want to see him.

Fela repeated his visit three times. On the third day, we were just walking across the car park and I saw him. I called the MD and said Oga this is Fela again. He has been coming and we must assist him. I think he has something to offer. So I tried  to take him to the MD’s office but he said no, I should take him to my office which I did.

Fela told me he had a new song that he wanted EMI to release. And I asked him why? He said because we are worldwide.

We agreed to record and release it without a contract until after months. So when I told the MD of our agreement, he said fine but that he didn’t want any problem. He told me that I’ll be held responsible for any trouble that would come out of it.

So, I went to his place and we did some rehearsals and booked an appointment for Friday.

On that day, he came in and we did some little rehearsals again and we took off at once because we had a very competent engineer. I heard the kind of sound I never heard in my entire life. I mean Fela was a genius when you talk about instruments. So, I called my MD to come and listen too.

When he heard the sound from outside, he doubled his speed. He was turning round and round, he said, “What! Can we record him now? Let us record now before he changes his mind. Do the recording right away. This music can’t wait.”
So, we started recording and this man (MD) remained in the studio throughout the recording session.

When we finished, he called Fela and said we could sign a contract now and Fela refused. Instead, he told my MD that all he wanted was for the music to be played round the whole of Lagos in a van on that day of release. Then after three months, he’ll come back and we’ll talk about the contract.

When I went back to my MD, he said, “I can’t believe this. What a deal?” and Fela went home.
On the day of release, we did what he asked us to do, and it was like wild fire. The whole factory was occupied.
Everybody was hurrying to buy a copy. I called my MD and asked, ‘have you forgotten about the three months Fela gave to us?’.

After three months, which expired on a Sunday, but he didn’t come until Monday. He came in and when I saw him, I told my MD he was at the gate and he ordered me to bring him (Fela) right away to his office.
When Fela saw me, he shouted ‘Odion baba na you do am. I know what you did for me.’

He entered the MD’s office, sat on his table and said, now it’s my turn. I gave you three months and even added jara. Now, he opened the window and looked out at the parking lot.

He pointed to my MD’s car and asked who owns that car?
And I said it’s my MD. He told us that he was driving that car away that day as part of his demands. I told him he wasn’t serious but he didn’t stop there. He also said he wanted the van we used to parade on the day of release because he had no van to carry his instruments around. He said he wanted a complete set of instruments, the baritone, saxophones, guitars and so on.

Then I turned it around and said, let us do something for Fela. Let us get bass guitars specially manufactured for Afro-beat and he agreed. So, we ordered them from London.

I remember he also demanded a huge sum of money. We gave him everything and he went away.

But before Fela, you had Ofege?
Yes and I also had Wrinkers Experience who did Fuel for Love and Ayinla Omoniwura. In fact, he was my very first experience when I came back from London.

How did you find yourself in production?
Look, I can’t go over all that again. You wanted to know how I met Fela which I thought was okay. Yes I was instrumental to the development of Nigerian music at that time.

Did that in anyway change you as a person?
Yes, I had satisfaction which was the most important, and people had so much respect for me and they still do, which is why you’re here today to interview me (laughs).

Seriously, is that, you didn’t make money?
No, unfortunately, it wasn’t like today. Can you imagine how much money I would have made if it were today? Royalties alone from TV and radio airplay, studio round, performances would have been great, and even mechanical rights. It’s only in this country that producers and artiste lose everything to piracy.
I have my own mechanical rights from Europe and America. Today, I’m still a member and they pay everybody, even Ghana pays, except in Nigeria. Imagine if they pay all that in Nigeria, I would have been a billionaire because there’s no week that some of my works are not aired. Unfortunately, we don’t have such laws in this country and even those laws we have are not implemented.
I’m still going to talk about the state of the nation because we artistes also have the right of opinion on issues concerning the nation. It’s not only politicians that have the right to talk about the state of this nation.
Classlessness in our nation breeds indignity, mediocrity and indiscipline all in one. That is why today in this country, corruption is reigns and merit has disappeared.
If I had the chance today, I will scrap federal character. If it’s an Igbo man that can restore the dignity of this country, then let him rule. Merit must come back to this country. You see, I want to just sample the story of Nigeria in a nutshell. Let me just start from Akunyili who supported the advocacy of re-branding and ended up de-branding herself..

