His trademark attire was shirts made from hand-designed Nigerian fabrics, worn over a pair of trousers. The quality of the fabrics and classic tailoring added extra elegance to the shirts that complimented the natural grace and calm demeanor of the tall, ebony-black grey-haired and grey-bearded gentleman fondly addressed as “Uncle Steve.” This seemingly casual nature of his clothes was very deceptive in that Uncle Steve, none other than Steve Rhodes, had all his life been a very serious culture professional.
Steve Rhodes’ most visible and remembered contribution to the development of Nigerian contemporary culture is as a musician; either as a jazz double bass/bass fiddle or classical music cello player or as a passionate ingenious conductor and master of a huge mixed-gender choir named the Steve Rhodes Voices. He made these contributions in the 1960s and 1970s, the formative years in the fevered search to evolve and create a distinct Nigerian modern contemporary music. In addition to his musical exploits, Steve Rhodes was also a very influential ‘background and backroom’ cultural catalyst in other media and cultural spheres in Nigeria.
“He played with Cab Kaye, a famous African musician from Ghana, with whose band he first went to continental Europe. The trip changed his musical direction and life. Rhodes studied in Germany, linking up with a tutor, Winfried Zillig, a renowned 12-tone ideologue and one of the last surviving students of Arnold Schonberg.”
Steve Rhodes was a full-time artist in the consummate meaning of the term. He was equally successful and impactful in a variety of creative artistic fields for six good decades! Hence, the well-deserved deference he rightly enjoyed as a true doyen and continual inspiration in modern Nigerian contemporary culture.
Steve Bankole Omodele Rhodes was born on the 8th of April, 1926 in Lagos, to an Equatorial Guinean mother and a Nigerian father. He grew up in a privileged music-filled home and music-loving family. His mother played piano and sang and, his father, a lawyer who became the second indigenous judge to be appointed to the Nigerian Judiciary, was a classical music enthusiast. His mother and her friends always made music in the house for their own amusement. Naturally, the young Steve and his two sisters started taking music lessons quite early. By seven, he was taking piano lessons with Lady Abayomi and, later, he became a member of the Christ Church Cathedral Choir in Lagos, with T.K.E.Phillips as organist and Master of Music.
With his father’s successful law practice then based in Aba, Eastern Nigeria; before he eventually became Judge S.P.Rhodes of the Nigerian Bench, it was very convenient for the young Steve Rhodes to have his secondary school education in Port Harcourt, a mere 50 miles away.
At Enitonia High School, Port Harcourt, Steve Rhodes naturally gravitated to the Enitonia School Band in which he played the flugelhorn and then the trombone.
At that time in the early 1940s, it had become a distinguishing tradition for secondary schools in the entire old Eastern Region in particular, to have their own bands made up of students. These school bands performed at the Empire Day Celebrations and at social functions for a fee. Ex-Army Bandmasters and musicians trained the student musicians at Enitonia. Their repertoire was GV Series-inspired merengue (rhythm-laced Afro-Cuban dance music called Native Airs), western dance music; waltz, foxtrot and, marches. This was before Highlife evolved as a Nigerian popular musical genre. Apart from Enitonia, another notable school band then was Central School Band, Onitsha.
Given his social background and the then absence of higher institutions of choice in Nigeria, his parents naturally sent Steve Rhodes to England for further education. In the footsteps of his Enitonia music experience, it became a case of music and more music all the way throughout his long sojourn in England and Europe.
“Rhodes established the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Dance Orchestra along the lines of the BBC Dance Orchestra. The band included star musicians Chris Ajilo, E.C.Arinze, Sammy Lartey and others. It played live in the studio and broadcast live to listeners all over Nigeria. They performed this weekly musical feat for over a year!”
This early and broad experience abroad, awakened a strong desire, in his young adulthood, to be musically independent in his style and choice of music. For a searching musical soul, it was a journey of formal qualitative musical education heavily spiced with a long career as a performing musician in various genres of music at equally varied venues.
At his first stop, Kings College, Newcastle/Durham University, there was a hostel where most West African students lived. It was a beehive of music and the strongest musical influence then was the jazz music of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; the young Turks of jazz whose multi-chord, fast-paced brand of Bebop jazz had become the rave and new direction for jazz music in America and Europe. “Jazz had a strong influence on me”, Steve Rhode recalls.
Jazz, then became the music that shaped his musical career, and one, he in turn, was to later help mould as an acceptable popular musical genre in Nigeria. In anticipation, he had the quintessential musical training of the more progressive and futuristic jazz musicians of his generation; especially those in the forefront of establishing the cultural reality that Jazz is the top-rung Classical Music of the Black Race. His preparation, therefore, included a good dose of Western Classical Music training; an intimate awareness of the musical strengths of an older-established world cerebral music!
It was at the world-famous Oxford University, England, between 1948 and 1951, that Rhodes finally began his second and European career as a performing musician and student. He found himself in an underground quasi-illegal band called the Oxford University Bandits, who were essentially a jazz band that played in nightclubs and, he was now a fiddle bass player. He had to teach himself how to play the upright fiddle bass; which was easy for him since he already played cello in the Oxford University Operatic Society.
Combining a delicate yet volatile mix of daring rebellion and adherence to the status quo, Rhodes finely balanced his formal musical education with his innate inquisitive adventurousness to develop and nurture his own musical taste and personal career. “To maintain a level of respect I joined the Oxford University Operatic Society. Incredibly, a fellow member of the fairly illegal Oxford University Bandits was the former British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Sir Melvin Brown,” Steve Rhodes recalled with a chuckle more than 50 years after, in Lagos.
