Nigeria: Remember BLO? Laolu Akins On His Adventures in the Land of Music

26 September 2020

... Speaks on Ginger Baker, Kehinde Lijadu, Berkley Jones, Mike Okri, Sony Okosun, Christian Igbokwe, Shina Peter, Ayuba, etc

Olaoluwa Akintobi better known the world over as Laolu Akins is one of the most enduring music makers in Nigeria's music history.

The drums supremo made a name with BLO, one of Nigeria's most famous afro rock bands. He also suckled from the voracious drums appetite of world celebrated Ginger Baker and as producer went ahead to give Nigeria some of its favourite sounds through diverse artistes.

He speaks with FRED IWENJORA on his many adventures in the land of music if one is allowed to borrow from Dick Griffey's band, Dynasty's hit album from SOLAR Records.

He also speaks passionately on his late band mates and mentor, his many productions as well as the numerous artistes that passed through his mentorship and his drive to still do more for Nigerian music. Interesting read.

You have endured quite some huge losses in your musical life with the death of your mentor Ginger Baker, colleagues Kehinde Lijadu and much recently Berkley Jones... ... ...

We had a relationship that lasted so many years. In all these years we never broke these relationships either by disagreements, a fight or any bad blood. There is a lot of nostalgic feeling about all these people.

I count myself lucky because here I am. One of the Lijadu sisters is gone (Kehinde), Ginger Baker is gone and now Berkley Jones. If you look at the closeness between us, we were tight. The Ginger Baker work relationship did not last for so many years but our personal relationships lasted years after. Whether he was in England or in South Africa or in Jos, Nigeria, he was a man who traveled around doing whatever he wanted, trying new ideas like playing polo or riding horses, we were forever in touch. Each time we connected he would scream 'how are you Laolu? You doing ok? We would talk. So with the Lijadus since they relocated to the states we would talk despite that it was not on a daily basis. I did some licensing work for their works with Afrodisia which brought them some revenue even though they are not nearby. I was glad to do it because of the bond that we never broke and these works were done several years ago.

With Berkley, he was too close for comfort. His death is too hard for me to take. Until the day before his death, we talked about his son's birthday and we all congratulated the boy and his parents. However we can't question God despite that these losses are very significant losses. Thankfully, God gave each and every one of us special talents and these people can't be just forgotten as their works continue to speak for them. The history of Nigerian music will never be complete without the mention of the Lijadu sisters, Ginger Baker and Berkley.

Ginger Baker passed through this place and influenced Nigerian music in no small way. He is very special in the way some Nigerians like me turned out in the music business. The exposure we got from him was very useful and launched some of us into many other things which we have made successes out of. I can't forget at all. The works they have done continue to linger and we will always remember them for positive things. It also draws us to the fact that at a point in our lives we shall answer this call. The question will be what have we left behind? I am glad that in many ways than one, these people will be remembered for good things.

At a time in the history of Nigerian music there was a band named SALT put together by world famous drummer Ginger Baker which toured Europe and America; could you tell us a bit about SALT?

Salt was the band Ginger Baker put together and we toured Europe. We were then based in England and toured Germany, Canada and the United states before returning to England and then back to Nigeria.

Salt was me, Berkley Jones, Lijadu sisters and Tunde Kuboye. Salt was before the formation of BLO. After the world tour with Salt, Ginger Baker decided he wanted to do something else so disbanded Salt and moved on. That was when we formed BLO featuring Berkley, Laolu and Odumosu (Mike). When BLO toured UK and Europe, Mike Odumosu left to join Osibisa and we took on Biddy Wright to replace the O in the BLO. A few years later on another tour of Europe organized by our record label Decca, we met Lemmy Jackson in the UK and BLO integrated keyboard into our sound with Lemmy as the point's man.

Do you think your proficiency on the drum was an attraction for drum whiz Ginger Baker? May be a good drummer saw his kind?

I really cannot tell why Ginger Baker selected me to be part of his band Salt. When he came we had a couple of jam sessions. He had come to size out African music. We were in Afro Collections led by Tee Mac. Before then we were in the Clusters i.e Lijadu sisters, Berkley and I. Ginger came and saw us at Batakoto on the Island where Tee Mac was a regular feature. He wished for a Jam session and we had this jamming which he enjoyed well. He even filmed the session. He soon returned and decided to form Salt. He chose me, Berkely, Lijadu Sisters and Tunde Kuboye to form Salt. I may really not know what attracted him to me or me to him. However I believe he saw some talent and ability.

