Legendary musician, Ebenezer Obey, 75 takes a trip down memory lane with Adeola Balogun and Ademola Olonilua
Whenever you hear your song being played, how do you feel?
Whenever I hear my music being played, it is like looking into the mirror. Whenever I hear my voice I tell myself, that is me sounding, that is me singing. If I tune on my radio, within 15 minutes they would play one of my songs across different stations. These days I can no longer walk on the streets like I used to when I was much younger but whenever I walk, I listen to my records especially in those days when we used to have record stores everywhere. So like I said, it is just like looking into the mirror.
Is it true that you have lost count of the number of records that you have released?
Yes I have lost count. In fact, there is a music company in Lagos that conducted a research and I agree with the result. They said that in the world, I am the musician that has the largest number of music tracks of music released. I agree with the research.
It seems you have more unpublished works compared to your published ones?
I actually have more published works. The reason why it seems as if I have more unpublished works is because I am known for my versatility in music composition. By the grace of God, I am one of the best music composers in the world. People know this and they come to me to request for special releases, so they give me some songs to compose and I do that for them. Whenever I do such records for them, they produce thousands of copies and they distribute to their friends when they have any ceremony. I have a lot of that but they are not up to what I have published. People who request for such service pay for them.
You claim to be one of the best music composers in the world but has it translated into more money for you?
The story of my success cannot be written without adding money to it. This means that money has contributed to my success because I don’t compose music for free. They are part of what puts food on my table and I thank God for that. The only thing is that if you are a composer and you sing in English language, you would appeal to so many nations of the world and that would translate into more money for you. In terms of making money, I thank God for what he has done. If I composed my songs in the universal language, we would have been saying another thing now but I give thanks to God almighty because if you take into consideration the population of Africans, you would know that one can do well with this market. Even if the rest of Africa does not understand the Yoruba language, they dance to the rhythm and they buy the music. In Nigeria, Africa and even overseas as far as Japan, they buy the music but it cannot be compared to what could have happened if the music was sung in a universal language.
It was a fad for musicians to go on tour all over the world in those days, one would have thought that the language barriers would have been broken…
I still go on tour till date. However music knows no language but the instruments move and touch people. It makes them to do what they would not do ordinarily. Even if you do not understand the language, once you hear the melody, you start to nod your head and move your hand; that means the music has ‘entered’ your body. Truly we have broken that barrier but it still cannot be compared to the reaction one would have got if the music was in English language.
For those who are non-Nigerians, when it comes to having Ebenezer Obey’s work, they are just comfortable with picking one or two songs from my catalogues unlike Nigerians who would love to have everything I have recorded. That also makes the difference in terms of wealth.
Knowing well that you would have made more money singing in English, why didn’t you change your style of music?
I am more comfortable singing in Yoruba. It is much easier for me to communicate my message in Yoruba. If I compose or sing in English language, I would not communicate or express myself the way I would love to. In Yoruba, I could say one thing in several ways.
What made you give your life to Christ?
My entire life has been planned by God. I did not know initially when I was young but as I continued to grow older, and I looked back, I notice that everything I have passed through happens to be the plan of God for me. Talk about the people I met, the schools I attended, the place I was born and the way God did everything was according to His plan for my life.
For example, my parents were from Abeokuta. My father was an Egba man, while my mother was an Owu woman. But the journey of life always takes someone from one point to another, so we live our lives in phases. I was born in Idogo despite the fact that both my parents were from Abeokuta. The circumstances and the story behind my birth are quite inspiring.
And can you share that with us?
My mother was a woman who loved God and her journey in life brought her to her first husband who was not my father. For over twenty years, my mother was the wife of that man without any issue. She never got pregnant for a day. It was a pathetic story. The man was working in the railway corporation as a senior station master. My mother had travelled with him to different parts of the north before they finally came back to Lagos to settle down. In those days, when such things happened, the husband’s family interfered; so they just called my mother and her family members. They looked at my mother and told her that they loved her but that she had not been pregnant for a day after 20 years of marriage. They acknowledged that it was not her fault and her husband loved her as well but they wanted their son to go and try somewhere else. They advised that she should also go and try her luck elsewhere. They advised my mother’s family to take their daughter to try somewhere else. It was not a palatable message and that became a very sad moment for my mother. That was how she was separated from a man she loved and had been living with for over 20 years. She was so sad and she cried every day. It got to a stage that the family were afraid and told her not to kill herself. My mother later told me that her family told her that the mercy of the Lord endures forever. They advised my mother to go and stay with her senior brothers who lived in Idogo for a while. They did not tell her to find a new husband but to have a change of environment because she was always weeping. That was how she moved to Idogo to stay with her elder brothers who were farmers but before she left Lagos, she met a pastor who told her that they had prayed for her and she should not believe what people said about her being unable to conceive. He advised her to be prayerful as always and she should always tell God that his grace was sufficient for her even though people had said she could not conceive. She was advised to always trust and believe that His grace was sufficient for her.
