Ten truly veteran and versatile Nigerian musicians, virtuoso instrumentalists and musical custodians in their indigenous genre of popular music, have come together for the musical mission of preaching the new gospel of Faaji Music in America in July 2011. It is a blend of an octogenarian, septuagenarians, middle-aged men and a couple of over-thirties; their ages range from 30 to 84. The musical missionaries are: Fatai Rolling Dollar (84) - agidigbo (bass thumb piano), percussion, singer; Alaba Pedro (72) - rhythm guitar, singer; Eji Oyewole (70) - tenor saxophone, flute; Shina Ayinde Bakare (66) - guitarist, singer; S.F. Olowookere (65) - bass; Samson Adegbite (64) - drums; Taiye Anyowale (54) - talking drums; Nureini Sunmola (42) - sakara drum; Kunle Adeniran (35) - singer and Niyi Ajileye (30) - keyboards. Known as Faaji Agba or Faaji Band of Elders, they have been invited to New York by Bric Arts Media to perform at the prestigious 2011 Brooklyn Festival, the largest annual festival in New York.
The Faaji Agba Collective is the brainchild of book-and-music seller, music historian and revivalist Kunle Tejuosho, owner of one of Africa's most progressive independent labels, Jazzhole Records, which over the last two decades has given a new and broader lease of life to the musical careers of these stars of yesteryears.
Faaji is a Yoruba term for enjoyment and, by extension, relaxation. The music associated with this mood and state of mind is naturally called Faaji music. Rather slow-paced in tempo, it has its roots in the very beginnings of social urban folk music which eventually evolved into a distinct flavour of the Nigerian genre of popular music, later generally classified as Highlife.
According to Ambrose ‘Rosi' Campbell, a guitarist and musician credited as the ‘father' of what eventually became the Lagos ‘branch' of Highlife, there was the Juju music of people like mandolin player Tunde King by the mid-thirties; music played with the mandolin, banjo or guitar, tambourine and gourd rattle or sekere. Then by the late thirties, Igbos, Itsekiris, Liberian sailors (Krus) and Lagos Yorubas used to bring their guitars along "and we all jam together. They will bring their latest songs and we will bring our own latest and we will all join together and play." The venue was usually a palm-wine/'tombo' bar; hence this style of playing, known as palm-wine guitar, shaped the guitar-driven genre of Highlife from the Lagos-Western Region Axis.
Sina Ayinde Bakare, son of the legendary guitar player who helped define the distinct and later Highlife-related genre of Juju music, collaborates and expands. "In playing the banjo, the sound from the strings, the rhythms from playing the membrane of the banjo and the body movements of the instrumentalist made the music to be called Afro-Skiffle." The presence of the agidigbo, maraccas, sekere, cowbells (agogo), sakara, samba (tambourine) bongos and the huge one-membrane drum akuba; and the ‘criss-cross' rhythms from these different percussion instruments and the styles in which they were played resulted in variants of Afro-Skiffle like Woro and Asiko which metamorphosed into a Yoruba-flavoured hybrid of Highlife music.
Although Dollar, Pedro, Bakare and Oyewole have been playing together since the sixties, this is the first time a band of mostly older and younger Nigerian musicians, playing western and indigenous instruments, have come together to create the innovative and modern Faaji Agba Sound. It is a potpourri of various sounds and experiences, the result of many musical experiments.
Tejuoso, for whom most of these musicians have recorded sessions and records, explains the musical journey of Faaji Agba. "Each and every one of these musicians was a star in his own right. They were popular in the 50s and 60s and have since become combat musicians who have survived through the Jazzhole Records' Classics. As a result of working with themselves, they started to interact with each other; collectively trying to reposition themselves to today's direction of music, and update themselves to seek new commercial acceptance." It all started with the musical rehabilitation of Dollar more than a decade ago, then came Oyewole who brought Bakare. Tejuoso describes Bakare's coming as "very crucial, as he became the playmaker who brought in people like Seni Tejuoso who used to play with Rolling Dollar." The ‘newer' music of these masters of their genre on the Jazzhole series includes Fatai Rolling Dollar (‘Won Keresi Si Number'), Sina Ayinde Bakare (‘Inu Mimo') and Seni Tejuoso (‘Easy Motion Tourist').
How does this new Faaji sound fit into today's contemporary pop music scene? "It's the tempo," Bakare responds. Oyewole adds that "Faaji was slow and relaxing, but our new Faaji is up-tempo and funkified."
The 2011 Brooklyn Festival will also feature the Afrobeat music of Seun Kuti and his Egypt '80. New York and America are very much aware and quite appreciative of Afrobeat, thanks lately to the success of the musical, Fela! on Broadway. Undoubtedly, this Faaji Sound will be completely novel to them.
According to Oyewole, "The musical message of the group is Faaji is our Jazz. It is authentic African music viz-a-viz Yoruba music; as we've taken Yoruba folk and contemporary music and galvanised it into a modern globally-attractive music for a truly genuine display and expertise of rhythms, harmonies and melodies."
What is the organisational structure of Faaji Agba? "We are all elderly men; the most senior by age is Rolling Dollar and everybody has a role to play," Bakare points out. Oyewole chime in: "In Yoruba culture, Rolling Dollar is the spiritual leader of the band." Bakare will coordinate the band and arrange the music with help from Oyewole the leader of the horn section. Tejuoso (Executive Director) clarifies that "Bakare is most versatile in the language and roots of Faaji from his heritage, being the son of the late Ayinde Bakare, one of the key founders with Ambrose Campbell of the genre of popular music now called Faaji."
Coming to America
The expectations of the individual members of Faaji Agba vary, as some will be visiting and performing in America for the first time. It is obvious that for a band made up of different people from varying backgrounds, there has to be musical compromise to achieve maximum success. For Oyewole, who has performed in America before and played with jazz masters like Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Don Cherry and Billy Brooks, it is a big challenge he relishes.
"I'm bringing a different dimension in the areas of jazz and funk to make the sound more acceptable. It's going to cut across and I'm sure that they will appreciate that Afrobeat, which they are aware of, has its roots in the music of Faaji Agba; because before Afrobeat there has been Afro which also has its roots in the Yoruba indigenous music that inspired Faaji Agba."
There is awareness of the need to document for future study, appreciation and posterity the journey of Faaji Agba from its birth, growth and first international exposure in America. To this end, outstanding filmmaker Remi Vaughan-Richards' Singing Tree Production Company, in collaboration with Jazzhole Records, has been documenting Kunle Tejuoso and the Faaji Agba musicians over the past two years; to culminate with their live performance this month at the Brooklyn Festival in America.
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