Modern Juju Music

Dami Ajayi

From I.K. Dairo’s refreshing contribution, to King Sunny Ade and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, the legendary ying-yang of Juju music, Dami Ajayi traces the evolution of a genre which spanned the oil boom of the 70s as well as the 90s, a draconian period of economic austerity occasioned by military rule in Nigeria.





The night had begun harmlessly like many busy nights are wont to. I was already in bed at 10 pm, two hours after dinner, engaging in banter I knew would end mid-way, with me drifting off. Just as sleep was kicking in, a phone call disrupted things and, less than one hour later, I was driving down to a nightclub on the Island in the company of a few friends.

The situation that required urgent nocturnal intervention was the matter of a visiting Cameroonian friend yet to satisfactorily explore Lagos nightlife and he was due to leave in a few days. I and a few friends thought it would be inappropriate for him not to have a feel of Lagos nights. The music and myth—and what you read in Playboy Magazine—are not quite enough to have a full grasp of the inexhaustible Lagoon city.

It is 5 am and we are outside a Gentleman’s Club in Victoria Island. Drenched in sweat, we are carrying the club’s stench with us. We had different ideas as to our next destination. There was a camp of hungry people considering a hot breakfast of Amala and Gbegiri soup. And there were those who wanted to return to their beds. In spite of the thinning dark sky, the clouds were heavy and a humid wind foretold an early Saturday morning downpour.

Moments later, we were walking into the street opposite Club 57 at Awolowo Road Ikoyi. A vibrant sound erupting from a live band led our footsteps. The place was called 100 Hours and, in that early hour of the morning, it was living up to its name, jamming some proper Juju music. The culprits of the sound were an all-men band led by a female singer sitting on a bar stool and crooning a cover of one of King Sunny Ade’s hit songs.

Warm seats welcomed us and an efficient clearing of our table full of bottles informed us that those we replaced might have just left. A blue scrawl on a white board introduced the band to us: Ayo Balogun and the Harmonic Voices.

They were clearly a disciplined band, hitting drums, strumming guitars and parting songs with such vibrancy even though they must have been performing for close to six hours. Ayo Balogun did not look like a 58-year-old; sometimes she would stand to stylishly stretch her feet and, at other times, dance to give sublime instructions to her band.

She was playing Juju music and her set-list was clearly unrehearsed as improvisation was key.  In doing covers of different popular Juju and highlife songs, her approach was heavy on fast-rhythm percussion and the weakest link of the rhythm seemed to be the pianist. In between the bawdy Juju lyrics that glibly described voluptuous bodies and promises of sexual satisfaction, she would sing gospel songs of thanksgiving.

My friends, including the drowsy ones, were alive once again and they remarked, whilst we waited for our order of amala and gbegiri soup, that this would have been a more rewarding experience than a night of hip-hop and dance. One glance around the bar shows that the patrons comprised mostly of folks in their forties or on the wrong side of thirties at the very least.

One cannot contest that the new wave of hip-hop music is quite sweeping and its consequences on other music genres, especially indigenous ones, is almost parasitic. However this statement is remarkably inaccurate in a sense, especially if one remembers the timeline of Nigerian music production and the hiatus between the reggae-inflected boom of the 80s to the resounding silence of most of the 90s occasioned by the military rule and its attendant censorship.


This brand of music derived its name from the showmanship of its lead performer who, beyond singing, would throw the tambourine with the view to catch it and thrill the crowd.




In a newspaper interview, Queen Ayo Balogun, who was the president of the Juju Musician Association at the time, corrects some notion about the perceived fetishism of Juju music ascribed to its name. Juju, to the layman, is voodoo or jazz. The mere mention of Juju may bring to the mind frenzied incantations, craven images, as well as other fetish paraphernalia. Ayo Balogun opined that Juju music had nothing to do with voodoo or black magic; that it rather had everything to do with making music that speaks to social conscience and good citizenship.

The origin of the name Juju is an interesting one. Early Juju musicians played an array of instruments chiefly drums, guitars, and their voices. It was not unusual for singers to sing and play the tambourine. And sometimes, in the heat of the groove, they would throw up their tambourines high in the air and catch them (as they fell back down). The translation of the verb “throw” in Yoruba is “ju” and, Yoruba being a tonal language, repetition is often used to lay emphasis, hence the doubling of the verb “throw” which is “juju”. This brand of music derived its name from the showmanship of its lead performer who, beyond singing, would throw the tambourine with the view to catch it and thrill the crowd. Although the tambourine is not much a consequential instrument tied to the sound of Juju music as a whole, it also gives insight to the roots of Juju music, especially in the early African church.

