With musical experience spanning over 60 years, juju maestro turned-evangelist, Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi is unrelenting. Despite recent rumours of his death, the iconic singer is waxing stronger, as he has promised to hit the scene with a new album soon.
In this interview, the former board chairman of Nigerian Copyright Commission and Visiting Artiste in the Department of English & Performing Arts, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State reminisces on his illustrious career. He also speaks on the nation’s socio-political cum economic challenges and points out the way forward. Enjoy it.
You’re almost 19-years-old when Nigeria gained independence on October 1, 1960, how did you feel that day?
It was a great day. Everybody was rejoicing that we were going to be on our own; we would no longer be under the colonial masters. Everyone cherishes freedom. So, generally everyone in the country was rejoicing, and the whole nation was in a good mood. I was full of joy that my country gained independence, because in 1959, the government of Western Region under the leadership of Chief Obafemi Awolowo had established the WNTV, which was the first television station in Africa. So, we had been basking in the euphoria of freedom in Western Region with the commissioning of the television station, before the independence came on October 1st. And from that day, we stopped singing the British national anthem and began to sing our own national anthem. As the British’s national flag, the Union Jack was lowered and the Nigeria flag was hoisted, we all jubilated.
Where exactly were you that day?
I was with Fatai Rolling Dollar then. There was this big celebration at Tafawa Balewa Square, Lagos, and there was a special independence anniversary dance at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos. That was where the Prime Minister (Tafawa Balewa) and the rest of them went to celebrate after the anniversary event at the Tafawa Balewa Square.
While that was going on in Lagos, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Ladoke Akintola and others were celebrating in Western Region. And simultaneously, celebrations were also going on in the Eastern and Northern regions. The Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos was new then. That night, I played at Boundary Hotel in Ajegunle, Lagos. All the hotels in Nigeria were filled with people celebrating Nigeria’s independence anniversary.
What was the situation of electricity supply in Nigeria in those days?
What we had then was ECN (Electric Corporations of Nigeria). Electricity supply then was not as it is now. Power outages occurred occasionally, but before it could take place, the ECN would have informed the public. We were all happy that freedom came and Nigeria gained her independence.
If you were to compare Nigeria as it was in the 1960s and now, what would you say?
Number one, the population wasn’t as large as it is today. And before the independence, the British (colonial) government organised things very well. There was nothing like corruption. In those days, teachers were very committed. Things were well organised. Policemen were well respected, and they weren’t carrying guns. You could only see them with their batons. There was Native Police Authority, which served as the community police that people are now clamouring for; and also the Nigeria Police Force. Nigeria was a peaceful country then. There was nothing like insurgency, kidnapping or abduction. Security of lives and properties was guaranteed, unlike nowadays. We have shed too much blood in this country. And God is not happy with any nation that sheds innocent blood. God is against shedding of blood.
Now, what do you think should be done?
Something needs to be done to stop all these killings, so that we can have peace. We need to sincerely love ourselves in this country. Let there be justice and fairness. Some people have been clamouring for secession and disintegration of Nigeria. They want Nigeria to break up. It is not good for Nigeria to breakup. But we must all agree to be fair to others, like the restructuring that Nigerians have been clamouring for. If we shun tribalism and nepotism, we would live as a united country and our nation will be saved.
We need to retrace our steps and make sure that we do everything possible to love one another. It is not good for one section of the country to want to dominate the other sections. If one section continues to dominate others, a time will come when the others would disagree and say enough is enough. It is very simple. If we love ourselves and do what we are supposed to do, we would achieve more, and get to where we are supposed to be on time. A lot of money meant for the development of the country has either been embezzled or misappropriated through corrupt practices. These are not the dreams of our founding fathers. Things were much better in those days than they are today.
How was the music industry in 1960s, and what were the attitudes of people and government toward musicians in those days?
Music industry was much better in those days than it is now. All the foreign recording companies like Decca West Africa, Philips and others were traders that came to make money. But they handled the music industry very well. The recording industry in those days concentrated on releasing singles.
I started my band three years after the independence, and I used to produce four albums in a year. I produced one album every three months. And all the albums were singles. Later, we had the Extended Play, which we called EP. Then we had 10 inches albums. These were what we had before we crossed over to CDs. But before then, we had cassettes and cartridges. And after CDs came many other inventions like MP3, MP4 etc. However, the new technological interventions aided piracy and enabled pirates to keep reaping where they did not sow. And that has affected the music industry negatively.
Talking about enforcement of copyright laws, what is your message to government?
I have worked with government on this area, and the efforts we made then led to the establishment of Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC) and the enactment of copyright act. At a time when I was the chairman of Nigerian Copyright Commission, we tried all we could, but we discovered that if you get the pirates this week, and you’re trying to prevent their new method from working, the following week they will come out with another way of pirating your album. With modern technological devices, they keep inventing new and easy ways of dubbing our works. I know government has tried its best in terms of making and enforcing the copyright law through the NCC but their best has not been good enough for us.
Did it occur to you in the ‘60s that music would become a great profession like it is today?
Music and entertainment generally is a money-spinning industry. Music is a serious profession that requires a lot of hard work. Nobody can say musicians are lazy. If a musician is hardworking, there is no way he would not make it because there is money in music.
Who were the musicians you looked up to in the ‘60s that gave you hope?
We had those who were ahead of us like Dr Victor Olaiya, who started highlife music in the early 1950s. We had Papa Chris Ajilo, Bobby Benson, Rex Lawson, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Ayinde Bakare, Tunde King, Tunde Nathingale, I.K. Dairo, and Dele Ojo among others. In our own time, we had the opportunity of a long reign, more than any musician. You know, some musicians will release a few albums, reign for five years or so and then go into oblivion. But Ebenezer Obey has been reigning for long, from 1960s till today. To buttress my point, I will release another album any moment from now.
Unlike in your days, what do you think is responsible for the absence of philosophical songs among the young generation of musicians today?
This generation of musicians knows how they impart their listeners. They understand the language of their generation. But what we are saying is that they should borrow a leaf from what we have been doing. For you to have an evergreen music, it must be educative, teach morals and preach against societal ills. That’s the reason the albums I produced in the 1960s are still relevant today. For instance, Olomi Gbo Temi that I did in 1967 is still relevant today. I produced Happy Birthday To You when I clocked 40 years, which is 38 and a half years ago, the song is still being played today whenever people are celebrating birthdays.
What are you doing to mentor young musicians of today?
I’ve established Ebenezer Obey Music & Life Skills where we give opportunities to young ones who want to know more about music. And that has been on for about three years now. Also, we have Ebenezer Obey Scholarship Scheme in affiliation with universities in Ogun State. It is a youth empowerment project. My advice to the young ones is that they should be determined to work hard; it appears the corruption in Nigeria has made the younger ones to be running after money. That’s why the Yahoo Yahoo and other fraudulent crimes are on the increase. The youth should desist from all illegal acts and shun hard drugs.
What are some of the improvements you think are necessary in the music industry?
Frankly speaking, a lot of our children want to become musicians. There are lots of talented youths who are looking for recording opportunities. In our days, radio stations were looking for musicians to give them contents but now, it is the other way round. My grandchildren who are into music are getting privileges because they are my grandchildren. But today, it’s not easy for young musicians unless luck comes their way.
How did you feel about the rumours of your death that broke recently?
The fake news was spread thrice. This is one of the challenges of the social media. There is need to get rid of fake news. Any unconfirmed report is not supposed to be published just like that. But this is me, I am hale and hearty. I thank God.