Sunday, July 15, 2007

Get Yer Ju-Ju's Out, Part 2: I.K. Dairo MBE

So since we were talking about juju music last time, I figured I might as well continue in that vein with some music from the genre's first superstar, Isaiah Kehinde Dairo MBE (1930-1996). I.K. Dairo is often referred to as"the father of juju" not because he invented the style (which he most certainly did not do) but because he took it from the lowly status of a back-alley urban folk music to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan popular genre on par with the urbane and glamorous highlife.

Like many juju musicians of the early era, Dairo started out playing music on a part-time basis while he worked as a barber and manual laborer. In 1957 he formed the ten-piece Morning Star Orchestra. The level of innovation he brought to juju was immediately apparent: He simultaneously modernized the music--incorporating cutting-edge Afro-Cuban rhythms, emphasizing the melodic role of the guitar and novel instrumental voices such as the ten-button accordion--and more deeply indigenized it via the introduction of traditional talking drums and thoroughly researched texts drawn from Yoruba folklore.

This tradition/modernity paradox also informed the subject matter of his songs, which often essayed the complexities of urban life while extolling the traditions of old. An ardent follower of the Cherubim & Seraphim "white garment" church, he advocated Protestant values even when he was singing about hip-swaying, painted-lipped city sirens. Take for example, the tune "Salome" in which he describes a beautiful, light-skinded femme fatale and then sings how it is "her character" that attracts him (LOL yeah right, dude!), and how he wants to work hard to make the money to get her.

His ambivalent relationship with urban glamour and decadence is captured in this passage from a 1969 Nigerian National Press article by Benson Corporo Okagbare:

I K has a character trait which is peculiar to him; he does not like to be interrupted when he talks and if you interrupt he will go on talking without a break in the line of thought. This peculiar character trait is much to his advantage. In any hotel, whenever he is playing and Bacchus is at work, people go very close to him. Some even go to the extent of entering on the stage to talk to him. All these do not disturb I K. In certain cases when the crowd - particularly girls, in miniskirts crowd on him while playing, he will close his eyes to avoid distraction; he prefers the audience far from the playing stage. I K is one of the greatest admirers of beauty; he has a great likeness for girls but he loves them and admires them as he would his sisters. This is another candle placed on a candlestick. I believe others will see light.

"The girls I sing of are not my girlfriends or lovers. In certain cases I pick up certain names and sing of them. Most of the characters are fictitious I am currently composing a song on Sunbo - I know nobody of such a name. I sing of girls and of 'love' because these are, in face essential factors in our lives. They are necessary compliments [sic] to whatever we are. 'Love' is indeed one of the essential ingredients of music and love songs are most appealing to all and sundry. I therefore sing them merely to give satisfaction to the people whom I am happy to see satisfied. I have carefully avoided flooding the market with such songs as they are most likely to encourage immorality." I K then concluded that if a musician was to retain his glory long he must abstain.

Dairo and his Morning Star Orchestra (renamed the Blue Spots in 1961) immediately captured the imagination of the public and rose meteorically, performing on radio and television, and becoming the favored party band among the Yoruba contingent while also drawing in fans from other ethnic groups. For his cultural contributions to the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth even appointed him a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1963, making him the first and, to date (I think), the only African musician to receive such an honor.

Dairo & the Blue Spots' far-reaching appeal is documented in this article from the July 1964 issue of DRUM magazine.

His father gave him a drum to beat in his cradle. I.K. Dairo has been making music ever since. Today he is Nigeria's number one bandleader and he has been at the top for five fabulous years. How does he do it?


Britain has the Beatles who make teenagers scream and wail ecstatically at the slightest beat of the drums. America has pop singers like Elvis Presley and Chubby Checker whose music make [sic] her boys and girls go ga-ga. They are all worshipped by teenagers. Their grown-up fans are limited to people between twenty-five and forty years of age. But I.K. Dairo's music is a different cup of tea.

His music is not just a teenage drug, it also acts as a tonic on the grown-ups. For over five years, he has been treating the country to an unprecedented musical extravaganza--to a music that cuts across age and tribe, that is equally enjoyed by the ten year old and the septuagenarian and which gives the same kick and pleasure to the man from Lagos or from Abakaliki or from Ogbomosho or from Kaura-Namoda.

