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Nigeria: Afrobeats’ unpaid debt to highlife’s Crosdale Juba

By Dami Ajayi
Posted on Tuesday, 25 May 2021 17:38, updated on Thursday, 27 May 2021 16:26

Women dance during "Felabration," at the New Afrika Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria early Monday, Oct. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Contemporary Nigerian music in its present incarnation owes a lot to highlife- the popular West African dance music in the post-colonial era of the 1960s. Case in point: Crosdale Juba, Ikale’s great trumpeter.

Highlife, the West African dance music popular in the immediate post-colonial era of the 60s, is a source material for a handful of megahits in the last two decades since afrobeats emerged.

Paul Play Dairo’s Mosorire, an up-tempo remake of his juju legend father IK Dairo’s song of the same title, is one of such early hits that predate the contentious catch-all phrase, afrobeats.

The consensus on Davido’s Son of Mercy EP may be that it was an A&R catastrophe, but a little-known gem exists on that record.

Return, a mid-tempo love song, at once seductive and boastful – produced by Shizzi Akerele – endears Davido to a fanbase that recognises the tribute paid to Dr Orlando Owoh, a palm wine highlife great.

Flavour N’bania’s Nwa Baby delivered a dancehall twist to Rex Lawson’s 60s classic, Sawale, one of his biggest hits till date.

Bottom Belle, a duet by Omawumi and Flavour, is either an update of Herbert Udemba’s quick tempo Bottom Belly or Dr Victor Olaiya’s Papingo Davalaya, but it remains her most commercially viable song yet.

2Face Idibia, an afrobeats legend in his own right, assisted highlife’s evil genius Victor Olaiya in midwifing a remix of his enduring hit Baby Jowo. With a music video shot on the nostalgic grounds of Stadium Hotel by auteur Kunle Afolayan, this is one of those fortuitous moments where the old and new in Nigerian music collaborate.

Nagging questions still abound: has revisiting old classics consistently produced hits? Why is this the less travelled route for budding afrobeats artists? Why isn’t a resurgence of highlife, a staple of live music in Nigeria and Ghana, at the forefront of mainstream afrobeats?

Not so lucky highlife legends

Stadium Hotel in Surulere, one of the few spots where highlife-loving revellers can still bask in the old classics of the golden era, is probably one of Lagos’ best kept secrets. It was originally Victor Olaiya’s stomping ground.

Bayode Olaiya, a banker, has helmed the band in place since his father’s retirement from the stage in 2017.

Victor Olaiya passed on in 2020 but  his hotel is the only spot in Lagos where you could possibly hear competent covers of Celestine Ukwu’s Usondu, Rex Lawson’s So Ala Temen and Crosdale Juba’s Anamokeren, all in one Saturday night!

Ukwu and Lawson are household names for highlife lovers but knowing Crosdale Juba is a testimony to superior highlife knowledge.

These trio of trumpeters all died in the 70s before hitting the age of 40. Their brief existence is a metaphor for Nigerian music’s chequered history, especially the transient nature of triumph and the permanence of tragedy.

With an ambition to produce an entire album modernising and reinterpreting some of his enduring songs, Cpzamar is eager to show the world how incredible Crosdale Juba’s music is.

While Ukwu and Lawson succumbed to mortal injuries from road traffic accidents – a work hazard consistent with the itinerant life of a musician – the cause of Juba’s death is shrouded in mystery.

Regardless, their early tragic deaths are antithetical to the robust and full trajectory of their contemporaries such as Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo and even EC Arinze, who cheated death to enjoy their garlanded twilight years.

Take Juba, for instance. Crosdale Juba’s music is little known and has neither enjoyed the wave of highlife nostalgia that tinged the 90s nor the new lease of life that classic records now enjoy with the popularity of streaming services.

 

Born in the early 40s into the royal family of Ilutitun Osooro, Okitipupa – a riverine area of southwestern Nigeria – Juba first began his musical career at his school’s boys brigade  band. He would go on to play with several bands across Nigeria including the much vaunted All Stars Band of Victor Olaiya.

London-based former band member, vocalist and trombonist Abdul Raheem says he remembers how Juba “played all instruments, drums, bass guitar, guitar, and saxophones. But he was famous with the trumpet and his voice, he can blow the trumpet. This was the time when Zeal Onyia and Eddie Okonta were reigning, he use[d] to play their music and play the trumpet exactly how it was played by Zeal [Onyia] and Eddie [Okonta].”

