I have always been fond of record stores and as a teenager; I would stand in front of these stores listening to songs by old and new musicians. My relationship with my favourite musicians started in record stores, long before I could afford to buy records and use streaming services. My first encounter with Orlando Owoh was at a record store and I remember paying attention as the speakers blasted Orlando Owoh’s ‘Ese Rere’. I eventually saw some Orlando Owoh tracks in my uncle’s place and played them myself. Years later as a young adult, I was an impromptu Disc Jockey at the naming of my uncle’s first child after the invited DJ left. From his extensive collection of albums, I picked Orlando Owoh’s ‘Iyawo Olele’ because I liked how young Orlando Owoh looked in the black suit and tie on the album cover. My uncle and his friend quickly asked me to change the song and he picked another Owoh album, ‘Ire L’oni’ for me to play. The importance of that incident was unclear to me until I grew up later and understood that there were different songs fitting for different occasions. In a career that spanned 4 decades, Orlando Owoh released an average of 5 albums per decade and he sang about diverse issues.
Born on St. Valentines’ Day 1932 to a building contractor father and a seamstress mother in Ifon, modern day Ondo state, Orlando Owoh was named Stephen Oladipupo. His father’s specialty was constructing schools and large churches so the family moved around a lot as missionary activities expanded. He was a precocious child and his mother recalls that he was very jovial as a child but he did not excel at school work. He also admitted in an interview that he was not good enough at school and he dropped out eventually. This saddened his mother greatly.
His father also tried to teach him the family trade and he worked as a carpenter, bricklayer and painter for a while. To his father’s chagrin, he rejected the offer to stay in the family business and left home to pursue a career in music. The situation was even more unpleasant because the older Owomoyela was a part time player of the popular syncretic music style called asiko and he believed that music was not a serious business. Acknowledging his father’s influence in his life, in an interview with Yemi Sodimu, Owoh stated that “I used to watch my dad play, and I also listened to my mother and grandmother sing folk songs, so the interest just developed.”
Upon leaving his father, Owoh relocated to Ilesha to work part-time. Being the son of an itinerant worker, it was easy for him to move and in no time, he was back in Osogbo, a then bubbling centre of cultural activities. In Osogbo, he joined the Ogunmola Travelling Theatre led by dramatist, Kola Ogunmola, as a drummer and actor; he was part of the contingent that entertained the Queen of England during her 1956 visit to Nigeria. When the Ogunmola troupe was invited to participate at the World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Stephen had his first chance to go outside Nigeria. As part of activities to prepare the troupe, Ogunmola and his group moved to Ibadan for further rehearsals and integration with other troupes. In Ibadan, he had to seek medical care for an old eye injury he sustained after a fall while working in one of his father’s sites. He was billed for surgery at the University College Hospital so he missed the troupe’s trip to Dakar.
Instead of returning to Osogbo after the surgery, he joined Dele Jolly’s group in Ibadan as a drummer and musician. Some accounts say that he played with other bands; Kehinde Adex, the Chocolate Randies and the Fakunle Major Band. It was also reported that he stayed in Lagos for a while and learnt how to play the guitar while under an informal tutelage with fellow musician, Fatai ‘Rolling Dollar’ Olagunju. He would have eased into life in Lagos Island as an amateur boxer as boxing was a popular sport among young Lagosians. Interestingly, one of his boxing protégés in Osogbo was Sunday Adegeye who eventually became King Sunny Ade, famed king of Juju music.
Orlando Owoh’s band mastered the art of using various instruments in call and response. He particularly had a preference for idiophone and membranophones and besides the traditional highlife guitar; he used the Conga drum as the trademark instrument.
Owoh went to his hometown in Ifon for a performance in 1963 and he met a young lady after the show. He liked her and according to him, they had a romp at a friend’s house on the same day. Because of her age and inexperience, the lady’s parents got to know and searched for him but he had escaped. He ran away as he heard that the lady’s father was the town’s chief priest, a position which commanded dread at the time. Having nowhere else to run, he joined the Nigerian Army. “They should come and meet me at the war front” , he was quoted as having said. The Nigerian Army then was a prestigious institution and Nigeria had several veterans from World War 2. He was moved to the Army’s 2nd Division in Abeokuta for training and assigned the identification number 14864 63NA. He trained under Colonel Adeniran who was famously court-martialed during the Nigerian Civil War for cases of looting reported by men of the 2nd Division under him in the course of the hostilities. It was during drills that some of Owoh’s colleagues realized he was a musician. News got to his superiors and he was moved to the Military band. He led songs and improved his skills. In the event, he had to participate in combat activities as the Civil War began in 1967. Owoh survived a blast and was discharged before the end of the carnage in 1970.
