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Nigerian top legendary musicians (1)

Written by Ade

Many musicians have put Nigeria on the global map with their sounds and voices, including those they have long died but whose memories still linger on in our hearts

Tunde Niyi-Akinmade

Nigeria is a country of people with special creative talents and inventions. These talents include the musical ability to churn out notes and lyrics of various genres.

Many Nigerians have made names for themselves as great musicians, some were even creators or ‘modernizers’ of many genres of music. From Afro beats, Highlife and Classical music to Juju, Fuji, Kutigi and Oghene and other genres of music, Nigerians have proven to be maestros drawing accolades from the royalty to commoners while having cult-like followership across the globe.

Unfortunately, some of them have passed on. But we still remember them from their live performances, hit tracks still being played from their CDs, vinyl, disks, radio airplay and other sources.

We present to you a series of Nigerian great musical legends that bestrode our country like colossuses during their lifetimes. We start with those from the South West;


  • Bernard Olabinjo Benson

Bobby Benson, who died on May 14 1983 was a show-business impresario, who was an all-rounder entertainer and entrepreneur. His large than life personality dominated Nigerian music and show business when he reigned in the fifties, sixties and early seventies.

Benson, who played key instruments like saxophone, guitar and piano with dexterity started as a sailor in the Merchant Navy when he left secondary school. But he jumped his ship in 1944 in London to join the Negro Ballet, with which he toured many European countries.

Upon his return to Nigeria in 1947 he formed the Bobby Benson and Cassandra Theatrical Party, with his wife. This later metamorphosed into the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra. He introduced Caribbean musical expressions and big band traditions into Nigeria’s music. His band grew to have many Nigerian greats like Roy Chicago, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Eddie Okonta, Bayo Martins, Zeal Onyia and Victor Olaiya playing in it at various times. The band had great hits including “Taxi Driver”, “Gentleman Bobby” and “Iyawo se wo lose mi”, “Mafe”, “Nylon Dress” and “Niger Mambo”

Benson is an all-around entertainer that had a show on NTA in the 1970s, performing as a singer, musician, stand-up comedian and magician. He was one of the first Nigerian musicians to own nightclubs, the Caban Bamboo and a hotel, Hotel Bobby.

Benson was friends and had musical collaborations with internationally acclaimed musicians, including Eddy Grant, who was like a resident artiste in Hotel Bobby for many years.

Benson is also very much concerned with the welfare of musicians and professionalism in the industry. He was a former President of the Nigerian Union of Musicians and founder of the Performing Artistes Union of Nigeria.

Bobby Benson  died on May 14 1983  

Bobby Benson
  • Sir Victor Abimbola Olaiya

Known as the “The Evil Genius of Highlife”, Olaiya was widely acknowledged as the father of Nigerian Highlife, a music genre that was hitherto dominated by Ghanaian musicians. Born in 1930 in Calabar, Cross River State, to a father from Ekiti State, he learned the bombardon and the French horn at a young age.

His real musical journey in the USA, when he changed abandoned his Civil Engineering course at Howard University, US, to pursue a career in music.

On return to Nigeria, as a musician, he played with the Sammy Akpabot Band, the Old Lagos City Orchestra and later joined the Bobby Benson Jam Session Orchestra. The Cool Cats Band was formed by him in 1954.

Olaiya formed his band, the Cool Cats, which became popular playing highlife music and at the state balls when Queen Elizabeth II of the UK visited Nigeria in 1956, and the Independence Ball of 1960. Members of the Cool Cats at some other times include Tony Allen, the drummer and Fela Kuti. The Cool Cats later travelled to the Congo to perform for United Nations troops.  Olaiya changed the band’s name to the All-Stars Band when it played the 1963 International Jazz Festival in Czechoslovakia.

His musical style was like a crossbreed of the Ghanaian highlife and later Afrobeat, with the horn parts harmonized alongside the swinging percussion of the drums. His hits include “Odale Ore”, “Mofe Muyon”, “Olaiya’s Victories”, “Oruku Tiniditindi”,  Iye Jemila”, “Pambotoriboto”, “Feso J’aiye , “Kosowo Lode”, “Ewelewekuewele”, “Ilu Le O”, 

He owned the Stadium Hotel in Surulere and was a former President of the Nigerian Union of Musicians.

Olaiya died on 12 February 2020.

