When a master interviews a master, the broth produces an experience that would remain evergreen. Octogenarian broadcaster, Benson Idonije was guest to Jones Usen’s Kubanji Direct as part of the activities to celebrate the veteran who turned 80 recently. Sit back, folks, as this special weekend treat takes you way back in time.
Because of its evergreen content, the traditionness with attendant nostalgia running through the literary, broadcasting and musical history of Nigeria, this interview is deliberately presented in Q&A, with veteran Jones Usen conducting, moderating: you can’t ask for a better treat this weekend. Here we go:
It would be best to have your story told in your words: how did it all start for you?
Well, I don’t really know where to start from…
Start from the top
Okay; I am in retirement now; I retired from Radio Nigeria in 1999, but over the years since 1995 I progressed into writing from broadcasting following an invitation from The Guardian newspaper for me to write for them. From 1995 till recently I had three columns in The Guardian of Evergreen, Sound and Screen and All that jazz and this had been my assignment over the years.
And it kept you busy, no doubt…
(Laughs) O yes, it kept me on my toes
Of course that’s the spirit of broadcasting; the show has got to go on
O yes, and that’s why you’re here too!
Now, let’s start your story from the bottom, your foraying into broadcasting.
I entered broadcasting in 1957 as an engineering assistant and I later moved into the mainstream of the profession in 1960. I started from the ground phone library and moved into the music department where it all happened. My major programme presentation was The Big Beat which became very popular, and NBC Stereo Jazz Club; but my main interest in the music where I majored was jazz and I cultivated this culture from my village where I was exposed to indigenous rhythms, folklores and all that. At that point I discovered that jazz was advanced African music so I worked on that stuff for many years and it helped me in very many ways. I then met Fela in 1963 when he came from London.
The same Fela?
Yes, the same Fela Anikulapo, but the he was Ransom Kuti; he just came from England and it was this same jazz business that brought us together. I was presenting a jazz programme on radio at the time on Radio Nigeria, or Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) at that time, and he had listened a number of times to the programme and discovered that the presenter was making a lot of sense, sounding very brilliant and all that, so he came to meet in the studio and introduced himself.
Fela brought with him a white label album of jazz that he recorded himself in London, so I played on the programme and interviewed him, and it frisked him out; he was excited, and that was how our bonding began. We became friends and that led us to the formation of the Fela Ransom Kuti quartet; that was perhaps the first modern jazz group in this country; that was in 1963.
Quintet would suggest a five man piece band, I suppose?
Yes; I gathered the musicians and told them the roles each should play in the aggregation. So we played jazz, and I discovered I became very busy when Fela came into my life. So we played jazz up till 1965 when his mother advised us to identify with our culture, like highlife and all that, and this was because Fela started with highlife in the beginning. Fela was influenced by Dr. Victor Olaiya in the beginning and he played some highlife stuff before he changed to jazz.
So we moved on to jazz in 1965 and that was when the Koola Lobitos was formed. I gathered the musicians, starting with Tony Allen whom I picked up from Adeolu Akinsanya’s hotel where he was playing with him; I picked up Ojo Keji on bass, Isiaka was on konga-drums; the man you now know as Baba Ani (Lekan Animashaun) who is now directing the Egypt 80 now led by Seun Kuti was picked up from Chris Ajilo and his Kubanos. That was how the Koola Lobitos was formed in 1965.
We gigged around Lagos, played in clubs and all that…
Can you recall some of those clubs..?
Oh, we played at Kaakadu hotel; then Savoir hotel, Cool Cats, even Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo; we played everywhere and played in some engagements too, but you see, the band did not make enough money. The music was good, but it was not commercially viable.
Was it a problem of appreciation by the public?
Well, yes and more; it was also a problem of refusal to identify with your culture. As a matter of fact, we had some promotions from The Daily Times. Before I went into journalism, I discovered that some journalists would do PR (public relations) for the artists and they will never tell them the truth. This happened a lot in those days, but we went to The Daily Times to ask for promotion, and we invited them to the club to listen to the band and give us some promotion in the papers.
I met the then Mr. Jaja who was the features editor; he promised to come to the club to listen to the band, but he gave us conditions: we should use a tape recorder to record our songs and bring the tape itself to his house to listen to. We did all that; he took about one month listening to our music, and at the end, what did he say?‘Fela’s music has fire, but can it sell?’ That was his headline. There was no photograph, but we still loved it; at least we had a mention and we also saw the article as very objective; it was the truth. That summed up the totality of what our music was at that time; it had fire but it did not sell; the music was brilliant but it did not sell.
