EBENEZER OBEY @70
MY MUSIC, MY MINISTRY
My childhood expectations and yearnings were to become a star and God made me a star. So, I’m fulfilled
By Beifoh Osewele and TOSIN AJIRIRE
Sunday, April 01, 2012
• Photo: The Sun Publishing
For over five decades, Ebenezer Remilekun Aremu Olasupo Obey-Fabiyi, popularly known as Chief Commander, has remained a recurring decimal in Nigeria’s entertainment firmament. Since he hit the turntable with the release of his debut album, Ewa Wo Ohun Ojuri in 1964, he has remained a household name. In the Yoruba social-circle music, Obey has retained his position in the top shelf. Not even age has been able to take the shine off his showmanship.
In fact, like vintage wine, Obey gets better with age. This is evident in his latest effort, Obey at 70, which was unveiled last week.
For Obey whose professional career in music dates back to the mid-1950s, it has been a long journey.
His romance with music began while he was barely a teenager in Idogo, Ogun State. “The gift of music in me manifested itself right from when I was in primary school. I became a member of the school’s band and a member of the church choir. I later on became the school’s bandleader…There was a band called Ifelodun Marble Orchestra in Idogo. I was the smallest, but I played all the drums and led the vocals,” he recollects in an interview in his Lagos home.
He later relocated to Lagos to further hone his musical skill under Fatai Rolling Dollar’s tutelage. He formed his band, The International Brothers in 1964, a year after walking down the aisle with his late wife, Evangelist Juliana. The band later metamorphosed into Inter-Reformers in the early 1970s.
Obey’s musical strengths lie in weaving intricate Yoruba axioms into dance-floor compositions. Obey, however, is also renowned for Christian spiritual themes in his music and has since the early-1990s retired into Nigerian gospel music ministry.
As he steps into the 70-year-old league on April 3, Chief Commander is not about to step into the closet. In fact, the mention of retirement draws a frown from the ebullient crooner. Although it has been a long and, sometimes, tortuous journey, the musician cum evangelist believes he still has a lot to give. Speaking on his call to the ministry as an evangelist, he says, “I struggled for 11-12 years before I finally heeded His call in 1992.”
With a load of activities lined up to commemorate his coming of age, Chief Commander says he is indeed fortunate and fulfilled. Although he wouldn’t question God for taking away his wife last year at 68, he opines that his march into the club of 70 on April 3 would have been sweeter if she were around to celebrate with him.
How does it feel to be 70?
To be 70 is a landmark in one’s life. I’m so happy that God made this possible. Particularly, to be 70 under the kind of situation as we have in Nigeria where lifespan is known to be between 40 and 50 is a pleasant experience, really. I want to first and foremost give thanks to God Almighty. It wouldn’t have been possible to be 70 without God Himself ordaining and perfecting that. So, my thanks, first and foremost, go to Him. I also want to thank those who have contributed so much to my life.
I want to thank my late parents, Abigail Oyindamola Abeke Alaba Fabiyi and Chief Nathaniel Olasewo Fabiyi. Both played a major role in my life. I want to appreciate and thank God for them because without them, I wouldn’t be here. When God had put what He wanted me to be together, the implementation passed through my parents. I thank God for all that they have done. I also want to thank all my brothers and sisters. My sister, Mrs. Grace Amoke Kayode and younger brother, Mr. Clement Olusegun Oluseye Kembi, for our being together.
They too have played their roles. I want to thank all my family members, both from my mother’s and father’s sides. And, of course, I want to thank every Nigerian, my fans all over the world, both Nigerians and Africans and every of my fan around the world, for being there for me over the years. I also want to thank the body of Christ. And, of course, I want to thank the media generally for their contributions. They are my friends. They have contributed so much to my career as a celebrity musician. When I even had the call of God and went into the ministry, they were still there. So, I want to thank the media generally for their contributions.
I am sure you have met most of your expectations. But what areas are yet unfulfilled?
My childhood expectations and yearnings were to become a star and God made me a star. He has done so much for me. I have every cause and reason to thank God. He’s been so good. So, I am fulfilled.
Nothing more to add?
