EJI OYEWOLE-CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.
EJI OYEWOLE-CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.
In the sixties and seventies, the Nigerian music scene was thriving. New bands were constantly being formed. Similarly, new artists were making an impression on Nigerian music. This included Eji Oyewole. However, the flautist, saxophonist and future bandleader was different from his contemporaries and peers.
Eji Oyewole was born in Ibadan, the city on edge of the savannah. Ibadan was capital of Oyo State, which was the third largest metropolitan area in Nigeria. However, in Ibadan, Eji Oyewole’s family were held in high regard. They were descended from royalty. So in reality, Eji Oyewole was really Prince Eji Oyewole. Despite this, Prince Eji Oyewole was determined to forge a career as a musician.
He succeeded in doing so, but only ever released one solo album, Me and You. It was released on the Nigerian label Top Records in 1985. However, Me and You should’ve been Eji Oyewole’s sophomore album.
Towards the end of the seventies, Eji Oyewole had recorded Charity Begins At Home for EMI Nigeria. However, Charity Begins At Home was never released, and lay unreleased until 16th October 2015. That’s when BBE Africa released what is now regarded as a lost highlife classic. Belatedly, what should’ve been Eji Oyewole’s debut album can be heard for the first time.
Although four decades have passed since Eji Oyewole recorded Charity Begins At Home, he still occasionally plays live. Music has been a constant in his life.
Prince Eji Oyewole was born in Ibadan, and growing up, discovered music. At last, the young Eji Oyewole knew what he wanted to do with his life. When he told his parents, they were horrified. Eji explains “My family rejected it initially. They wanted me to study professional courses such medicine or law. They even asked if I had started smoking Indian hemp already?” He was able to reassure them that wasn’t the case. However, Prince Eji Oyewole was determined to make a living as a musician.
The defiant young prince got his breakthrough at the Paradise Club in Ibadan. He became a member of Eddy Okonta’s highlife band. Initially, Prince Eji Oyewole played the flute. Then he decided he wanted to play saxophone.
Most people would’ve taken lessons from a music teacher. Not Prince Eji Oyewole. Instead, he bought some text books and with his basic knowledge of music, taught himself to play the saxophone. That wasn’t the end of Prince Eji Oyewole’s musical education. Not by a long chalk.
Just before Prince Eji Oyewole decided to move to Lagos, he met Chris Ajilo. The legendary tenor saxophonist taught him the basics of music. As he spoke and played, little did Prince Eji Oyewole realise he was receiving a musical masterclass. When he left for Lagos, he was a much better musician.
Having moved to Lagos, the Nigerian capital, Prince Eji Oyewole found himself playing at the Lido Club and Empire Hotel. Soon, he was a familiar face at both venues. Then an opportunity arse for Prince Eji Oyewole to join another band.
This was Bobby Benson’s Band, who at the time, had a residency at the Caban Bamboo Club. Joining Bobby Benson’s Band had lifted Prince Eji Oyewole’s profile. People had heard about the young Prince playing in the band, and came to hear him play. So did a friend of Prince Eji Oyewole’s. He came with his employer.
Isaac Olashugba was alto saxophonist in Fela Ransome-Kuti’s first band Koola Lobitos. They were an innovative group, who fused jazz and highlife. So it’s no surprise that Koola Lobitos were a popular draw. However, when they weren’t playing, Isaac Olashugba came to see his friend the Prince play. On a number of occasions, he brought Felt Kuti. He liked what heard, and on numerous occasions, Fela Kuti and Isaac Olashugba tried to get him to join Koola Lobitos. However, Prince Eji Oyewole was loyal, and decided to stay with Bobby Benson’s Band.
Despite staying with Bobby Benson’s Band, Prince Eji Oyewole often got on stage with Koola Lobitos. He even joined them when they played on radio. However, by the mid-sixties, Prince Eji Oyewole must have regretted not joining Koola Lobitos.
Following a military coup d’etat in 1966, Nigeria was a dangerous place to live. Especially for someone with royal blood. Things got worse for Prince Eji Oyewole when the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Akintola was assassinated. Now was the time for Prince Eji Oyewole to leave Nigeria behind.
In the early days of his exile, life was tough for Prince Eji Oyewole, Much of West Africa spoke French. So life in Cotonou and Lome wasn’t easy. So Prince Eji Oyewole was on the move again.
