It was Fela who gave me my inspiration –Duro Ikujenyo

Duro Ikujenyo is a musician, band leader and music producer who has performed in many parts of Nigeria as well as abroad. Clearly one of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s apostles, he has been a musician since the days when he was in the church choir that had his namesake father as a choir master. In this interview with TERH AGBEDEH in his Lagos home, he talks about his life, music and the future.

What informs your wearing a skullcap at all times?

When I got to 50 years…first, my producer, Kunle Tejuosho, when he saw me, he wanted to package me and saw that I was on the Fela (Anikulapo Kuti) angle and saw that I was too energetic on stage. He looked at me and said you don’t have to sell yourself like anybody else, you have to be yourself. They said the first thing is that they would give me a cap, I should go and make a cap. So I made a cap that was 12 inches high, it was Lemi Ghariokwu that made the cap for me. When I play with that cap, I stand still so I had to design a style of performance of just singing and playing the piano at the same time. When I am singing I am always not dancing. Then I have a break for dancing.

When is your next show?

Throughout the month of January we take a break. Back to the cap; this one calls to mind the one an Imam wears. You are right but I am not a Muslim and to be very honest with you, I was born like a Christian. I went to a school called St, John’s College in Jos (Plateau State, Nigeria). From there I went to St. Paul’s (kufena) College, Zaria, Kaduna State and Anglican Boy’s Grammar School, Bariga, Lagos.

Why the movement from one Nigerian state to another?

My father was transferred to the north, he was a civil servant and he worked in the north for over 20 years. When they transferred him, he decided that I should go to a boarding school. St. Johns was a day school. He was a member of the Board of Governors of St. Pauls so that gave him a kind of leverage. When came to the south, I started studying music. In 2006 I turned 50 and my family called me and said you are 50 now and you have to celebrate. We will celebrate it for you. Just come, bring your friends, five or six of them and we will celebrate. When I celebrated 50 something just came to my mind that I am 50 years old now and I am the head of my business and a head of business is like a king. A king always wears a hat in Yoruba tradition, and that is the same tradition that you see with the pope, he wears a small skullcap. It is like what the kings wear so I believe that I should wear a cap all the time.

Do you sleep in it?

When I sleep I remove the cap. I try all the time to find out what Africa is because the education they gave us… in St. Paul there was a riot. I mean, my classmates are Darius Ishaku, minister of state for power. He and his elder brother were in the same class with myself but I repeated a class and they went ahead of me and I passed out in 1972. When we were leaving the school, there were police and soldiers to check us out because we were really violent. We were using hands to eat our food. But it a very good education they gave us in the school. But I got to know Fela because I have a revolutionary mind. I use to hear Fela’s name all over the place.

When was the first time you came across Fela’s music?

I had been hearing it in school.

St. Johns or St. Paul?

St. Paul, when I came to Zaria, there was a band and it was a boarding school with about 500 students and it was lively. We resumed at 7am and were up till 10pm, so every moment was planned.

You got introduced to Fela around that time in the 1970s?

Yes, in the 70s. We used to have parties in the school.

When you say 70s that should be 1970, 1971 and 1972?

Yes. So, there was a song by Fela, ‘Alejonjon ki jo’. It was a boy’s school and when you hear music, that Fela music made me really feel good.

So, if you did not get introduced to Fela’s music in the 70s you probably would not have gone on to study music later on?

My father was a choirmaster and introduced me to some of what he was doing. I still have some of his books. It is surprising that as a Fela boy, I can play hymns because I studied music.

Were you in the choir?

Yes I was in the choir. My father enlisted me in the choir.

It appears that you are named after your dad.

Yes.

How was it like being in the choir with your father as choirmaster?

When I hear good music I feel like crying. So when my father took me there for the first time I cried that I wanted to go back with him the next time. The choir was like a place of sanity for me. My father was an expert, I mean, he put everybody into parts.

Is he dead now?

Yes he is. My father was born in 1910 so he is the old generation kind of people. He had me very late in his life. He was a civil servant and he could read, and gave me many books. But it was Fela who gave me my inspiration.

Before we go into Fela, do you have siblings?

I have seven siblings and we were all in the choir. Three of us are male, my elder brother who studied textile technology and my immediate elder brother is a businessman in Abuja (Nigeria’s capital). Can you put how Fela has affected you into words? The music has actually been in me, I had been the best chorister in church from 1959 to 1970. And for like three times I was the best chorister, I was the most regular. My father had a register for people who come. People who have been through that choir are like, even the head of state was in my father’s choir.

Which head of state?

This one, this particular President Goodluck Jonathan.

He was in your father’s choir?

He was in the choir. He grew up in Jos and was in the choir in St. Luke’s. My sister was also in the choir and a lot of great people.

So you were in the choir at the same time with the president?

Yes, he must know me. He has come to invite us to Fela’s house for lecture but he does not know me anymore. So then I knew Fela, who started giving us books.

You met with Fela’s music in school…

Then I came to Lagos and went to Lagos Anglican Boy’s Grammar School. Around that time, Fela had a very big case over Indian hemp…

That is three secondary schools?

Yes, three secondary schools so that made me really confused (laughter).

Whenever you moved did you drop a class?

I dropped a class when I moved to St. Paul, which was too advanced and I was the last in my class. I was not doing science in St, John’s because there was no laboratory.

