By BIMBO ESHO
When the history of popular West African music, especially with regard to the Highlife music genre, is to be truly and authoritatively written, one name that will continually resound and have global acclaims and respect will be Samuel Babafemi Esho, the indefatigable patron and promoter of evergreen music, both at home and abroad.
Femi Esho is a purveyor of Nigerian and Ghanaian music of yester-years who has made it his life’s mission to preserve the posterity and longevity of an era threatened with oblivion. Being a key player in the industry himself, Femi has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of evergreen music masterpieces that enshrine the best of African culture and tradition.
As the iconic founder of the Evergreen Musical Company Limited, Femi holds an esteemed position of trust and stewardship with the vintage music community, causing him to be appointed as sole custodian and distributor of the complete works of many African music legends, for whom he campaigns tirelessly in a bid to immortalise their achievements as a symbol of cultural continuity through sound.
His company, Evergreen Musical Company Limited, owns the copyright and repackaging rights to some works of Few Nigerian/ Ghanaian Artistes and also the repackaging right of the complete works of different African musicians like Fela Kuti, Dr Victor Olaiya, Rex Lawson, Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akisanya, Tunde Nightingale, Ayinde Bakare, J. O. Araba, I. K. Dairo, Eddy Okonta, King Kenny Tone, Agidigbo, Crosdale Juba, E. T. Mensah, Ramblers Dance Band, Black Beats, Uhuru Dance Band, Stargazers and C. K. Man, among others.
Born before Nigeria’s independence, precisely on 29 October, 1946 in Ilesa, Osun State of Nigeria, and at a period when highlife music was the signature tune for the growing West African entertainment scene, Femi Esho has, since his birth, metamorphosed into Africa’s foremost indigenous music revivalist, especially the highlife music genre.
As a young boy growing up amid the emergence of a great music phenomenon referred to as Highlife, Femi Esho had a somewhat oddly hot passion for various genres of indigenous music of his time and felt the power and effect of music in any society. Thus, he realised early in life that music is a universal language, which cuts across all frontiers of human life, be it political, religious, tribal or social.
At that time, Highlife music had its origin in the major urban centres of Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone and was a shared legacy enjoyed simultaneously by the educated and semi-educated classes across the entire sub-region during the colonial days when these countries were all under the imperial Great Britain.
As young as he was, Femi Esho refused to be left out of this legacy experience and joined the band-wagon on a one-man adventure of everything that music had to offer. So began a musical sojourn that would take him to many lands in Nigeria and Abroad.
Fortunate to have been born into the humble family of Reverend J. O. Esho, one of the founding fathers of Christ Apostolic Church (CAC), Femi ESho, at the age of 12, had the rare opportunity of a first-hand experience of playing with various musical instruments of the church under his father’s custody, particularly the church organ.
As a student in one of the villages in the present Ekiti State, Femi Esho who was in Primary Six at that time, assembled six of his school mates and bought the flutes for them to play some of the early popular highlife tunes, particularly those from the then Gold Coast (now Ghana).
Famous tunes such as those of the legendary E. T. Mensah, Black Beats, Broadway, E.K’s Band and others too numerous to mention were rendered by the boys to the listening pleasure of their friends and elders.
In 1959, when he was in Year One of his secondary school education, he assembled five of his classmates and formed a group called “The 5 Soulers”. They specialised in playing and performing songs of various European pop groups, such as the Dave Clark 5, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, the Who’s, Searchers, Wilson Picket, Elvis Presley, Ottis Redding and particularly the Beatles.
Femi Esho’s passion for the Beatles was so strong that he became a devoted and fanatic member of the Beatles fans’ club up to the extent of adopting the appellation “Paul McCartney” as his nick name.
Those days were the era in which the Grundig and Pye valve radios were quite popular and were a must-have in most homes in Nigeria. The various highlife tunes from the Gold Coast and Soukous music from Congo Zaire, dished out every morning from these radios, would later fire and influence his passion and fanaticism for performing, listening, playing and collecting music of different genres, local and international.
Another great influencer was the “Bush Valve Radio” which was quite popular then and could be found lying at the corners of most houses.
From these radios, at that time, Radio Nigeria would transmit serious live plays of great bands from Lagos and at times Ibadan, such as Bobby Benson, Dr. Victor Olaiya, Roy Chicago, Eddy Okonta, E. C.Arinze and so many other iconic bands, every Saturday night from 12 midnight. These tunes were a delight to hear and a remedy for sad times.
In the mid-fifties, from age 12, Femi Esho would abscond from Ilesa, his home town, to frequent various night clubs in Lagos and Ibadan where he would mime live performances by popular bands of the time.
These feats he achieved with the aid of the cover-less cocoa lorries of the Lawrence Omole Cocoa Company, at a transport fare of five shillings, all under the guise of educational excursions. Femi Esho once revealed, in a lighter mood, that he had no problem getting his transport fare and extra money for his various trips since he was the “Cashier” to his wealthy step-mother who was a successful trader.
These escapades were totally unbeknown to his parents who had no cause to doubt him since he always maintained a first position in class throughout his secondary school days.
At that tender age of 12, he did not leave any club, both in Ibadan and Lagos, untouched. Some of the hot spots he frequented on his musical expedition to unravel the mystery and magic that music held for him as a growing up teenager were the Paradise Club, Independence Hotel, Central Hotel and others in Ibadan.