He now had enough time to face his music career. He formed his first band and named it ‘Orlando Owoh and the Omimah Band,’ a reference to Ifon Omima, his hometown. His first recorded release, ‘Oluwa Lo Ran mi’ followed the classic highlife pattern which was reigning then but it was modestly received. The album introduced Orlando Owoh as a guitar maestro and as was typical of records of that era, the album had a second side titled ‘Bi mo Bimo Kan.’ The album’s title translates as ‘It is the Lord who sent me’ while the second side translates as ‘If I have a child.’ Like many debut highlife albums, Owoh’s album was an attempt to assert himself in the social scene and let everyone know that he was a viable entertainer. He was signed on by Decca West Africa, which was arguably the most prestigious record label at the time.
As he sealed his place in the Lagos social scene, he went on his first international trip in 1972, a journey which resulted in the release of ‘Dr. Orlando Owoh in Great Britain’, featuring songs that encourage Nigerians in Diaspora to remember their fatherland. This tour led to many other successful tours to other countries during which, as often happens to Nigerian touring artists, some of his band members deserted him. On returning home, he formed another band and renamed it ‘Orlando Owoh and His Young Kenneries Band.’ Orlando Owoh had become an established fixture in the Nigerian music landscape, fawned over by patrons whose pockets were bouyed by petrodollars from Nigeria’s 1970s oil boom. The rising musician switched from the old highlife style he began with to create his own distinct style which he called Kennerries music. The word Kennery, according to him is a corruption of Canary, the famous songbird. The Kennery musical style is marked by a deep, masculine voice singing in thick vocal folds. The band was also an all-male band until later years when women featured as dancers at live performances and in music videos.
Orlando Owoh’s band mastered the art of using various instruments in call and response. He particularly had a preference for idiophone and membranophones and besides the traditional highlife guitar; his band also used the Conga drum as the trademark instrument. He is, indeed reputed as one of the earliest musicians to introduce the Conga drum into Nigerian music. The instrument was played by a band member who became popularly known as Ade Conga, a drummer who first worked for Owoh part time while with the band of Adeolu Akinsanya. Eventually, Ade Conga and Orlando Owoh would become inseparable and Owoh praised him in many songs. Owoh’s musical style also relied on the use of the agogo, a local bell. Often times, his songs feel like storytelling with the use of tropes drawn from Yoruba folklore and the Bible.
Even though Owoh identified as a Christian and narrated many Bible stories, he catered to fans from other religions. He sang a song thanking Mohammed, the prophet of Islam and released a special song to commemorate the Muslim festival titled Ileya. Owoh’s repertoire is so expansive even though some of his songs are no longer available for sale– that its analysis would require an entire essay.
Owoh was prolific, yet eclectic. It is difficult to determine which of his songs is more popular as his varied listeners have their choices. While ‘Iyawo Olele’ might not be totally acceptable to a modern gender sensitive audience, it tapped into the archetype of the troublesome wife. One of Owoh’s most profoundly introspective songs is ‘Ese Rere,’ a didactic piece which enjoins his listeners to do good as a matter of personal philosophy and strive to live above board. The song reworks a Yoruba archetype by projecting the first wife of a polygamous man as an evil person who attempts to poison her stepchild. The usual archetype features a wicked younger wife who frustrates her senior wives but perhaps because Owoh enjoyed the benevolence of his step mother, he decided to turn the archetype on its head. Some of his religious tracks influenced by his Christian background include ‘King Solomon’, ‘Igbe Aye Noah’, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar’, ‘Lord Speak, Thy Servant Heareth’, ‘Cain ati Abel’, ‘Easter Special’ and ‘Okan Mi Yin Oba Orun’ which is the Yoruba version of an English Christian hymn,
A strong feature of Owoh’s musical repertoire is his praise songs to his patrons. Owoh held nothing back in his loyalty to his patrons. Many of his songs had the names of his patrons, asides the other songs he recorded for some specially. Notable among his patrons are road transport union executives, Oladutele Obayoriade and Adebayo ‘Success’ Ogundare, royals like Ooni of Ife, Okunade Sijuwade and Alara of Ilara-Mokin, Solomon Adubi Ojopagogo. Businessmen on his patrons list included Fola Sabela, MKO Abiola and J A Odusanya, and the popular Indian trained mystic and magician, Godspower Oyewole.