Next stop for him, was Accra. In the Ghanian capital, Prince Eji Oyewole hooked up with one of the city’s top highlife bands, Black Santiago. For a while, Prince Eji Oyewole was happy playing with Black Santiago. However, after a while, the wanderlust kicked in.
From Accra, Prince Eji Oyewole made his way to the Ivory Cost. It wasn’t his finest hour. He ended up playing on the cabaret circuit. For a Nigerian Prince, this was a comedown. Ironically, he was rescued from obscurity by President Houphouet Boigny.
He asked Prince Eji Oyewole to joined the Presidential Band. He was hardly spoiled for choice, so agreed to President Houphouet Boigny’s request. Prince Eji Oyewole’s elevated status with the Presidential Band resulted in him being offered to join a prestigious band.
Whilst playing with the Presidential Band, Prince Eji Oyewole came across Franco, who was the leader and guitarist of OK Jazz Of Congo. They were looking for a saxophonist. Prince Eji Oyewole, who also played the flute, fitted the bill. He joined OK Jazz Of Congo’s tour of West Africa. After the tour, Prince Eji Oyewole and OK Jazz Of Congo went their separate ways. Prince Eji Oyewole was on the move again.
His nomadic lifestyle took him to France, and he headed to the capital, Paris. It was there he first encountered Johnny Halliday. Soon, Prince Eji Oyewole and Johnny Halliday were sharing the same stage. This led to Prince Eji Oyewole being booked at Trois Mallez, which in the late-sixties, was a prestigious cabaret and jazz club. However, as was the norm, Prince Eji Oyewole didn’t stay around long.
Next stop on what was like the modern day equivalent of a Grand Tour, was Geneva, in Switzerland. Prince Eji Oyewole had been booked to play at the city’s Club 7. For the next month, this was home to the wandering Prince. After this, he decided to further his education.
Prince Eji Oyewole couldn’t have chose a better place than Germany. The country’s music scene was thriving, and featured some of the most innovative musicians in the world. Many had studied the Musik Hochschule, under the tutelage of the great Professor Roland. While he studied by day, Prince Eji Oyewole played at venues around the city. Man, even a Prince, cannot live by bread alone. One of the venues Prince Eji Oyewole played was The Star Club, where The Beatles honed their sound. So it seemed was the Prince, before he was on the move again.
No wonder. West Berlin was home to some of the greatest creative minds. Writers, poets, philosophers and musicians. True innovators, including Can, Kluster, Tangerine Dream, Ashra and Neu! congregated at The Zodiak Free Arts Lab. This was the city’s creative hub, where the best musical minds met. Prince Eji Oyewole however, was in West Berlin for saxophone lessons with Professor Lampart at the West Berlin Musik Hochschule. It was during this period of his life, that Prince Eji Oyewole caught a break.
During his time West Berlin, Prince Eji Oyewole was asked to join Billy Brooks, who at that time, was a European ambassador of jazz. Soon, Prince Eji Oyewole, who had come to city for saxophone lessons, was playing at Berlin’s Jazz Galerie and a the Berlin Jazz Festival. Not long after becoming the first Nigerian artist to play tab the Berlin Jazz Festival, the nomadic Prince had been talked into moving to London.
This happened when Fred Schwartz met Prince Eji Oyewole at Berlin’s Jazz Galerie. Keyboardist Fred Schwartz was a member of The Gasoline Band. They were heading to London to record their one and only album The Gasoline Band. Fred wanted the Prince to join The Gasoline Band in London. He agreed, and the Gasoline Band had a new recruit as they embarked for London.
When The Gasoline Band arrived in London, the fusion band made their way to Morgan Studios. That was where The Gasoline Band’s eponymous debut album was to be recorded. Prince Eji Oyewole was meant to have played on the album. However, there’s no sign of his name on the credits, unless he played under an alias? After the album was recorded, The Gasoline Band, headed off on a tour of Europe. The newly recruited band became part of the band’s horn section. Once the tour was complete, the Prince returned to the world of academia.
He returned to London, where he decided to complete his musical studies at the prestigious Trinity College. Once his education was complete, Prince Eji Oyewole became a session player.
After completing his studies at Trinity, Prince Eji Oyewole found himself working as the musical equivalent of a hired gun. He played on everything from rock and pop, to funk and soul. Just like all session musicians, they were all different. Some of the bands were serious musicians, looking for someone to sit in. Others were throwaway pop and faux soul.
