Nigeria’s Jùjú music: A genre’s centenary timeline

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Friday, 23 September 2022 18:22, updated on Sunday, 25 September 2022 00:53

Jùjú musician Dele Abiodun
Jùjú musician Admiral Dele Abiodun and his Top Hitters band, Stadium Hotel, Lagos, 15 February 1979. (photo: Peter Murphy)

Southwest Nigeria, home to millions of Yoruba people, is also home to both ancient and modern genres of music. The West African pop music known as Afrobeats, currently lighting up the global stage, began its 20-year journey from Lagos through London via America, and borrows irreverently from older musical traditions like Highlife, Jùjú and Fuji.

Although these older genres may be lost on a young population unaware of the golden age of Highlife, their significance is on display at weekly social functions, events and parties recently christened Owambe (in Yoruba ‘owambe’ can be roughly translated to mean ‘it is there’).

The word ‘Owambe’ was derived from Tunde Nightingale’s music. He was one of the Jùjú music superstars, with his style featuring falsetto vocals, acoustic guitar flourishes and talking drum intermissions. At the height of his dancehall parties, he would sing the praises of his patrons, ostensibly the self-proclaimed indigenes of Lagos.

S’owambe and O’wambe is a routine call and response that Nightingale used to engage his audience, referring to the waist beads (from female fans) and gifts of coins (from male fans) that he expected to be placed on his head in appreciation of the music.

Obviously, Owambe’s success outlived Tunde Nightingale, who died in 1982, but spawned a multi-billion Naira event industry supporting a mix of hospitality-based SMEs, an ostentatious culture that has become popular even in the diaspora.

Jùjú music is not voodoo

Notable ethnomusicologists Chris Waterman and Paul Vernon partly traced Jùjú music to the minstrel tradition of itinerant musicians like Irewole Denge and Domingo Justus in the 1920s.

Often described as ‘commemorative and panegyric music’ by scholars, praise has always been central to the practice of Jùjú. The music borrowed its early form from the guitar-based Palm-wine Highlife and evolved in the 1930s from its sole performer model to a cluster of performers with a musical ensemble including the banjo, tambourine, rattle gourd and cymbals.

Tunde King, born in 1910 in the Saro community of Lagos Island, was the first to call this music Jùjú, a tribute to his tambourine player’s prowess in playing the instrument while throwing and catching it during his performance. The verb for throw in the tonal Yoruba language is ‘Ju’ and this act caught on quickly to lend both the tambourine and the genre its name. To this day, Jùjú is often mistakenly linked to voodoo and Yoruba traditional religion.

Portrait of Modern Juju star IK Dairo at home in 01 February 1979. (photo: Peter Murphy)
Portrait of Modern Juju star IK Dairo at home in 01 February 1979. (photo: Peter Murphy)

Jùjú Roots

According to Waterman, in the liner notes of the seminal anthology Jùjú Roots 1930s -1950s, the interregnum between the two World Wars saw the growth of several guitar-based music styles in coastal West African cities, including Lagos Island, where two repatriated Yoruba settler communities – the Saros, returnees from Sierra Leone rescued from the slave trade, and the Agudas/Amaros, the progeny of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian returnees —were living.

The former brought along with them the Ashiko drumming from Sierra Leone and the two-finger guitar plucking technique of the Liberian Kru people, John Collins notes in his book Highlife Giants: West African Dance Bands.

The Jùjú music ensemble quickly accommodated new additions like the small West African drum Gangan, electric guitars (which soon replaced the banjo/ukulele), accordion, bass guitar, synthesisers, the steel pedal guitar and vibraphone, each addition a successful adventure by a particular musician.

The band also grew to accommodate the ensemble and a column of back-up singers was soon needed. Understandably, Jùjú evolved beyond its muted pared-down sitting mode to a more lively, energetic performance delivered with dance choreography and rehearsed stage craft.

Sunny Adé playing the Hammersmith Odeon
Sunny Adé playing the Hammersmith Odeon , London June 27, 1983 (photo: Peter Murphy)

At the height of this evolution in the early 80s, King Sunny Adé’s band, The African Beats, comprised about 22 musicians.

Modern Jùjú vs Highlife

Nigeria gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960. The optimism of that auspicious moment was carried by the reigning Highlife music performed in ballrooms and dancehalls.

Jùjú music had neither gained the attention nor the patronage of the elites at the time. This would change once the young nation fell into the bloody Nigerian Civil/Biafran war, which saw the majority of Igbo Highlife musicians leave Lagos and Southwest Nigeria for Biafra territorial lines.

This occasioned the decline of Highlife music in Lagos and the gradual rise of Jùjú music, which peaked in the post-civil war 1970s, when the petrodollars of Nigeria’s oil boom established a middle-class lifestyle. Trust the vivacious party-loving Yoruba to spoil for an enjoyable time.

Ebenezer Obey in performance receiving money gifts from a patron. (photo: Peter Murphy)
Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and his Inter-Reformers band at his Miliki Spot club, 22 February 1979. (photo: Peter Murphy)

The relative political stability engendered a nightlife scene and Jùjú music soon birthed its first superstar millionaires: Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey, grandees of the genre who usurped the popularity and styles of the older guard, including Ayinde Bakare, Tunde Nightingale and IK Dairo. Ambrose Campbell, based in London, found his style, form, phrasing and even some of his musical compositions filched by these prolific stars releasing numerous records and playing live shows.

Women were not completely left out of this male-dominated genre: The first female superstar was the virtuoso guitarist Queen Oladunni Decency, who died in 1978 at the youthful age of 28. Women like the Ayo Balogun and Janet Iyun Ajilore (fondly known as St Janet of St Bottles Cathedral and both exalted and rebuked for her risqué material) continued to balance the genre’s gender gap and shake up the status quo.


The Rise and Fall of Jùjú

The 1980s saw both the global rise and local fall of Jùjú music with King Sunny Adé, its most dynamic practitioner, clinching international record deals, cameo appearances in Hollywood films and touring in America, Europe and Asia.

The late American cultural critic Greg Tate – who toured with Adé and his band – said: “The joy in the music is evident in the band’s sincere big grins, in the ringing shing-a-ling of the four rhythm guitars; the scatting, heart-popping gallops of the talking drums; the sly, swooping iridescent slides of the steel guitar; the smooth moves and choral mantras of the band’s lead singers.”

Simultaneously on the local scene, Jùjú ceded its mainstream reign to the earthier and percussive Fuji music, interestingly named after Japan’s Mount Fuji and developed from Islamic chants during the Ramadan fasting period.

King Sunny Adé in a recording studio in London. (photo: Peter Murphy)

Adé’s African Beats was disbanded in the mid-1980s after band members (whom Adé saw as mutinous) demanded better wages and royalty fees. Ebenezer Obey, Adé’s older contemporary, heeded the call of evangelism and abdicated the Jùjú stage for the altar. Years later, the late Bahamian pastor Myles Munroe convinced him to return to his true calling, but it was a little too late. The zeitgeist had shifted wholly to Fuji music, which would dominate the 1990s and 2000s, no thanks to economic austerity, political unrest and the consequent collapse of record companies.


Jùjú may have shifted from mainstream appeal, which Fuji has now ceded to Afrobeats, but it continues to live on albeit in several adapted forms. The onomatopoeic Tungba fuses the high tempo and percussive elements of Fuji, quickening Jùjú to a frenzied pace that its elite patrons often find ‘contemptuous’.

Afrobeats musicians – particularly Jaywon, Kizz Daniel and Davido – continue to adapt and refine Jùjú material with successful and surprising results.

Arguably, Jùjú’s excessive interdependence on its bourgeois elites and their conservatism may also have contributed to the genre’s decline. Conversely, Fuji, referred to as the Nigerian equivalent of Hip-Hop, lends itself to experimentation, adaptation and relies on a diverse listening audience, who mostly hail from a working class background.

This is ironic since Jùjú began its life within the itinerant griot tradition and its first patrons were working class peers. Today, the top Jùjú bands play at social functions of royalty, top echelon elites and the ruling class, but the genre’s rich trajectory from its humble beginnings and its incessant commitment to praise continue to strike a chord with our vanity and shared humanity, particularly for the Yoruba, whose loyalty to Jùjú’s positive messaging and how it animates an Owambe party prevail.

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