Owoh excelled in dirges and post humous tributes. He sang dirges for the slain music maestro Ayinla Omowura and Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and elder statesman Obafemi Awolowo. His son, Orimipe Orlando Owoh alleges that the dirge he sang for slain journalist, Dele Giwa is what led to his incarceration on allegations of drug possession.
The gruesome murder of Dele Giwa shook Nigeria and many fingers pointed at the then military government as sponsoring the murder because the intelligence agencies had invited him for questioning days before the letter bomb that killed him was delivered to his house. In his album in honour of Dele Giwa, Orlando Owoh made comments about the government and the society in general. On the 31st of March 1987, 5 months after Dele Giwa’s murder, Orlando Owoh was on break from a three-month tour of the country when he and some of his wives were arrested in his Agege home by officers of the Nigerian Police Force. They were accused of dealing in banned drugs. The case was made worse by Orlando Owoh’s reputation as a user of marijuana which he called Ganja in his songs. He had justified the use of Marijuana long before the world started to see the medicinal usefulness of it and he even waxed albums explaining that many other reputable members of the society also use Marijuana.
Owoh was released after a year in prison and he sang about his ordeal in a post-prison album he titled ‘Message,’ a piece which was followed by several other albums commenting on social issues. In the early 1990s, he released an album criticizing the administration of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida as corrupt. While he established himself as a musician concerned with social issues with songs commenting on military dictatorship, apartheid system in South Africa, census in Nigeria and democracy, his participation in a unity album done to promote the governance of military dictator, Sani Abacha could have altered his legacy. Unfortunately, the album seems to have gone into extinction but industry experts have a memory of it.
In Osogbo, he joined the Ogunmola Travelling Theatre, led by dramatist, Kola Ogunmola as a drummer and actor; he was part of the contingent that entertained the Queen of England during her 1956 visit to Nigeria.
Orlando Owoh slowed down in the early 2000s, after surviving a stroke. When he was told that his broadcaster friend, Gbenga Adeboye had died, he slumped and that marked the beginning of a series of illnesses he never recovered from. His last album was released in 2006 and he titled it ‘Thanksgiving.’ Continually dogged by ill health and unable to perform again, Orlando Owoh eventually died on the 4th of November 2008, few hours before Barack Obama was announced as the first black president of the United States of America. With over 50 albums to his credit, Orlando Owoh is a legend of Nigerian music. He created a distinct subgenre and saw it through. He might be incapable of attracting the posthumous celebrations that Fela enjoys but his legacy is most enduring in the many musicians who cover his songs, try to sound like him and adopt his Kenneries style. He also passed the music trade to his children: Three of his sons, Kunle, Orimipe and Daisi, are musicians in their own right. His brother, Tosin Owoh has a band he calls the Zion Kenneries band. And there is Iyabode Rosaline Yaboskan, a female highlife musician who identifies as a Kenneriesmusician. In his lifetime, Owoh was magnanimous and he said in an interview that he did not mind musicians copying his style and singing some of his songs. Before alternative artistes became popular in Nigerian music history, Owoh was an alternative artiste in many regards. He is an innovator who created a new style of singing in Nigeria.
“Ayọ̀délé Ìbíyẹmí is a lifetime student of Literature. He is also a reader and critic who writes occasionally. For him, the world is intractable and it is words that make it livable.
He has been a Wawa Young Literary Critic Fellow and has won the Ken Saro-Wiwa Critical Review Prize. His writings have been published by Agbowó Magazine, Lagos Review, Olongo Africa and other publications.
In defiance of President Buhari’s dictatorship, he tweets random thoughts via @Ayo_Eagles”