In January 1976, Prince Eji Oyewole found himself in Nova Studios. By then, the Prince was using the alias Joe Oye. That’s the name that’s on the session sheets for the horn section. Joe Oye was accompanying the ironically titled The Real Thing. Fortunately, his luck was about ti change.
Later in January 1976, Vangelis were due to play at the Festival Hall. The previous year, 1975, Vangelis had released the soundtrack to Do You Hear the Dogs Barking? and released his fifth solo album Heaven and Hell. Then in December 1975, Vangelis had recorded one of the most ambitious and innovative albums of his career, Albedo 0.39 which was released later in 1976. It was a concept album based around space and space physics. This was the calibre of musician Prince Eji Oyewole was about to share a stage with. Vangelis was the real thing. So was another artist Prince Eji Oyewole would later share a stage with.
This was Bob Marley. The three years that Prince Eji Oyewole spent in Bob Marley’s employ was still to come. Before that, Prince Eji Oyewole decided to record his debut album, Charity Begins At Home.
For Charity Begins At Home, Prince Eji Oyewole penned four tracks. Charity Begins At Home, Gele Odun (Oil Boom), Lagos Complex-Lagos Highways and Unity in Africa (Kasowopo Kasekan) were full of social comment. These tracks were recorded by Prince Eji Oyewole and a group of African musicians.
Joining Prince Eji Oyewole for the recording of Charity Begins At Home, were a group of Nigerian musicians. The rhythm section featured just drummer Sunny Adefadugba and guitarist John Medua. They were augmented by Abu Ismail on congas, Kayode Dosunmo on bongos and Ayan on talking drum. Tende Mugbadu played second tenor saxophone. Prince Eji Oyewole played tenor and soprano saxophone, piano, flute, percussion and added vocals. He also co-produced Charity Begins At Home with Emmanuel Odenusi. Once the album was completed, Charity Begins At Home was meant to be released by EMI Nigeria.
When EMI Nigeria heard Charity Begins At Home, they decided not to release the album. Why remains a mystery. One school of thought was that Eji Oyewole had taken the highlife ball and run with it, but run too far.
While most highlife bands had guitars at the heart of their sound, Eji Oyewole decided to replace the guitars with horns. Their big, brash, harsh sound took centre-stage, while one lone guitar features on Charity It Begins At Home. With horns to the fore, Eji Oyewole seemed to have drawn inspiration from funk, especially American funk. This shines through, throughout Charity It Begins At Home’s four tracks. They’re different to the music found on most highlife albums towards the end of the seventies.
Gone were short, three or four minute, radio friendly songs. Replacing them on Charity It Begins At Home were four lengthy tracks. They lasted between six and nine minutes. This wasn’t what executives at EMI Nigerian had been expecting. However, it was a case of being unable to see the wood from the trees.
Eji Oyewole had decided that highlife had to evolve. If it didn’t, it could risk becoming stale, and eventually, irrelevant. So, he set about reinventing highlife. To do this, he combines a generous supply of funk with jazz, highlife, Afrobeat and even rock. Seamlessly, these musical genres combine over the four tracks. The other ingredient is searing social comment. The man who was born a Prince, wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion on not just what was wrong with Nigeria, but the continent of Africa. This was another reason why executives at EMI Nigeria must have been reluctant to release Charity It Begins At Home.
The title-track Charity It Begins At Home opens the album. Understated soon becomes dramatic. Soon, the man who was born Prince Eji Oyewole is suggesting that Nigerians should unite, and look after each other. Behind him stabs of brash, blazing horns, a funky rhythm section and chiming guitars combine with percussion. They propel the arrangement along. Unity is Eji’s theme. His lyric “Scottish, Welsh and English all together is ironic and misguided. In the late-seventies, Scotland was seeking devolution. Despite his faux pax, Eji sings of “understanding” and ask Nigerians to “come together.” His sincerity can’t be faulted. Neither can the quality of his band. Over six minutes, Eji and his tight talented band showcase their considerable skills. Whether playing together, or when the sizzling, blazing saxophone solo come round, they create an irresistible and funky track. It sees Eji Oyewole begin the reinvention of highlife.