Juju music is believed to be a syncretism, a marriage between traditional practices and western instruments like highlife and, in some places, it is believed to be highlife. The idea that highlife is actually a genre of music on its own is quite bothersome, especially as it is more of an aesthetic than it is a definitive sound. After the influential tour of Ghanaian Highlife maestro, E.T. Mensah, it became clear to listeners that a cocktail of one’s own culture can be made using western instruments and highlife music of this era could be identified by the substrate of the culture from which it was drawn.

In this vein, Juju music could easily be referred to as south-western Nigeria’s derivative of highlife. But then again, this statement is problematic in its simplicity. Juju’s early variants of ashiko as well as agidigbo did not so much as have western influences on their sound. Those sounds remain distinctive today, even if its practitioners are aged and dying off.

The bail-out will be that modern Juju music is a close variant of south-western Nigerian highlife. With practitioners like Tunde King, Tunde Nightingale, as well as the influential Isaac Kehinde Dairo, Juju music became updated to the modern status of a highlife sound. I.K. Dairo, an Ijesha man who had worked as an itinerant cloth seller and barber, formed his band called the Blue Spots band, which played a distinctive role in the invention of modern Juju music. With his background in the early African church of Cherubim and Seraphim, he introduced Christian hymns into Juju music. He was also said to have mastered the accordion which he also brought into Juju music. His falsetto was not so much a new addition or his tendency to sing in his dialect or his demure style of praise singing, but he updated Juju music by refreshing it to aspire to the standard of highlife music. His mastery of the rpm records also helped him to cut short tracks and ensured his fame as the first Juju superstar.





As time would have it, the rise of juju music coincided with the oil boom of the 70s, so that praise-singing became a prominent aspect of the music. This ensured that KSA as well as Chief Commander, honey-tongued griots, became not only superstar musicians but millionaires.


It would not be unusual today to draw blanks when you mention the name I.K. Dairo. The more likely response will be to mistake the father for his son, Paul Play Dairo, a decent Nigerian rhythm and blues singer who has scored quite a number of hits remaking some of his father’s old numbers.

Forty plus years after the Nigerian civil war and the boom of Juju music (along with oil sales in Nigeria),  the Juju superstars that linger on our lips are King Sunny Ade (KSA) and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, both one-time apprentices of Moses Olaiya, the musician/comedian, and Fatai Rolling Dollar, the agidigbo music maestro respectively.

Their musical journey was that set for greatness even though they started from the humble scratch. King Sunny Ade, born into both royalty and poverty in the Ondo Kingdom, had a love for music so intense that he was more willing to sing than to get a western education. His sojourn to Lagos led him to the highlife band of Moses Olaiya. He would break away from this apprenticeship to start his own band, first called Green Spots band, a name curiously reminiscent of the influential I.K. Dairo. Ebenezer Obey’s journey is quite similar, even though it began about five years earlier than Sunny’s; his apprenticeship with Fatai Rolling Dollar’s band culminated in his forming the International Brothers, who became the Inter-reformers after they switched their initial style of music from juju-highlife to the definitive Juju that characterized Obey’s oeuvre.

As time would have it, the rise of Juju music coincided with the oil boom of the 70s, so that praise-singing became a prominent aspect of the music. This ensured that KSA as well as Chief Commander, honey-tongued griots, became not only superstar musicians but millionaires. Hugely talented and prolific, it is best to imagine them as the ying-yang of Juju music. Whilst KSA is the graceful entertainer with nimble feet, Obey’s music is more reflective and philosophical—both are accomplished guitarists. As one would expect of music made for dance, KSA’s music is sometimes fast-paced and suffused with innuendoes that conflate dancing prowess with sexual activities. Obey’s closest attempt to a booty call was from his early numbers and his most successful love song, “Paulina,” is at once a sultry appeal and a lover’s prayer.

If the 70s was for oil boom and mirth-making, the 80s was a very unsettling period in Nigeria’s politics and economy, fraught with coups and countercoups. Music and precisely Juju music was one of the casualties of this era; the tune of the music moved away from merriment to more reflective and meditative themes, however this was after KSA signed a deal with Island Records. In the wake of Bob Marley’s death, Island Record’s attempted to raise another superstar and the easy charm and charisma of KSA had drawn them to his sound, which they re-engineered into a sonic masterpiece that became characteristic of King Sunny Ade’s music. It is this remake that Rolling Stone Magazine referred to as “gently hypnotic, polyrhythmic mesh of burbling guitars, sweet harmony vocals, swooping Hawaiian guitar, and throbbing talking drums.”