Around that time, my father had left for Idogo, he was a carpenter but also a farmer by the side. My father happened to be my uncle’s friend, so whenever he went to visit his friend and saw my mother, he normally joked and said in Egba dialect that he was going to marry my mother and she would give birth to both male and female children for him. My mother said that she would look at my father and say to herself, ‘how can I marry a carpenter?’ But my father was a very jovial man who always cracked jokes. Truly they became married and she first gave birth to my elder sister. My mother told me that as she gave birth, she remembered what the man of God said that God’s grace was sufficient for her. She pleaded with my father that the child should be called Grace Olasunmbo Amoke Fabiyi. She was almost 80 when she died.
The next baby that my mother gave birth to was me and she said that when she saw it was a baby boy, she told my father that people had written her off as barren but was blessed with both male and female children. These are the only two sexes that exist. She asked my father that I be named Ebenezer, because God had helped her. Later my father went to Lagos and invited my mother to come over but she declined his invitation. She asked him to leave us in Idogo and he should come and be visiting regularly because it was in Lagos that they had ridiculed her and believed she would never bear a child but it was in Idogo that God answered her prayers.
Does that mean that your mother never visited Lagos after your birth?
She did but only for business purposes. My mother was a trader and she sold clothes so she came to Lagos often but never stayed in Lagos. Like my mother said, God in his infinite mercy did more things to prove what my mother said. My parents rented a room and that was where my late sister and I were born. That was the first storey building in the neighbourhood and my father was the carpenter that roofed the house. The owner of the house hired my father as the carpenter to roof the house and because of that, he loved my father and they were able to rent a room in the house.
After my father left for Lagos, he never came back to Idogo to look after his two children because he had two other wives. I was seven years old before I knew my father. He abandoned us and did not come back. Four years after the man did not come, my mother started her own building. It was when she was building her own house that her neighbour who was assisting her became my mother’s next husband and my younger brother arrived. This happened because my father never bothered to show face and he left two children behind probably because he had two other wives.
When I grew up, I asked him why he did such and his excuse was that he knew my mother who was a very industrious woman was capable of looking after us. He said there was no venture she embarked upon that did not earn her money. I told him that it was not enough reason to abandon one’s family. Even at that, I loved my father.
After your mother told you this story, one would believe that being an influential and successful person, you would have done some things for Idogo. What have you done for your community?
I grew up in Idogo, and the music started from that community. The gift and talent of music was identified in Idogo and that was where I started my band and the world later heard of me.
When the owner of the house where my parents gave birth to my sister and I was willing to sell the property, I was on tour overseas. My mother said that she was praying I would return on time so I could buy the house. When I got back from tour, my mother was almost on her knees begging me to buy the house because of the memories we had of the house. I bought the house, rebuilt it and named it ‘Ile itan; Madam Abigail Oyindamola Abeke Toriola, Iya Alaso, Iya Sumbo, Iya Ebenezer Obey Fabiyi.’ I have a branch of my church in the upper part of the building and I built a hall for my club, Idogo Progressive Union. It took me about 30 years to build the hall and on my 70th birthday, Governor Amosun came to commission it. I have given money to churches and even mosques in Idogo and I have even built a school block for my community. Anything good that can be done to one’s community, I have been doing it. Because my wife was loyal and wonderful to me, she made my profession very easy, she did not trouble me in anyway and that is why I have refused to marry since her death. Anytime I sit down in my palour, I see her picture because it is positioned right in front of my chair. She did not live to see my 70th birthday. So I opened a town hall in her honour on her birthday on March 23. On the same date this year, I built a police post in her honour. The attachment I have for Idogo is very strong.
But why did you decide to go back to the church?
The reason I gave my life to Christ is because I started in the church and God has been very good to me and he has been guiding me. I am very close to my God and he is the only one I have. I never knew I would become an evangelist, it was a calling and I am happy I heeded the call after tracing the history of my birth.
How were you called?
People are not called to serve God the same way. When I went to Lagos from Idogo, I forgot about church and for about three years, I did not go to church. I was struggling and looking for ways to be known. I knew I was a star and I always called myself a future star but it was not easy to get a recording company that would invest in me. The recording companies were limited and it was not easy for anybody to get a deal. I had started playing everywhere I saw a band playing because I could handle any kind of instrument. One day, I was sitting outside our house at Bolade, Oshodi when I saw two old men passing by, their names were Akinyomi Savage and Bamgbose Jumoda. One had a guitar round his neck and they were both singing. I ran after them but they did not know I was following them but I was enjoying their music. We had almost got to the post office when they stopped and they began to lament over their difficulty in hiring an amplifier for a show. Immediately, I told them I would take them to where they could rent one. They were surprised because they did not know I was following them and they even thought I was an angel. I told them I was also a musician and I had been following them since. I later took them to where they could get the amplifier. They invited me to join them. I was working as a clerk and my monthly salary then was £3 but after our first performance, they gave me £2. I was overwhelmed and they told me it was chicken change. They said I could make more money. They said they would pay me about 5shillings every day for feeding. I kept moving with them and they were true to their word. Later I heard an Agidigbo music by J.O Araba and I took my guitar trying to score what that player did but it was really tough and it took me about four hours. I later asked the Baba I was working with for the identity of the person that played the guitar and I was told that it was a friend of theirs, Rolling Dollar. They said he passed the front of my house often and I told them I would love to meet him. The day Fatai Rolling Dollar would pass by again, they called him and informed him that a die-hard fan would like to see him. He was with his guitar. I told him that I tried to play the agidigbo like him but it proved really difficult. He asked how many fingers I used to play and I told him only two. He said that was why I could not score because he used all his fingers to play. I had never heard that. I told him that he was going to show me how to play like that and he told me that it was not a problem. I told him I would follow him home so I could come to pay him visits. He started playing his guitar and from where we met to his house, I composed five songs. He was surprised and enjoyed it so much. When I was going back home, he walked and we were singing all those five songs as he was playing his guitar. He asked for my house address and I told him. He came to my house every day and I also followed him to his house as well and we sang a lot. Before long, we became friends and it was that friendship that led to the formation of his own band which God used me to put together. That was how he became my boss. After we formed Rolling Dollar’s band, I had my own band as well.
