Dr. Orlando Owoh: A Canary in the Afterlife

by Opeyemi Ajala, FCA
Orlando Owoh

The Canary is a small songbird that was used in the coal mining industry to detect carbon monoxide, though this practice was stopped in the UK in 1986. The expected lifespan of the canary is 10 to 15 years, and like the most successful national football side of all time, the Brazilian national football team, adopted the nickname Canarinho (meaning the Little Canary), likewise arguably the greatest cerebral cultural activist from this part of the world – Dr. Stephen Oladipupo Olaore Owomoyela trading as Dr. Orlando Owoh who passed on a decade (the canary’s expected lifespan) ago on Tuesday 4th November, 2008, started his band as Omimah band in recognition of his Ifon roots before adopting the name Young Kenneries, that later transformed to the African Kenneries International.

In all honesty, I cannot vividly recount how I got enticed to the Orlando brand just as ants are attracted to sugar, but I remember I growing up in an environment where Dr. Orlando was highly regarded and held in high esteem by those who neither drank nor smoked, contrary to beliefs in certain quarters that the partakers formed the larger chunk of his fan base. One of the torch bearers of the Kennery revolution, his sibling Tosin Owomoyela of the Zion Kennery band neither smokes nor drinks!

But I do know that the Osogbo-born (of Ifon/Owo parentage) Dr. Orlando Owoh who entered the planet on Sunday 14th February, 1932, and exited on Tuesday 4th, 2008, was a man of many parts, who was involved in carpentry (being the family trade), part of the famous Osogbo drama school with the Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group, a fearless boxer (at least he tutored King Sunny Ade in the sweet science), he joined the Nigerian Army, where he teasingly referred to himself as ‘Private Moridele’ in reference to his exiting the Army and returning home unscathed.

By the time the nationalistic Dr. Orlando Owoh plunged into a full-time music career, there was no stopping the momentum. Not even the brief period in incarceration on allegedly trumped up charges of drug possession which coincided with the release of his soul rending tribute to the letter-bombed fearless co-founder of Newswatch magazine – Sumonu Oladele Giwa, in 1986 (could hold him back). The albums (Message, Experience, E Get as E Be) released after that brush with the law were instant chart busters, and typical of the people’s hero, Dr. b4 Dr. he used the Alagbon sojourn to delve on the need for Prison reforms. The military junta was not spared his sarcastic attack when the then maximum military ruler was forced to step aside in 1993.

Dr. Orlando Owoh was our canary in a coal mine who was never shy to detect the presence of the toxic societal carbon monoxide, always speaking the truth to the powers that be. Even in the era of brutal military dictatorship, he launched that timeless album ‘I Say No’ where he chastised military rule(rs) and called for an immediate return to civil rule. Only men with guts and grits dared such in those unforgettable dark period in our chequered national history (though I have my doubt if he would have been happy at the actions and inactions of the protagonists of this “demonstration of craze” – apologies to Fela Kuti, his close ally with whom he shared so many similarities not restricted to musical dexterity, socio cultural activism, Pan Africanism and the unhypocritical love for Ganja/Weed – now partially or wholly legalized in Canada, US, Belgium, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany Spain and South Africa.

Due to space constraint, it is easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than to miss any of these powerful vibes in his songs in that unmistakingly unique and supremely confident voice he dubbed ‘Ohun aro wa’ – Activism, Faith, Folklores, Tributes, Womanhood, Monarchial Institution and recreational value of his philosophy as a foremost entertainer, he proudly proclaimed ownership of rhythm and rhymes in what he christened Ijinle Orin.

His foray into activism was matchless as the Apartheid regime in South Africa was not spared. Ditto for Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Which be Which queried our insatiability as citizens and pleaded for patience.

How possible is it to ignore his Christian background that shaped his songs, a faith he later clung to towards his later days. It is my belief that if his Okan Mi Yin Oba Orun (Praise My Soul The King of Heaven) was released before Queen Elizabeth’s wedding on 20th November, 1947, that would have been sung instead of the version adopted for the wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh! It was my own personal wish to have him perform on my wedding day in 2009, which was 8 months after his demise. I had to settle for the chip off the block in his younger brother – Tosin Owomoyela and his Zion Kennery band. I recommend ‘Halleluyah’ in the Knock Out 85 LP. Cain ati Abel; Morning Prayer; Mo fara mo Jesu; Thanksgiving; Easter Special and even Ileya Special which was arranged in his own biblical sequence of events!

