Ebenezer Obey: I Had My Share Of Drinking And Womanizing

A lovely Saturday afternoon. The sun radiates an unusual warmth in downtown St Paul, capital city of the state of Minnesota in the United States this beautiful day in October. As you exit from the Interstate 94 Highway to connect St Paul, an aesthetic spectacle of imposing structures welcomes you to Kellogg Street. On both sides of the road, all you see are tall buildings standing close to one another, almost reaching up to touch the heavens. A few men and women walk leisurely down the road, apparently savouring the refreshing bliss of the sun. Down that street, away from the intimidating bridge leading to Wabasha Street, stands the Crowne Plaza Hotel, an imposing edifice enveloped by other strikingly tall towers. Under the bridge, the Minnesota River softly flows, even as a few canoes navigate its waters in the near distance.

Waiting beside the hotel with a cell phone clutched tightly to his left ear, his sportsman’s yellow T-shirt, blue denim trousers and black baseball hat glowing in the sun, is veteran broadcaster and founding General Manager of Nigeria’s first independent radio, Ray power F.M., Mr. Olusesan Ekisola. As he sees you, Ekisola promptly disengages the person on the other line and hangs up the phone. “Look at this man. I’ve been waiting here all day,” he frowns at you, feigning anger. He then seizes your right hand and playfully drags you down an escalator to the huge conference room where the man you’ve driven down to interview is sitting.

“This is the man I told you about sir”, Ekisola says, facing the dark-complexioned man on the chair. From his seat, Evangelist Ebenezer Obey-Fabiyi stretches out his right hand, which you respectfully grab. He greets you warmly, offering you the chair next to his. The celebrated juju musician, now God’s minister, is in town as special guest of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Minneapolis. The flamboyant church, situated on Monroe Street in North-East Minneapolis and headed by the suave and handsome man of God, Pastor Sola Olowokere, is celebrating its 7th anniversary in a typically colourful fashion. At the event, Obey is billed to preach and also minister in songs. The church, regarded by many as the loudest Nigerian Christian congregation in this part of America, is also raising funds to build a new auditorium. And later tonight, inside this conference hall, a special 100-dollar-a-plate dinner will be held to raise funds for the project.

Obey in Minnesota

Because of Obey’s tight schedule during his one-week stay in America, getting to speak with the retired Miliki exponent wouldn’t come easy. But, Ekisola, who has promised to “do my best” to facilitate a meeting between the reporter and the clergyman, finally called earlier in the morning, saying that the clergyman has consented to a quick interview, to be conducted in between his rehearsals at the Crowne Plaza in Saint Paul.

The reporter then promptly cancelled previous engagements and rushed down to St Paul.

So here you are in downtown St Paul this beautiful day in the fall, face to face with the soft-spoken juju legend. He wears an amiable mien, looking calm in his red-and-black buba and sokoto, even as a bulb from the ceiling casts a ray on his black, well-groomed hair. A gold watch sits quietly on his left wrist. As you drop your recorder, notebook and the large cup of Mountain Dew on the table, your eyes strike a big black Bible already sitting on the table, besides which lies an opened can of honey-roasted peanuts. From the can, the man of God, at intervals, slips a couple of nuts into his mouth. Inside this hall is a hurricane of activities. From the stage comes the regular drone of the piano, as Obey’s session men prepare for tonight’s performance. And all around you are several busy men and women, arranging chairs, setting cutleries on tables, fixing window blinds and the like, as members of the hotel staff organize the place for The Redeemed Church’s event of the evening.

The Miliki days

In his days as a singer, the Chief Commander, as he was known by his fans, commanded colossal attention on the Nigeria’s musical landscape. With a soft, velvety voice that would promptly calm down your nerves, accompanied by a rich blend of guitar, piano and the scintillating sound of assorted percussion, Obey’s highly didactic and philosophical songs were a regular feature in many homes. For many decades, the man toured the world with his Miliki sound, bringing joy to the faces of many. And then, one day, Chief Commander announced to the world that he had been commanded by a higher Force to jettison his secular songs and embrace a new career in God’s ministry. Soon after, the man got ordained and started his own church. A lot of his fans, who initially thought he was ending his juju career in order to commence a full vocation in gospel music, were astounded. But the man trudged on. Today, his ministry, the Decross Gospel Mission, is one of the fastest growing in Lagos.