I’d put it this way, no more rivers to cross. But God is a good God. He’d continue doing good to us, His children. So, God could not limit His mercy to an age. God’s mercy is there for us throughout our days here on earth. No matter how many years God ordains, the sufficiency of His grace is able to see us through. So, I depend on the sufficiency of the grace of God. I depend on God. My expectation is that whatever comes from God, I take because bad things don’t come from God. He is a good God. Good things come from Him. So, I rest my case with Him. I know He’d treat me better. I depend and lay on Him. I trust Him. He can take care of the rest.
It is a statement of fact that with each passing age, we inch closer to death. Are you afraid of death?
No, a child of God does not have to be afraid of death. Why? We’re here on a journey. The assignment must finish one day and we have to go back home. Here is not home.
How would you want your epitaph to read?
I would leave that to people. It’s not good for you to blow your trumpet. But whatever man does here on earth… Let me say this 70th birthday, God has surprised me. And that’s part of what we’re saying. Because my wife went to be with the Lord, I didn’t want to celebrate my 70th birthday.
You are saying that your joy would have been greater if she were alive?
Oh, yes. If she were alive, the celebration would have been so much bigger because my wife was a good planner. Last year when I was 69, my wife had started talking to my friends about my 70th birthday. She had started preparing for it. So, when I said I didn’t want to celebrate 70, everybody said, “No. The wish of your wife is that you celebrate 70.” She spoke to me. She spoke to the church. Everybody was saying it. So, when I looked at it, I said okay. Since the preparation started, the love people have showered on me is overwhelming. The gospel musicians want a day. Juju musicians want a date. In London, they want to celebrate Ebenezer Obey at 70. In Canada, they want to celebrate. In America, same thing. I never knew I am so much loved.
So, her death is one of your points of regret?
Yes, but there’s nothing I can do. I know she is with the Lord.
Is the fact that she won’t be by your side when you clock 70 on Tuesday likely to bring tears to your eyes?
Frankly speaking, I miss her everyday. But there’s nothing I can do about it. But as a human being, I have to miss her. I know if she were around, things could have gone in another dimension. But since God has called her, God is the owner of life. He’s the giver of it.
He’s the one who takes it; He’ll not tell you when. We only need to prepare for it by our deeds. In everything we do, we must be conscious that God is watching. That’s all we just need to do.
You started when musicians were looked down upon; when the joy of parents was for their children to be lawyers, doctors, etc. How exactly did you come into music?
The gift manifested itself right from when I was in primary school. I became a member of the school’s band. A member of the choir. I later on became the school’s bandleader. Then, there was boys and girls youths club that transformed into drama and music. I belonged to the music department. There was a band called Ifelodun Marble Orchestra in Idogo. I was the smallest, but I played all the drums and led the vocals.
When did you learn how to play instruments?
I didn’t learn it. It was in-born. It was a gift of God. If I wasn’t there, things didn’t go well. Ifelodun Marble Orchestra was later turned to Ontario Marble Orchestra. But when all the elders saw that it was my show, they lost interest. Then, I formed my own band, Royal Marble Orchestra in 1957.
That was even before you met Fatai Rolling Dollars?
Yes. I had been a bandleader before I met Fatai Rolling Dollars. The older people in the band saw that it was my show and decided to wash their hands off it. I was left with no option but to start my own band.
You met Rolling Dollars in Lagos. How was your journey from Idogo to Lagos?
Idogo is a railway terminus. Idogo trains used to carry foodstuffs to Lagos. There were no roads, but we had three train services daily. The one that would leave in the morning. Then another one would come in the afternoon. The one that came in the night used to sleep in Idogo and take off in the morning. So, we used to come to Lagos by train.
How much was the train fare to Lagos then?
It was one pound, six shillings. You had to buy your ticket before you were allowed to enter the train. If you didn’t pay, they wouldn’t allow you to board.
But boys would always be boys. They would always sneak in undetected.
No, no, no. I come from a very disciplined home. My mother was a disciplinarian.
Between your mum and dad, who was stricter?
Ah! My mother.
He didn’t spare the rod?
At all! Let me give you an example. If we were going on the street, found money on the ground and picked it, she would smack you for it. She’d say, “Why did you take it?” My mother would follow you there. She’d say, “This is where you found it? Drop it there.” She would say, “If the owner is tracing his money, if he traced it to this place, he would find it. But if you take it, he won’t find it. So, put it down there.”