The philosophical native intelligence in the arrangement of his oral folklores’ delivery is mythical. My treasured mother – Deaconess Oluremi Ajala  – is a promoter of the use of Yoruba language with her pioneering role in the then foremost debate in Yoruba language (Arin yan ji yan) amongst Secondary Schools in Lagos State. Nevertheless Dr. Orlando was equally a dictionary for me in Yoruba Language as I was not privileged to be formally taught the language beyond primary school as I opted for Igbo language in my Junior Secondary School. Only a genius comes up with the lizard and crocodile analogy, Asin and Agemo, Edun Jale (Monkey robs other animal in a thrift contribution setting), and this explains why it is taboo for a bonafide Owo indigene to partake in a Monkey feast! Oriki Ojo remains a reference point in the South West community in Nigeria renowned for cognomen as it stimulates and reinforces the Omoluabi values. It is apparent that his vast knowledge of the culture took his deep roots in his very fulfilled Ifon/Owo heritage that he was always eager to testify to at the slightest opportunity! That was the vintage Orlando in Elebi mo ebi, Ifon Social Club, Census, Ifon Omimah ni moti wa and his vast contact with and reverence of the monarchial institution cannot be divorced from this. Olugboyega was a classic, and I equally remember using that song to help my lass in her Yoruba class homework on the titles of some traditional rulers. He was always a favorite and darling of the late Ooni of Ife – Oba Okunade Sijuwade with whom he maintained a father/son relationship till the very end. Little wonder why his works are already the focus of theses in the scholarly town at undergraduate and post graduate levels!

Tributes to the living and the dead with that inimitable pleasant throaty voice was something to be treasured by the honoured and privileged audience. Depending on the mood, the homage could be amusingly sonorous or mournful. The size of your pocket was clearly not a determinant for the criteria of making that exclusive list that ranged from the late sage – Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Ooni Sijuwade, Oba Erediauwa, his fellow talented musicians – Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson, Ayinla Omowura & Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Alhaji Fasasi Oriola Hassan – ShanuOlu (his label owner), Madam Felicia, Samuel Sochuwuma Okwaraji, the talented and equally committed Nigerian International that slumped on the field of play against the Palancas Negras of Angola in a World Cup qualifier in 1989, Jerry @ Ore, Adebayo Success, HRH Francis Apata, Die the Matter (erroneously referred to as Daddy Martha by some fans), John Ojomo, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, Oloti tutu l’ Agege (the cold beer seller in Agege his place of residence), officials of the National Union of Road Transport Workers and of course his distinguished band members – Ade Konga, Ade Wesco, Saubana, Bob Sunny, Elvis, Ishaq, Perere, Oloye, Lamidi, Ademola, Ayanlola, Jalingo, Ikale, and Musese the PRO that enviable list was the hit!

Probably due to his emotional attachment to his centenarian mother – Morenike, the Iya Egbe in St Andrews’ Cathedral Church Owo (the good LORD will continually shower her with good health), Orlando never toyed with the family union recognizing the womenfolk as the bedrock of the family and seizing every occasion to eulogise his wives – Muyibat, Folashade and Funke. Evergreen tunes like Kose Mani (Indispensable), Logba Logba, Iyawo Olele (the unfaithful lady), Wundia to n rele oko (the maiden about to get married), Sisi Salewa, Yellow Sisi, Obirin Asiko (the industrious lady) was sang with gusto a la the boisterous Orlando that never elevated cutting corners but rather tutored on Hardwork and Honesty as reeled out in Ore Ilemo (It’s day break).

With over 45 albums and numerous live jams, the pure artistic and entertainment value was never a scarce commodity, that is the legal tender of the Kennery exponent – Adajo Ere, Mawo mi roro cannot be underestimated, and trust Baba Orlando, language was never an issue as he rose to the occasion as the tongues demanded to crush the barrier not known in music.

Time is the healer. Saturday 8th November, 2008 was just like yesterday when I commandeered a bike to his Agege residence to pay my own tribute and commiserate with the revered widows, family members and fans. As I penned my condolence message to the unforgettable man whose undisguised voice accompanied my childhood sojourn into adulthood, I offer gratitude to my late uncles – Sunday Olokede (Baba Timo) and Stephen Abodunrin (Baba Tunde), who took time to explain the perceived ‘hard’ lines in some of his ‘aditu’ compositions.

Baba Orimipe, I longed for when it would be my turn to hear you sing ‘’Se Otan Aiyegbaju ni le baba re, ma ba de be seun re’’, nevertheless Olowo ma de, Omo Morenike, gborisoke mafisaleje, ipade tun di Ajinde, and as you sang, ‘’A tun ri ra l’ojo ajinde’’ – surely we shall meet on resurrection day to part no more.

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