For a man who had dominated the stage for so long, transiting from that platform to the pulpit couldn’t have been as easy as sliding a hot knife through butter. Or was it? “The transition was OK,” he tells you without hesitation. “You see, for anyone following the plan of God for his life, such a transition would be smooth. That was the reason I never found it hard switching from the stage to the pulpit.”

How it all started

The music legend says his interest in singing started right from his toddling years. His plan, in those days, was to take music as a hobby while he pursued his other inclinations in life. Did he know he was going to become a celebrity?

“Let me put it this way,” he begins, as he shifted his frame to recline on his seat. “I knew I was going to sing. I knew I was going to become a star. What I didn’t know was that music would become a full time job.” Was there a prophecy along the line that he would grow to become a popular melody maker, you want to know. His response is not the usual yes or no.

“I grew up following my mother to the church,” he explains. “I was told that once at the church, I would rush over to where the musical instruments were, and I would be playing with the instruments. One day at the church, I was messing with the instruments and my mum was trying to take me away from there. Then, the man of God called her and asked her to bring me. I was told he carried me and said that I was going to become a musician. Maybe he just looked at what was happening at that particular moment to make that statement, maybe it was a real prophecy, I can’t say.”

As the young Ebenezer grew in age, so grew his love for music. He became a chorister in his church. And in his elementary school days at the Methodist School, Idogo in Yewa area of Ogun State, he soon became the school band leader. He however got minimal encouragement from his mum who could not disguise her unease with her little son’s musical bent. She was particularly apprehensive of a musical career for her son because in those days, artistes were looked down upon as beggars and ne’er-do-wells. “Musicians were seen as very irresponsible people, drinking, smoking and womanizing,” he explains. But he pledged to his mum that he would never hook up with the bad gang. And she grudgingly allowed him to pursue his heart’s desires. He joined a group called the Ifelodun Mambo Orchestra where, according to him, his innate talents were discovered. “I was the youngest in the group, but I was the star,” he recalls. “At that time, anytime I didn’t go with the group for an outing, they always came back to confess that it was as if there was no show. At that time, we were not too particular about money. All we cared about was making people happy.” It was at this period also that Obey started developing a strong passion for the late Adeolu Akinsanya’s music.

My love for Adeolu Akinsanya

At the time Obey commenced his musical career, the reigning genre was the highlife. Why then did he opt for juju music? “What we had at that time were the highlife, juju and mambo orchestra. That was the music of Adeolu Akinsanya. Mambo Orchestra? You’d always thought Adeolu Akinsanya sang highlife. “That was the second leg of his music,” Obey corrects you, smiling. “We had the highlife, we had the mambo orchestra, we had the kokoma and we had the juju. But at that time, I was much in love with Adeolu Akinsanya’s music. The way he composed his songs was simply incredible. Have you heard the song, Opa ebiti to wolo laguda?” The song sounds strange. So the minister takes a quick trip back to his singing days and sings the song. “I think I heard it before on OGBC 2,” you say without conviction, eyeing Ekisola. “No, I don’t think they had that song,” Obey says. “I don’t think we did,” agrees Ekisola. Then the man of God continues.

“That was one song that arrested me. The way he composed that song was something else. I fell in love with Adeolu Akinsanya’s songs. Those were the days of the gramophone, and people did not play those records all the time. But whenever I heard the music of Adeolu Akinsanya, I found myself drawn to the music. I knew virtually all his songs by heart. As soon as I heard his song once, that was it. I later got very close to Adeolu Akinsanya. So I started singing like him. That continued until I started my first band between 1954 and 1955.

Written by
Tope Adeboboye
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1 comment
  • My name os Omidire Kehinde David, bases in Lagos, Nigeria i just read your article/interview on Ebenezer Obey. I love your writing style, i am an intern in a media org. My number is 08075609848, can i have your number sir? angelsongs2001@yahoo.com is my email add. I am on facebook also.