Of course, right now she’s struggling to see how she can get out of that nest. And this lady in the re-run of elections, is it Ayokale Bayode, she also debranded herself immediately. She got to Aso Rock and tasted the sweet sugar. That is the story of this country. Today, our governors cannot even make up their minds. They’re all sitting on the fence, waiting for the first person to land, parliamentarians are confused.

Look let me tell you, the Hausa-Fulani have colonised this country and if we don’t take time, Nigerians will be in for another round of struggle from colonialism.

How does this situation relate to the music industry?
It’s the same thing, the same virus of indiscipline has taken over. Before now, we had an organised system with different departments– artiste and repertoire department, marketing, promotion. Promotion consisted of both media and public relations. In fact, I was the one who brought the media closer to music industry. Those days, it was a bit tight because they complained about brown envelopes and so on and I said no.

It’s a mutual understanding, kind of. Yes, the media gives the artiste some kind of advertising but at the same time, they use the artiste to sell their papers and various TV/radio stations. So, it’s a mutual benefit. So, I called a press conference and we made it official and professional.

Do you have as regrets in this business when you look back and compare what is happening today?
I don’t have any regrets. The only sad thing is that a conducive environment for the artiste is almost illusive. We can’t find it. The government and society have not created it for a good and progressive music industry. We can get to the whole world if we’re given the right atmosphere.

If we have a conducive environment, our musicians can pick up any award and they’ll stop copying all these foreign music.

Sometime ago, a foreigner came into this country and granted an interview in one of the national dailies. He said since he came in, all he heard on our stations was just Hip hop and every other kind of foreign music. And he was asking if we do not have indigenous music here? The point is mediocrity has stepped into the whole place. Nigerians are not proud of what they have. We have the Juju music, Afrobeat. Do you know that Afrobeat can be so developed that everybody can enjoy it all over the world? We have Fuji, Apala, Swange, highlife. All we need do is develop them. We need to appreciate what we have.

Some people also complain about the lyrics people write these days…
You’ll be surprised because first of all, we’ve lost the instrumentalists because everybody is on the keyboard. We don’t have the drummers, guitarists and horns men anymore. One man just plays the keyboard through every part of the song and call that music.

Not only that, we don’t have record companies anymore. All we have today are just label operators. So, it’s not their business whether you have talent or not. In fact, my only regret is the hypocrisy and classlessness in the industry. They cannot even do a song that is equal to the ones they copy. They refuse to meet the standard. So, they just do it anyhow and they are doing that to the detriment of our own music cultural heritage.

The electronic media is the major problem we have. They must start airing our Juju, Fuji, Apala, Afrobeat, Highlife, Urhobo disco and so on. They should give them at least 80 per cent of air play and the remaining 20 per cent can go to foreign music. The same thing is happening in Ghana. They cannot even play our music for a few minutes but here, if you switch on AIT, STV and the rest of them, it’s hip hop. It also goes to show that they have no meaningful programmes.

But they’re making money…..
Which money? Don’t you see these musicians on the streets? When you see them, you’ll be able to know if they’re making money or not. Even the few that make money didn’t get it from the sale of their albums, but from concerts. Only very few of them like P-Square and a few others.

Even the record companies are careless. Let me tell you even our EMI don’t have master tapes. If EMI could be in that kind of state, then one would begin to wonder. In fact I couldn’t even get my own works until they had to download them from the internet for me and I couldn’t believe that I did all those work.

If EMI can’t get these things then what happens to the future?
What happens to the label operators and the industry as a whole is that the future generation will not be able to know what Apalla or Fuji and others, sound like. You can understand what I’m talking about when I said that the electronic media is promoting foreign music at the detriment of our own cultural heritage. And I call those DJ’s involved in these act, mediocre.

Are you a wealthy man?
We have rich men who are wealthy but what I can tell you is that I’m comfortable. I would have been a rich man if the environment in this country was conducive. I told you about my mechanical rights and the rest. If I was paid all that, I would  be rich and even employ a lot of other people. If I go to the bank now, they will ask me for collateral when I’m still struggling to build a house.
I’m still ready to work, given the right environment. We should have electricity, water, good road. I mean the basics.


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