Highlife crooner and Afrobeat singer Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode died, according to his wife Latoya Aduke, in his sleep on April 15, 2022.
A Nigerian highlife titan had died aged 79.
With a career spanning nearly six decades, Orlando Julius has stamped the sands of history, promoting his talents and whitewashing his country’s image around the world.
Orlando Julius played the saxophone with dexterity and eventually became a pioneering force in Afrobeat music: a genre that was later adopted and promoted by the famous Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Highlife music originated in Ghana in the early 1800s as multiple African musical fusions mixed with Western jazz melodies. It is characterized mainly by jazzy horns and several guitars.
However, Afrobeat is a hybrid of highlife music that developed in the 1960s and 1970s. It combines elements of West African styles such as fuji and highlife with American jazz, soul and funk.
Orlando’s prowess lies in his ability to combine his native Yoruba drums with guitar and saxophone to produce a blend of African rhythms and soul. This combination would go on to become the popular Afrobeat genre which he took to Europe and the United States.
His early years
Orlando was born in Ikole Ekiti, a town in southwestern Nigeria in 1943. He was educated at St. Peter’s Anglican School in the same town. He also played for the school band in addition to receiving music lessons from his mother. After his father’s death in 1957, Orlando dropped out of school and moved to Ibadan to pursue his career in music.
He worked in a bakery while playing drums and flutes with juju and konkoma (or konkomba) bands. Juju music is a popular traditional Yoruba style of percussion. The name comes from the Yoruba word ‘juju’ which means to throw something or something to be thrown. Konkoma (or konkomba) derives from the Gur people in the northern part of Ghana.
He later played in the secretariat of the now defunct political party action group in Ibadan. Here he met a Brazilian guitarist, Romero Lubambo, who invited him to play Ondo. In 1960, Orlando was invited by a Nigerian highlife musician Eddy Okonta to join the band Highlife. With Okonta, he learned to play the saxophone professionally and became a highlife-cum-Afrobeat singer.
Career and legacy
He thus experiments variously with brass, guitar and American R&B to form a unique genre. He then left Okonta to form his own band and his first hit with Jagua Nana, a 1965 song in which a woman is compared to a Jaguar.
The following year, 1966, Orlando released one of his greatest albums, Super Afro Soul, which further launched him as a committed singer and songwriter.
In the 1970s Orlando moved to the United States where he later formed a band with Hugh Masekela. Masekela was a South African trumpeter, singer and songwriter known for his jazz compositions and for writing popular anti-apartheid songs. They produced two albums together with which they toured extensively.
Orlando then returned to Nigeria in 1984 to pursue his career in his native country. Before returning to Nigeria, he had a stint in film playing a role in Roots: The Second Generation, an American television series about slavery. He also attended film school in Oakland. But he never lost track of the music as he continued to give concerts and even open for famous American trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong.
Back in Nigeria
At the same time, he was working on albums on Nigerian labels and once back home, Orlando formed an 18 member band comprising of all Nigerian stars and produced the Dance Afrobeat album. The group toured the United States with Lijadu Sisters.
In 2000, Orlando reproduced Super Afro Soul from 1966. He continued with Orlando Julius and the Afro Sounders then Voodoo Funk in 2011. He toured London in 2014 where he also collaborated with the musical group The Heliocentrics to record more songs. and new versions of his old songs. Orlando has used music to promote and preserve its Yoruba culture. He entertained various ideologies early in his career with his African-American wife. He is committed to advising his audience to live with dignity by embracing the values of peace, love, justice and freedom.
He released Jaiyede Afro in 2014 which ranked number 13 on Billboard World Album the same year. In 2019, Orlando moved to Ijebu-Jesa, Osun State, Nigeria with his wife, where he was honored with the chieftaincy title of Gbeluniyi by Oba Moses Ogunsoye, the royal father of the city.
Written by Sola Balogun, lecturer, theater and media arts, Federal University, Oye Ekiti
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