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Jazz, Highlife & Afrobeat Live With Prince Eji Oyewole
March 30 @ 6:00 pm - 10:00 pmNaira500
An Octogenarian Prince Eji Oyewole is a flautist, saxophonist and sometime bandleader who was born to a royal lineage in Ibadan. He has had a career spanning well over half a century and trained both in Nigeria and then at Trinity, the prestigious music school in London. His life as an itinerant musician also saw him living for extensive periods in Geneva, Hamburg and other European cities. He is known for his album “Charity Begins At Home” which was released in 1984.
During the sixties and seventies, the Nigerian music scene was thriving, and new bands were being formed on a daily basis. Similarly, many new artists were making an impression on Nigerian music during this period. This included flautist, saxophonist and future bandleader Eji Oyewole.
He was born in Ibadan, the city on edge of the savannah. Ibadan was capital of Oyo State, which was the third largest metropolitan area in Nigeria. In the city, Eji Oyewole’s family were held in high regard because they were descended from royalty. This meant that Eji Oyewole was really Prince Eji Oyewole. Despite this, he was determined to forge a career as a musician.
He succeeded in doing so, but only ever released one solo album, Me and You which was released on the Nigerian label Top Records in 1985. However, Me and You should have been Eji Oyewole’s sophomore album.
Towards the end of the seventies, Eji Oyewole had recorded Charity Begins At Home for EMI Nigeria. However, Charity Begins At Home lay unreleased until October 2015 when this long-lost highlife classic was belatedly released. By then, Eji Oyewole was still occasionally playing live. This was no surprises as music has been a constant in his life.
Prince Eji Oyewole was born in Ibadan, and growing up, discovered music. At last, the young Prince knew what he wanted to do with his life. When he told his parents they were horrified. Eji explains “My family rejected it initially. They wanted me to study professional courses such medicine or law. They even asked if I had started smoking Indian hemp already?” He was able to reassure them that wasn’t the case and that he was determined to make a living as a musician.
The defiant young prince got his breakthrough at the Paradise Club in Ibadan when he became a member of Eddy Okonta’s highlife band. Initially, Prince Eji Oyewole played the flute before deciding he wanted to play the saxophone.
Most people would have taken lessons from a music teacher. Not Prince Eji Oyewole. Instead, he bought some textbooks and with his basic knowledge of music taught himself to play the saxophone. That wasn’t the end of Prince Eji Oyewole’s musical education. Not by a long chalk.
Just before Prince Eji Oyewole decided to move to Lagos he met Chris Ajilo, and the legendary tenor saxophonist taught him the basics of music. As they spoke and played, little did Prince Eji Oyewole realise he was receiving a musical masterclass. When he left for Lagos he was already a much better musician.
Having moved to Lagos, the Nigerian capital, Prince Eji Oyewole found himself playing at the Lido Club and Empire Hotel. Soon, he was a familiar face at both venues. Not long after this he got the chance to join another band.
This was Bobby Benson’s Band which had a residency at the Caban Bamboo Club. Joining Bobby Benson’s Band had lifted Prince Eji Oyewole’s profile. People heard about the young Prince playing in the band and came to hear him play. So did a friend of Prince Eji Oyewole’s who came with his employer.
This was Isaac Olashugba, the alto saxophonist in Fela Ransome-Kuti’s first band, Koola Lobitos. They were an innovative group who fused jazz and highlife and were a popular draw. However, when they weren’t playing, Isaac Olashugba came to see his friend the Prince play. On a number of occasions he brought Felt Kuti along and he liked what heard. So much so, that on numerous occasions Fela Kuti and Isaac Olashugba tried to get him to join Koola Lobitos. However, Prince Eji Oyewole was loyal and decided to stay with Bobby Benson’s Band.
Despite staying with Bobby Benson’s Band, Prince Eji Oyewole often got on stage with Koola Lobitos and even joined them when they played on radio. However, by the mid-sixties he must have regretted not joining Koola Lobitos.
Following a military coup d’etat in 1966, Nigeria was a dangerous place to live. Especially for someone with royal blood. Things got worse for Prince Eji Oyewole when the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Akintola was assassinated. Now was the time for him to leave Nigeria behind.
