By way of marking the 39th anniversary of Ayinla Omowura’s passing, I’m inclined to celebrate him as an artist.
When he first burst on the Apala music scene, he was a sort of an oddity. His brand was at once vivacious and irreverent. Even vulgar. His arrival marked a widespread verbalization of sex in that very conservative art form that Apala music had been up until his time. Besides FATAI AYILARA before him who was the only Apala musician to have used sexual lyrics blatantly – “ Abatari oko keeri l’ele abiyamo…Fatayi oooo” – (the one with a mighty penis inside a woman), Omowura was the one who banished inhibition in the expression of sex in lyrics.
But, that wasn’t why his music hit home. The conservatives actually found him repulsive initially. I had an uncle – Uncle Shittu – who was a traditional music aficionado. He grabbed at any worthy releases from all the Apala and Sakara musicians of the 40s, 50s, 60s onwards; and just by being around him, I absorbed these brands of music naturally. I still marvel at my recall of the lyrics of Haruna Ishola, Yusuf Olatunji, Abibu Oluwa, Fatai Ayilara, Salami Balogun (Lefty), Oseni Ejire, Ajape, Saka Layigbade, etc., from the 60s and 70s. Uncle Shittu didn’t quite jump on the Ayinla Omowura train immediately. His music didn’t instantly appeal to him. How could it? How could anyone play Apala differently than Haruna Ishola – who was the acknowledged master – and expect serious attention?
I recall even my father once dismissing Omowura in passing, saying: “What rubbish is that one playing that he calls music?”
But, Omowura’s niche was the youth audience and the street crowd – the agbero, the public transport workers, even the delinquents. They sank their teeth into the Omowura dish and received nourishment. The musician instantly acquired a cult following amongst them with the verve he injected into his unusually racy brand. He just hit the formula by his recognition of the need for adrenalin activity of the youth.
At Mushin, which was Omowura’s initial base, his music inspired rebellious and weird hairstyles and dance steps – anything to shock the conservative elders! That was the emergence in barber’s shops of styles such as were echoed later on American pop scenes by musicians such as Bobby Brown and all those punk stuff.
You couldn’t dance Omowura’s music gently – are you sick? Besides the crowds that he attracted in front of record selling shops, there were nightly rendezvous at street junctions that began around 11PM and stretched to whenever, usually around palmwine and beer parlours and restaurants. It was at such rendezvous that the weirdest dance steps were introduced, some of which became widely adopted. You danced to the music as if something was biting you inside, jerking your head alternately to the left and to the right violently, with equally violent steps, charging forwards and backwards and sideways as though you were possessed.
Omowura was a success after achieving such an effect. And the conservative music buffs, too, caught the bug. Even Uncle Shittu. Today, in his 90s, he enjoys Omowura’s music.
The young man had challenged Ishola’s dominance of the Apala scene successfully, not without being noticed by the older musician, who may have thrown a jab at his younger colleague with such lyrics as: “Tiwa yato si t’awon ajo gbani loju, I’m very sorry kii se pe a buwon…” in his Oroki Social Club release.
But, Omowura frequently paid homage to the older man. His lyrics were also surfeit with suggestions of violence. He, in more than a few instances, challenged his adversaries to gather themselves and waylay him for a fight.
His friends were the likes of the popular street lord, ALADO of Mushin, Omo Bayewu, his band manager who eventually was convicted and hanged for murdering him during a brawl, Osmobi, a popular palmwine seller, Sule Maito, Adebayo Ogundare a.k.a Bayo Success, the late agbero chieftain, another guy he called Abesujobi (the one who shares Kolanut with Esu, the impish Yoruba god) and such other street lords.
He paid profuse homage to these men and the king of them all, Chief Lawal OMO PUPA, the “strong man” of Mushin, in his records.
There was always a crowd of street guys wherever Omowura was billed to play and plenty of hemp smoking, sex and fights. He exclusively owned the Ogun Ajobo franchise, invited nationwide annually to celebrate the god of iron with the transporters’ union branches. Hence, you hear him sing about Ogun Ajobo at Idumota, Lagos, at Mushin, at Oloosha, at Agege, in Kaduna and elsewhere.
Omowura’s music has the tendency to possess its fans, the way Fela’s Afro Beat does.
A great anchor of it is ADEWOLE ALAO, his gangan drummer, whom he praised a lot in his records, usually calling him “my master”. Really, without Alao, Omowura’s music isn’t the music that we all enjoy. That is why, when they had such differences as caused a parting of ways, they had to bury the hatchet and hook up together again to keep delighting us, celebrating their reunion in the process. Alao’s drumming guides Omowura’s singing. When Omowura misses his lines, it is Alao who jolts his memory back.
The gangan, the sekere, the agidigbo, the igba, all instruments blended together like pepper for a soup.
His chorus men worked like asses from the beginning of any piece he played till the close, taking such breath-taking lines as would cause you to sometimes marvel at what kinds of memory they possessed.
I sometimes visited some of those crazy street junction dances, and the sound of Omowura’s music any day conjures up fond memories.
When I heard in my undergraduate years at Nsukka that he’d been murdered in 1980, I was miserable for days.
Rest well EEGUN MOGAJI, ALHAJI COSTLY, AYINLA OMO YUSUFU.
Sule is an Author, TV Writer and producer