Fuji: Soundtrack to Life in Ibadan – Bunmi Familoni

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In February 2019, just a few weeks before the general elections, Chocolate City’s Control The Economy tour which had been making its way around the country for almost a year, arrived in Ibadan, the town historically renowned for its position as the political powerhouse of the Southwest. The polity had been heating up, especially in Oyo State, with its ancient capital city on the verge of a major shift in the balance of political power, driven largely by the sheer determination in the collaboration between the masses and powerful opposition forces.

Control The Economy had been conceived by the record label Chocolate City in 2018 as its contribution to enriching contemporary political discourse by increasing political awareness among young people. This happened in the build up to the 2019 polls, and had become even more imperative with the signing, just a year before the elections, of the famous ‘Not Too Young To Run’ bill into law, intended to encourage the participation of younger people in politics, especially in vying for elective positions in government.

The hip-hop-centric record label, co-founded by the lawyer and social activist Audu Maikori, recognised that politics transcends the mere magnanimity of being given an opportunity to run for a post. You had to understand the field, and learn the race; so they had taken it upon themselves to play a part in raising the level of social and political consciousness among the youths.

Hence, the tour was designed around music concerts and town-hall engagements where young people could interact with artistes and other notable industry personalities on serious national issues, ranging from social to economic matters.

The town hall meetings were held during the day, symbolically on the campuses of universities, followed by a tour of the host city’s radio stations, where the conversations would continue, spreading this tour’s message of political awakening to youths across the airwaves. All these activities would eventually culminate in the big concert at night.

At the Ibadan concert that February night, the venue was packed with young people from the urban (lower-) middle class who had come to witness performances from superstars such as M.I, Reminisce, Dice Ailes, CKay, Yung L, and others.

But there was another group that made up a sizable portion of the audience: the members of the underclass, usually referred to, especially in pop-culture parlance, as ‘the streets’ (or derogatorily as ‘area boys’); they had come from those densely-populated inner-city areas of old brown-roofed houses, and were at that venue to see only one person: their own star, the fuji artiste Taye Currency, a local legend and darling of the vibrant Ibadan fuji circuit.

When the time came for Currency’s set, M.I Abaga, a hip-hop heavyweight in his own right and the then CEO of Chocolate City, took to the stage to introduce the fuji star himself, with a lot of hype. He revealed that while they had been preparing for the Ibadan leg of the Control The Economy tour, he had asked around for the biggest artiste in Ibadan to put on the bill, and the people had pointed him in the direction of Taye.
For Taye Currency to be regarded in the ranks of the biggest artistes in a city that has produced successful musicians across genres, it is an affirmation of fuji’s influence as a major driving force in the direction of Ibadan’s musical and cultural energy, evident in the ubiquitousness of the music all over the city, and how the city holds pride of place among its peers in the Southwest as the creative hub and even ancestral home as far as musical production and patronage relating to fuji goes.

And this lofty position of Ibadan in the annals of fuji is not without firmly rooted historical basis. The town was hometown to the highly revered pioneer of the genre, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, who also gave it the name ‘fuji’, and was instrumental in its early evolution from its Islamic origin of wéré, a genre of music that emerged from the rhythmic chants that groups of young boys, known as ajiwere, used to wake Muslims for prayers at dawn during Ramadan in Yorubaland. It eventually began to gain popularity in the late 50s, with the likes of Gani Kuti (Irefin) who had relocated to Ibadan from Lagos, and the Ibadan legend Dauda Akanmu Epo-Akara and his Ajisari Group at the vanguard of its propagation. But it didn’t attain an appreciable level of mainstream acceptance until the 70s with the commercialisation of the music, especially as Epo-Akara got signed to Omo Aje Records (the record label which later became Babalaje Records and was the launch pad for KWAM 1’s fuji career decades later, owned by the present Olubadan of Ibadan, Saliu Adetunji).

Because of the mutual respect between Barrister and Epo-Akara, as pioneers of wéré, they were often praising each other in their performances, thus introducing the Ibadan scene to the Lagos star, Ayinde Barrister, through Epo-Akara’s records. This coincided with the period at which the old genre was on the cusp of its evolution to becoming fuji, as Dauda Epo-Akara himself had begun at the time to experiment with the offshoot style that would become awurebe, which employed instrumental and vocal elements of sakara and apala, building the composition of its sound on a much more fluid structure of strings and percussion, unlike the rigidness of the nasally recited verses that was favoured in wéré, whose sonic foundation rested mainly on the sakara drum (before a few performers began to introduce the harmonica years later).

But as fuji and awurebe’s germination from their wéré roots went in different directions, fuji witnessed a growth spurt in the eighties, as a result of a younger generation of musicians who became heavily invested in its modernisation through the introduction of instruments from other more popular genres, and the injection of a modish jaunt into their delivery that resonated with the yuppies of the period, which soon saw fuji overtake its local sibling, awurebe, gaining global recognition and massive commercial appeal even within pop culture.
Now, this revelation by M.I about the choice of Taye Currency for the concert also foregrounds the democratization of decision-making in the intersection between fuji (in its street form) and the streets itself; where promoters/organisers of those backstreet-neighbourhood fuji shows known as ‘jump’ and the mini street parties known as ‘street carnival’ usually rely on the unanimous choice of the fans for who to put on stage. This is suggestive of the internal democratic processes of political parties in choosing their flag-bearers for elections by voting delegates.