The early days of his life in exile was tough for Prince Eji Oyewole because much of West Africa spoke French. His life in Cotonou and Lomé was not easy and it wasn’t long until he was on the move again.
Next stop was Accra and in the Ghanian capital Prince Eji Oyewole hooked up with one of the city’s top highlife bands, Black Santiago. For a while, he was happy but after a while his wanderlust kicked in.
From Accra, Prince Eji Oyewole made his way to the Ivory Coast, and this wasn’t his finest hour as he ended up playing on the cabaret circuit. For a Nigerian Prince, this was quite a comedown. Ironically, he was rescued from obscurity by President Félix Houphouët-Boigny (French: [feliks ufwɛ (t) bwaɲi]; 18 October 1905 – 7 December 1993).
The Ghanian President asked Prince Eji Oyewole to join his Presidential Band. By then, he was tiring of the cabaret circuit and job offers were in short supply. Prince Eji Oyewole joined the Presidential Band which resulted in him being offered to join another prestigious band.
It was while playing with the Presidential Band that he came across Franco, who was the leader and guitarist of OK Jazz Of Congo. They were looking for a saxophonist and Prince Eji Oyewole who also played the flute fitted the bill. He joined OK Jazz Of Congo’s tour of West Africa. However, after the tour, Prince and OK Jazz Of Congo went their separate ways. The nomadic Prince was on the move again.
His nomadic lifestyle took him to France and he headed to the capital, Paris. It was there he first encountered Johnny Halliday and soon they were sharing the same stage. This led to his being booked at Trois Mallez, which in the late sixties, was a prestigious cabaret and jazz club. However, as was the norm, Prince didn’t stay around long.
Next stop on what was like the modern day equivalent of a Grand Tour was Geneva, in Switzerland. Prince Eji Oyewole had been booked to play at the city’s Club 7. For the next month, this was home to the wandering Prince. After this, he decided to further his education.
The Octogenarian Saxophonist couldn’t have chosen a better place than Germany. The country’s music scene was thriving and featured some of the most innovative musicians in the world. Many had studied the Musik Hochschule, under the tutelage of the great Professor Roland. While he studied by day, Prince Eji Oyewole played at venues around the city. One of the venues he played was The Star Club, where The Beatles had honed their sound. However, before long the prince was on the move again.
No wonder as West Berlin was home to some of the greatest creative minds. Writers, poets, philosophers and musicians called the city their home. This included innovative groups like Can, Kluster, Tangerine Dream, Ashra and Neu! who all congregated at The Zodiak Free Arts Lab. This was the city’s creative hub and where the best musical minds met. Prince Eji Oyewole however, was in West Berlin for saxophone lessons with Professor Lampart at the West Berlin Musik Hochschule. It was during this period of his life that the legendary saxophonist caught a break.
During his time at West Berlin, he was asked to join Billy Brooks, who at that time, was a European ambassador of jazz. Soon, Prince Eji Oyewole, who had come to city for saxophone lessons, was playing at Berlin’s Jazz Galerie and the Berlin Jazz Festival. Not long after becoming the first Nigerian artist to play at the Berlin Jazz Festival, the nomadic Prince had been talked into moving to London.
This happened when Fred Schwartz met Prince Eji Oyewole at Berlin’s Jazz Galerie. Keyboardist Fred Schwartz was a member of The Gasoline Band, and they were heading to London to record their eponymous debut album. The keyboardist convinced the prince to join The Gasoline Band just before they headed to London.
When The Gasoline Band arrived in London, the fusion band made their way to Morgan Studios. That was where The Gasoline Band recorded what was their only album. Prince Eji Oyewole was meant to have played on the album but here’s no sign of his name on the credits, unless he played under an alias? After the album was recorded, The Gasoline Band headed off on a Europe and tour with Prince part of the band’s horn section. Once the tour was complete the prince returned to the world of academia.
He returned to London, where he decided to complete his musical studies at the prestigious Trinity College. Once his education was complete Prince Eji Oyewole decided to become a session player.
Prince Eji Oyewole found himself working as the musical equivalent of a hired gun. As a session musician he played on everything from rock and pop to funk and soul. However, he was a versatile musician who was able to switch seamlessly between disparate genres.
