Sunday, June 18, 2006

benson idonije @ 70

Benson Idonije, Nigeria's best known music critic and former manager to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti clocked 70 on Tuesday of last week. Here below, Kabir Alabi Garba and others at the Arts Desk of The Guardian, Lagos, make presentations to the veteran, for his services to Nigerian music.

Popularly known as 'Uncle Ben', Idonije (in blue) writes extensively for The Guardian on Nigerian music genres - especially Highlife. He also writes a weekly Jazz column.

Managing Director of The Guardian, Mr Emeka Izeze (1st from left), is surrounded by the editors including Jahman Anikulapo (2nd left) - as he pays tribute to Idonije.

Benson Idonije... Seventy notes for 'the music man'
By Chuka Nnabuife

SUDDENLY, bottles of beverage drinks and packs of sandwich filled the tables in the newsroom. And it was only noon on Tuesday. Before many could get an answer to there question: "Who is celebrating?" a big specially designed card passed from hand to hand. Only as reporters and editors paused to write down their paeans and remarks did they realise whom the celebrant was. The expressions were almost unanimous.
"Ah! Uncle Ben!" "You mean Mr. Benson Idonije, has reached 70?" "The man does not look the age."

For the moment the newsroom was agog with comments on the agility, youthful mind, intellectual depth, affability, resourcefulness and other qualities of the man who has for about five decades served Nigerian music both from within and inside, offering what many followers of his career, which spans through the broadcast and the print media simultaneously, has described as the about the best analytical service.

From the newsroom the celebration went to The Guardian on Sunday editor's office where the celebrating 'old folk' of Nigerian music and grand father of neo-highlife awareness campaign and two of his friends, Odion Iruoje (ace music producer), Odafe Oghoghome (singer and music activist) joined members of staff of the Arts Desk, Life Magazine and the Sunday Desk to a short session of tributes, gift presentation and songs in commemoration of the veteran art columnist's advancement in age. Dressed in a marine blue long dress (Buba), Idonije sat with Jahman Anikulapo (editor The Guardian on Sunday), Jewell Dafinone (deputy editor The Guardian on Sunday), Kabir Alabi Garba (assistant arts editor) among other senior journalists in attendance as members of the gathering recalled some highpoints of his incisive art critique columns in The Guardian. As Mr. Anikulapo noted the venture started exactly 10 years ago. Idonije, then newly retired from the service of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), was a quiet source to journalists during inquiries on vital issues relating to contemporary Nigerian music. He also had a big repertory of his own writings on the art.

But being a seasoned airwave man worth with his natural gifts in the broadcasting art - a highly textured baritone, vocal articulation, sound command of English language and a deep ear for rhythms and note - the man whose became a household name a Radio Nigeria 2 music producer and presenter, 1960s through the early 1980s was not quite keen about writing newspaper columns. Yet once he took the challenge in 1996, he raved on. He became so comfortable and successful with it that it turned out another career and a revelation of his firm intellectual grip in the arts. He was also prolific, widely popular and authoritative given his in-depth personal knowledge of the turf. At a stage he maintained three vastly unrelated columns, Evergreen, Sound and Screen and All That Jazz.

Mr. Garba described him as an inspiration to young art writers. The septuagenarian's ability to respond to a heavy work schedule while still creating more avenues to express his endowments and still alert strength informed that appraisal. Notwithstanding his retiree status, the "evergreen man of music," has remained on the vanguard of the activism for 'real Nigerian content in Nigerian music.'

An example of such campaign is the reawakening of highlife music consciousness which he championed along with the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA), at the turn of the millennium, drawing in such institutions as the German Cultural Centre (Goethe Institute), Lagos. He has been a member and recently headed the French Cultural Centre sponsored organising committee of the yearly World Music Day in Nigeria. He also co-ordinates the monthly Highlife Party dubbed Elders' Forum which O'Jez Club hosts at the National Stadium, Lagos.

Maintaining his broadcasting passion, Idonije produces and anchors, several highlife and jazz music programs airing on prime time belts in about five radio stations within Lagos metropolis including Radio Nigeria's Metro FM and DAAR Communication's Ray Power. One of his popular weeklies on radio is Highlife My Life. The program's title aptly captures the ideological thrust of the grey-goatee bearing veteran journalist.

Like an orbit, his life has revolved around highlife and jazz music genres. These art forms of his preference, he has not only served his listeners and readers with the passion and keenness of a committed follower but also the additional touch of an anchor who seems to know how to win converts too. In writings, he opts for common language. Spending ample lengths for explain slants, trends and terminology of such a very technical field as jazz and orchestra. Sometimes he opts for background stories, narrating incidences that sets his reader on the spot of the musical development in question even if the event took place several years ago.
In broadcasting, the man who spent the last eight years of his service in FRCN teaching the art of sitting behind the microphone to young presenter is equally scholarly, but his edge is in a high pitched baritone voice that has acquired the status of a signature tune for the brand of music better known as 'oldies' and for matured minds.

A good 'grooming in the turf' (his kind of expression) prepared him for the calling. Starting broadcasting in the 1950s as an engineering assistant the Edo State born grand father climbed up the ladder in broadcasting learning through the ropes, across various departments of the radio house. Though his mind from outset was in presenting music programs he never got the chance to get behind the microphone easily. At one time he was a record librarian. The experience therein helped him soak up all information available about the music of the time. At another dispensation his duty was studio producing, and that afforded him a close knowledge of the leading artists Nigeria's independence era. From Fela Kuti, to Rex Lawson, Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya, E.C. Arinze, Bobby Benson and many other stars of the time, Idonije saw them from their relative music infancy to stardom

It was only in 1968, that he got a chance to talk music on the airwaves. And he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The program, Big Beats became a resounding success and he anchored it until 1976 when Radio Nigeria 2 started and he became one of the foundation staff. Talking nostalgically about Big Beats, he said: "It was the programme that actually made me popular even though I did it along with the presentation of my Jazz programme."

He was a presenter and producer in Radio Nigeria 2 until 1985 when was posted to FRCN Training School to teach presenting and producing. From there he retired as the head of production department at the training school in 1992 though he continued to teach in the school on contract.

Beaming with smiles all through the period accolades were poured on him amid pops of corked drinks and flashes of camera shots, Idonije seldom spoke but nodded in affirmation of some stories or just laughed as many openly wished they could be as alert and young in mind as him at 70. To him, life just rolls on. The man who at the age still learns even such trivia as computer keyboard jargons and the hush slush of street rap sloganeering notwithstanding his reserves for that genre said he sees himself as quiet very young. And he is indeed.

The celebration moved from the office of The Guardian Editor, Mr. Debo Adesina. There the top management officials including, Editor in Chief and Managing director, Eluem Emeka Izeze; chairman editorial board, Rueben Abati; The Guardian on Saturday editor, Banji Adisa, Anikulapo; Dafinone and assistant editor of The Guardian, Paul Okunola feted the bald music man and his friends.

At 70, Idonije, physically appearing over ten years younger does not hint of any softening of pedal rather he hints of more action and seeks more frontiers to express the streams in his fount. He explains: "I just have to strive to these things down for people coming behind because one cannot be around forever."

--Culled from The Guardian, Friday 16 June, 2006

*Photos: Jahman Anikulapo


Blogger Onyeka George Nwelue said...

Kush! I have actually missed a lot at home.

Chineke bia nyere m aka! LOL

3:19 pm, June 18, 2006  

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