You are among the last few men standing in our music history still doing music... what's the secret of your being forever relevant in Nigerian music?

I am very happy that Lemmy Jackson is still doing same thing I am doing here in Lagos in Uyo. You see at one point in my life I realised that music has become my main calling. I tried to veer into other things but music still pulls me back. I became known, accepted and my talents blossomed in music. My vision became clearer and I saw clearly where I should be anchored and I embraced music fully. I am very lucky I realised this on time and continued. Therefore it has become part of me. Music is one area in which I had become versatile and made my mark. I am not going to become a contractor or something like that. It is not alien for people to read about Laolu Akins as musician, producer or audio engineer. But if you read about me as a building contractor building a house for a client or something like that, you would ask questions. Music is my calling and I have remained in that profession. I have diversified still in it because the business is wide scoped. I have learnt much more and experienced much that I have become an authority in some aspects of it.

From Concert fever to Afro Juju..all kinds of sounds... what' s the secret of your legendry versatility?

I give glory to God... thanks. However, you know I am a drummer and the core foundation of music is the drum, the rhythm. If a drummer misses his beat, he leads the band off track. But if he holds his own and remains focused and steady, the beat will be steady. Don't forget that I am an African first of all and have taken interest in all genre of sound and music. I am Yoruba but I have taken interest in what you can call the Nigerian sound whether from the Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba. I am familiar and can assimilate. In all those music, I am first and foremost able to interpret what it sounds like. It is not difficult for me to interpret the talking drum. I can play it a little.

It talks. If you take udu or ekwe of the igbo, I can apply them. If you take the kalangu or the Goge in the North of Nigeria, or the krumi, I can understand all of them so it is easy for me to apply these theories into all the sounds that I have produced. I can help bring out or expand an artistic expression in music. Deep knowledge about sounds has made it possible for me to support, produce and advise anyone who may be doing any kinds of music. I am able to understand Juju, or express myself in Fuji and all the others. It is not difficult at all. Coming to Afro rock music, I played it. I grew up doing it. R&B or Afro beat too. So I have built up a solid foundation of all kinds of music essentially Nigerian music. I continue to do them and happily by the grace of God, I have made successes out of them.

In this world of digital everything, what do you see as the place of the drummer?

The place of the drummer in music continues to be relevant and will never be relegated no matter what happens to digitization. If you look at the churches where live music is played, you will readily see the place of the drummer. Apart from the impact of COVID 19, the drummer and indeed every other musician remains relevant in the world of today. Technology has affected the way we generally do things no doubt. In my studio we have electric drums and not the regular acoustic drums. We play them same way we play the regular drums but the only difference is that the sound is not heard outside except in the head phones and in the console.

But the drummer still has to play it and plays it better live. Yet they have made all kinds of drum simulators or machines or computer applications in which you can sit and programme the drums for composed music. That is not to remove the place of the drummer. If you are not a drummer, you may not make a better sense out of the music and hold it tight. But I must say digitization has made life easier.

It saves time if it is well manipulated effectively. We must note that digitization doesn't replace creativity. A man who is not creative to create or compose or write or visualise cannot programme the system and put technology to best uses in any aspects of entertainment. You still need a gifted person who could compose and utilise, a man who has knowledge, understanding and skill in the manipulation of these new development to make good music.

It has been said that only a drummer could programme drums better, do you agree?

Let me use this analogy. A guitar player even if he understands beats would not be able to manipulate the drum as well as he plays his guitar. In the same way a keyboard player won't be able to manipulate the drums as best as he could as compared to a drummer. If he is able to manipulate the drum machine, when it comes to the time to compose rhythms, he may not do that effectively. A keyboardist could do whatever he wishes with chords but when it comes to composing the drum patterns, his versatility won't be as good as that of a real drummer. But digitization has done many good things. It has given each and every one of us opportunity and the ability to master the use of the computer apps and machines so we can be selfish in one way and play everything.

But in that selfishness, we are restricted and not able to express ourselves to compare to the scope where for instance you put a keyboardist here, a guitarist there, a drummer here and a bass player there. The mutual spiritual chemistry which they give to one another to bring about meaningful music won't be there if one person decides to do all and everything like they do nowadays.

