Fela collaborator Eji Oyewole is African royalty
by Will Sumsuch
Fela Kuti collaborator, jazz legend, and highlife pioneer Prince Eji Oyewole is surely a member of African music’s royalty. But that’s not the whole story. Sounding almost like a scene from Coming to America, the tale of Prince Eji Oyewole’s early years is full of splendor, magic and folklore. Born to a royal bloodline in Nigeria, the Yoruban Prince absorbed the music and culture of his people from a unique vantage point. The palace he was born in was known as “Mini Buckingham,” perhaps pointing the way to his first destination after leaving his native land. Studying and performing in London resulted in gigs and recording sessions alongside the likes of Miles Davis and Bob Marley among many other legends. Already popular among record collectors and African music lovers, the recent reissue of the ’70s Afrobeat rarity Charity Begins at Home is gaining this African prince a new generation of fans. Still performing tirelessly across West Africa and the world, we caught up with Eji Oyewole to find out more about his unique life in music.
Coming from a royal bloodline, you must have had an interesting upbringing.
As a prince, I had a very interesting upbringing. I grew up to understand and appreciate the culture of the Yoruba people. We regularly had cultural performers, folklore singers, drummers, masquerades and the king’s wives (known as Oloris) chanting and singing the praises of the Oba (the king) and the ancestors. During ceremonies at the palace you could see a masquerade transform into a large cobra; people would want to run but they were told not to, the cobra would only display and then change again back into masquerade form.
There were talking drummers at the palace entrance, who would inform the Oba of each arriving visitor, describing them (and their attire) and calling out their names. All the chiefs and dignitaries would arrive on horseback, as at that time all the cars (and the roads) were owned by the Oba.
How did you get your start in music?
Growing up in the palace as a prince, hardly would a day pass without a ceremony of some sort. Definitely I got inspired and influenced; at that tender age I took everything in. My mother had a powerful voice full of melody she could bend it to suit any occasion, as could some of my aunts (who have all gone to the other world, very sadly). Right from infant school, I started to develop and I was lucky that I came into contact with teachers who saw the talent in me and encouraged me.
How many instruments do you play?
Saxophone came first—tenor and then the soprano, alto, and flute. To me, these instruments were and still are spiritual. Over the years I’ve listened to a lot of saxophone players and what each of them tried to do with the instrument. They are all different, starting from home here in West Africa to Europe and America you can go on and on mentioning names. I use piano to write and arrange music, and I love playing percussion, which I started with.
You studied in London. What were your impressions of the city and culture when you first arrived?
London was a great city. I loved the culture and the people, friendly and always ready to assist. Living and studying in Europe gave me the opportunity to reshape my previous ideas and marry them with some of the new ones found on a newly discovered artistic frontier.
How did you get your start as a bandleader? Was it a steep learning curve?
I played in bands for many years and the experience gained from them helped me to formulate my own idea on how to lead a band. I learned a few things from Island Records, where Chris Blackwell was a great motivator. I was fortunate to have worked with great men like Monty Babson (of Morgan Studios), Tony Hall and so on. I gained so much from them. Back in London in 1976 I formed my first band called The Mangoes. I put an advert in Melody Maker, musicians came and we started to rehearse at the famous Cabin in Shepherd’s Bush. We gigged around a bit and we almost got a recording deal at that time.
How did you come to play with Fela Kuti?
Fela was a great guy. When he came back from London in the early ’60s, he would carry his trumpet with him anywhere he went. One night I was playing with a highlife band at a club called Empire Hotel, and he was in the audience. He brought out his trumpet and was following the music, counting every bar. During the guitar solo at the end of the song Fela entered with a solo. People wondered who it was; he hardly could be seen in the corner where he sat. Then he came out into the lights. We in the band knew him but the audience didn’t; we shouted “Fela!” He was a man like that. After that, we jammed few times and became close friends. Some years after when he formed his “Koola Lobitos” project he asked me to join his band but I was already playing with Bobby Benson, the doyen of Nigeria highlife music and he would not let me go. Eventually I left Bobby Benson, as I wanted to travel out of the country, then Adeolu Akinsanya, a master highlife music composer and singer came to ask me to join his band. Fela came there again looking for me, but it was already too late: they had paid me some advance and I’d started work so again I could not play in his band.
Describe the genre known as “highlife” and what it means to you personally?
Highlife was the music of West Africa, talking about Nigeria and Ghana, as these two sister countries had a lot in common. Right from its inception Nigerians had been part of Ghana’s development, so a lot of Ghanaians speak the Yoruba language (and vice versa), so the meeting of two cultures culminated in the birth of highlife. The music became one of the major roots of African music and it means so much to me, because my music is highlife jazz.
BBE are re-releasing your wonderful album Charity Begins at Home. Please tell us how the project came about?
Charity Begins at Home was a child of invention that drew its inspirations from circumstances surrounding the country called Nigeria. There was lack of unity in Africa, but it was more profound in Nigeria and the level of corruption within the rank and file of the ruling class were the driving force behind the making of the album, particularly “Unity in Africa,” “Geleodun (Oil Boom)” and the title track, “Charity Begins at Home.”
With your current projects Faaji Agba and the Afrobars, do you feel like you’re gaining a new generation of fans?
Faaji Agba was an experiment that fused together music of the ’50s, ’60s with that of the ’70s and ’80s. We tried to make some innovations and inject new sound into the band, one of such attempts was my composition “Faaji Agba lodode (Faaji Agba Has Come),” which I wrote and arranged for the band, to play something different and that was the tune that we played to open our show in New York. I led the band to the stage and took the lead vocal. Yes, I can say I am gaining a new generation of fans for the fact that my music cuts across all ages.
Based on your own experiences through the years, what advice would you give to today’s artists?
My advice to today’s young artists is that they should be humble and be respectful.
Eji Oyewole’s album Charity Begins At Home is out now on BBE records.
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