You would find that in many cases, this choice is hinged on a combination of the musician’s current level of popularity and the amount of love the people have for him. This is why you’d find an artiste as big and successful as Pasuma still performing Mushin Day, a street carnival celebrating the popular Lagos community, almost three decades after making it out of the Temiogbe area of Mushin.

And so in similar fashion in Ibadan, in the spirit of democracy, the people had chosen their golden son, Taye Currency – one of the few who achieved commercial success in Ibadan and had remained in the city with them. Of course one would also take into consideration the impact of social stratification on musical tastes; how the raw energies of these home-grown musicians, because of their closeness to the realities of the streets (from where they draw the inspirations and form the ideologies driving their music), is more likely to resonate with the people of these lower classes, than the more somewhat gentrified version of fuji would; with all its jazz and classical music influences, promoted by the likes of the genre’s foremost neoteric, K1 De Ultimate (formerly known as KWAM 1), who had also christened it ‘modern fuji’, a subclassification which has not been without its own advantages in extending the reach of fuji into an elite space that would have hitherto been unable to be reached by the cruder street variety of this genre.

Communal proximity is a very important factor in fuji fandom in Ibadan; this is why you’re more likely to catch a Rasheed Ayinde Merenge performing at a local owambe party in Felele rather than a Wasiu Ayinde (K1), and a Paso Poly is more likely to be picked over an Obesere for a show in the Orita Aperin-Beere area of the city.
The crowd’s reaction to Taye Currency’s first touch of the microphone that night was a confirmation of the kind of power that fuji wields in the city of Ibadan over its people. The crowd which had only been hanging on the fringes of this concert surged forward to meet their own and almost overran the stage. You could feel the electricity in the air. The night had been lit up; the atmosphere was ignited and the thumping beats of the dùndún and bàtá drums that opened the performance had sparked off frenetic activity all over the place. Fuji music had woken the beast that had merely been lounging on the edge of the show, almost somnolent in its reaction to the other performers of the night - most of the people that were now going wild in front of the stage had literally been lolling about in groups, smoking, drinking, talking - unexcited, unimpressed. One could sense in their manner that they had been waiting for something. Now it was here.

Taye Currency held sway for hours, in a most exclamatory fashion. And a concert that had billed rappers as its headliners ultimately became a fuji show; Ibadan had happened to it. At that moment, you could relate with the words of Olamide and Reminisce, two of the many artistes rapping mainly in Yoruba and heavily influenced by fuji, when they said on ‘Local Rappers’: “Street ti take over…”

The streets indeed had completely taken over the show and owned it; and if you couldn’t handle their almost violent dancing, akin to moshing, combined with the heavy percussion-driven sounds throbbing all over the venue, then you had to go home.
But not many people went home; all the various strata of society represented there morphed into one, a single monogenous organism pulsating to the rhythm of fuji. Because, even if you were not a fan of fuji, but you had been in Ibadan long enough, you must have encountered fuji music so many times to have become quite familiar with it, enough times for it to have become kin; so that anywhere you met it - beer parlour or church, social media or radio, in a taxi or on a bus, in a movie or in a motor park - you responded to it with that fraternal fondness that showed that you’re related to it, whether from a distance or at close quarters - you nod recognition to the music, you smile, you move a little, your heart leaps; an indication that sometime in your life, through a process of cultural osmosis, you had somehow assimilated some of the essential elements of fuji culture, which in the Ibadan context intersects with street subculture - the lingo (sia/asa - street Yoruba slanguage that is inspired by fuji), the fashion, mannerisms, even down to the cadence of your Yoruba in some cases, accompanied by the gruff pitch common with many fuji singers. This is how you know that you are truly Ibadan, by how you interact with fuji.

This unwitting social absorption of fuji idiosyncrasies by an Ibadan resident is made possible because of the omnipresence of the music in the city.
It is towering over you from the large speakers of roadside stores that stock only fuji records; it is playing on one station or the other when you turn on the radio (accompanied by its rich history narrated by radio presenters in their roles as custodians of the culture, thereby preserving the oral tradition of passing the story from one generation to the next); the keyboardist in church is sneaking a recognisable Wasiu riff in during praise and worship; every other Micra cab you squeeze into is blasting Pasuma, or Remi Aluko, or Sule Alao Malaika, or Atawewe; it welcomes you into beer parlours with its gritty embrace; assaults you from a deck with a big volume somewhere in the neighbourhood while you’re trying to sleep; the motor-park urchins are reaching into your pockets with their melodious voices carrying its sound around; an aged busker is going round the tables at your neighbourhood bar serving you the sound; your eleran, while cutting up your meat, is singing along to Saheed Osupa blasting from a little bluetooth speaker in the noisy Oja-oba; the woman hawking paraga is singing her wares in fuji; the okada rider has it blaring from a makeshift speaker between the handlebars of his motorcycle; your mechanic is unavailable on Saturdays because he is moonlighting as a fuji singer at parties and small shows!

The whole city throbs with fuji; it is Ibadan’s heartbeat, the life that flows through her streets. In this town of great warriors of yore, fuji is more than what people merely listen to, it is what they live.


Bunmi Familoni writes from Ibadan.


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