In essence, the approach to using digital manipulations brings about a level of restrictions and limits the scope of the expansion of a particular type of music or a song. Even if the song has been laid down by me and I bring in a guitarist to play, it is still me, me and me alone and he will only play based on what I have laid down. But if we gather to start the music, he will be able to naturally fit in with his own feelings as he is feeling what I am doing. If we are doing it together we can decide that rather than do only 4 bars, we could do 8 bars depending on what we are sharing and giving to one another.

If you listen carefully to Mike Okri's album that I produced, I programmed the drums but I also did some of the drum aspects live. While we worked on the album, I did not add the drum rolls. I had to do them in real time live. That is the feeling of the drummer. If a drummer programmes the drums to a song, you will still find live elements where he plays from his instincts. But these days, they just sample, cut and paste. I still feel that it does not bring out the best in talented artistes.

Remember I was in the business when the digitization started and we were also part of the process here in Nigeria, In fact we launched it here in Nigeria. We started laying down sound digitally and later transferred the analogue pouring everything down and continuing from there. You can still do whatever you want to do musically depending on how you want to achieve it.

BLO years

We made many albums namely Chapter1, Phase 2, Step 3, Phase 4. We also did Bulky Backside and Back in time on maxi single. The secret of our success could be traced to our consistency as we did not stop making music. We did not let the group die. Even when Mike Odumosu left, we continued and replaced him and moved on. We believed that we had something to offer. We also had a good recording company as Decca was solidly behind us and they kept us on. Even when we went on tour of Europe,, we kept the group.

We were the longest staying group apart from Sonny Okosuns band, Oziddi. BLO was on from 1972 - 1981/82. We did not go to pieces. It was after we did Back in time on our return from Europe that the record company couldn't fulfill our needs and we decided to let things be and of course we had started BLO productions while in the UK. We started the production trend with Kris Okotie, Onyeka, Xty Essien Igbkwe etc. We also went ahead to do individual productions

Your times at Sony Music were indeed good times; Could you give an appraisal of those years?

It was originally CBS Records Nigeria. When they first came, they were only selling CBS records and repertoire in Nigeria. I was PMAN Vice president at the time. We began to agitate that the company could not only sell foreign records in Nigeria with the many star artistes the country has been blessed with. Our agitation started yielding fruits and the company started. They started with Mike Okri, Funmi Aragbaye, it also did Ify . Mike Okri was a major one for CBS Nigeria before Sony International bought over CBS. CBS did Mike Okri, Shina Peters, Adewale Ayuba, Salawa Abeni, Abass Obesere, Chidi Agamba in Onitsha, Lagbaja, Majek. I am privileged to have produced Mike, Shina, Ayuba, Obesere, Cliff Sama, Aragbaye. Leslie Brunner produced the first Stella Yama. When she went into gospel music, I produced her next album which was a gospel.

On Mike Okri, Shina, Ayuba, Salawa, Obesere, and all ... .who is favourite?

Like every father, It would be difficult to name a best or favorite of all my children. Each of them presents a different character unique in their own rights. Shina Peters, gifted performer, absolutely electric, Ayuba, just meticulous. He has not deviated from being unique in the class of fuji artistes. Is it Obesere or Funmi Aragbaye? I am indeed so grateful to God that I had the opportunity to touch these great artistes and experienced their unique talents and was able to make contributions to expand that talent. I value all my artistes I must say.

Afro Juju, Dancing time two of a kind why?

My production style is not to remain static. I love to experiment, diversify and play around with new ideas. If we didn't do Dancing Time, we may not have discovered the versatility of Shina Peters after doing hot Afro juju in a different style and pace, he suddenly slowed down the pace.

We just said let's do juju rap and we did. It takes a flexible artiste who is very creative to absorb new ideas because some artistes are rigid.

It is the reason I feel bad when artistes do not give credit to their inspirations and mentors and those who took them in their wings and sacrificed to make them successful.

In every spheres of life, somebody somewhere must have said something or done something to set you on a path. Like during BLO years we had a great journalist Eddie Adenirokun who saw to our every need and promoted us everywhere and even handled our costume. All we did was play. He later pulled in Tony Amadi, Dean Okoro (Disi), Late Victor Dorgu of the Lagos Weekend , Remi Akanno and a host of others. How can I ever forget Chief Eddie Adenirokun? I am also grateful that I have worked with artistes who also value my contributions to their musical lives.