Victor Olaiya
  • John Akintola Ademuwagun

Roy Chicago, an indigene of Ikare-Akoko in Ondo State, started playing music from his school days in Sapele, Delta State and was the school band leader. Then he learned to play with good precision, some instruments, especially the trumpet. He became a teacher when he left school, establishing school bands in schools he taught.

He joined Hubert Ogunde’s band immediately after he left teaching in 1959. He later joined Bobby Benson’s Jam Session Orchestra, which he left briefly for Ibadan to form the Green Springers for Green Spring Hotel and came back to Bobby after this assignment.

Roy Chicago later formed his band, the Abalabi Rhythm Dandies, whose former members included Cardinal Rex Lawson, trumpeter/vocalist; Jimi Solanke, playwright, poet and folk singer; Alaba Pedro, a guitarist; and Peter King, one of Nigeria’s greatest tenor sax players, who later went to England to study music.

The band was described as “a highly disciplined band, versatile and could play almost all types of music, but highlife its speciality. His hits include “Iyawo Pankeke”, “Onile-Gogoro” , “Are owo ni esa Yoyo gbe” and “Keregbe emu”.

Roy Chicago was acknowledged to have introduced the talking drum into highlife. His distinct style of combining the trumpet and saxophone with vocals and talking drum created a rhythm of blue notes of jazz intonations and phrases from saxophone and cool lyrics of Nigerian folksongs which are closer to traditional Yoruba music than to highlife.

Roy Chicago died in 1989.

Roy Chicago
  • Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Anikulapo- Kuti

Popularly called the Abami Eda, his band was widely regarded as the pioneering act of Afrobeat. Born in 1938 to an upper-class Egba family from Abeokuta, Ogun State, the fiery political singer uses his music to talk about the ills of society while entertaining the public.

He had his education in the UK, where he studied Music at the Trinity College of Music, instead of the medicine course he initially went to study. While in the UK, Fela, a multi-instrumentalist who played the saxophone, trumpet and drums formed his musical group called the Koola Lobitos, which played jazz and highlife.

After returning to the country after his education, he reformed his band, the Koola Lobitos, worked as a radio music producer and played for some time with Victor Olaiya and his All-Stars. Later on, he concentrated on growing his band.

After a musical excursion/education tour of the USA in 1969 and his interaction with the Black Power Movement, the Jazz playing musician became political and traditional to his African roots. He remained his band Nigeria 70 abandoned its Jazz music orientation to adopt a style that mixed traditional Yoruba percussion, Jazz, Highlife and unique vocal styles with American funk and jazz, which is called Afrobeat.  He started singing in Pidgin English.

His lifestyle also changed with his forming the Kalakuta Republic, a commune-like lifestyle for his band members and many other hangers-on. He started a nightclub, Afro Spot, which became Afrika Shrine when he adopted the traditional African religious belief. The charismatic singer also changed his surname from Ransome-Kuti to Anikulapo-Kuti. He also changed his band name to Africa ’70, which later became Egypt 80.

Fela hits, which are usually long numbers of instrumental plays and vocals, include “Shakara”, Roforofo Fight”, “Gentleman”, “Confusion”, “Expensive Shit”, “Water No Get Enemy”, “J.J.D.”, “Zombie”, “Stalemate”, “Sorrow, Tears and Blood”, “Original Sufferhead”, “Unknown Soldier”, “Army Arrangement”,  “I.T.T.”, “Beasts of No Nation”, and “Confusion Break Bones”.

He was nominated for Grammy awards on three separate occasions.

Fela died in 1997

  • Earnest Olatunde Thomas

Tunde Nightingale, born in 1922 in Ibadan, Oyo State, was one of the pioneers of modern Juju. A former soldier, his musical journey was a bit rough at the beginning as he had to compete with the likes of I.K. Dairo, Ayinde Bakare, and Dele Ojo for the attention of the Lagos socialites.

His first band, a three-piece band, was formed in 1944 and its performances were limited to bars. He later moved to Ibadan with his Tunde Nightingale and His Agba Jolly Orchestra and started playing regularly at the West African Club. On return to Lagos, he changed his style of music to adapt to the growing number of parties as the balls started disappearing on the social scenes. He used more praises and incantations in his lyrics, developing the So Wà mbè (“Is it there?”, which indirectly referred to the double layers of waist beads over the hips of his dancing female fans to make dancing more sensuous.

This grew his popularity. He recorded over 40 albums before his death.

Legends have it that he “sounded”, like a nightingale when singing and he kept a live bird in his home. He died in 1981.