But it began to sell in 1971 with the release of Jeun ko ku when the music was watered down and made to identify with our musical culture, and that was indeed the beginning of Fela’s success. I was managing the band all along until 1974..
You were managing Fela’s band alongside with your job? The management allowed you the freedom?
No, no; the management did not allow me the freedom; it was a risk and I ran into a lot of problems. At a time I was suspended for (laughter), and the way I was restored back to work was a miracle; we had to play a lot of tricks I cannot tell you on air to get me back to work.
Let’s talk broadcasting; then and now. Let us not go the usual way of comparing standards. As a broadcaster, how did you relish the job, looking back now in retrospect?
Looking back, I feel bad listening to radio and television these days; I feel bad because I spent the last eight years of my career as a teacher of broadcasting. I was at the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) Training School as achieved principal lecturer (training officer programme production). I also taught presentation so I feel bad when I hear what is happening today; things have changed, Jones; sometimes I blame these yoppy chaps…
Or broadcast managers who are looking the other way..?
Yes…I blame all of them, but I see it as a societal problem because the change is happening in all professions; just look at engineers today; look at lawyer and other professions and you find that standards have fallen; they are not what these things used to be, so I see it as a general trend.
Having said that, even the people who are supposed to be managing them do not know better.
Ownership is supposed to be a problem here, do you agree?
These downwards trend started from the proliferation of radio and television stations that started in 1994 with Ray Power; they were free to do what they like; they became highly commercialised and it was like buying and selling; they had to do that to make money because they have to pay their staff as opposed to when government was running these stations and government had money to pay salaries whether we made money or not.
So the values have changed; and in any case, it had to do with the entire society because our culture has changed over time. Programmes are designed to sooth the demands of the people, to meet the culture of the people.
More like saying, rather than the media setting the agenda, the public is setting the agenda.
Yes, they are doing exactly what the public want to hear; the way they live, where they eat, where they go to, how they think, and all that; that’s our culture. They know the moods and attitudes of people.
Let me give you an example: there is now what they call a phone-in programme; instead of them doing a feaure or a documentary, you just open the telephone lines and you start to talk to people for one or two hours and everybody is listening; some people just want to air their views, that’s all.
Besides that, their attempt to do interviews and magazine programmes, you tell that this is not the way to do it, and they see you as what they call ‘old school’ and they want to do it their own way. Even the people consuming the programmes, they enjoy it that way, so you see why I say it’s a societal problem.
Then the bigger problem is with the managers of broadcasting, because one should expect them to be able to put their feet down and say, this is how it is done.
Sorry you were not at the launch of my three books recently; Christopher Kolade was the chairman of the event; Biodun Shobanjo was his anchor; your former colleagues John Nkpa, Mgbatogwu, Victor Johnson, etc all were there. They started to remember the old days; when Christopher Kolade was director of programmes, there were standards; we looked back to those old times when the quality of broadcasting was really high…
Let’s look at you on the job, the camaraderie you had in those far off days and may be you want to talk about some of your colleagues, both living and dead; but let’s start with this: FM broadcasting started precisely on April 20, 1977 and you were one of the first voices; it was a whole new experience for you?
Yes indeed, I was the first person to take on the early morning programme, and it sounded new to everybody because the presentation was different, casual and easy going as well as breezy as opposed to the stiffness and seriousness of the old service; it was supposed to be an alternative to the serious music of the first station.
Some of your colleagues..?
O yes, I remember the late Tony Ibegbuna (bless his soul) who worked tirelessly to help establish the place, (his face lit up). Let me tell you a story: two of us were seriously involved; we also had Willie Egbe at some point, the late Kelvin Amaechi was also one of us …
And at the newsroom level you had the Ladi Lawals, am I sure..?
O yes, Ladi Lawal (Bless his soul); he was a brilliant news writer; he started this informal way of writing the news in a way that sounded so personal at the FM station and that is what FM stations are adopting today.
And then came a proliferation of radio stations which ordinarily should have been a plus for the business, do you think..?
Quite so, but unfortunately that was when this downward trend started; you could blame them, but they will tell you they have cover their overheads; they’re not government, they are commercial, they’re out to make their money; that was when they began to compromise standards and standards began to fail.
In the presentation of music they tell you, more music less talk; if you’re playing music to a whole audience who cannot identify the source and who do not know where you’re coming from, it is funny. Programmes were not well designed, configured; you just slam programmes on people without any definite aim; so that’s what began to happen from that point.