Sir, one of your names is Remilekun. Such names are not without a basis. What is the story behind you being given that name?
My mother stayed in her first husband’s house for 19 years without a child. So, the family of that man decided that their son should let my mummy go. The man didn’t want my mummy to go, but he was pressurised. They handed my mummy to her family in Lagos. When the pain was too much for her to bear, they told my mummy to go and meet her brothers in Idogo. My father happened to be the friend of my mummy’s elder brothers. He showed interest in her. They got married and within a short time, they gave birth to my elder sister.
I learnt that as my mummy was being sent away, a man of God told her that as they had done that to her, she should just be praying as she was going. “Tell God that your grace is sufficient for me. They say I cannot have an issue, but God, your grace is sufficient for me.”
So, when my elder sister was born, they named her Grace Olasunbo Amoke. My mummy became pregnant again and delivered a baby boy (me). My mummy said, “In life, all you can have is a male child and a female child. God has given me a female child. This is a male. He gave me Ebenezer (Hitherto has the Lord helped us) Olasupo Oluwaremikun (God has wiped away my tears).” He got pregnant again and gave birth to my younger brother. That was the woman they said couldn’t give birth.
She didn’t pamper you despite the fact that it took her such a long time to have you?
Ah, no, no! Not at all. And I would continue to thank my mother for that. She would do everything for her children, but would not spare the rod. She didn’t.
Were you silver spoon kids?
We didn’t lack anything at all. We didn’t. We ate the best food. I think because of what she went through before she had us, she just dedicated her entire life to serving her children.
What job was she into?
She was selling clothes. They called her “Mama Sumbo alaso.” My sister is Sumbo.
What about Baba?
My father was a carpenter. A well-trained carpenter in those days. He combined it with farming.
You’re an evangelist. At what stage did it occur to you that you have the calling?
After a successful music career that spanned over 30 years, the Lord started talking to me. I struggled for 11-12 years before I finally heeded His call in 1992.
How did you receive the call? I mean, how did God speak to you?
There are different kinds of ways God talks to people. I knew God had been speaking to me from the time I was young. But during the time of this calling, things changed. I was hearing a voice, “Son, I want you to serve me.” I continued hearing it.
At what time of the day? In your sleep or what?
It happened at any time. I may sit down and be hearing it. At a point, I called my wife and told her, “This is what is happening.” The next thing was that when I went to play, the joy that I had started diminishing, until the night I said yes to the Lord. Then, on my 50th birthday, I was ordained an evangelist by (the late) Archbishop Benson Idahosa. God actually sent Idahosa to me. He called me without knowing what was happening to me. He said God spoke to him when he was in the United States to tell me He wants me in the service. He didn’t say more than that. He told me to go and start praying.
He called your on phone or he sent for you?
He sent for me. I went to meet him in Benin. He said, “I was in the US, this is what God said to me.” He asked me, “Do you know Moses?” I said, “No, sir.” “You don’t know Moses in the Bible?” I said, “Ah, yes, I do.” He said, “That’s what God wants you to be.”
Was that you first meeting with him?
No, I had met him before then.
Let me take you back in time; if you had not ventured into music, what else would you have been?
Frankly speaking, it had been music from the outset. Even when my parents were charting another way for me, I resolved that it was music or nothing.
What were they planning for you?
They wanted me to face my studies so as to become either a lawyer or a medical doctor. That was their aspiration. But all I wanted to do was music, music, and music.
So, you had to disobey them?
Well, if you use the word, “disobey”, I would say yes. I did because of what I felt deep inside me. As much as my parents tried to communicate their love and good intention to me, what they meant was for their son to be a very successful person. That was a good thing. But they were not thinking that success could come through music. But thank God, I was able to talk things over with my mother. I said to her, “Mum, why is it that you don’t want me to go into music?”
What reasons did she give?
She said she didn’t want me to fall into bad gang. She said musicians smoke cigarette, she didn’t want her son to smoke. They smoke hemp, she didn’t want me to smoke hemp. I promised her that I would go into music, but would not indulge in any of those things. We settled that and agreed. But that helped me actually. I had that in mind all the time.
That is why I don’t smoke cigarette or hemp. That warning was always in my mind. I tried my best to steer clear of every vice my mum warned me against.
To be continued next week