BY TONY OGAGA ERHARIEFE
LAST weekend, Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) and the Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), hosted iconic radio personality, Benson Idonije aka Benjay, as he marked his 80th birthday. In a career spanning over five decades, Idonije has thrilled millions of listeners on his jazz programmes. The producer and presenter of programmes like NBC Jazz Club, The Big Beat and Stereo Jazz Club who also managed Afro beat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti until 1974, later in his public career veered into writing contributing critiques, opinions and commentaries to major arts-related journals in Nigeria and other parts of the world. Idonije is a recipient of the Life Time Award for Journalism Excellence from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism and a Fellow of the Adam Fiberesima School of Music and Conservatory, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
Sir, happy birthday, let’s look at how you actually started?
I started work at Radio Nigeria in 1957. I had done music in school before I entered Radio Nigeria. I had gone to Yaba College of Technology to study Communications Engineering because I was enamoured by what the engineers did in terms of outside broadcasting. After that I came back and entered the Engineering Department of Radio Nigeria and all that time I was interested in music and in jazz especially. I was always listening to Music USA and The Voice of America Jazz Hour by the Late Willis Conover. That was where my interest in jazz started.
How old were you then?
I was in my 20s. What I listened to most was jazz which came from the VOA and was presented by Willis. He held us spellbound every night. He trained me as a matter of fact. His presentation was deliberate and he asked questions and gave us posers to answer. We had jazz listening clubs and I was the chairman of our own club. He sent us jazz albums. My first album was Art Blecky and The Jazz Messengers and I listened to it over and over again. I couldn’t find another one to buy. I have always loved African music because jazz is African music. Another name for jazz is advanced African music because let us face it, it was the white establishment that introduced the pop songs in America composed by Duke Ellington among a host of others. It was this same white establishment that introduced standards into jazz. Otherwise, jazz is African music which involves the call and response pattern. And that is what jazz is becoming now. Any piece of music can become jazz depending on what you do with it. Jazz is improvisation.
And this white thing continued to haunt me when I progressed from engineering to programmes because I wanted o actualise my dream which was to present a jazz programme. Willis Conoer was my idol and I wanted to be like him. I transferred to radio in 1960 and I was presenting NBC Jazz Club every Thursday nights and at some point, the United States Information Service was interested and I was told to record from their studio. I used to go there to record but there was this white domination that I saw again which I battled with before. I realised that the scripts were written by one Tom Scanlam were coloured and they were slanted towards propping up white musicians. The scripts told me that Jerry Mulligan was the greatest baritone saxophonist in the world. Meanwhile, guys like Harry Kanny and Pepper Adams were there. They will tell you that Paul Desmond is the greatest alto saxophonist, meanwhile we had the likes of Julian Canonball Adderly and Charly Parker. They will tell you that Bob James was the greatest pianist but we had the likes of Herbie Hancock and this pissed me off and I found myself editing the scripts before presenting and they didn’t like it because I found that all they wanted to do was promote white imperialism. They wanted to promote their own culture so I told my boss and we stopped but I was still collecting records and presenting until 1963 when Fela came into my life. It was that programme that introduced Fela to me. When he came back from England he listened to my programme and after five editions, he came to see the face behind the programme at Broadcasting House, Ikoyi. He came with an album and introduced himself. Fortunately for me I had already known him in 1962 when his mum brought some singles he had recorded in London. So when he came that day we played the album he brought and I interviewed him and he was tripping! We bonded immediately and we formed the first modern jazz band in Nigeria, the Fela Ransom Kuti Quintet. We played all over town. Our base was the Cool Cats at Apapa Road. We played every Monday night and various musicians were jamming with us. That was 1963. I managed and assembled the band. Chris Ajilo, Steve Rhodes and Wole Buknor eventually formed their own band, The Jazz Preachers. There was Zeal Onyia and Taiwo Kupe among a host of others. Art Alade became the band leader. There was a lot of jazz in Lagos back then. In 1965, Fela & The Quintet transformed to the Kula Lobitios. I assembled the band and brought in Tony Allen on drums, Joe Keji on base and Isiaka on kongoas while Animashaun was on baritone saxophone among a few others. That went on until 1969 when Fela travelled to America and came back highly radicalised and the band became Nigeria 70 and then Africa 70 and eventually Egypt 80 and all that. I managed the band until 1974.
So that was when the jazz aspect fizzled out…
It did not. Jazz is an African. For people like us, the jazz aspect did not fizzle out because it had become a fusion. Fela’s music became jazz fusion which is Afro beat. However, It was all jazz until Jeun Ko Ku started another era in Felas music which we all know as Afro beat. That became more commercial and the music was watered down and the baseline became repetitive and the sequence was not as involved as in the highlife days until 1997 when he died
Looking at jazz today, what can you say?
Nothing has progressed because people are not told what is happening on radio or TV. There are no jazz programmes, and if there are, they are not saying anything that will teach jazz devotees or would be jazz enthusiasts. That was what we tried to do in our days and that won listeners to the jazz fold. So to answer your question, nothing is happening to promote jazz even though a lot is happening on ground. This is the time TV and radio should be promoting and projecting jazz in this country. Jazz activity is happening on ground but promotion is zero.
What do you want to be remember for?
I leave that to posterity. Just remember me for what you think I have done. I have done my bit in terms of promoting our music culture, if I am remembered for that so be it.