In January 1976, Prince Eji Oyewole found himself in Nova Studios and was using the alias, Joe Oye. That’s the name that’s on the session sheets when he was part of the horn section that accompanied The Real Thing. Their star was in the ascendancy, but they were not as popular as the next artist he worked with later that month.
Later in January 1976, Vangelis were due to play at the Festival Hall. The previous year, 1975, Vangelis had released the soundtrack to Do You Hear the Dogs Barking? and his fifth solo album Heaven and Hell. Then in December 1975, Vangelis had recorded one of the most ambitious and innovative albums of his career, Albedo 0.39 which was released later in 1976. It was a concept album based around space and space physics. This was the calibre of musician that Prince Eji Oyewole was about to share a stage with. Vangelis was the real thing. So was another artist Prince Eji Oyewole would later share a stage with.
This was Bob Marley. The three years that Prince Eji Oyewole spent in Bob Marley’s employ was still to come. Before that, Prince Eji Oyewole decided to record his debut album, Charity Begins At Home.
For Charity Begins At Home, Prince Eji Oyewole penned four tracks. Charity Begins At Home, Gele Odun (Oil Boom), Lagos Complex-Lagos Highways and Unity in Africa (Kasowopo Kasekan) were full of social comment. These tracks were recorded by Prince Eji Oyewole and a group of African musicians.
Joining Prince Eji Oyewole for the recording of Charity Begins At Home, were a group of Nigerian musicians. The rhythm section featured just drummer Sunny Adefadugba and guitarist John Medua. They were augmented by Abu Ismail on congas, Kayode Dosunmo on bongos and Ayan on talking drum. Tende Mugbadu played second tenor saxophone. Prince Eji Oyewole played tenor and soprano saxophone, piano, flute, percussion and added vocals. He also co-produced Charity Begins At Home with Emmanuel Odenusi. Once the album was completed, Charity Begins At Home was meant to be released by EMI Nigeria.
When EMI Nigeria heard Charity Begins At Home they decided not to release the album. Why remains a mystery? One school of thought was that Eji Oyewole had taken the highlife ball and run with it but run too far.
While most highlife bands had guitars at the heart of their sound, Eji Oyewole decided to replace the guitars with horns. Their big, brash, harsh sound took centre-stage, while one lone guitar features on Charity It Begins At Home. With horns to the fore, Eji Oyewole seemed to have drawn inspiration from funk, especially American funk. This shines through throughout Charity It Begins At Home’s four tracks. They’re different to the music found on most highlife albums towards the end of the seventies.
Gone were short, three- or four-minute, radio friendly songs. Replacing them on Charity It Begins At Home were four lengthy tracks. They lasted between six and nine minutes. This wasn’t what executives at EMI Nigerian had been expecting. However, it was a case of being unable to see the wood from the trees.
Eji Oyewole had decided that highlife had to evolve. If it didn’t, it could risk becoming stale, and eventually, irrelevant. So, he set about reinventing highlife. To do this, he combines a generous supply of funk with jazz, highlife, Afrobeat and even rock. Seamlessly, these musical genres combine over the four tracks. The other ingredient is searing social comment. The man who was born a Prince wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion on not just what was wrong with not just with Nigeria, but the continent of Africa. This was another reason why executives at EMI Nigeria must have been reluctant to release Charity It Begins At Home.
The title-track Charity It Begins At Home opens the album. Understated soon becomes dramatic. Soon, the man who was born Prince Eji Oyewole is suggesting that Nigerians should unite and look after each other. Behind him stabs of brash, blazing horns, a funky rhythm section and chiming guitars combine with percussion. They propel the arrangement along. Unity is Eji’s theme. He sings about “understanding” and ask Nigerians to “come together.” His sincerity can’t be faulted and neither can the quality of his band. Over six minutes, Eji and his tight talented band showcase their considerable skills. Whether playing together or when the solos come round, they create an irresistible and funky track that starts off the reinvention of highlife.