Tunde Nightingale
  • Isaiah Kehinde Dairo

Born in 1930, IK Dairo is a pioneer of Juju music, famed for his dexterity on the accordion. Born in Offa, Kwara State to an Ijebu-Jesa family, he became adept at drumming at a young age, learning from a drum made for him by his carpenter father. His earlier years were spent as a barber, part-time drummer, and cloth seller.

Later on, he went to Ibadan where he played part-time with the band of Daniel Ojoge, a pioneer Juju musician. In 1957, he founded the Morning Star Orchestra, a ten-piece band, with whom he broke into the social circles in Ibadan. The band’s name was later changed to The Blue Spots and won a competition televised in Western Nigeria to showcase the various talents in Juju music.

He formed a record label in partnership with Haruna Ishola with which he achieved fame and wealth.

His style revolved around his accordion experimenting with traditional musical styles of the old Western Region, in reflection of the nationalistic sentiments of the 60s. He adopted a musical style of using short memorable refrains while singing in his Ijebu-Ijesha dialects with his clarion voice of eloquent lyrics,  melodies and texts from Christian sources, which earned him the sobriquet Baba Aladura (Father of prayers). His influence in Juju music included introducing accordion and making the talking drum and guitar staple instrument.

His major hit in 1962, “Salome” mixed traditional Yoruba elements with urban life themes. Other hits include “Ka Sora”. “Mo sorire”, “Ashiko”, “I Remember”, “Juju Master”, “Ise Ori Ranmi Ni Mo Nse”, “My Darling”, “Erora Feso Jaiye”, “Se B’Oluwa Lo Npese”,and “Mo ti yege”

His band’s major instruments were his accordion, electric guitar, talking drum, double toy, akuba, ogido, clips, maracas, agogo (bell), and samba drum.

Highly revered as a musician, IK Dairo was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE), the first African musician by Queen Elizabeth. Also, he was a member of the Ethnomusicology department at the University of Washington, Seattle, the USA between 1994 and 1995.

 He owned many hotels in Ondo and Lagos states as well as the Kakadu nightclub, one of Lagos best-known fun clubs. Sadly, he closed them down after he became fully involved in preaching.

I. K. Dairo died on February 7, 1996.

IK Dairo
  • Stephen Oladipupo Olaore Owomoyela

Chief (Dr.) Orlando Owoh bestrode the musical scene with his unique voice and sound while alive. Born in 1932 in Osogbo, Osun State, to a father from Ifon, Osun, he was the pioneer of a brand of highlife music, he called “Toye.” It is a combination made more melodious by his guttural voice, guitar, percussion, and philosophical lyrics, which are sometimes provocative and saucy.

Though he started life as a carpenter, to satisfy his father who insisted that he must learn a trade to play music, he joined Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group in 1958 as a drummer/ singer. He later played in many bands, including Akindele (or Dele Jolly) and His Chocolate Dandies, and Fakunle Major Band. Orlando later learned to play the electric guitar from Fatai Rolling Dollar.

He formed the Orlando Owoh and his Omimah Band in 1960, which came out with a debut, “Oluwa, lo ran Mi” (“God has sent me”). The band later became the Young Kenneries and the African Kenneries International.  He took a break from music during the Nigerian Civil War, fighting for the Nigerian Army between tween 1967 and 1970.

With over 45 albums to his credit, his hits include “Aiye nyi lo”, “Ajanaku Daraba”, “Asotito Aye”, “Awa de”,  “Ayo mi sese bere”, “E ku iroju”, “E Get As E Be”, “ Emi wa wa lowo re”, “Experience”, “Ganja”, “Ibaje eniyan”, “Igba aye Noah” “Ire loni”, “I say No”, “Iwa l’Oluwa nwo”, “Iyawo Olele”, “Kangaroo”, “ Kennery de ijo ya”, “Logba Logba”, “Ma wo mi roro”, and “Mo juba agba”,

Owoh throughout his career kept to the traditional line of low-tech, small guitar-band format of highlife with long, danceable medley songs.

He died in November 2008

Orlando Owoh
  • Haruna Ishola Bello .

Baba Gani Agba, a master and one of the pioneers of the Apala music genre was born in 1919 was born into a father from Ijebu Igbo, Ogun State. He was inarguably one of the most popular Apala musicians, who stuck to the traditional way of playing the music, using no Western musical instruments into his musical compositions, with songs laced with Yoruba idioms and Quranic scripture in his songs.

