By Bisi Lawrence
The recent article by Benson Idonije – who writes in the Guardian — on music in the history of Nigerian radio, brought back memories of the man who may be said to have played the leading role in that development.
He was entirely left out of the account. As usual, Benson wrote an engaging account, but did not go far back enough to recall the pivotal position of Dr. Stephen Bamidele Rhodes, whose career in broadcasting established the nature of the musical content of the early broadcasts.
Stephen Bamidele Rhodes was a titan. He earned every tribute, and more beside, paid by so many people since his death. His contributions to the development of popular music in Nigeria cannot be adequately assessed even now, for they continue to ramify with each new development. The innovations that are emerging continue to unfold the seeds of his work still.
Not many people knew about him when he came into broadcasting through the Nigerian Broadcasting Service, NBS, in the fifties. That pioneering radio of the country itself had not yet known much of anything then. An expatriate on attachment from the BBC headed each section of its operations.
They were all thoroughbred professionals. Their only handicap was the paucity of their knowledge about the cultures of the peoples which were numerous as well as diverse. The effect of this on their appreciation of the music of the land was particularly telling, for it pertained so much to entertainment which, along with the objectives of educating and informing, is a vital aspect of mass communication.
What was required was a trained musician in both the Nigerian and Western musical traditions, who would translate the musical idioms of the land to styles that would appeal to the people for entertainment purposes. They found that personality in Fela Sowande.
Fela Sowande was a phenomenon. His background was purely that of a choirboy who grew up in a household of organists and choirmaster. His younger brother, who was later a chemist, was my music teacher at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos.
His elder sister, Mrs. Sowunmi, who was a superlative organist, had been the guardian of my elder brother, Tunde, whom she treated like her own child. That gave me a foothold in the attention of Uncle Fela when he took over as the Head of Music in the old NBC, the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, which the old TBS became.
He was a martinet, and you knew it. He was fastidious in every facet of his work, be it the delivery of the script, the technical aspect of the recording, or even the outlines of the script. He tolerated no slackness and he had no closing hours. You opened when all others opened, but when you went home was when you closed.
He had a special crew of some young ladies who operated the controls as the studio panel for him when he was at the microphone – Enoh Etuk, Francesca Akinsete, Toun Adedoyin, Sweet Fadaka, Roselyn Sogbammu, Femi Thompson, and others. It was a nerve-racking assignment in which one was not permitted to make mistakes. The young women took exceeding pride in it. No man, except the Head of Operations, Joseph Egbuson, was allowed, until one day Uncle Fela asked me to join them. I almost left to town.
The musicologist had studied music in the classical idiom, but was later to blaze the trail for several African, not only Nigerian, young musicians who became proficient in the performance of both serious and popular music forms. Steve Rhodes was one of the earliest of them. I had been transferred from Operations to the Music Department by the time Uncle Steve came into the organization I thought I had been put through the mill after about eleven months with Sowande.
But within three months of Rhodes, I was looking for a way of escape. The new comer seemed rather aloof to others while he treated me like the only customer in sight. He was very generous with his cigarettes, though, unlike Uncle Fela who made me steal his, pretending not to know. But his aloofness, or seeming aloofness, made very few friends for us and, worse of all, he also kept the most appalling hours. Not many members of staff actually knew his musical credentials, and then came the day of his unveiling.
The weekly Monday meeting was held in one of the two large studios which each housed a grand piano. There we would foregather until the Controller of Programmes, one of the white men from the BBC, arrived to conduct the meeting. He was usually on time, but he arrived a bit late on this day when we were to see the real Steve Rhodes.
Not having anything much to do while we cooled our heels, Uncle Steve just casually went to the piano, sat down and languidly rattled off the opening passage of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Bach. We all gasped. It was a revelation. He had an audience, which was at the vanguard of serious music appreciation in the country at that time.
That terse exposition was stunning. His fingers had begun to drip-drop the next phrase when the Controller’s entrance interrupted the extempore mini-concert. The white man spontaneously gave out a short applause which we all enthusiastically supported, and the smiles with which Uncle Steve was met by the others at the end of that meeting lasted through his tenure at Broadcasting House, Ikoyi.
Life was now easier but not in any way relaxed. We left Broadcasting House after the normal day’s work, Uncle Steve and I, and headed for the hotels, pubs, drinking houses, shanties and just about any spot where there was a kind of sound called music in the Lagos area, from Ikoyi to Ikeja. We listened to any noise that was available in the name of music or song.
Sometimes we stayed for only a few moments. At other times, we waited for much longer. Sometimes, the musician spoke with us, at other times we left without a word. We went every night to different places. Eventually, we began to repeat the visits and to invite various artistes for audition.
I keep saying “we”, because Uncle Steve flattered me with the inclusion of my views into the decisions. I began to discern the purpose of his efforts, which was simply to elevate the practice of the popular genre to music-hall level in Nigeria. In plain words, he strove to make a juju band perform in the acceptable circumstances of a highlife band, in the situation of a music-hall or on stage. He therefore encouraged the amplification of the output, streamlined and elevated the tonal quality by the introduction of new instruments while enhancing the contribution of some old ones in the ensemble.
The golden rule was that no band was ever permitted to go on the air without a successful audition. And an audition was approved only after the most stringent of tests including studio discipline.
This was important since most broadcasts were then conducted live, and each performance was conducted along the general lines of an approved musical arrangement. Our most important show for each week was “The Starlight Roof”, an hour-long “outside broadcast”, transmitted from a dance-hall. A band designated for the “Roof” had to be rehearsed for two days, at least, earlier. Not even the doyen of popular music at that time, the one and only Bobby Benson, was allowed to flout that rule – though, God rest his dear soul, he sometimes attempted to…
Uncle Steve’s chief experiment was initially with the Julius Araba Skiftle Group, which he raised from an amorphous obscurity to sterling fame. Julius Araba, or ‘“Speedy” as he was known in his younger days, had been a sidekick of Akanbi Wright, the foremost juju exponent of his day. “Speedy” was left with the rump of a guitar band when Akanbi suddenly died in the early forties. What Uncle Steve picked up was a bundle of musicianship untainted by any affectation, that would have gone to waste had he not been there to apply the brilliant touch of a grand-master, who heard what none other could hear in that scruffy outfit.
After he had cleaned the “pearl” to a point where it glistened for all to see, the rest was easy. Others like the Rio Lindo Orchestra, and Ayinde Bakare and his Miranda Orchestra saw the light, and some even began to polish their acts on their own. The result was a massive revolution in the entire concept of local music performance, traversing all styles and idioms, within and away from the studios, and including the Apala and Sakara bands.
But Uncle Steve had time for the Western style of music too. He had played “Bach back to Basie” and knew the score. His main instrument was the fiddle bass and he had the manly size to carry it. And you had to have that to go all over Europe with it as he did. One couldn’t afford to trust one’s instrument to other people, he would assert, it was simply too precious. I never thought that fiddle basses came in “strad”, but you would think they did to hear Uncle Steve talk about one.
Of course, if you then went on to wonder why anyone would choose to lumber himself with such an ungainly instrument, especially as an itinerant musician, Uncle Steve immediately forgot that you never existed. That musicianship probably afforded my mentor the intuitive approach of a first-class arranger to his appreciation of any kind of music.
But he made no claim to any achievement, this great innovator of our time. No wonder Benson Idonije, who used to do “The Big Beat” and knew him rather well too, seemed to have forgotten all about him.