You mentioned Bariga earlier as being where one of the schools you attended was located.

Anglican Boy’s Grammar School, Bariga.

That is the point in your life where you met Fela?

Yes. So when I met Fela it was like wow. I did not even meet Fela like that. There was this case of Indian hemp. At that time we were really scared or Indian hemp, even cigarettes, drinks. Choirmaster, my father was strict, he used to wake at 4am, I still wake up at that time because it has become part of me. So because of that kind of discipline we had in school and everything else, we could not really go near Fela. Even when I mentioned to my father later on that I wanted to be a musician, my father said, music what? So my parents did not want me to be a musician at all. My mum and dad loved me singing in the choir but thought popular music will take me out of the life they wanted me to lead.

Did popular music take you out of the life they wanted for you?

It did not so much because that training they had given me continued to be a part of me despite the fact that I am into popular music. For instance, I do not drink, I am not into drugs.

You have never smoked weed in your life?

In Fela’s house! That is the food (laughter).

They have legalised weed in some parts of the United States of America now?

It is legalised in Peru, Uruguay, China, India and in Holland, where you can go to a shop and say that you want a particular brand of marijuana. We are moving to the Age of Aquarius, age of freedom and things like that (will come to play).

You are not Christian anymore?

My Christian thing ended when I started knowing Fela because I was so in love with music. But the music I knew was church music so even when we came to Lagos I was still constant. But when Fela had that case of Indian hemp, it made him very popular. So, myself and Lemi Ghariokwu, who lived behind my house on Ikorodu Road in Igbobi. Lemi used to make very good drawings with his small stature.

Is he older than you?

He is one year older.

Which means you guys are pushing 60 and you look like you are in your 40s.

I can do 50 press ups for you right now. So we started with Lemi and we used to just hang around with Lemi and discuss Fela. Lemi just made a drawing of a Fela album. He did not know Fela but he just drew the portrait of Fela. He was not commissioned to do it. He met someone who was a journalist called Tunde Harrison who used to live in Igbobi. The journalist took Lemi to Fela. Around 1974 there was a very big Kalakuta show on November 23. They came to break down his barb wire fence and then beat him up. Fela was in LUTH (Lagos University Teaching Hospital) and at that time I said I want to see Fela. Lemi now took me to Fela in LUTH. I saw Fela for the first time in hospital. He looked so lean, was light in complexion, all his teeth were black from cigarette and ‘jumbo’. And then he was surrounded by attractive women. I had never seen such girls in my life before. I got more interested in Fela. I think it was a spiritual thing and now I know that for sure because I have been through a lot with Fela.

When you met Fela, had you already started studying music?

I started studying music already but secretly.

Where were you studying it?

When I finished with my school certificate, I told my father that I wanted to work. My father got me a job in one of the best places you can work in Nigeria, Petroleum Resources. They put me in the economic department in charge of OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) files, production figures, crude oil sales, secret files so I knew all the production figures. Fela was the person who gave the confidence to go into music. When I started working I asked where I could study music and they told me about a guy who had a conservatory affiliated to the University of Cambridge. They had tutors from England and we sat down for examinations two times a year. Now it is done in May.

Is the school still on?

Yes.

You did the examinations?

I did the exams and I scored 94 per cent because the music was in me already.

Your show at Bogobiri, is it still on?

Yes and it takes place every first Friday of the month. I am also thinking of additional venues and releasing a double album.

Which genre of music to you actually do?

My music is African music because I am into jazz as well, I am more of a jazz pianist than even highlife. But I just picked up highlife because if you know jazz, highlife is easy. You know this song, ‘Easy motion tourist’?

“Easy motion tourist’ is Fatai Rolling Dollar song.

No, it is not Fatai Rolling Dollar, Joe Araba is the owner of the song.

But that is not what Rolling Dollar said in an interview with me while he was alive.

There is no controversy over the song, it is clear, it was their band that did it. It is just like I did ‘Original suffer head’ with Fela but I cannot claim the right over ‘Original suffer head’. At that time, when they write songs, there were some things that put the song in motion. ‘Easy motion tourist’ was a story around Seni Tejuoso who used to sneak out to go play music with the band since his father would not let him play music. Then the father sent him out of the house.

I was the one that introduced Fatai Rolling Dollar to Jazzhole. Benson Idonije and Jahman Anikulapo introduced me to Fatai so I took it over. He did not even have a guitar at that time. I took a guitar to him and told Fatai to play something for me then I introduced him to my label and that was how we started.

Was working with Fatai Rolling Dollar a gamble for you since he had not played music for a long time?

It was not a gamble. I just knew that Fatai will bless me at the end of the day. One thing you have to know is that Fatai and I must have been brothers and there is something I have to pay like karma for me to arise. When I left Fela, he was not happy with me and I had to live with my parents. When I left Fela, I was not just a musician in his band, I became like a king in Fela’s house. I was making herbs, for instance, this is the herbs I made for fever. This is the chewing stick I use.

You should document this. Where do you get the stuff?

We get it from herb people.

Are you not a herbalist yourself?

You buy the roots from them.

If you were to go into the forest, would you be able to identify these plants?

Some of them since we were all born in this crazy western world. But after I had emancipated myself I started to find my roots. Even in my songs, I started to study Yoruba language.

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