For 35 years he talked to lovers of music on radio and taught many broadcasters across Africa on how to be the best in the trade. He also spent another 20 years writing about music for the Guardian.
Benson Idonije made a big name as a renowned broadcaster, presenter, music critic and music manager.
He was Fela’s manager at a time.
In this chat with FRED IWENJORA, he traces his broadcasting years, his deep involvement in music despite that he never made any albums.
Aside this, he expresses his good wishes for his grandson, internationally renowned musician Burna Boy who is nominated for the 62nd edition of Grammy awards holding tomorrow Sunday 26, January 2020 at the Staples Center Los Angeles, California.
You made a name in broadcasting..how did it all start?
started broadcasting in 1957 as an engineering assistant and later moved into the main stream of the industry, Programs. By 1959 /60, I had become producer /presenter. And so in summary I would say that from 1957 to 1992, I did broadcasting and may not be able to tell you all I did chronologically except you ask specifically.
Who were your contemporaries?
I was a pioneer staff of the first FM station in Nigeria, Radio Nigeria 2, FM. The radio station started first at Ikoyi in 1977 before moving to Martins street in 1980. Ikenna Ndaguba was Director of that station and he was my boss.
Music and broadcasting seem to have a big link ….
Yes… a very big link. Lovers of music and musicologists who studied music were attracted to the radio at that time. I have always loved music and learnt to play in school but as an amateur. It was my second fiddle. I play the organ. I did not study music but I learnt it. It was just a flirtation with music but I loved sound. Around 1960, I started learning the sax because it always fascinated me from secondary school.
You see I attended secondary school in Sabongida Ora in Owan west LGA of Edo state. I come from a nearby village called Otuo which is close to Uzeba and Afuze. I was just an arts student to whom music meant much. Broadcasting became the closest reality of a job offer.
When I relocated to Lagos, I musically got under the wings and tutelage of one great alto saxophonist Oludi Enuma . He played for Roy Chicago, leader of one of the most popular bands at the time in Nigeria; Rhythm Dandies. Roy was a contemporary of Rex Lawson, Victor Olaiya. Bobby Benson was their godfather, older and more experienced and exposed.
What do you recall of your first involvement with presentation on radio?
I had become interested in lawn Tennis and met the biggest guns of the game in the country at the time. That was how I started covering lawn tennis news for our sports department. I also created several musical programmes for jazz and highlife music. These made me to completely move to programmes in 1960 about three years after joining as an engineering assistant.
With your mastery of the organ and sax, did you not wish to make an album?
No. I was just enjoying myself playing my organ away. I was enamored by the saxophone so I
started learning it too. It was a little bit more difficult to master. I trained and drilled every evening after work at my Surulere base. It was when I was courting my wife. Whenever she came in the evening I was rehearsing and won’t have time for her. She was complaining bitterly until news got to her parents that she was going to be married to a musician. I quit all that sax learning in order to be married to her.
Do you think your musical interest is hereditary?
Not so. None of my parents did music but my friends and associates were musicians Like Roy Chicago himself, Oludi Enuma, Agu Noris and Fela much later. These people influenced my interest may be.
You also wrote for newspapers?
Yes… I contributed to the Spear Magazine, then edited by Tony Momoh. It was actually for the Morning Post that I wrote more about Jazz music.
However sometime during my later years in broadcasting, I was transferred to the FRCN Training school Shogunle, Lagos in 1983. I had been trained by the BBC in the Train The Trainer programmes and was prepared for teaching broadcasting. I later rose to be head of programmes and production department of the school and later the Chief Training officer. In those years we had students from all over Africa and I was required to write their various reports. It was while doing that I developed interest in writing about broadcasting. At the time of my retirement, I was being invited to write for several newspapers. I settled for the Guardian where I spent 20 years writing about broadcasting and music. I started in 1996. I wrote three columns every week.
You mentioned Fela; how did your paths cross?
It was in 1963 that I first met Fela. My jazz music programme was popular and he was a regular listener to it on his return from the UK. One night while preparing for my programme, I was told that a man was waiting for me at the reception.
It was Fela. He said he had been consistently listening to me and commended my knowledge of Jazz music. He ended up featuring in my programme that night. We became friends afterwards. This friendship led to the formation of Fela Ransome Kuti Quintet. It had Don Amaechi on guitar. Amaechi is living in Spain. We had Johnbull Okoh on Drums, Emmanuel Ngou Malia on Bass while Fela played Trumpet and Piano. We also had a man named Sigmus. I was band manager and coordinator.
Wherever we played, I was MC and introduced the lineup. Fela had been playing highlife before going to the UK. When he returned he had embraced Jazz. But in 1965, he had embraced highlife again and resurrected Koola Lobitos. Jazz was not fully embraced in Nigeria then so he returned to highlife. That was how we had Tony Allen, Ojo Keji, Isiaka and a host of others.
It was in 1971 that he started with Afro beat music with the track Jeun Koku. His band’s name has changed a lot. After his return from a tour of the United states, Fela called his band Nigeria 70 and then later Africa 70 and then Egypt 80. I believe that if Fela were still alive he may have changed the name of his band.
Is it not an irony that you dumped music so as not to lose your dear wife yet music still lives in your house?
It is a big irony my dear brother. All the music I could not play professionally, my grandson Burna Boy is playing big. I give glory to God that he is doing well in his chosen career and is even nominated for the 2020 Grammy awards holding on 26 January, 2020 in the world music album category.
Did you influence him in any way?
I will say yes in many ways than one. First of all the stage name he bears was coined by me. Every day he would tell me that music is burning inside him. He often told me that he is burning with music so from Burning with music, I coined Burna Boy and it stuck. Again he literally was fed with Fela’s music in my house. My house is littered with world music including Fela, big jazz players, Miles Davis, and a host of others. He particularly liked Fela, Manu Dibango, Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo. He toyed with Jimi Hendrix. In the early years of his striking out, he made his own version of Angelique Kidjo; Wombolabo. The video is still wonderful.
Could you tell a bit more about his upbringing?
Damini went to elementary school in Port Harcourt where he lived with his parents. His mum is my daughter who went to Queens College Lagos, then University of Benin and then with a master’s degree. She went for NYSC in Port Harcourt where she met her husband. For his secondary school, Damini went to Corona School Ijanikin Lagos. It was while there that his musical interest was fully developed. He did not like the dormitory because there was music at grandpas home to play. There was a particular period that he spent the whole night playing Fela CDs in my car in the garage. Every night he slipped into the car and never bugged till day break. He is not the only one influenced by the music I never played. Nissi, his sister is a visual artist as well as a musician. Her album and video is to drop soon. She is a mechanical engineer from Warwick University.
I went this far to correct a rumor that says my daughter was a Fela’s dancer. In as much as I was close to Fela, my children never got close to the Shrine. Yet they were friends to Fela’s children.
What’s your prayer and wish for your grandson at the Grammys tomorrow?
I have been praying that he brings the Grammy award home to us in Nigeria. My wife has been praying just as the entire family. His fans scattered around the world are doing so. If that happens eeeh, I will thank God and assure myself that all my flirtations and involvement with music did not go in vain. I will feel proud and fulfilled in a big sense that Damini (Burna Boy’s real name) is achieving what I couldn’t achieve musically. When I see the kind of energy that he performs with I marvel. His last show at Eko Hotel on Christmas day was a bomb.