A household name in Nigeria, Dr. Orlando Owoh has enjoyed a durable popularity that has cut across generational lines in his home country and beyond. Leading groups such as the Omimah Band, the Young Kenneries, and the African Kenneries International, Owoh remained popular even as Nigerian tastes shifted to the newer juju and fuji styles. Owoh's rootsy take on highlife music led him into political realms in the turbulent Nigeria of the 1980s, and he was imprisoned for a time on drug charges. Dubbed the "King of Toye," as he dubbed his particular musical mix, Owoh entered his fifth decade of performing with his powers and popularity undiminished.
A member of the Yoruba ethnic group, Owoh was born Oladipupo Owomoyela in Nigeria's Oyo state. Some publications have assigned Owoh's birthdate to the early 1940s, but Nigeria's P.M. News (in an article reproduced by the Africa News online service) reported that Owoh celebrated his 70th birthday on February 14, 2002, and a 2005 report in the Nigerian Sun tabloid gave his age as 73. Owoh's father was a carpenter who was known around the town of Osogbo as a good part-time musician, but he greeted his son's growing interest in music with little enthusiasm.
Blazed Through Carpentry Apprenticeship
The family moved frequently from place to place, but Owoh sought out musicians and formed bands in each place they landed. Owoh's father insisted that Owoh learn a trade as a condition of being allowed to work on his music, and Owoh obediently apprenticed himself to a carpenter. "I learned fast," Owoh told Tosin Ajirire of Nigeria's Daily Sun. "A trade that would take my contemporaries four or eight years to learn, I mastered in only six months. So, having satisfied my father, he couldn't help but bless my choice of career."
Owoh's first break came when he was hired as a musician by Nigeria's Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group, one of the country's first theatrical troupes. Owoh played drums and sang with the group when England's Queen Elizabeth visited Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1956, and he continued to perform plays mounted at the University of Ibadan. Performing with several bands, including one called Akindele (or Dele Jolly) and His Chocolate Dandies, and in another called the Fakunle Major Band, Owoh realized that music in West Africa was developing in a new direction, and sought out lessons on the electric guitar from musician Fatai Rolling Dollar.
The hot style of the day in Nigeria and Ghana was called highlife. It developed from a traditional Yoruba genre called palm wine music, overlaid with danceable guitar rhythms, and, in the hands of many musicians, it also contained a strong element of Trinidadian calypso. In Owoh's music, however, the sophisticated Caribbean-style horn arrangements of highlife were deemphasized in favor of Owoh's guttural voice, guitar, percussion, and down-to-earth lyrics. Owoh formed his first group, Orlando Owoh and His Omimah Band, around 1960 and quickly recorded his first single, "Oluwa, lo ran Mi" ("God has sent me") on the Nigerian branch of the Decca label.
Heard Record Played in Store
It's a thrill for any musician to hear his or her record being played on the streets for the first time, but Owoh's experience was more thrilling than most. "I almost died the first time I heard my record," he told Ajirire. "I was passing along Idi Oro in Mushin and suddenly I heard my record being played in a shop across the road…. Without looking at both sides, I dashed across the road and ran towards the shop. I heard a car screech to a halt; it almost crushed me to death." The enraged driver pursued Owoh into the shop, but calmed down when Owoh pointed out that he was the musician heard on the recording.
Owoh notched several hits in Nigeria in the 1960s, but his career was slowed between 1967 and 1970 by the country's civil war. Owoh fought for the Nigerian government against the country's Biafran rebels. After the war he recorded a major hit called "Oriki Ilu Oke," and his fame spread to Nigerian expatriate communities. In 1972 he played in London, England, at a graduation ceremony for Nigerian law students, and went on to perform on a larger bill that included South African legend Miriam Makeba. "I played at the African center on October 1, 1972. That was where I was honoured with the doctorate degree in music," Owoh told the NigeriaArts website. From then on he was often known as Dr. Orlando Owoh.
Gaining fans as a result of these initial appearances, Owoh toured the United Kingdom and appeared in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. He also performed in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, but although his music was widely available in Britain, he enjoyed only one U.S. release, Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues, a 1995 reissue of earlier Omimah Band and Young Kenneries tracks. Back in Africa, Owoh's LP albums on the Decca, Electromat, and Shanu Olu labels were consistent hits. He eventually gave up trying to keep track of their number, but estimates have placed it above 40.