In Lagos, he was a popular patron of the Kakadu Hotel, Cool-Cats Inn, Lido, Abalabi, Central Hotel, Western Hotel, Ambassador, and West End Coliseum and, of course, the last bus stop which was the most popular, the Caban Bamboo, owned and operated by the late Bobby Benson who was, until his demise, the greatest Nigerian Doyen of Highlife music.
As a result of this self-chosen musical adventure, it was easy for Femi Esho to collect the works of most of these iconic musicians, especially their live recordings because during that period, many Ghanaian bands such as the E. T. Mensah Band, the Broadway band, which later metamorphosed into the Uhuru/Black Beats Band and the StarGazers Band, would all come to Lagos and Ibadan to perform at high brow clubs and special events such as the Havanah Music Carnival organised by the Sigma Club of the University of Ibadan and other events worthy of note. At that time, next to football, the greatest unifying factor between Nigeria and Ghana was Highlife music.
E. T. Mensah (i.e. the Ghanaian doyen of highlife music) was the first to pave way for the Nigerian/Ghanaian highlife collaboration. He visited Nigeria in 1951 and performed at the great Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo Club where Bobby Benson and his wife, Cassandra, frequently played great Calypso, Jazz and some other popular European tunes of the day.
This visit by E. T. Mensah indeed paved way for the first ever highlife released by a Nigerian musician (i.e. Taxi Driver by Bobby Benson) in 1951 on the Badejo Record label.
At that time, Bobby had the best musicians who later became great masters under him such as Dr. Victor Olaiya who led Bobby’s second band, Eddy Okonta, Zeal Onyia, Roy Chicago, Chief Billy Friday, Babyface Paul and so many others.
As a result of his fanatic and frequent patronage of these clubs, Femi Esho developed and sustained a very passionate and tightly knitted relationship with virtually all of the greatest highlifers at that time.
He was also close to iconic musicians of other genres that performed in the late ‘50s and ‘60s such as Tunde Nightingale, J. O. Araba, Ayinde bakare, Haruna Ishola, Yusuf Olatunji and other notable musicians in their category.
For him, it was always a delight to watch and enjoy their performances at the West End Coliseum anytime the opportunity presented itself and thereby building a bond with these musicians.
His zeal as a collector is inborn. Since the age of 12, he has been going to all nooks and crannies of the world collecting musical works of note, be it local or international.
With over 150,000 vinyl plates made up of 78rpm breakable plates, 45rpm and 33rpm, hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes (i.e. both live and normal recordings), thousands of cassette tapes of various music along with archival materials such as His Master’s Voice (HMV), various reel-to-reel playing machines, various types of turn-tables and others, there is no dispute that Femi Esho, over the years, has risen to become the greatest collector of vintage music in the West African sub-region.
His authority as the greatest collector in the West Africa sub-region was further confirmed with his visit to Ghana in 2008. During this visit, he met with the late Jerry Hansen of the Ramblers Dance Band, Ebo Taylor of Stargazers, the estate of both E. T. Mensah and King Bruce of Black Beats and used the opportunity to humbly present to them their complete jobs for subsequent rights permission to release those works in Nigeria.
After graciously giving the rights permission to Femi Esho, Jerry Hansen, who was then 86 before he died, could not hold back his tears as he exclaimed that it was a great shame that Femi Esho came all the way from Nigeria to Ghana to present to him all his lost works.
His hot passion for music never dissuaded nor obviated Femi Esho from seeking a worthy and sound education. He attended various Institutions of note and his brilliance was so overwhelming that he achieved the greatest peak required for his professional career in the various schools he attended.
In all of these schools, he graduated with scores of excellence and acquired various relevant certificates which have helped him in the various quests he has ever embarked in life.
CAREER AND WORK EXPERIENCE:
At the age of 22, Femi Esho joined the Lagos State Government in 1968, working for His Excellency, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson (i.e. the first military governor of Lagos State). He later rose to the honourable and enviable position of a first class secretary to the late former military governor, elder statesman and revered sage.
After his seven years service with the Lagos State government, Femi had a five year-stint with the biggest Nigerian architectural company at that time (Niger Consultant Architects with over 35 architects) as the administrative head.
He, thereafter, set up an advertising agency which later metamorphosed into a first-class printing consultancy till the early ’90s when he now gave his entire life to music.
Still with a fiery passion for music and with the various requests from many of his friends and top elders in the society, Femi was propelled to form the Evergreen Musical Company Limited.
The major rationale for the formation of the company was to, among other things, ease the yearnings and tension of the various senior age-groups and connoisseurs of good heritage music who have been greatly saddened by the direction and tone of the present generation music which is totally devoid of serious content and philosophy.
He also formed an Evergreen 21-piece band in 1993 and the band has performed in high-brow places like the Metropolitan Club, Ikoyi Club, Muson centre, Island Club, Yoruba Tennis Club and for various corporate companies and conglomerates.
Alongside all of these and still for the love of music, Femi Esho has, over the years, presented various television and radio programs in virtually all the high-class television and tadio stations across the country. The longest was his famous “Highlife Renaissance” programme on RayPower which he presented on Sundays between 4 – 5pm for a period of about three years, while his last major television programme was his one hour insight into Nigeria’s music from 1914 to 2014.
The television programme was a centenary celebration programme which he delivered on the network service of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) during which he discussed various artistes of the period 1914 up to the present time 2014.
.Esho, MD, Evergreen Musical Company Limited, writes from Lagos.