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Femi Esho ... A Repository Of Indigenous Music
By Cletus Nwachukwu

IN the 40s and 50s, highlife music was the signature tune for the growing West African entertainment scene. It was from Ghana, as played by the progenitors : E.T. Mensah, Joe Mensah, Broadway Dance Band, Uhuru Dance Band and the Ramblers Dance Band.

At a particular period in time, Ghana remained the only country with real interest in highlife music. But Nigeria was not to be left behind in this growing rave, with Bobby Benson blazing the trail. He collaborated with the famous Ghanaian saxophonist, E.T. Mensah, in the hit evergreen song, Taxi Driver.

Much more later, the genre got more acclaim in Nigeria with the return of the much respected E.T. Mensah for a duet with Dr. Victor Abimbola Olaiya in the song, Esi-Nana.

Ms. Victoria Folson

Back in the days when High Life was king

Yes, you could say this was the beginning of great musical evolution in Nigeria.

At a period after Nigeria's independence, other genres of music began giving highlife a run for its money. With the emergence of Adeolu Akinsanya, I.K. Dairo and Ayinde Bakare, highlife music at a time began experiencing a lull. Post independent Nigeria brought forth many other genre of music with Apala, Sakara and Juju somewhat enjoying a good measure of success.

Indigenous music, experts believe, has suffered much neglect in recent years. But one man has taken it upon himself to revive the various forms of indigenous music that have been in the throes of extinction.

Call him Africa's foremost music revivalist and you would not be wrong. He is Mr. Femi Esho, the Managing Director of Evergreen Music Company. In 2007, Esho presented to the public, repackaged complete works of Afrobeat legend, the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. It was a huge success and it was to be the beginning of greater things to happen for indigenous music lovers.

Recently, Esho was part of the distinguished individuals who delivered papers at a workshop on the declining fortunes of highlife music. After his thought-provoking and emotional papers, the unrepentant lover and promoter of indigenous African music was besieged by several people, particularly, two Ghanaians, Ebo Taylor, a former member of both Stargazers Band of Ghana and Broadway Dance Band, and Stan Plague, who performed with the famous Uhuru Dance Band of Ghana.

That meeting culminated into demands by the artistes and other lovers of highlife music in Ghana for Esho's Evergreen Music Company to help reproduce and repackage lost works of famous Ghanaian highlife bands, as he has done in Nigeria, with Fela's and others.

Now, the revival has taken more serious dimensions on his return from Ghana, the zeal and passion for highlife and other indigenous music, increased in manifolds. In a chat with Weekend Beats, Esho remained upbeat about his dream of reviving and promoting indigenous Nigerian, nay African music all over the world.

"You know, in those days, security was very good. In fact, we used to move from one spot featuring the likes of Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Fela and the Koola Lobitos and ending up at Bobby Benson's," Esho reminisces.

"These days", he continues, "things have really changed for the worse and we at Evergreen Music Company are trying to re-enact the fun of the old times by returning highlife music to the forefront".

He acknowledges that despite the apathy to indigenous music, Nigerians are eager for a return of the good old days. He reiterated his call for a music foundation for the country which, according to him, would serve as a reservoir for the past, present and future works of Nigerian musicians.

"I've said it repeatedly in the media that we need a music foundation where at the touch of a button, you can listen to the past works of Irewolede Denge, Tunde King, Ojoge Daniel, Ambrose Campbell, Ayinde Bakare, Rex Lawson, J.O. Araba and others.

"I'm prepared to offer my services without taking a kobo from anybody. I'm proud to say I have virtually all the jobs of musicians in Ghana and Nigeria, dead or alive, in my archives," he enthused.

As if to buttress this claim, Esho revealed that some weeks ago, juju music maestro and Apola king, Idowu Animashaun visited his company looking for one of the records he produced 15 years ago.

"When Apola King came here in search of his record of 15 years ago, I gave it to him within two minutes. And he was able to see over 20 of his albums in our archives. We have it all, from Apala, Awurebe, Sakara, Juju, Fuji, Waka, Dadakuada and others.

"The works of Sakara music founder, Abibu Oluwa who was born in 1904, Haruna Ishola, S. Saka and others could be found and eventually kept in the music foundation for the benefit of this generation and those yet unborn."

He recalled painfully how a young man from the United States came to him over a music project and when he asked about him some of his proposed songs, they turned out to be songs from the past which Esho instantly produced from his archives.

Esho is sad that while in the Western World, past works of the likes of Elvis Presley, Louis Armstrong, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and other great legends are preserved for posterity, the same cannot be said for Nigeria, save for the valiant efforts of veteran journalist, Benson Idonije, Jahman Anikulapo and his very self.

He lamented the non-challance of those at the helm of affairs at the musicians union (PMAN), for doing nothing to preserve the legacies of past music legends. As for the government's lackadaisical attitude to maintenance and promotion of our culture, including music, Esho lamented that the Ministry of Culture is bereft of ideas.

He described as shallow and vain music being played today, saying it is not professionally played as in the days of yore. According to Esho, the modern day artiste only needs a computer to produce beats.

"The music of the new generation can't stand the test of time. For instance, Victor Olaiya's Mofe Muyan played in 60s is still hot, ditto Victor Uwaifo's Guitar Boy. Today, they would hit the computer keys in two days and come up with an album."

On the government's contributions to the growth of the music industry, Esho likened it to the activities of the corporate world. He regrets that these days, most corporate show promoters prefer inviting foreign bands and artistes to come and perform at most A-list events.

"Bringing foreign bands into the country is insultive. We still have vibrant bands in this country and supporting them would only do us a lot of good."

Concerning the love for foreign brand of music, he admonished that you could only give what you have to the world.

"Can we play reggae music more than the Jamaicans? Can you rap more than the Americans? Let's do our own thing. Let's have a music foundation and I'm ready to let go of all my archives. In fact, my present vocation and love for highlife music has made me poorer."

On the origin of highlife, Esho disclosed that it is not entirely true that the genre of music originated from Ghana. He said that the brand 'Highlife' simply means life on the high side. He said that because of the impact his company is making in reviving highlife music, his visit to Ghana was an eye-opener.

"I was treated like a king in Ghana. I met a few of the remaining highlife legends, particularly, the now 82-year-old leader of Ramblers Band, Jerry Hanson. The old man was quite close to tears when I presented to him every single song he had produced in his life.

" The same thing happened when I presented old works to Ebo Taylor of Stargazers and Broadway Dance Band and Stan Plange of the Uhuru Dance Band. They were overwhelmed with joy but were very sad that it is a Nigerian who did it, rather than a Ghanaian."

Despite the supposed lull in the genre of music, Esho still believes highlife music is vibrant in Ghana. He lamented that the inability of lovers of highlife music to get the old works of their favourite stars is responsible for the lull. On the bright side, he disclosed that all the jobs of the great musicians are now available in new digitally re-mastered compact discs.

Still on his Ghana experience, he recalled with nostalgia the beautiful night life in Ghana. The uninterrupted power supply, neat roads, peace and security.

"I visited many clubs where highlife is still being played on a daily basis. You know, it is not so in Lagos, where you have to search endlessly before you can get any highlife music spot at weekends".

He disclosed that he is already working towards getting a resident permit so that he can make Ghana his second home. He criticised the Nigerian media, particularly radio and television stations, for not doing enough to promote indigenous music.

"Except for Wazobia and Radio Lagos, music played on other stations are for the younger generation. It's like they're telling us if you like listen to it, if you like, don't. That's very bad".

On the future of highlife music in Nigeria, Esho assured that with the help of God, all hope is not lost. He said that the works of 20 celebrated Nigerian music masters, 25 golden hits of seven Nigerian music icons and the works of artistes like Rex Lawson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, Eddie Okonta, Tunde Nightinale, Celestine Ukwu, Ayinde Bakare and others are available for the members of the public.

"With the availability of these works, highlife is getting re-positioned. People who are concerned are not magicians. So, Evergreen Musical Company has been able to bring out all these works and the younger ones are beginning to like highlife.

"When you listen to some Fjui or Juju music, you will see a lot of highlife influence. I think the future is bright. I only wish we had the support of government in what we are doing. I also pray that one day we can have a music foundation where, at the press of a button, one could get the works of these great fathers of highlife."

Esho disclosed that his company has completed payment for the total rights to the works of old bands like Stargazers, Broadway and Black Beats, adding that some of the estates have received over 60 percent payment. He said he has managed to do it right as royalties are paid when due. He is planning to return to Ghana in a few months' time to conclude marketing and distribution arrangement of the works already reproduced and repackaged.

He attributed his interest and eventual visit to Ghana to the belief that the works of Evergreen Music Company would not be complete without the Ghanaian adventure. He added also that although highlife did not originally come from Ghana, it is better played and appreciated over there.

"In those days, you see bands of over 30 members well-dressed in three-piece suits and the least educated among them would be an A-level holder. They worship and eat highlife music in Ghana".                                          




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