Whilst KSA was moving his frontiers into the international market, Ebenezer Obey had made an influential album that took care of all ceremonial events known to the party-loving Yorubas. Weddings, birthdays as well as naming ceremonies were part of his all-inclusive long-playing record, which is still played or covered till date.

Of course there were other musicians doing Juju music. A good number of them released influential albums – in the likes of Kayode Fashola, who was at a risk of sounding too monotonous; Dele Abiodun; and Segun Adewale, who was in duo with the less-speaking and more guitar-strumming Shina Peters–, but the soil was stifling as the competition was keen and way above their heads; it was covertly between Sunny and Obey.


Names like Dayo Kujore, Mico Ade, Dele Taiwo cluttered the Juju musicscape in the 90s, a draconian period of economic austerity occasioned by military rule. In the face of unrestrained hunger and hardship, by all means, culture is one of the early casualties. In this period, ironically, Juju music enjoyed the fresh breath of Sir Shina Peters (SSP). His triad albums Ace, Shinamania, and Dancing Time were so successful in south-western Nigeria that the widespread popularity trekked to Midwestern states and dared to cross the River Niger!

Shina Peter’s strategy to the Juju of his forebears was quite enthralling. As with every genre of art, individual talent and insight was important and what Mr Peters did differently was to quicken the pace of Juju music with a column of heavy percussion like the music had never had. His nimble feet and love for sexual innuendo was very reminiscent of King Sunny Ade, but his percussion pattern was deliberately different. Even his snare drummer brought a distinctive sound that Juju had never known. The drumming patterns sometimes aspired to American rock music and Shina did not pursue this sound with guitar strums; he had little interest in the Hawaiian guitar that KSA had brought into Juju music after his contact with the sonic alchemy of Island Records. Shina Peters would go on to release a slew of albums and, notably, his climax was after Dancing Time – with a music video featuring video clips of his huge concert at the Obafemi Awolowo University.





If the 70s was for oil boom and mirth-making, the 80s was a very unsettling period in Nigeria’s politics and economy, fraught with coups and countercoups. Music and precisely juju music was one of the casualties of this era, the tune of the music moved away from merriment to more reflective and meditative themes


Since SSP, Juju music has seemingly remained stagnant as a genre. The entire 90s did not produce one single enduring Juju artist. By the mid-80s, fuji music was already growing in prominence. Fuji music, finding its early origin in the wake-up music of the ajisaari amongst Muslim Yorubas, wrestled for the baton of popularity with Juju music. Interestingly, fuji music is the closest in equivalence to hip-hop music. For one, fuji music was bereft of that subservience to forebears that juju embraced so tightly; young fuji turks were more Faulknerian in their attitude  to the reigning masters and even though fuji was not as sophisticated as Juju in sound, it was widely embraced across  south-western Nigeria.

Back to Juju music, the tide of the new millennium did not change its story. Juju music is pretty much an item of nostalgia these days. And this begs for a conversation about what Juju really was. Was it a standalone genre or just a musical fad that has had its day in the sun? Was it a destination in itself or part of a journey? The biggest quasi-juju of the 2000s, Yinka Ayefele came into prominence in the aftermath of his unfortunate car crash which left him paraplegic. He calls his brand of Juju music the onomatopoeic percussion-prone Tungba and traces his musical lineage upwards to Orlando Owoh’s Kennery music which was essentially more highlife than Juju.

That Juju music has not produced a single influential practitioner since SSP is a reason to assume that the genre has remained stagnant for about two decades. This does not take away from the continual practice of this style of music by local bands and even by its former practitioners, or the thousands of LPs of the albums churned out still enjoying its fanatic audience till date, or that new school practitioners of afrobeat are pinching from the music and taking the substrate to their sonic laboratories to develop something which is at best referential.




There are places like 100 Hours where one can still enjoy Juju music in the wee hours of the morning but for every such place, a thousand places where contemporary music plays abound. The zeitgeist has moved beyond Juju music clearly but even ashiko and agidigbo, its earlier precursors, still have its practitioners doing gigs in the underbellies of Lagos Island where this kind of music is revered. A question lingers: does Juju’s survival hinge on the acceptance of the heavy percussion driven Tungba or on the rise of another Juju superstar?


Dami Ajayi is a poet, fiction writer, medical doctor and co-publisher of Saraba Magazine. He also had a short stint as a rapper as an undergraduate student but has since stuck to writing poetry. His writing on music has appeared in many magazines and culture journals.









  1. Only a few people have in depth knowledge of our music history like dami Ajayi. Its almost sad that culture in form of music is lost everyday and my father’s Obey collection might become antique in the nearest future. Anyway, 100 hours has been added to places to gate crash this year.

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