What has changed in Nigerian music? You have seen plenty... .

When the foreign companies went away, the people who took over our industry were not really industry people. Most of them were mere label owners who did not understand the dynamics of the music business. New labels came out and merely filled the gap but quite a lot of them have gone under. They came into the business because they saw a yawning gap and filled it. But they did not have the proper orientation to run them. Some of them had the wherewithal to publicise the so called stars on radio and TV and used it effectively.

Yet some of the stars could not sustain the stardom because there is no in-depth experience and know- how guiding them. The labels of that good era were mere distributors who tried to do some things but couldn't do so effectively. They were just buying and selling. A couple of big guys from Alaba dabbled into it by signing some of the big names, gave them big money, took their music, sold them and made their money back. Artistes were just selling their creative works at the cost of the number of printed cd sleeves supplied. All kinds of things have been done about Nigerian music. Luckily for some, the corporate entities came to the rescue with endorsements and paying big money otherwise many of them would not have survived stardom.

You may find pockets of successes, many troubles no consistency and stability and no sustained success. Even when they are able to make international impact, they cannot track the trend of things or the people selling their works with the spate of international digital piracy everywhere.

How to save Nigerian music business

We need to build the structure here if we want to be able to promote and protect Nigerian music. If not you will never be able to track what belongs to any artistes who have made successes now and those coming behind in the future.

If we do not set up a tracking system, for stabilising , for cooperation and for putting our base in order so that even if you come from abroad with a music business you will fit in, then nothing positive would happen. As we are talking, several international music publishing agents are roaming Nigeria mopping up all our existing labels and their repertoire with plan to enjoy its full benefits sooner than later. If they succeed, you will take money now and cry later because you would have been impoverished and wish you never sold. We should build structures and expand our scope so we can cooperate with other parts of the world for mutual benefits.

Right now unfortunately we are in bits and pieces. Those making waves now do not really know this and calling us old school. I heard someone on air talking that most of us know only about analogue and that we don't understand digital formats and how these things work. I just shudder when I hear such and wonder if they have any history of Nigerian music and how we arrived where we are today and how we can solve the problems confronting the industry.

You need to know where we are coming from to know where you are heading.

Your studio is fully booked?

We deliberately set up this studio with these thoughts. Our studio is even bigger than several studios you see in Europe and the US. If we owned the structure may be we would have configured it differently. Yet we still have adequate space for both digital and analogue productions.

In real fact, I see this studio as my retirement project where if I see any artiste that shows my kind of promise, we can bring them here without worries about who is going to finance the production.

I will be happy to let young people come to my studio, get the music and get its benefits and go... at least someone might remember me for that some day.

This industry has given me much and I will be given back through it and other areas. I am always willing to mentor and guide anyone who feels there are things they need to know from me. I do not and cannot hide my knowledge especially to those who wish to know from me. No one knows how long God may leave us on earth. As long as he gives me the grace I would do my best for others; giving back is the only way.

Do you know that BLO is still getting royalties for music recorded till date? The sum may not be too great but we are sure enjoying the fruits of our labour because we worked for established companies and we can track our works.

We have re-mastered a collection of BLOs major works into a CD format which is currently ked up in the store because of covid19. It comes with a booklet telling how it all. Soon fans will see them on display.

Why do you think Sony music Nigeria succeeded?

Sony developed branch markets across the nation. There were branches in Benin, Ibadan, Jos, Kaduna and much later Onitsha. Once an album was completed and released, it was nationwide same day.

Again the company employed the best in the production business which ensured good sound quality. It also organized a chain of distribution. Young artistes have to ask questions and find out how we did it then to promote excellent sound and real nationwide distribution. They should think whether they can borrow a leaf from the so called old school methods or expand on them.

If you call something old, where do you put wisdom and experience? We will watch the young and try to let them not go off the track. However if they refuse, what can you do?

In my studio whether I know the artiste or not, if I come in and there is work, I listen in and advise on making it better. I won't feel comfortable to let it pass. I make suggestions as to how to make it better. A lot of people are always very grateful afterwards. That was the way we were brought up... listening to our elders in the game. That is the best way to go for youngsters.

Any Akintobis in music?

Non of my children is doing music despite that all of them are talented in it. Two of my daughters are good singers but one is in broadcasting while the other is a human resources expert. My son is an IT software specialist and I have no problem with that.


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