Dubbed Music "Kennery"
Around 1975, Owoh named his backing group His Young Kenneries, a term that later changed to His Africa Kenneries International, or His African Kenneries Beats International. The word "Kennery," also spelled Kenery or Cannery, seemed to be related to the word "canary." "They say my voice is unique like that of a bird called Cannery," Owoh told Ajirire. "And in truth, if you see Cannery, it has the colour of a rainbow and its voice has different tunes."
As Western production electronics began to infiltrate the music of other West African bands, Owoh stuck to his low-tech approach; heard today, his music sounds distinctly rootsier than that of other highlife bands and strongly evokes the music's traditional base. He also generally remained true to the small guitar-band format of highlife rather than adapting his style to the huge, kinetic ensembles of the rising juju genre of King Sunny Ade and his African Beats, although some of his records were designated as juju on their printed labels. He sang mostly in Yoruba but recorded music in English on occasion. His recordings, like those of other African musicians, consisted of long, dance-suitable medleys of connected pieces; they gave only a small slice of what would occur during an actual Owoh performance, which might last all night.
In the mid-1980s Owoh's music took a turn toward what Ronnie Graham, in The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, called "saucy and provocative lyrics," and he apparently ran afoul of the Nigerian government. He was also imprisoned for six months on cocaine possession charges. Graham, in his book The World of African Music,) noted that Owoh was "associated in the public mind with various forms of drug abuse," but Owoh later denied the charges. "I cannot forget the experience. It's so painful," he told Ajirire. "They say I sniff cocaine, it's a lie…. Do I smoke Igbo [marijuana]? No, I don't smoke Igbo, what I smoke is Ajuwa. Ajuwa is our local herbs."
The affection of the Nigerian public for Owoh and his band survived this setback. Owoh released at least a dozen albums between 1990 and 2005, sometimes adding the honorific "Chief" in front of "Doctor" before his given name. In 2000 he launched a lawsuit against Decca, seeking back royalties for his many recordings for the label. A sign of Owoh's lasting influence was the tribute paid to him by youthful Nigerian rapper Dele Bravo, who told P.M. News that "Orlando is my mentor," although the two met for the first time in 2003. Bravo put his music under the inventive genre category of "Ju-Fuji-Makosa with Kennery touch." A large group of musicians and clubgoers gathered at the O Jez Nightclub in Lagos to pay tribute to Owoh in 2005. There were reports that year that he had been slowed by a stroke, but he shrugged them off. "Don't bother about my present condition," he told Ajirire. "I still play music like I used to do…. Only death can stop me from playing music."
For the Record …
Born c. 1932 in Oyo state, Nigeria; member of Yoruba ethnic group.
As a young man, served as carpenter's apprentice; formed Orlando Owoh and His Omimah Band, ca. 1960; fought on government side in Nigerian-Biafran war, 1967–70; toured Great Britian, 1972; formed Orlando Owoh and His Young Kenneries, 1975; continued to record and perform frequently, 1990s and 2000s.
Addresses: Record company—Stern's Music U.S., Inc., P.O. Box 688, Belleville, NJ 07109.
In Great Britain, Decca, 1972.
Okiki Ojo, Decca, 1975.
Easter Special, Decca, 1977.
Money for Hand Back for Ground, Shana-Olu, 1979.
Ganja, Part 2, Shana-Olu, 1981.
Asotito Aiye, Shana-Olu, 1984.
Message, Owoh, 1987.
Experience, Owoh, 1989.
Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues, Original Music/Shanachie, 1995.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Biz Production, 1999.
Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, Biz Production, 2000.
Live in New York City, 2001.
Kadumo Se, Gasola, 2003.
Thanksgiving, Gasola, 2004.
Logba Logba, Gasola, 2004.
Iyawo Olele, N.G.D., 2004.
Graham, Ronnie, The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, Da Capo, 1988.
Graham, Ronnie, The World of African Music, Pluto, 1992.
Africa News, December 21, 1998; January 14, 2000; March 1, 2002; February 20, 2004.
Daily Sun (Nigeria), March 11, 2005; April 10, 2005.
"Discography of Dr. Orlando Owoh," http://www.biochem.chem.nagoya-u.ac.jp/∼endo/EAOwoh.html (August 31, 2005).
"Orlando Owoh," Nigeria Arts, http://www.Nigeria-Arts.net/Music/Highlife/Orlando_Owoh/ (August 31, 2005).
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