- After Living In The US For 21 Years
Today, not many people would remember him. Perhaps, only those who are now in their 50s, 60s and above would remember this music act called Kola Ogunkoya, He dominated the Afrobeat music scene in the late 80’s before he relocated abroad in the 90’s.
The big news is that Kola is now back in Nigeria to stay. He will soon be 60, but he does not look it in any way. For those who still don’t catch the drift, let’s quickly tell you about this ruggedly handsome dude, who has managed to keep his youthful look.
He is an Afrobeat musician, who plays what he calls Afro Gbedu. That is his style of music, which includes jazz, highlife, Jùjú, funk and traditional Yoruba music. Kola, whose dad was in the Police then, was born in Owerri, Imo State, Nigeria. He is Yoruba and a son of an itinerant Police officer. After moving from Igboland to Lagos, he attended Okota Community High School, a tough environment. He was a successful amateur boxer as a teenager, but owing to opposition to pursue the career from his father, he turned to music, singing and playing trumpet in his church. He also plays an array of instruments including Saxophone- trumpet, fluger horn, and slide trombone.
He was influenced by big artists such as the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Orlando Julius , Dr Victor Abimbola Olaiya, Dayo Kujore and King Sunny Adé, it is on record that for two years he played with Olaiya. At age 18 he formed his band in Lagos called Kola and his 15-piece Afro jazz Ensemble, which included female dancers. The band has performed all over the globe. He went to USA in 1996 where he had a successful tour. On return to Nigeria he opened a cultural club for Art and Music in Opebi, Allen, Lagos. He later returned to the USA, where he naturalised. By 2010, he had recorded 8 CDs. Some of his notable songs include Jeje ooo (1990), Ogunkoya – Loud, PAN PAN ROBO ROBO, Omo Baba Olopa. He attended Ojuwoye Primary School, Mushin. Secondary School; Okota Community High School and then to Iponri Estate High School after which he went to the US.
He was greatly influenced by the life he lived in Mushin at a relatively young age. Kola is back now and he plans to do a few shows before the end of the year. He is also planning a new album. Last week, he spoke to City People’s Publisher, SEYE KEHINDE and Reporter ADEOLA FAGBIYE in Lagos. Below are excerpts of the interview.
How has it been for you in the last few years?
In the last few years, I’ve been abroad and in Nigeria, I was in the US for 21 years. Though, I left in 1995 and it has been good even though it was a bit rough because at the beginning, we had some shows, we were playing up and down, at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Louisiana Reggae Festival, but you know, after a while. I decided to just stay around, do my thing, stick around in the US and do my thing. Every week, I played on Noklak at Georgia Avenue in Washington D.C I played there every Friday. Back there, we had many Nigerians, people coming in from Europe, New York, New Jersey all parts of U.S to come and watch us play, we called it Gbedu Night and some called it Shayo Night because people come there to listen to all kinds of music, some thing like what the “Kegites” do. We have the Yoruba, “Ibile’ kind of songs and till now people call me and ask me why I left the U.S to come to Nigeria, but I’m always like. “I have to come back home” And you know, home is like the roots.
Why did you choose to come back home?
As I said, it’s been like 21 years now and I feel like I’m getting old, I have to come back home and as they say “Ile Labo Simi Oko”, in Yorubaland I decided that its time for me to go back home.
My boys are grown up, I have my business over there, I’m a Citizen and that was what made me stick around in the U.S because security is very important and talking about Nigeria there is no security, but in the U.S, if you have a little business, a small shop, you can predict how much you’ll have in the next 6 months, how big you’ll be in the next 6 months, but in Nigeria, here you can’t do that. People sleep and have no idea what will happen when they wake up the next day. You don’t know where you’re going to be, whether you’ll get money. People just live, no trust, no nothing. But over there, if you work hard, you can calculate what’s gonna happen to you in a year’s time.
How are you adjusting to the have changed because many things changed between the time you left and now?
You’re very right about that. Many things have changed, but the culture hasn’t changed, people have changed because now they aren’t really doing things the way they should be done. Many things have changed. Originality isn’t there anymore, people prefer to do the cheapest music with computers and all that and I can notice that’s what’s going on on the radio, television and all that.
In those days, you couldn’t do like “DJ Track 2” and all that but they’re doing it now. I can’t blame them, but I can put the blame on real intellectuals in the industry of entertainment. I tell people, what you play on radio and TV really matters much because people growing up will believe in it and assume that’s the real stuff, but you have to think of the bigger picture, which is the world because the world is looking at Africa, they want to feel us and see what we have to offer, and we should try to promote our culture. Music is music, but we should try and promote authentic music, but I just came back, and I’m not just going to complain, I’m just going to do my thing, and allow people see what I’m talking about.
How do you see Gbedu which is your kind of music at this stage?
Gbedu is still Gbedu, it istill the way it is, as Fela Anikulapo Kuti, as Orlando Owoh, Orlando Julius, Victor Olaiya, King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey saw it.
I respect those people because, if you look at Nigerian music, it’s not the hip hop we sing now that is Nigerian music, but its all good, I still keep trying to keep quiet about it, but for real, that’s not Nigerian music. We can’t do that, its not what we can call cultural exchange and that’s why when you come to my show, you’re going to see many foreigners, people who love and appreciate my music, you’re going to see the African dancers, instruments. Gbedu is still the original High Life, Afrobeat, Juju and all that.