Let’s talk about the cool, crazy years. I remember a particular event, the late John Chukwu and Isaac Ijoma (bless their souls), told me about ‘Trees grow in the desert’ during the Gowon years; it was a hell of a time, wasn’t it?
Yes it was; Trees grow in the desert was a drama programme that was written by Alhaji Rasheed Gbadamosi; the production was by Kofoworola Bucknor-Akerele, the former deputy governor to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu; she was in Voice of Nigeria then, a fine broadcaster. The drama triggered off a lot of furor as it were and at that time, heads were rolling. But the situation was saved by the director of programmes Mr. Christopher Kolade who was a professional administrator to the core.
What happened was that, when some of the actors were detained and interrogated, Christopher Kolade, even though he was away outside the country, made the authorities know that he was the one to be detained because he laid down standards for his staff to follow. He told them he was the director in charge and so he should be the one to be detained instead of his staff, so he was to take the blame; and that was how it all ended.
And of course that happened in the military environment?
Yes, and that was why they were arrested; they saw the play as a satire because they saw in the play a segment where a coup was enacted; and didn’t Trees grow in the desert after all? (laughs), and are they not still growing now? Those trees are matured now, and now we have a big forest … the desert has become indeed a forest now!
You may want to look back at this country you grew up in that held a lot of promise for you and for me, but we missed it along the way. Radio was supposed to be a means of social engineering, but you couldn’t have done more than your best in those days molding opinion…
O yes, we did a lot to lead and guide opinion with broadcasting; anything that went on the air was authority, but you can’t say that regarding what is happening today; quality has gone down. Over the years, broadcasting has tried to guide and lead opinion, and this was in areas of politics, business, credibility in news reporting, information that was right, education and all that; but the trend has and is still changing; people don’t do research anymore before they go on air so…
Which is quite an irony; now materials are at one’s fingertips; you go to your telephone, go to the computer; in those days you had no luxury of any sort.
That’s so true, Jones; these days broadcasters have no excuse; they don’t need to go too far to gather materials for their programmes because of the opportunity of the internet. I feel particularly pained because for eight years, I taught programme production at the training school; some of my students are directors all over the place; one of them, a Gambian is a minister in The Gambia; in those days students used to come to the training school from West African countries; we had the best training school in West Africa to tell you how qualitative broadcasting was at that time.
So I feel pained when I hear some of these things wrongly done on air despite the fact that they have abandoned all the formats and templates that we used to adopt in the programme production techniques, like the talk, the interview proper, the discussion, the magazine, drama, features and documentaries, etc; you can’t hear them anymore. Interviews are just Questions and Answers, what they call Q&A with no follow up questions; even the interviewers are not well informed so most times you discover that the interviewees are just lecturing, interviews turn into lectures because the interviewer is not knowledgeable on the subject, so because the interviewer does not understand what he or she is talking about, you’re just listening.
You can imagine an interview that starts with, ‘who is Jones Usen?’ as a first question. I listened to a programme a few days ago on one of the stations, and it started with, who is Mr. so and so? That’s a very wide question; so I sat and waited to see where the man will take over, but the man started to tell his life history; he spoke for about ten minutes in an interview of about 15 minutes because of the wrong question. So people don’t know how to conduct interviews, the audience is shortchanged; they are not adequately informed. People today go on air and think that any programme is a programme, but no: programmes must succeed, and they cannot succeed until they have adequately fulfilled their purposes respectively; every programme has its aim.
This brings to mind that Radio Nigeria produced some of the finest broadcasters on the Continent; need I mention the likes of Ishola Folorunsho, Ernest Okonkwo, Cebastine Ofurum, and so on; Ernest would easily go down as our own equivalent of Alan Green, and so on. That generation has vanished, would you say?
O Yes, the generation is gone; Ishola Folorunsho was a patriot, a patriarch; he was the one who set the tone for football commentaries in this country. Now this generation does not know who Ishola Folorunsho is; when he died about a decade ago, he died unsung and un-mourned, so that era is gone, Jones.
(Laughs sadly) No, not for good.
It then means there’s a little something we could do, but we would discuss that before we round up. Now at 80, you don’t look it; mentally and otherwise, you’re not helped to your feet.
I have to…
I guess you have no choice..?
Yes, I have no choice because I have to live…I want to survive (gave an old man’s laughter to buttress his point).
(Books launched include: This Fela self; The Great Highlife Party, and Legends Untold)
THE GREAT HIGHLIFE PARTY
The second one is The Great Highlife Party, but there’s a big highlife book in the pipeline from the stories I’ve been writing from the 90s; but this one is about the great highlife party.