Did you ever at a time think of quitting music?
I became very successful but two incidents happened. The first one was that I used to take my band on tour all over Nigeria. We had a show at Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna and it was widely publicised, so a lot of people turned out. The next thing I heard was the announcement that someone drowned in the swimming pool and they were looking for the person the young man came with. By the time we went to the swimming pool, the boy was already dead. I was very sad and that was the first arrest I had from God. That was the first time I asked myself if I would continue to play music because the incident touched me. When we left Kaduna, we went to Zaria, Jos, Kano and some other states in the north. After the tour, I left my boys and I took a plane back to Lagos. By the time I came to Lagos, I had forgotten about the incident but that was the first time I thought about quitting music. I later continued to play and after a successful music career that spanned for many years, the call from God started coming. God told me he wanted me to be a witness of the gospel and he wanted me to do the work of God. Initially I did not want to heed the call but it came to a time that I could no longer stand it.
Just as I was having the feeling, the late Archbishop Benson Idahosa sent for me and I went to meet him in Benin. He told me that the Lord showed him something about me when he was in the US. He said the Lord wanted me to join his ministry. He said that God wanted me to be an evangelist. He cited Moses in the bible as an example. He said that God called him into service and till date Moses is still known around the world. He said that was God’s plan for me. The archbishop told me that I should not be scared, he promised he would be praying for me and urged me to be prayerful as well. Before I left, he prayed for me. When I left him, I remembered God’s call again and when I got home, I called my wife and narrated what the archbishop had told me. I had also been sharing my experience with her. She told me that if that was what God wanted me to do, that I should heed his call because it was God who made me a successful musician. She said that she would support me and just like that, she supported me outright. I called my children and informed them as well but they were pessimistic. They said I should think about my career because people still liked me and they wanted me. I told them that it was what God wanted and they agreed unwillingly.
But some people feel you heeded the call because your music was no longer thriving?
I was at the peak of my career when I heeded God’s call. There was never anytime that I was not in demand in my career. As a matter of fact, people who wanted to book me did so a year in advance. Some people would leave their mother in the mortuary because Obey did not have time. It’s the day that I was available that they would bury their mother because they wanted Obey to play. I have never had any dull moment in music.
How did your fans react when you became an evangelist?
They did not like it at all. I lost many of them but I regained them later. Some of them were not even greeting me but I was not bothered because I am a very serious minded person. Once I want to do something, I do it wholeheartedly. For 17 years, I was in the ministry and I never looked back. I had trying times during those 17 years but I never let people know what I was passing through.
What were some of those trying times?
I had a factory that produced cassettes and it was doing very good but I did not have the time to supervise it. I could not combine it with my work as a musician and an evangelist. I put my daughter and relatives in charge of the factory but we later lost it because it owed the bank. Even after losing the factory, because of my name, I still continued to pay debts so I had to sell three of my houses. But with all that happened, I still thanked God. I bought shares but it went bad and I lost a lot of money in the process. Nobody came to my rescue but God did something.
I had a programme in London with the late Myles Munroe and we both ministered. There was a concert after the ministration. On the day of the concert when I was performing, a lot of people turned out and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere. So after my performance, he collected the microphone from me and told me that music is my ministry. He said God told him to inform me not to quit music because that is my ministry. He said it was what God wanted me to do. He further advised me to preach less but sing more; that I should preach through music. I prayed about it and that was how we started special appearances. That was when I began to charge fees ranging from N2.5m and above and before I knew it, I had made millions. I would take a million for my ministry and the remaining would be shared between me and the band. When you listen to God, he would always provide for you. So many people want to tell you what to do but when you run into problem, they are nowhere to be found. I just know it has been God. The wonders of God came into my life after I had lost a lot of property, God repaid me. After three years that I had lost so many things, God sent a man to me. This man would just call me and give me money, I mean huge sums of money; he also gave me cars. Most of the cars I have, he is the one that gave me. God allowed the storm to come so that there would be testimony. I always report this man to God every day because he is my benefactor.
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife when I was struggling. Her parents actually told her not to marry me. I was still a young musician then. I met her in her brother’s place because her elder brother was my friend. When I met her, we greeted and that is how we started.