Prince Eji Oyewole flute opens Gele Odun (Oil Boom) and otherworldy percussion joins a crystalline, chiming guitar and a rhythm section that errs on the side of funk rather than highlife. This the co-producers must have thought would give song a much more contemporary sound. There’s a still more than a nod to the old, as he sings of the recent oil boom that transformed Nigeria. Dramatic bursts of braying horns joins the chiming guitar and a myriad of percussion. Together they create a churning, swampy and funky arrangement. It’s a glorious fusion of funk, highlife and courtesy of the impassioned vocal, soul.
With the oil boom, Lagos in the late seventies was expanding. Prince Eji Oyewole and the band sing about this on Lagos Complex-Lagos Highways. The growling horns unite with the rhythm section and a mass of percussion, and this is what one expects on a highlife album. Chiming guitars are panned right and left. They seem to surround the listener and that’s no bad thing. By then, the band are in the groove. Later, they almost chant the lyrics giving it a mesmeric, hypnotic quality. This is a contrast to the arrangement which flows freely and joyously. Playing a starring role is the Prince’s vocal and saxophone. He unleashes a blistering solo before the hypnotic harmonies return. Later, another of grandstanding saxophone solo steals the show on another track full of social comment.
Unity in Africa (Kasowopo Kasekan) closes Charity Begins At Home. A scorching saxophone solo and rolls of dramatic drums combine before the rhythm section join the horns as the band kick loose. They play as one and never miss a beat. Then when horns drop out the rhythm section briefly showcase their skills. Then Prince Eji Oyewole delivers an urgent and impassioned vocal. His message is clear: “Unity in Africa.” Later, the rhythm section and guitar sound as if they’ve walked off the set for Blaxploitation movie while percussion and dramatic, blazing horns remind you that this is actually a highlife album. However, it’s highlife, but not as we know it. Instead, it’s Eji Oyewole as he set about reinventing highlife. It was a gamechanger of an album.
Despite this, EMI Nigeria chose not to release the album. Maybe Eji Oyewole’s lyrics were seen as too controversial? The Nigerian economy was booming, and inward investment was at an all-time high and many people were getting rich. However, this didn’t include many ordinary, working class Nigerians. They were living in abject poverty and if they had heard Prince Eji Oyewole’s message of unity and togetherness they could’ve rebelled. That couldn’t be allowed to happen and maybe that’s why Charity Begins At Home was pulled? If that is the case, then Nigerian musical history changed.
Highlife could have evolved and gone in a new direction. It would’ve taken on a funk fueled sound. That wasn’t to be. Instead, the status quo remained. However, nothing stays the same not even highlife. Eventually, highlife began to evolve and musically become more relevant. By then, Prince Eji Oyewole was part of a band that had a record released.
Eji Oyewole was part of the short-lived band Piliso, who released their one and only album, Thumela, in 1983. Although the Prince was just part of the horn section he made his presence felt. By then, he was rubbing shoulders with a true musical great, Bob Marley.
For three years Prince Eji Oyewole worked with Bob Marley and The Wailers. He can be heard on Buffalo Soldier which was released in 1983. Later, he went on to work with one of then giants of jazz Miles Davis. Sadly, Prince Eji Oyewole’s time with Bob Marley and The Wailers and Miles Davis is often overlooked. This is testament to how highly regarded a musician the wandering Prince was.
Despite that, he decided to return home to where the story started, Ibadan, the city on edge of the savannah. That’s where Prince Eji Oyewole was born and it’s where he has called home for over the last two decades. Still, the man who was born a Prince continues to make music and he has recorded an album of new material with his new band, The Afrobars. He’s also part of Faaji Agba, a Nigerian supergroup who have been compared to Buena-Vista Social Club. Still, there’s no sign of Prince Eji Oyewole losing his insatiable appetite for music.
Far from it. He’s at the heart of Ibadan’s thriving music scene and continues to collaborate with and encourage the latest generation of musicians. And somewhat belatedly, Prince Eji Oyewole can show Ibadan’s latest generation of musicians his long lost album, Charity Begins At Home which he recorded five decades ago and is one of the most important chapters in his action-packed fifty-year career.
Edited: SABUR ”KingSobrinno” GARUBA
- March 30
6:00 pm - 10:00 pm
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- Prince Eji Oyewolw & The Afrobars
- Freedom Park Lagos