How did music start for you?
I used to be a boxer before I went into music, I was part of the Lagos State Amateur Boxing Association.
We used to call it Light weight Championship then and because of the kind of parents we had then, I was scared to tell my dad about my plans even when I qualified to represent Nigeria in the Olympics, the records are even still at the National Stadium there but I was scared to tell him because he had no idea I was a boxer and my father was a Policeman, he wanted me to go to school and all that. We used to attend the Church of God Aladura on Adeniyi Street, Mushin, Lagos. I was in the Choir then, one day the choir master called all the guys in the choir to come and learn how to play instruments instead of just doing nothing and I was interested in the trumpet so I started learning how to play some little stuffs on the trumpet, and I think that was in the 80’s because I’m not good with dates, a lot has happened, but I’m sure it was in the 80’s because I played with Victor Olaiya at Stadium Hotel in ’88.
So, I started playing, I got invited to play at Church harvests, programmes, they liked me. I had so many people calling me to come and play at their churches that was when the choir master started to decide for me, which church would pay better then I realized that there was money in it. That was when I started playing with Wale Abiodun, may his Soul rest in peace. I played the Guitar for him, I started making money, so I left Victor Olaiya’s All Star Band to start up my own band in ’88. I was fully on my own then, it was called “Afro Gbedu Ensemble.” It’s like a French word.
What kind of influence did Fela and co have on you when you started music?
When you play the horns, you look up to those doing it. I listened a lot to Fela and I started playing Afrobeat because I liked the way it sounded. It allows you to express yourself very well. That was how I started.
Did you play with Fela then?
No, Not at all! But I thank God, Fela came to my show with 4 of his wives because I used to play at Jazz Ville every Friday in those days, I played at Awolowo Road, in Jazz 38 which was like a family centre to Fela and people told him about me, then one night he came with his wives and I was really happy and that was how everything started big time.
What made you relocate to the U.S?
At that time, as I said, I have much experience, my dad was never a musician, he doesn’t have any name in the industry of entertainment. I’ve worked with many popular artistes, Victor Olaiya, Ndi Okonta, I’ve learnt a lot from them and they kept telling me that “Anything you can do, do it well. ” If my dad was into music, rich, popular maybe, I would just be there without making progress. What made Fela go back to London was what made me go back to U.S and the same reason he came back with his band made me come back. If you’re starting something by yourself, you have to hustle hard, and that was what I did and thank God today, my son is also into music his name is Sam Cool and he is on tour right now, going every where in the United States but he’s not singing Afro beat.
How did relocating affect you?
It really affected me, but I don’t know how to explain it, but I can just say a little bit. I don’t think anybody can understand except you experience it, only then would you know how it, feels because it’s a different ball game, a different world over there. Things aren’t the same over there. I’ve changed a lot, I grew up in Mushin, and when I came back and saw people acting some how, I wonder if they are crazy.
Tell us about your growing up years?
I was born in Owerri and because my dad was a policeman he had to travel often, he was transferred here and there. So, while he was in Owerri. I was born, then he got transferred back to Lagos, then coming back to Lagos, we lived at Mushin I think I was about 5 or 6 years old then. I was very troublesome, I was a bad boy, I even knew that but when I got to the US, I had to blend in and it’s very difficult for me to change now that I’m back. I know I’m going to blend, I’ve spent 5 months and I’m still surviving.
How do you intend to blend your kind of music with the type that is prevalent now?
For real, Nigerian music has been like that for owners of studio, record labels, radios and TV stations, what you play to people is what they believe, that is what is going on, everybody is a singer. You can become a star within 3 months and that is what Nigerian music has become.
But thank God for those who still know music. If you do la la la… now with a nice beat before you know it you’ve become a star. But there’s still something we call originality, African culture. A lot of things are wrong right now but I’m not thinking about it because I know I have my foundation and I call it security and that is why I decided to stay in the U.S to get myself right. I’m in Nigeria, but I still get my royalty every 3 months from the U.S very soon I’ll be 60 and I’ll be paid my retirement benefits every month even while I’m here. So, there’s nothing stopping me from doing music. I just want to play good music.
How many albums did you release?
Very good. Nowadays, people release album frequently. In those days it was once in 2 years, it was only Sunny Ade and all those big artistes who could release often because they had money. We couldn’t do that. This is a live band, not “DJ track 2” or computer stuff, with a computer only you can do a song, but with a live band you have to create it, pay everybody, carry them to the studio to ensure that all the instruments are complete, but they don’t do that. I think I had like 2 cassettes not even CD’s but you can call it albums before I travelled.
Which song shot you to limelight in those day?
Just my shows, my performance on stage. Don’t forget I played at Lekki Sunsplash all the time and all the big concerts then, but I never had a record label because then Premier Records were supposed to sign me on, but they refused to because they were scared of Fela. They actually told me that, but Fela turned out to be a nice person and at the end of the day he was the one who named me “Gbedu Master” at Lekki Sunsplash.
What were your popular songs at that time?
At that time it was “Lolade Mi Da” and “Na Je Je” in the days of Afro beat. When I travelled I started singing high life and mixing it with “Afro Beat” but “Fine Baby” was popular then too people didn’t know what happened before the song.
Did you know your hit song was going to be popular when you recorded it?