Nigeria: Orlando Julius, the Last of Highlife Titans Goes Home
One of the heroes of Nigerian music, a master of the simple, stomping riff with a significant influence on Afrobeat music, the last of Nigeria’s titans in the highlife music genre, Orlando Julius simply slept into eternity. Or how best can it be described? The passing of the legendary musician and saxophonist was announced in the early hours of yesterday by his wife, Latoya Ekemode.
According to her, the prodigious Orlando Julius passed on in his sleep on Thursday night. “Yes, my husband passed on late last night, there was no indication that death was coming, he was not ill, he only slept and died in his sleep.” A bandleader, singer, and songwriter closely associated with Afrobeat music, barely celebrated his 60 years on stage last year.
The news of his sudden demise hit the Nigerian music industry folks as he passed away barely a few hours into his 79th birthday. The veteran highlife musician, according to his profile, was born on September 22, 1943 in Ikole-Ekiti, South West Nigeria; he grew up between Ekiti and Ilesha in Osun state where his father is from. Orland Julius took off to Ibadan at age 14 on his own.
His first musical teacher was his mother, who would sing and dance while he played drums. He went to St. Peter’s Anglican School in Ikole and played in the school band. In 1957, after dropping out of school and the death of his father, he left for Ibadan to pursue a career as a musician. He worked at a bakery while playing the drums or flute with juju and konkoma bands.
Orlando Julius can be described as one of the forerunners of Afrobeat. He started out in 1960 with the great trumpeter Eddy Okonta as well as IK Dairo. OJ, as he’s fondly called, left for the United States in 1974 and collaborated with artistes including Ambrose Campbell, Hugh Masekela, Lamont Dozier and many others. His 1966 effort, Super Afro Soul, made him a national celebrity in Nigeria and even went as far as to influence music in the United States.
Carlos Santana personally selected Orlando and his Nigerian All-Stars to accompany him to Hawaii to play at a festival in 1992. By 2001, UK label Strut Records reissued the 1966 album ‘Super Afro Soul’ before other labels including Soundway and Vampi Soul released his Afro Sounders recordings, all spreading the word on OJ’s pioneering influence.
He recorded movie soundtracks for Wale Fanu’s ‘Owo Blow’, Tunde Kelani’s ‘Saworoide’ and Tunji Bamishigbin’s ‘Eku Ida’ among many others. Passionate about reviving highlife music, he recorded albums with Nigerian legends including Fatai Rolling Dollar and Alaba Pedro, Roy Chicago’s guitarist. Some of his evergreen classics are; ‘Adara’, ‘Ololufemi’, ‘Colombia’, ‘Ope’, ‘Ise logun ise’, ‘Jagua Nana’ amongst many others.
Orlando Julius moved to Ghana in 2003 after playing a concert at Panafest (the long-running Pan-African Historical Theatre Project). He set up a studio in Accra and recorded his album, ‘Longevity & Reclamation’. He moved back to Nigeria in 2008 and started touring the world with UK band Heliocentrics in 2013. Orlando Julius lived in Ilesha, Osun state with his wife, dancer and backup singer Latoya Aduke Ekemode.
To his musical credit are 11 albums and several EPs and singles. Some of the albums were: Disco Hi-Life, Ololufe, Love, Peace and Happiness; Dance Afrobeat and more. “Some I can’t even remember”, he recalled in a recent interview. “My first music video, Adara, was recorded at the Osun Shrine along with Ise Logun Ise and Dance AfroBeat. Tunde Kilani on camera was great, Wale Fanu on sound, an excellent production.”
In that recent 2020 interview with iconic photographer and culture enthusiast, Bolaji Alonge, OJ recounted his musical odyssey thus: “My professional music journey started when I recorded my first single, ‘Igbehin Adara’ in 1960. I was already playing shows, travelling up and down South-West Nigeria. I loved playing music, singing and drumming from childhood.
“My mother was the one who really pushed me, she liked to sing as she worked on yarn – she produced Aso-Oke (a hand-woven cloth created by the Yoruba people of West Africa) and when she sang I got my sakara drums, sat with her and sang along. We both loved to sing together, sometimes she would walk with me as we sung all the way to my school gate before she went back home.
“My mother gave me clothes to sell and my father had a shop in Ikole-Ekiti, but I wasn’t interested in helping them to sell clothes. My father had two wives and my mother was the second wife, my mother is from Ekiti and I saw how they helped my father carry fabrics from Ikole Ekiti to Ijebu, about 285km. From when I was a child, I knew music was the way for me.”