His band’s main instruments were two talking drummers, lamellaphone, shakers, agogo bells, sekere, akuba, and claves, and the agidigbo, a hollow lamellophone (thumb piano), plucked and struck to create a hypnotic ostinato at the centre of the Apala sound.

His albums are usually two-sided with praises of prominent people and clubs on one side and philosophical lyrics on the other. He has over 100 albums to his credit including hits like “Oroki Social Club”, “Punctuality is the Soul of Business”,

Ishola was a pioneer in music entrepreneurship, who in 1969 partnership with I.K. Dairo started STAR Records Ltd., the first African record label owned by artistes. He had earlier formed a record label, Express Record Dealers Association, with some businessmen in 1964, which was later nullified following a financial disagreement,

He was one of the first Nigerian musicians to perform abroad, with performances in the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, West Germany, and Italy.

Ishola died in 1983

Haruna Ishola
  • Waidi Ayinla Gbogbolowo

At the time of his murder on May 6, 1980, Ayinla Omowura, the ‘Egun Magaji’, was a music superstar and celebrity across the land, who within 10 years released about 20 hit albums to amassed a huge fan base across the globe.

Born in 1933 in Abeokuta, he was the enfant terrible of Apala music of his times – not afraid to take on a fight or a cause with his music to the admiration of his fans and many members of the public. He was a flamboyant person, with a lifestyle that was larger than life: signature fancy agbada, gold jewellery and love for all shades of women, especially married ones and those that owned pubs.

His adolescent and young adult years were spent being an apprentice to his blacksmith father and a commercial bus driver. There were also rumours that he was also a political thug.

Ayinla gradually turned to music in the early ‘50s playing an Apala variant, which was popular across Nigeria and West Africa, performing at street corners, bars and social ceremonies. His big break came when he teamed up with Adewole ‘Oniluola’ Alao, a great drummer, asking him to be his lead drummer in his emerging band.

His first album was in June 1970 under EMI NIGERIA record label and titled “Ajat Of’ Oju D’ejo.” And gradually the ‘Agbejapa Oba’ (Tortoise priest of Oba community in Abeokuta) redefined the Apala genre of music that was popularised by Haruna Ishola.    

His compositions were lyrically laced with proverbs, puns and philosophical sayings and comments on social and relationship issues and delivered in a deep voice, with the occasional Egba dialect. He was an avid commentator on current affairs of the country at the time as well as being quick to take on the antics of the womenfolk. As his fame increased the number of women in his ‘harem’ increased so he had lots of materials to sing on.

He sang with confidence and sometimes with arrogance, even taken on his older competitors and at one time proclaimed himself the master: anjonu elere (the gnome of music).

His hit tracks include “ Eyin Oselu wa”, “Orin Owo Ile Eko” (Lagos Rent Edict), “Owo Udoji”, “1972 Challenge Cup”, “1974 Challenge Cup”, “Merzi tun de”, “Pansaga ranti ojo ola”, “Oro kan je mi logun”, “Omo afekosofo”, “Enirobi simi ibi a ba”, and “Oro mi dori o dori”.

Ayinla, 47 years old, died in 1980 of cerebral haemorrhage from an injury inflicted on his head with a beer mug in a pub by his former band manager.

Ayinla Omowura
  • Sikiru Ololade Ayinde Balogun

Born on February 9, 1948, Ayinde Barrister, an ex-soldier popularised and modernized Fuji to world acclaim. The Ibadan, Oyo State indigene started playing music at a young age as an ajiwere singer during the period of Ramadan. He later enlisted in the Nigerian Army during the Nigeria Civil War. He became a full-time musician after leaving the Army and released his first LP record in 1966.

Barrister made Fuji, which started as music for Muslim faithful, a cross over genre of music loved by people of all religious faiths.

His hit tracks include “Itan Anobi Raso”, “E Sa Ma Mi Lengbe”, “Ori Mi Ewo Ninse”, “Fuji Exponent”, “Omo Nigeria”, “Fuji Reggae Series 2”, “Eyo Nbo Anobi”, “Oke Agba”, “Aiye”, “Family Planning”, “Suru Baba Iwa”, “Ijo Olomo”, “Nigeria”, “Barry Special”, “Appreciation”, “Fertiliser”, “Okiki”,” Wonders At 40”, “Fuji Garbage”, “Fuji Garbage Series II”, “Current Affairs”, and “Fuji Garbage Series III”.  

     He died in London in   December 2010.   

Ayinde Barrister

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