As was the culture then with colonial students, Rhodes spent his holidays in London employed in government ministries like Agriculture and Fisheries. He went through a torturous regime of a 24-hour day distinctly partitioned to accommodate his daytime office work and then two-night sessions playing at two London nightclubs, Caribbean Club and the Antilles until 5 am.
He played with Cab Kaye, a famous African musician from Ghana. It was with the Cab Kay Band that Rhodes first went to continental Europe. It changed his musical direction and life.
Rhodes studied in Germany for three years. He linked up with a tutor, Winfried Zillig, a renowned 12-tone ideologue and one of the last surviving students of Arnold Schonberg (considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century). Rhodes studied with Zillig for two years, learning the full classical music curriculum. He categorized this segment of his musical education as “real learning, since I had the chance to learn theory and work with a choir and orchestra, as my tutor Zillig was also the Conductor of the Radio Orchestra of Frankfurt, Hessischer Rundfunk.”
The musical virtuoso in Steve Rhodes had been awakened. It had to grow. “By the time I left Zillig, I was equipped to be on either side of the musical fence, playing cello with a Classical String Orchestra and jazz with jazz bands,” he recalled.
From Germany, Steve Rhodes went back to England where he worked for a year as Artiste and Repertoire (A&R) Manager for Melodisc Records, as well as pursuing his professional playing career. At Melodisc, a special label that catered mostly for the immigrant communities from the West Indies and Africa, Rhodes produced Nigeria’s star musician, late Ambrose ‘Rosie’ Campbell, the West Indian Calypso superstar Lord Kitchener, Nigeria’s Adam Fiberesima, while he himself recorded some of his own music for the same label.
Simultaneously, he freelanced for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and worked for six months as full-time bassist at the Celebrity Club, Bond Street, London, in a band led by Cyril Stapleton. He had been in England and Europe for a decade and, a change of scenery beckoned.
Sir Mobolaji Bank-Anthony had seen Rhodes play in Geneva, Switzerland, and advised Rhodes to come home to Nigeria. Reverend Yinka Olumide eventually coerced him to come and possibly become a Director of Music at the newly created Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS). He came back in 1956. To his disappointment, NBS offered Rhodes the post of Senior Music Assistant, equated to the rank of Bandmaster Grade 11 in the Police Force, and offered a salary of 520 pounds per annum. Against all odds, he took the job and went on to leave an innovative and high standard in music recording and transmission on Radio, in Nigeria.
Exactly fifty years after, Steve Rhodes could scoff at the meagre salary offered him to join NBS. The pay, he said, “was lower than what I paid as income tax as a professional musician in England.” Nonetheless, his financial sacrifice then is vindicated by the indelible achievements he left behind despite “having to fight all the time”, as he remembered.
He finally succeeded in doing live music for radio for the first time in Nigeria. He established the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Dance Orchestra along the lines of the BBC Dance Orchestra. The band included star musicians Chris Ajilo, E.C.Arinze, Sammy Lartey and others. It played live in the studio and broadcast live to listeners all over Nigeria. They performed this weekly musical feat for over a year!
Rhodes left the NBC and went back to England to work again with Melodisc Records. This was in the run-up to Nigeria’s independence and there was a lot of creative energy being generated in the country. He was soon back to establish his own recording studio (Steve) Rhodes (Bode) Rhodes Musical Enterprises, at the Yaba Industrial Estate, Lagos.
The studio was strictly for commercial work and quite soon, it captured more than half of the production of all radio commercials in Nigeria. Sensibly, his studio did not venture into record production; leaving this to the already such well-established record labels as Phillips and Decca.
Being his ever-adventurous self, Rhodes decided at this same stage of his studio ownership, to buy himself a 16mm Bolex celluloid film camera. He painstakingly taught himself how to manipulate the camera. He became a stringer for the newly-established Western Nigeria Television (WNTV), Ibadan. BBCTV also used some of his footage. He specialized in newsreels documenting events like the students’ street protest in Lagos against the Britain-Nigeria Defence Pact.
This foray away from his more conventional field of music was late to yield unexpected monumental rewards. It would seem that all through his extended and varied career in music, there were always significant moments when periodically, different people and organizations made extremely tempting offers to Steve Rhodes. All of these offers and subsequent careers they generated helped to expand his creative reach and skills.
And so, when Steve Rhodes clocked 80, in 2006, he could with comfort and deserved pride recall a long, fully-rounded career as a culture activist and Nigerian creative icon. He had innovative and very creatively successful stints as an epoch-making national radio Music Producer, Commercial Sound Studio Owner, a pioneer TV Programmer; in fact the first-ever African TV Programmer, Musical Director of an internationally famous choir, Administrator, and Ideologue of Private Independent Television Producers and, much later in his life, leader of a Big Band.
..To be continued..
C. Tam Fiofori, November 2008.
TAM FIOFORI, Filmmaker and Photojournalist, from Okrika, Rivers State, Nigeria, was the first-ever New Music/Electronic Music Editor of Down Beat jazz magazine in 1971. His first edition was Moog Modulations: A Symposium; on the impact of the Moog Synthesiser on Jazz music. Since then his articles on Jazz and Music have been extensively published in New York Free Press (USA), Melody Maker (England), Jazz Magazine (Paris), Orkester Journalen (Sweden), Africa and Nigeria. His book on Sun Ra, the Myth Science-Space Music jazz musician will soon be published.