Born in 1943 in Ikole-Ekiti in Ondo State, Nigeria, Orlando Julius Ekemode (“Orlando was really a nickname, taken from the Nigerian actor, Orlando Martins“) had started in music from an early age, becoming the school drummer and learning flute, bugle and other instruments at St Peters Anglican School in Ikole-Ekiti.
“My father died when I was still young so I wasn’t able to continue education after High School,“ remembers OJ. “I told my Mum that I wanted to go to Ibadan, the capital at the time. I reached there in 1957 and went to different clubs at night where bands were playing highlife and juju. I would sit by the stage, watch them and ask if I could feature with them. I was a small boy. One musician said, ’give him a chance!’ and they let me play drums. The crowds loved it and began spraying my forehead with money.
“The same year, I met a guy called Jazz Romero who used to practise outside his house, playing different instruments. I watched him play, watched his fingering and we became friends. I asked him to teach me to play sax. At that time, The Western region Premier Obafemi Awolowo wanted to put music in schools (it was compulsory to learn music at school in Ghana at the time but not in Nigeria). Awolowo decided to raise money to buy instruments and created a central HQ in Ibadan. Any West African could come to that place and learn for free. I was taught by one of the teachers and picked up different instruments – various different drums, the sax and others. I was a fast learner.
“Back in the late ‘50s in Ibadan, because I’m a sax player I started listening a lot to Louis Armstrong’s band, Charlie Parker and Coltrane. There was a shopping centre called Kingsway that stocked records from UK and US and that’s how I started hearing jazz records. Friends like Papa Sidmus and others would come to the club where I played and I would go to their houses afterwards to listen to all kinds of music. “On the radio, we only had one station at the time, Radio Nigeria. Not many people could afford to buy radio sets so the government used Rediffusion. They installed a speaker in each house which had a knob to turn the volume down or up – you couldn’t turn it off. At that time, they played both Nigerian music and a lot of foreign music – American, jazz, blues, Afro Cuban, all types.“
Julius would meet trumpeter Eddie Okonta who played a residency at Paradise Hotel in Ibadan. “He needed some musicians and myself, Akanbi Moses (later of the Modern Aces) and others joined his 20-piece Top Aces band which featured standing bass and a big horn section. We played Coltrane, Armstrong, tango, pachanga, foxtrots, a lot of different styles. A lot of foreigners went there from the UK, USA and all parts of Africa. The club would be rocking because we would play so much in one evening. I became the guy who wrote the charts and the parts for the horns.“
Okonta’s band would prove to be a fruitful experience for Julius, touring across Ghana, Nigeria and Africa, before becoming a national sensation during the early years of TV in West Africa. Julius remembers, “In ’58, Awolowo brought TV to Ibadan and Okonta was asked to perform at 6-7pm every Saturday night on one of the very first variety shows on WNTV. Then, Pepsi brought Louis Armstrong to Ghana and Nigeria. When he came to Ibadan, Okonta’s band was chosen to welcome him since Eddy used to play his songs and imitate his voice. A stage was constructed at a roundabout entering Ibadan and, when Armstrong and the band arrived, they heard Okonta singing and playing his music. When we stopped, the members of each band hugged each other. We jammed together, Armstrong gave Okonta a mouthpiece as a memento and the band exchanged names and addresses.”
Orlando left the Top Aces in ’59 and travelled to Ijabu-Ode. “As musicians, you went where the money took you but the band I went to wasn’t that serious but the leader of the band, Y.S. Akinibosun, became a good friend who later played with Fela during the ‘80s. My brother I.K. Dairo came to play and invited me back home to Ilesa – he had instruments too. So, I went to Lagos and Ibadan to find musicians to play with us. We employed young musicians like Isiaka Adio and Jimi Solanke and started a band, I.K. Dairo and The Globetrotters. The name was chosen because we played music from different parts of the world – Cuba, South Africa, U.S. jazz, all kinds. When we sang, we often used the Ijesa dialect which sounds very minor key. Every time I played a solo, people loved it and shouted ’Afro!’
“In 1961, Jazz Romero secured a contract to form a band in Ondo State and took me with him. We were there for three months until he received another more lucrative offer to go to Akure and become the house band at the new Flamingo Hotel there. The owner was from downtown and had married an English wife. Under Romero, we became the Flamingo Dandies.“
O.J. was soon finally ready to form his own band. Returning to Ibadan, he enlisted some of the members of I.K. Dairo’s line-up including drummer Akanbi Moses, Eddy Fayehun on trumpet, Adenyi Omilabu on guitar, occasionally inviting guest guitarist and vocalist, Joni Haastrup (later of Monomono) and, on 15th July 1964, formed the Modern Aces, beginning a long-standing residency at the Independence Hotel. Students from university came, hailing from many different backgrounds. “My band played highlife but had to play jazz, blues, tango, calypso to cater for the audience becuase the crowd knew how to dance those steps. A lot of students and US ex-pats came to my show. By then, when I was writing, I started putting different parts and styles into my music. It was my own invention to develop highlife.
