In this interview, octogenarian high life musician, Pa Chris Ajilo, shares his experiences with SAMUEL ABULUDE
When and where were you born?
I was born in December 26, 1929 at Okepopo in Lagos Island. That makes it 88 years ago. I give glory to God.
When did you start schooling?
I started school in 1934.
When did you get married?
My first marriage was held at Yaba in 1955.
Who taught you music?
I started learning music from my secondary school. I attended CMS Grammar School at Marina in Lagos. It was an unforgettable time for me, the years I spent there. It was from there I etched a plan to travel abroad and seek for the proverbial Golden Fleece and go to a music school. My teacher, Pa Fela Showande, taught me music. It was a no-dull moment for me and other students.
Why or how did your music start?
I have always loved music and it is a passion for me. That was why I enrolled at the School of Music at West End in London.
How was Highlife Music in Lagos the 60’s?
People were free to do what they liked; they came from the hinterland to Lagos. There was no restriction in Lagos. There were less conflicts and you could see harmonious living among different tribes. One of the songs that made me famous was ‘Ladies Beware’. It was a wonderful song and well loved by the people. High life music was great and it was coming up. We had the likes of Chocolate Dandies. They were all civil servants – that was why I called them a semi-professional band. The popular Glover Hall was being used then by the Chocolate Dandies and they performed many times. Then highlife was an increased tempo freestyle music. Highlife music originated from the seamen from Africa who came from the United Kingdom, played the kind of music called highlife. And they were from Sierra Leone.
Did we have enough centres to perform live then?
Live music was always the in-thing then. We never had musicians performing from the jukebox of a DJ then. Remember this period led to the golden days of music. In early 50s, the hospitality business sector had started booming, remember. Hotel, night clubs as well as drinking bars and restaurants were springing up from place to place and it was the in-thing at that time for owners of hotels and night clubs to buy complete sets of band instruments and appoint a leader among the musicians already recruited while the musicians rehearse with records of popular music of the period- and they were paid salaries from the gate takings.
That was what led to a musician becoming a resident band of a hotel or bar. The economic boom in Nigeria then attracted different bands who were visiting the country on playing tours as they performed in the big towns all over the federation. Musicians like E.T Mensah’s Tempos Band, The Ramblers Band, E.K Guitar Bands and so many others were performing live. This impacted on local bands positively as some tried to copy some of their songs. That was highlife music from Ghana obviously impacting on our style of highlife here,
What was the name of your first band?
Ajilo & the Cubanos
The sax is a powerful instrument, how were you able to hone the skill?
I was trained in London but before then had to learn how to repair musical instruments. I wanted to learn how to play the trumpet, saxophones and others, I couldn’t afford to buy or rent one. But as I was taught on how to play the sax, the little money I made from repairing these instruments, I saved and used to enroll in the Central School of Dance and Music at the London West Street where I studied Music.
How did you buy your first sax?
I was able to buy my first sax at the shop but it was an old sax at £20. I also learnt how to play the clarinet at Frank Auberry Studio, paying £1 per session. Don Randle was my music teacher. Thank God for his mercies. I was able to buy a tenor sax for £40 in 1941.
What did you do when you returned to Nigeria?
When I came back to Nigeria, one of the schools I taught music was the International School Ibadan (ISI), it is the staff school of the premier university, the University of Ibadan. This also made me to do so many other work like becoming the in-house producer of polygraph and now polygram records where I produced the albums of musicians like Osita Osadebe (Osondi Owendi) to name a few. Really, my music education spanning over 60 years made my music career long lasting. I am 88 years now and – started a music school in my home at Ijebu-Ijesha, Osun State. I initially started with my church, the Anglican Church here but something unpleasant happened and I had to move my students and the school here.
How do you relax sir, did you indulge heavily in alcohol?
What do you mean by indulging in alcohol? You mean whether I used to smoke and drink back then? No! I am not a drinker of beer because I don’t think it is a good thing to me. Even when I go to parties, I don’t drink because my interest is to socialise.
How did musicians in your time cope with women?
Women are part of the core of our fans base. A woman can bring her boyfriend or group of friends to come and hail you and watch your show. I am not the type that keeps women around. If you see Chris Ajilo keeping two or three wives, then I am in trouble. That’s why I don’t have too many children though others may be happy with it.
How was growing up?
I lost my father at the age of nine but that doesn’t mean I should neglect my children. My mum trained me well. She would always tell me, Omo ma koja aye e (meaning don’t go beyond your boundary). So, that has always been my policy in life. Money, fame doesn’t mean much to me, but to do my profession, which I chose and to do it sincerely as best as I could.
What inspired your popular song, Eko O Gbagbere?
(Starts singing) Yeye mi sofun mi tele tele,
Eko akete ilu ogbon
(meaning my mother warned me to be careful and conduct myself properly when I get to Lagos).
That song ‘Eko O Gbagbere’ was recorded in 1956. That was over 60 years ago. The song came naturally for me based on what my mother normally told us her children about living a good name. The song was a candid advice of a mother to a child. I thank God it was received well by people at that time and it’s still timeless.
Recently, the song was remixed with Bankole Wellington, the one you people know as Banky W. That shows the younger generation like the song because it was well recorded. One thing the new generation musicians need to learn is to pick up an instrument and perfect it and it becomes part of your music not just miming your own song and fooling the audience. (general laughter).
Are any of your children into music?
None of them. I have two children. Yemisi is in the United States and she is into other things while her brother is in Lagos doing Real Estate business. They complement me in other ways.
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