In spite of the fact that juju highhlife bands are common in Yorubaland, Dairo's music has more appeal than the music of all of them put together. It also commands more attention and respect among educated people and artists, because most of Dairo's compositions reveal a search into the past and because of their historical connections with the Yoruba folk songs.

Says Dairo: "Many older people have come to ask me for the meanings of the words I use in my songs and the majority of my Yoruba listeners are baffled at some of the incantations, verses and expressions I use. It costs me a lot of money and time to research Yoruba history and folklore. I have to travel around, talking to old men who know a lot about such things; I then go back home to turn them into modern music."

The original caption to the photo above was "DAIRO FINDS A lonely spot to compose a sad song. He says: 'I'm at the top and I mean to stay there.'"

Ironically, even as this article was rolling off the presses, Dairo's run as the King of Juju was coming to an end; 1964 was the year that a young guitar hotshot named Ebenezer Obey--lately departed from Fatai Rolling Dollar's band--formed his own seven-piece International Brothers orchestra, offering an ultramodern blend of juju-highlife, soul, country & western, Congolese rumba and an unabashed celebration of miliki, or "enjoyment" that made Dairo's studious traditionalism and Christian temperance appear hidebound and colo in comparison. Dairo managed to crank out a few hits here and there through the end of the sixties, but he really couldn't keep up with the escalated cutthroat competition amongst bands that had come to characterize the genre.

Dairo remained a beloved avuncular figure on the juju scene and given his propensity for moral messages and melodies inspired by Anglican hymnology, it was a natural move for him to put his juju ministry to service as the head of his own Aladura church, with its distinctly Yoruba brand of Christianity with a subtle orisha worship flavor.

Towards the end of his life, he also served as a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington, Seattle. Upon his death in 1996, Radio Nigeria paid tribute to Dairo's standing as a sainted figure in the juju canon by playing nothing but his music for five days straight. His legacy lives on today not only through his evergreen songs, but through his son Paul IK Dairo (bka "Paul Play") who is the spitting image of his father, and one of the most popular singers in Nigeria today:

(Obviously, that "spitting image" comment was a reference to physical resemblance rather than musical. As much as Paul has expressed his disinterest in ever playing an accordion on record, the way he keeps his finger so heavy on that Auto-Tune kinda makes his vocals sound a little bit like an accordion sometimes. So in a bizarre way, he is maintaining some small piece of Baba I.K.'s musical voice, no?)

The album I'm posting here is Definitive Dairo, which probably suggests a representive anthology of his work, but the title is misleading. It's actually a lost 1971 London session that was unearthed after his death. I wish I could reproduce the lovely liner notes by juju scholar Chris Waterman, elucidating the song texts, but it's not really necessary to enjoy the music.

One thing, though; I kinda chuckled at producer Andy Frankel's efforts to rationalize the last two, Lingala-inflected songs on the disc, "Congo Kinshasa" and "President Mobutu"; he explains that the Blue Spots had just returned from Zaire, where they had enjoyed Mobutu's lavish hospitality and basically, it was a more optimistic time in Africa when nobody yet knew how the leopard-hatted one was going to wild out in coming years.

While I'm sure there's truth to this reading, I really can't ignore one aspect of the juju genre that's always kind of bothered me: Remember how I said before that juju was always sorta synonymous with toadying to me? A big part of the juju musician's repertoire has always been the ability to flatter wealthy and powerful patrons in their songs. That, to me, is some semi-feudal bullshit that I wouldn't mind seeing eradicated with all alacrity. While I know that praise-singing is a eons-old musical tradition throughout sub-Saharan Africa, so is abuse-singing (as exemplified in the modern era by Fela) and I used to be sickened by the unequivocal, oily encomium oozed by juju musicians upon robber barons, despots and other corrupt, blood-sucking reptilia (whether dressed in agbada or khaki) just as long as the money was flowing.

And that's why I found it a major head-scratcher why, when looking towards Africa for a "Third World Superstar" to replace the recently departed Bob Marley, Island Records ignored the logical choice of Fela in favor of King Sunny Ade.

King Sunny Ade? The hell?

