By Benson Idonije
News of the exit last Saturday of ex – Roy Chicago sideman and one of Nigeria’s finest highlife singers has continued to reverberate round the world. The avalanche of telephone calls pouring in from America, Canada, Spain and England in commiseration is a testimony to the huge legendary stature of the late Osofisan on the one hand, and in fact the popularity of highlife itself as an enduring musical culture on the other. The great highlife singer passed on last Saturday after a protracted illness that confined him to a wheel chair. He was aged 77 years.
His last major performance was in October 2010 at the ‘Festival 50 Concert’ organised by Evergreen Musical Company at City Hall, Lagos; but he has been kicking around since the ‘60s when he introduced glamour to highlife as vocalist with the celebrated Rhythm Dandies led at the time by the late John Akintola, popularly known in the business as Roy Chicago.
Osofisan made considerable impact as composer and singer of highlife music – with an emergence that put him on the same musical pedestal with such great Ghanaian singers as Dan Aquaye, Eddie Ntreh, Joe Mensah, Joss Aikins and Nat Buckle who elevated highlife music, singing with E.T. Mensah’s Tempos Band, Uhuru Professional Dance Band, Chief Bill Friday’s Ambassador Downbeats, The Stargazers and Eddy Okonta’s Star Aces respectively and in that order. But perhaps his first crowning effort came in 1965 at the highlife festival organised by the late great impresario, Steve Rhodes at the Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island Lagos where he was voted best singer of the year. Since then, he became fully established, his voice adding value to numerous highlife aggregations even outside of the context of the Rhythm Dandies.
The huge success of contemporary hip hop in Nigeria and Africa today is traceable to the influence of highlife music. And one of the veterans who has kept the music alive for the new generation of musicians to take full advantage of is Tunde Osofisan. His voice was his asset; and has been actively involved in a highlife revival crusade since the ‘90s when the music began to experience considerable decline. He was part of the pioneering process of the Great Highlife Party initiated by the Goethe Institut in 1998 and the year 2000 – along with such towering musicians as E.C Arinze, Ralph Amarabem, David Bull, Sonny Brown, Nelly Uchendu, Alaba Pedro and others. From the year 2000 till 2009, Osofisan was on the bill of the Great Highlife Party, a monthly live show which also featured Fatai Rolling Dollar, Apipah Jay, Maliki Showman, Billy Bassey, Y.S.Akinibosun and others.
A product of Ibadan Grammar School, music for him was to be a hobby – the way Exy Ohunta operated loosely, on ad hoc basis with E .C. Arinze at Kakadu Hotel in those days, but it turned out to be a full blown career on account of the huge success he eventually made of it. His first performing experience was with the late Joe Nez for whom he wrote a calypso song early in 1960. He loved songwriting and composed a calypso to mark Nigeria’s independence at the time. Impressed with the lyrical message, Joe Nez put him on the microphone at a nightclub in Ajegunle, Lagos where he got a standing ovation from an appreciative audience. “Encouraged by this successful beginning,” said he in a conversation I had with him in 1996, “I wrote a highlife song which I titled Olowo gbaya ole otherwise called Bosede. I went looking for a band to accept and play it. In the process, I met Eric Onugha at Centtral Hotel, E.C Arinze and Victor Olaiya but none of them saw any merit in it. I then went up to Roy Chicago and as soon as I hummed it to him, he jumped at it and decided to give it a chance. The band soon rehearsed it with me and I started singing it on stage. I later discovered that the band had no calypso song in their repertoire - popular and greatly in demand as calypso music was at the time. I gave them my first ever composed calypso song, the one I previously performed with Joe Nez and we rehearsed it against independence. I also found, to my dismay, that the band was merely playing instrumental versions of Ghanaian highlife tunes perhaps because they did not see the need to provide vocals to them. I asked Roy Chicago to allow me provide words to the music and he agreed. I sang the songs for the band on independence night.”
Roy Chicago was so impressed with this outing that he wanted Osofisan to get fully involved with the band. He started going to pick him from his house to feature with the band whenever they had gigs as there was no other vocalist beside him to take the songs. Sometimes Osofisan looked for excuses to stay away because he did not intend to go professional: he had a good job with an oil company. But as fate would have it, he eventually became one of the most sought –after professional vocalists on the scene of that era:
“I became fully involved with the band when Roy Chicago was in prison for six months for knocking down two kids in a car accident which cost them their lives,” he informed. “I stepped into his shoes as the band’s major vocalist. More than ever before, the band became individually inspired. We played with commitment and cohesion, determined to keep the flag flying in the absence of our band leader who would soon be released from incarceration. Moreover, on account of the loyalty the fans had for Roy Chicago and the band, they often rallied round to give us support. All our shows were fully packed.”
One of the high points of Osofisan’s career as a highlife musician was the show the band put up to celebrate Roy Chicago’s release from prison: “I’d like to remember the night that we had a welcome dance for Roy Chicago on his return from incarceration. This was in 1962 at Abalabi Hotel, Mushin Lagos. The cream of Nigerian society was there. The then Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (now Radio Nigeria) was on hand to transmit the show live as a network programme on the station’s Saturday Night Out slot.
“As a special treat, veteran highlife composer and lyricist Adeolu Akinsanya was assigned to compose a befitting song for the occasion – in terms of message and melody; he turned out a master piece. I was billed to sing it that night, having rehearsed and assimilated all the nuances and chord changes. Even before Roy Chicago came out, he had been informed about this special return- to- the - scene song in his honour. But on this great day, I just decided to relax properly to enhance my performance; and I overslept. By the time I woke up and listened to radio, the show had started without me. I hurriedly dressed up and took a taxi cab. The whole place was jammed with vehicular traffic, making it extremely difficult to get to the venue. The late great broadcaster, Ishola Folorunso who was the master of ceremony was getting worried, having publicised me as the man to sing the event’s special song. The band members were even more worried. The club was full to overflowing. As the guitarist just finished stating the introduction to Olojo nkajo, one of the band’s popular songs in anticipation of Roy Chicago (who was already on stage) to take the song, I suddenly appeared and took it over from him. The crowd roared and thundered with applause. Eventually when Aiso aba, the special song for the occasion was played and Roy Chicago heard me sing it, he was moved. The tears rolled down his cheeks. Sympathisers also wept because the song was loaded with meaning and emotion. This is the night I find the greatest and most eventful in my entire musical career and I can never forget the experience.”
The Nigerian highlife scene can never forget Tunde Osofisan. By his exit, West African highlife has lost one of its finest singers.