“Even before I was thinking of recording with the Modern Aces, we rehearsed at home, we played live in Ibadan, we didn’t stop. Wale and Tunji Oyelana both came regularly to see me after their work at the University. Orlando Martins came back and worked for WNTV in Ibadan for a time in ’64. He came up to us at Independence and said, ‘You guys – the music you are doing is 40 years ahead of you’. By mixing the R&B and soul with the African rhythms, we didn’t know what it would be like in the future. I think it inspired a lot of musicians in Lagos. Joni Haastrup – that was his first recording performance on that album. Tunji Oyelana formed a band called The Benders after that. A lot of the highlife artists back then started to put a bit of rock and jazz into their music.“
Those artists included a young Fela Anikulapo Kuti. “Around then, in ’64, Fela Kuti returned to Nigeria from Trinity School in London. He was hired as a producer for NBC Lagos where he worked on a Latin American music programme. He also had a course to do at NBC Ibadan so he came to Ibadan for a period of six months. Ibadan was the mecca of Nigerian music at that time with many different clubs and bands playing juju, highlife and other styles. He always came to my club, liked the band and we would feature him on stage. When he came to form his own band, some of my musicians – Eddie Fayehun, Isiaka Adio and Ojo Ekeji – joined him in Koola Lobitos (they would return to my band later). Ladies loved Fela, even back then. But he never drank alcohol at that stage, just Fanta!“
“In 1964, I was invited to record a single. First, I was able to record two songs at NBC studio, ’Igbehin Adara’ and ’Jola Ade’. However, the label owner was only used to releasing native music like apala, sakara and juju. They couldn’t promote it much but I was glad to have my record. Clubs played it.“
After that, O.J. and the Modern Aces embarked on a series of landmark 45s for Phillips / Polydor. Their first single, ‘Jagua Nana’, released in ’64, became an instant hit and catapulted the previously little known band into the Lagos limelight. Further hits followed – ‘Topless’ (which briefly earned Orlando the nickname ‘The Topless Man’), ‘Ololufe’ and ‘E Se Rere’. Julius remembers the time pressure of the studio sessions: “It was a two-track set up, you couldn’t overdub. If we didn’t do it right in one take, we had to do it again. That’s how ‘Super Afro Soul’ was made. Phillips told me to stop each track after three minutes. They actually had a timekeeper in the studio counting you down! If you went over three minutes, they would simply fade you out.“
Compiling the singles together and adding further tracks, Phillips released ‘Super Afro Soul’ in 1966 as a 10“ album, a confident and effortless union of highlife, jazz and R&B, the music of Nigerian independence fused with the soundtrack to Afro-America’s struggle for civil rights. “I decided to add sounds and make my own soul music. I was listening to Coltrane, Otis Redding, Smokey Robinson, Sam & Dave. I brought in a bit of that here and there. The African rhythms, Kokoma rhythms are the backbone and soul, jazz, even calypso, came together with it to make ‘Super Afro Soul’.“ The US cross-pollination is evident too on ‘My Girl’, a highlife cover of the Smokey Robinson-penned Motown classic. Despite this, Orlando was keen to show that this was definitely an African affair: “We wanted to look different to the American bands, which is why we wore dashikis on the front cover of the record.“
Among the singles compiled for the album was ‘Ijo Soul’, originally released in 1964 and bearing an uncanny resemblance to James Brown’s ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’ released two years later. “James Brown came to Lagos and Ibadan in 1969 and performed at the Liberty Stadium. I couldn’t get to his gig that night but, after their concert, they brought his band and the William Morris agency people to my club. I remember meeting Bootsy Collins. He came to the stage and said to me, “Orlando, you are bad, you are super-bad!“. The next morning, I visited the Premier Hotel and talked to James Brown for a while. I gave him a copy of ‘Super Afro Soul’ there.“
Orlando went on to record two further albums for Phillips in Lagos: ‘Orlando’s Idea’ and ‘Ishe’, each evolving its own sound as changes and new sounds propelled forward the Lagos music scene. These albums featured a much larger band with a fuller horn section, the Afro-Sounders, from the late ‘60s, plying a deeper, funkier highlife fusion, responding to rock, psychedelia and the heaver funk sounds coming in from the USA and adding a new dimension to Orlando’s lethal Afro melting pot.
“Afro Sounders was essentially the same band as Modern Aces, just with more musicians. New members included trombonist Raheemi Brown and Eddie Fayehun who had come back from Fela’s band. We played a lot of shows across Nigeria, Benin and Ghana and the studio sessions with the band were more open. Since I had become popular, the engineers listened to me and allowed me to play for longer.“
Orlando’s life would change in 1972 following a trip to Germany arranged by his Nigerian label, Polydor. “I went with Polydor to the Munich Olympics,“ he remembers, “and then to the U.S.A and I saw the opportunities for my music there. By 1974, I had moved to New York and then Washington D.C. and formed a new band, Umoja, in 1974. We had a manager called Ron Hood looking after us and booking shows and he handled some of the big US stars – people like Marvin Gaye, the Bar-Kays, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron and Isaac Hayes. Every time he had an act playing, he booked Umoja as support. We practised not far from Marvin’s house in North West Washington so he became a friend and we went to his house regularly.
“That year, Hugh Masekela was returning back from the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ concert in Zaire, stopped in D.C. and came by our rehearsal. When he walked in, we were rehearsing my song ‘Ashiko’. He started playing fluegelhorn with us. Hugh had an agent but no band so began to use Umoja to back him and we all rehearsed as a group and joined up. We ended up in L.A. and I started working with Hugh’s producer, Stewart Levine. The band begged me to let Masekela record ‘Ashiko’ for his new album and I composed that, ‘Excuse Me Please’, A Person Is A Sometime Thing’ and the title track on his album ‘The Boy’s Doin’ It’ in 1975.
“After that, I stayed on the West coast in Pasadena. Stewart Levine began to call me up for other sessions. I helped him with writing and arranging for The Crusaders who knew my music. When I met them, I taught Stix Hooper Afrobeat drumming. He then asked me to work with him for Lamont Dozier’s ’Peddlin’ Music On The Side’ album in 1977. He gave me a cassette and, when I put it on, I heard the bass and guitar riffs from ’Ashiko’ on the track ’Going Back To My Roots’. I listened to the lyrics and wrote the yoruba chorus which translates as ’let us remember where we came from’. I brought in chants from my older Afro Sounders tune ’Home Sweet Home’ for the second half of the track.“ Julius remained controversially uncredited fort his version and for the subsequent hit cover of the track by Odyssey. The same year, he appeared in the globally successful TV mini-series, ’Roots’ and met his future wife, Latoya Eduke.
The West coast and its thriving music scene would be be home for OJ for over 27 years. “I recorded the ’Dance Afrobeat’ album between the US and Nigeria in 1985 and released it through Shanachie. I played many gigs across the US and Canada including the New Orleans Jazz Festival, twice.“ Other highlights included the opening of the African section of the Epcot Centre and hosting a cable TV show called ’Afrobeat Videos’ from Nashville, where Orlando built a healthy fanbase. “I also recorded an album there, ’The Legend Continues.“
He returned to Lagos on December 15th 1998, set up a recording and rehearsal studio in Surulere and formed his long-running Nigerian All-Stars band. He started the Nigerian Musicians Forum as a medium for musicians to discuss industry issues – members included Chris Ajilo, Steve Rhodes and Peter King. He appeared regularly on Nigerian TV, on NTA’s ’Morning Ride’ and on Galaxy performing full live shows – ’Orlando Julius Live’ – and presenting videos from all over the world on ’Afro Hi! With Orlando Julius’.
By 2001, Western audiences began waking up to Orlando’s illustrious career. UK label Strut reissued ’Super Afro Soul’ before other labels including Soundway and Vampi Soul began releasing his Afro Sounders recordings, all spreading the word on OJ’s pioneering role in Nigerian music.
Because of problems with Nigerian electricity through NEPA which would often cause his studio equipment to blow as well as equipment losses through theft,
Orlando moved to Ghana in 2003 after playing live at Panafest (the long-running Pan-African Historical Theatre Project). He set up a studio in Accra and recorded his most recent album there, ’Longevity & Reclamation’. He moved back to Nigeria in 2008 and still lives in the outskirts of Lagos.
Other recent projects have included recordings with Hot Casa signing Setanta including a cover of his classic ’Ijo Soul’ and sessions with young musicians in Nigeria for a British Council project in association with Soundthread. At the time of writing, he is planning an all-new album with UK super-group The Heliocentrics for release on Strut in April 2014. He also performed his first ever gig in the UK in September 2013 for Afri-Kokoa at London’s Rich Mix.