Bob Marley became the first "Third World Superstar" because, in addition to being a gifted songwriter in the conventional pop mold, he was slick and sexy and projected the image of a real rebel against the system. This last element particularly appealed to the rock audience, which has continued to value and pay lip service to the idea of "sticking it to The Man," long after that concept ceased to have any real meaning. King Sunny Ade--apart from the fact that he didn't even sing in a language that the proposed audience could understand--he didn't stick it to The Man; he sucked up to The Man. And they were surprised that their precious rock audience didn't cotton to him the way they hoped?


Shit, I've wandered away from the point. I come to praise juju, not to bury it. Whatever philosophical difficulties I might have with it, it's still some good-ass music.



Bigdaf said...

Hey AFKAP, bigup on your blog, I stumbled across it while looking for Osibisa, you sidetracked me so much that I almost forgot what I was searching for. Anyhow visit me on


By the way I found 6 Osibisa albums on another blog and will post an Afri-funk special linking your blog with others, I have recently visited.

Keep up da good work

Anonymous said...

For sheer, down in the dirt toadying, no juju musician can hold a candle to Oliver de Coque. He hit a career nadir with his tribute to Sani Abacha. And he's such a great guitarist, too!

Comb & Razor said...


thanks a lot for checking us out... and thanks a lot for the link to your blogs! lately i've been digging back into my roots in funk, soul and disco from the 70s and 80s and all the stuff you got up there almost put me in a coma!

thank God i got a new hard drive, because i'm likely to be downloading like a madman for the rest of the week!


yeah... de Coque is pretty bad with the sucking up. it's only relatively recently that i've really started appreciating his considerable skill as a musician... back in the day, me and my friends used to think he was a ridiculous figure, partially because of the toadying and partially because we thought that beard of his was insane!

(i might add that as i've gotten older, i've also come to understand the degree of time and dedication it takes to cultivate a face-'fro like that, and so i have to respect him for that too!)

i know that's probably unfair for me to deride these musicians for playing to the powerful, though... like i said, praise-singing is a longstanding tradition, and with the economic structure that many Nigerian musicians have to work within, patronage is often the one of the only avenues available to sustaining a career.

i just wish that they would exercise some discrimination with regards to who they praise.

Bigdaf said...

AFKAP, You welcome man, I got one bit of advice though, be selective in what you download or you will run out of space tonight hahahahahahaha!!!!!!

But seriously, your insight and narrative as well as links to albums are invaluable. I had flashback vol 1, to get vol 2 was a dream and all the other stuff, More blessing man, more blessing

Anonymous said...

When I was in Nigeria in '94, I met Oliver de Coque at a "housewarming" for some 419 bigshot in my wife's hometown (you can see a picture of the encounter here ( - scroll down. I also got video of de Coque singing the praises of said poobah. Some day I'll post it on YouTube!

That said, the guy's still got it going on as a musician. We caught him in Chicago in 2000 and he had the audience in the palm of his hand. His earlier recordings from the '70s and '80s are especially good.

Comb & Razor said...

good show... i hope you put that video up soon!

"Oliver de Fanta" is another guy whose work i want to investigate further. there's a song of his that's buried deep in my consciousness because when i was in primary school, the headmaster used to play it just about every day when we were marching to morning assembly... what was it called again?

*thinks for a while*

"Identity"... that's it! i guess that's probably his biggest "mainstream" hit.

Bigdaf said...


I got a couple of requests that I thought of yesterday.

I remeber we had an album by Ikenga Superstars with the song Ikenga Go marry me, can you find it?

Also the album by Amas "Gbubemi" I think the title is Grill, with the song - Ereyon.

Two albums I used to play in the 1970's

ms bazu said...


i added a link to your blog to tambour d'afrique. i need to catch up ! your updates stay chock full of goodness :)


Comb & Razor said...

ms bazu:

peace right back atcha, ma!


i'm not sure if i have that Ikengas album... i believe i have that one particular song somewhere. and i think one of my friends has the LP, too. i'll have to check with him this weekend.

(also, i wouldn't be surprised if John B had it as well)

as for the Grill album... you are in luck, my friend! i do have that album and i have been planning to do a feature on Gbubemi Amas and Twins Seven Seven for a while now.

i'll try to get that album up for you by this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I do have that Ikengas album. I'll pass it on in a day or so.

Comb & Razor said...

i knew it.

Bigdaf said...

Ah AFKAB and John B, you guys are making dreams come true. That Ikengas album is soooo hard to find. I seem to remember the album had a white label with a large star (red?) in the middle. Funny the details one remembers from '76