In 1999 or so, there was this highlife party held at that German Goethe Institute; can you imagine it was a lady, Mrs. Abasia who organised it; she travelled to the East to collect the musicians to perform, and here we were, she had invited us. So we asked her, what are you doing? She said she loved highlife; she had all the albums; she said she wants to listen to highlife, that there was no highlife in the country anymore. Now, if a foreigner could tell you that, I saw it as a challenge, especially as I was asked to coordinate the programme.
So when I was asked to plan a programme for a club in Lagos the following year, it was an opportunity for me to initiate the programme; I saw it as an opportunity to set up a highlife revival initiative.
Now we’re talking highlife, highlife not in its raw form, you can revolutionise it, make it more appealing without losing the essence in a 21st Century Nigeria, is that what you’re talking about?
No, at the time we were trying to bring back highlife, the music was on its way out…like at its lowest ebb, no longer popular; although people think even now that highlife is dead, it is not; it has only evolved. So to remind the people about our culture, I had to bring on the great highlife party where every last Sunday of the month I assembled old highlife bands, about four or five, and invited people to listen and it was free. I did that for ten years…
Did it pay off?
O yes, in a big way too; in fact my success story in that regard was the fact that, an artiste who was already forgotten, who became a labourer/night watchman, even though his music was good, he was not patronised – bounced back. I’m sure you know the name – Fatai Rolling Dollars. He led the group that had Ebenezer Obey playing for his band and packing instruments; but in the 70s when the trend was evolving, he filtered into the background; he lost out and went into retirement, so he was jobless and miserable – but that programme succeeded in bringing him back and he became a superstar before he died at the age of 87. You will remember his hit song, Okeresi numba wa that he brought into the scene; that is my success. Again it influenced a whole lot of musicians.
You will observe that what the likes of Fela did, and Fatai Rolling Dollars did, that is what is happening today; they are the gate way that produced hip up music; today hip up is the contemporary music that has a history; it is falling back on highlife some of which they heard from Fatai Rolling Dollars and Fela whose music they continue to hear; so I have succeeded in a big way.
The third book is All That Jazz; for so many years now I had a column in The Guardian and the book is a collection of the major stories that I wrote at the time; the whole essence is to let jazz aficionados know the essence of jazz; that it is advanced African music, it actually originated from Africa…
The Americans just made a show and a meal of it…
Yes, and it is the Africans who are in America that are playing the jazz that is jazz; but unfortunately, it’s the whites that are reaping from these endeavour in the sense that they started to introduce standards and encourage musicians who would love the establishment; but they failed to patronise the musicians who were leaning towards African music because they knew that was radical. So the book is an exclusaire of some of the major activities in the art and the major players of the Movement.
I can say you almost have shared your epitaph with me – and your epitaph is best written by you and nobody else.
Mr. Idonije, it’s crazy to think that after close to 56 years of independence, this country is in dire need of heroes: we don’t know our heroes, neither do we immortalise them…
It’s a shame, but I never liked discussing politics and all that; but it’s a shame, Jones, that we do not recognise our heroes, we don’t document our history, we don’t even know our culture; what do we know? That’s why we are where we are, and in this mess.
How do we wrap up this session?
Well, look ahead into the future and see how we can improve the situation; we shouldn’t leave it as it is. We should make effort at least to bring sanity into it, or what do we do? You’re in broadcasting; tell your managers that training is key, a vital component of what they’re doing; they should train and retrain.
Might we talk about the home front: your family?
Well, I am happily married; I have children and grandchildren too. One of my grandchildren is playing music as a matter of fact; one of my grandsons is a Bonaboy, if you ever heard his music, and he’s doing pretty well. He led the New Generation as a musician at the Freedom Park where I was celebrated when I turned 80. They’re playing hip up.
If you (were to) come back to the world, would you be a broadcaster?
Yes, but I would rather be a musician; I attempted to play music at one time, I used to play the saxophone, but I stopped somewhere down the line; I did music, I have a Grade Six of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. So if I (should) come to the world again, I want to start from there and be a complete musician.
We wish you well.
Thank you very much.
After retirement, Ben Jay contributed critiques, opinions and commentaries to many major arts related journals in Nigeria and abroad.
A 2012 recipient of the Life Time Award for Journalism Ecellence from the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigavive Journalism, Ben J is also a Fellow of Adam Fiberesima School of Music and Conservatory, University of Port Harcourt. With over 50 years of cognitive experience in the Nigerian music industry,