Raheem was in Ghana playing with the Uhuru Dance Band in the mid-60s. When the band returned from a tour in Nigeria, they informed him that they had met a trumpeter called Crosdale and they thought he was a genius.

Music critic and Burna Boy’s grandfather, Benson Idonije, remembers fans flooding the dance floor when Crosdale Juba, trumpet in hand, took the microphone and performed music with “a voice like a nightingale”.

Unlike juju exponent Tunde Nightingale, whose voice was nasal and high-pitched, Juba’s voice was mellow and occasionally close to a rasp. Alongside other Ikale musicians like Theophilus Iwalokun, Comfort Omoge and Remilekun Amos, Juba’s voice had a soothing and melodious quality that supports Idonije’s hypothesis that the most melodious singers in highlife were from the riverine areas.

A slim but formidable discography

Prince Crosdale Juba spent the greater part of his musical career playing with other bands. He spent only about three years of his life recording his own music.

As it is customary to christen one’s style of music as if it was a novel phenomenon, Juba called his band Moribodo System King, after his hometown. The band was later renamed ‘His Blue Echoes’, perhaps to underscore the bluesy style of his singing and as a tribute to his Yoruba forebear, IK Dairo, whose band was called Blue Spots.

He recorded several LPs with Eroya Sounds and his discography of about 22 songs, an assortment of tunes exploring several themes. Agbe ni mase celebrates farming as a vocation while Me Ra Sowo Yi Akeke Se – a tribute to Ghanaian highlife band ET Mensah’s Tempos’ sound – features a memorable vocal delivery in his native Ikale dialect, his preferred language for singing.

The consensus around his most memorable song is divided. His medley Anamokeren, a delightful mid-tempo tune reflecting on in-law politics and existential angst is a strong contender. Ditto for the soulful orchestra masterpiece Waiye Iya which also explores the essence of life with the optimism of prayers.

Perhaps Juba was prescient about the short span of his life: his music was a robust way of cataloguing his experiences and anxieties. One of his best known love songs was Olabisi Olomi, written for his eponymous partner at the time.

Beyond the sophisticated trumpet solos characteristic of Juba’s music and the pristine jazzy arrangements, there was also the bellowing and riveting groove of the bassline which will make new converts who fortuitously find his music in the dusty shelves of YouTube highlife playlists.

A lot can be said for how YouTube is at the forefront of providing a digital archive for obscure musicians. A search for Crosdale Juba on Apple Music draws discomfiting blanks. Ditto for Spotify which seems to have a compilation of Crosdale Juba  songs that have not yet been cleared for streaming.

A highlife lifestyle

Crosdale Juba was not exempt from the fast life that lured many musicians down the rabbit hole of substance use. Abdul Raheem, who played with him in several bands in Lagos and Enugu, says he remembers that “he drinks and smokes cannabis a lot.”

The myth around Juba’s death on 9 December 1976 at 37 years is that he was poisoned. Raheem who saw him a day before his death says he was drinking a lot and even had a bottle of Teacher’s gin as he boarded a vehicle that was to take him to Akure. The next day, he was reported to have vomited blood and died.

In the absence of a published coroner’s report, conjectures hold sway. The most educated guess is that he may have died from alcohol abuse.

More than two decades after his passing, Juba’s music continues to be a source of pride for the Ikale people and a regular fixture at their social events. However, this provincial adoration has not travelled as far.

A dynamic producer from Ikale, who goes by the name of Cpzamar, says he grew up listening to his father’s records of Juba and decided to become a musician on account of his love of Juba’s trumpet solos, chords and arrangement.

He is at the forefront of rejuvenating Crosdale Juba’s discography. With an ambition to produce an entire album modernising and reinterpreting some of his enduring songs, Cpzamar is eager to show the world how incredible Crosdale Juba’s music is. He has uploaded several video snippets featuring him in the studio, basking in the enduring aural delights of Ikale’s greatest trumpeter.

Assuredly, his delight is contagious but the jury is still out on when Crosdale Juba, Ikale’s finest trumpeter, will get his post-humous break.

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