By Ayo Onikoyi
THE history of music in Nigeria would be utterly incomplete without the inclusion of Commander Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi, a Juju maestro that has bestrode the landscape for more than 40 years. He is one of Nigeria’s oldest living and active Juju musicians and is reputed to have churned out a musical repertoire of 660 songs, a feat yet to be equaled by any African musician in history.
Obey’s songs reflect different happenings in the society, touching on almost every aspect of human life and cutting across different ethnic inclinations. By his music, he has been variously described as a teacher, a prophet, a moralist, a philanthropist and a philosopher.
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His music, which he calls the ‘Miliki’ goes beyond mere entertainment, it captures many strata of human lives and it has become imperishable given the importance it has assumed, not only in our hisstory but also in education. His songs are used for teachings as well as research in tertiary institutions. They are both a source of joy and education and to a large extent, evangelism.
On December 15, 2019 Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey was inducted into the Evergreen Music Hall of Fame by the Evergreen musical company. The induction, according to many observers was long overdue. Even the organisers admitted that the legendary musician is first among equals and they wasted no time in summing up the journey of the Juju icon in few words.
“Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey (MFR) has become a world phenomenon and today he stands strong like an oak tree with so much resilience, strength, morale, honour, nobility and wisdom. His creativity and has immensely contributed to the Social, cultural, economic and political growth of Lagos State and Nigeria as a whole.”
Born Ebenezer Remilekun Fabiyi in 1942 in Nigeria, Obey’s formal musical activity began early, when the music performed at his church’s Sunday school, prompted him to join the choir and later to lead the Methodist Primary School band. He earned his English nickname as a student monitor, while telling fellow pupils to “obey.” While Western sources generally give Obey’s birthplace as Idogo, Abeokuta, in what would later be called Ogun State, other sources write that he was born at Island Maternity Hospital in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, and raised in the Fabiyi family’s hometown of Idogo. He left his village in the 1950s, halfway through grammar school, and moved to Lagos, where he played the guitar and thumb piano in several bands, including the Royal Mambo Orchestra, the Guinea Mambo Orchestra, the Fatai Rolling Dollar, and the Federal Rhythm Brothers.
After finishing his secondary education in Abeokuta and moving back to Lagos in 1963, Obey juggled his work as a clerk with that of a musician, composing songs in his spare time. In 1964 he formed a group called the International Brothers. The band, known for its Yoruban percussion, vocals, and layered guitar sounds, soon gained notoriety with its hit juju song “Ewa Wowun Ojumi Ri.” In 1971 he renamed the band Inter Reformers ’70.
By the 1960s, juju had been around for several decades. With its origins in Yoruba folklore, however, it remained a rural music eclipsed by Ghanaian highlife as Nigerians’ choice for party music. However, the music’s modernisation at the hands of I. K. Dairo and its growing importance during the Nigerian civil war would, by 1970, secure juju’s status as Nigeria’s national music. Whereas Dairo and other juju artists performed many songs dealing with women and their beauty, Obey’s lyrics (sung in a voice described as both sweet and velvety) were more religious. A devout Christian like both of his parents, he composed songs dealing with issues of honesty, morality, love, family, peace and other themes associated with his faith.
His early music life
Obey introduced series of changes that would come to be branded as his miliki style of juju. These changes, which included several talking drums, multiple guitars, electric bass and a simplified, upbeat tempo, have led many to regard Obey as the father of modern juju. Obey’s brand of juju is complex and elemental, and more traditional, his talking drums establish a propulsive rhythm pattern. Obey’s guitar lays another jittery rhythm over that, chanted harmonies join in, and so on with the rest of the 17-piece ensemble. The result is a colourful, thickly interwoven texture that somehow sounds airy, and reveals new details each time you hear it.”
Over the course of his career, Obey has recorded close to 50 LPs and his numerous singles, CDs and seven-minutes EPs.
Obey married Juliana Olaide Olufade in 1963. His wife, known as Lady Evangelist Juliana Obey-Fabiyi, died at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital on August 23, 2011, aged 67. They have several children and grand children. He has remained unmarried after the death of his wife.