Eji’s flute opens Gele Odun (Oil Boom). Otherworld percussion joins a crystalline, chiming guitar and a rhythm section that errs on the side of funk, rather than highlife. This the co-producers must have thought would give song a much more contemporary sound. There’s a still more than a nod to the old, as Eji sings of the recent oil boom that transformed Nigeria. Dramatic bursts os braying horns joins the chiming guitar and a myriad of percussion. Together they create a churning, swampy and funky arrangement. It’s a glorious fusion of funk, highlife and courtesy of Eji’s impassioned vocal, soul.
With the oil boom, Lagos in the late-seventies was expanding. Eji and the band sing about this on Lagos Complex-Lagos Highways. The growling horns unite with the rhythm section and a mass of percussion. It’s what one expects on a highlife album. Chiming guitars are panned right and left. They seem to surround the listener. That’s no bad thing. By then, the band are in the groove. Later, the band almost chant the lyrics, giving it a mesmeric, hypnotic quality. This is a contrast to the arrangement. It flows freely and joyously. Playing a starring role is Eji and his saxophone. He unleashes a blistering solo, before the hypnotic harmonies return. Later, another of Eji Oyewole’s grandstanding braying saxophone solo steals the show on Lagos Complex-Lagos Highways.
Unity in Africa (Kasowopo Kasekan) closes Charity Begins At Home. A scorching saxophone solo and rolls of dramatic drums combine. Then the rhythm section join the horns as the band kick loose. They play as one, and never miss a beat. Then when horns drop out, and the rhythm section briefly showcase their skills. Then Eji delivers an urgent and impassioned vocal. His is clear: “Unity in Africa.” Later, the rhythm section and guitar sound as if they’ve walked off the set for Blaxploitation movie. However, the myriad of percussion and dramatic, blazing horns remind you that this is actually a highlife album. However, it’s highlife, but not as we know it. Instead, it’s Eji Oyewole as he set about reinventing highlife. Sadly, Charity Begins At Home never saw the light of day until very recently.
It was only on 16th October 2015, that BBE Africa released Charity Begins At Home, which was meant to be Eji Oyewole’s debut album. However, for whatever reason, EMI Nigeria chose not to release the album.
Maybe Eji Oyewole’s lyrics were seen as too controversial? The Nigerian economy was booming, and inward investment was at an all-time high. Many people were getting rich. This didn’t include many ordinary, working class Nigerians. They were living in abject poverty. If they had heard Prince Eji Oyewole’s message of unity and togetherness, they could’ve rebelled. That couldn’t be allowed to happen. So Charity Begins At Home was pulled. If that is the case, then Nigerian musical history changed.
Highlife could’ve evolved, and gone in a new direction. It would’ve taken on a funk fuelled sound. That wasn’t to be. Instead, the status quo remained. Nothing however, stays the same. Not even highlife. Eventually, highlife began to evolve, and musically, become more relevant. By then, Eji Oyewole was part of a band that had a record released.
Eji Oyewole was part of the short-lived Piliso, who released their one and only album, Thumela, in 1983. Although the Prince was just part of the horn section, he made his presence felt. By then, Eji Oyewole was rubbing shoulders with a true musical great, Bob Marley.
For three years Eji Oyewole worked with Bob Marley and The Wailers. He can be heard on Buffalo Soldier, which was released in 1983. Later, Eji Oyewole went on to work with real royalty, Miles Davis. Sadly, Eji Oyewole’s time with Bob Marley and The Wailers and Miles Davis is overlooked. However, it’s testament to the high regard that Eji Oyewole was held.
Despite that, Eji Oyewole decided to return home to where the story starter, Ibadan, the city on edge of the savannah. That’s where Prince Eji Oyewole was born. That’s where Eji Oyewole has called home for the last twenty years. Still, the man who was born a Prince continues to make music. Eji Oyewole has recorded an album of new material with his new band, The Afrobars. He’s also part of Faaji Agba, a Nigerian supergroup who have been compared to Buena-Vista Social Club. Still, there’s no sign of Eji Oyewole losing his insatiable appetite for music.
Far from it. He’s at the heart of Ibadan’s thriving music scene, and continues to collaborate with, and encourage the latest generation of musicians. Belatedly, Eji Oyewole can show Ibadan’s latest generation of musicians his long lost album, Charity Begins At Home, which he recorded five decades ago. The belated release of Eji Oyewole’s album Charity Begins At Home, is just the latest chapter in the Prince of Ibadan’s action packed fifty year career.
EJI OYEWOLE-CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME.