Femi Esho: Exit and memories, by Femi Macaulay

It was striking that Femi Esho’s daughter, Bimbo, broke the news of his death by sending me a video, with the words, “Last dance with my dad. May your gentle soul rest in peace, Daddy.”  As they danced to a song by Juju maestro Ebenezer Obey, she hailed him, calling him “Evergreen Baba.”  There were birthday cakes and drinks on a table in front of them. He died on June 17, aged 77.   

The video brought back memories of the first time I met him, and the last time I saw him.  I knew him by reputation before I first met him, some years ago, at the Lagos residence of his friend who was also my friend.  We got talking and he got me thinking about his service in the music sphere. His passion for music was infectious.

When he gave me his calling card, I was struck by the fascinating quote inscribed on it: “Without music, life would be an error – Friedrich Nietzsche.” He gave me a valuable collection of the works of Afrobeat king Fela Anikulapo Kuti, produced by his company, Lagos-based Evergreen Musical Company Ltd, described as “Africa’s greatest custodian and producer of music of yesteryears.”

After that stimulating meeting, I received regular invitations to events organised by his company. “I started collecting music at the age of 12,” he said at one of those memorable events in Lagos, in 2017, which celebrated “10 Music Legends of Lagos Evolution.” It was a celebration of indigenous music genres, including Apala, Sakara, Juju, Highlife, Fuji, Waka, Folk, Agidigbo, Afrobeat and Were.

 Ultimately, Esho was the star of the show, with his long white beard, doing what he had mastered over the years. He gave insight into the works of the awardees and why they deserved their awards. They included Hubert Ogunde, Jimi Solanke, Adeolu Akisanya, Abibu Oluwa, Batilu Alake, Ayinde Bakare, Ayinde Barrister, Bobby Benson, Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Haruna Ishola, among others.  He displayed impressive knowledge of Nigerian music history.

Born in Ilesa, in present-day Osun State, he was described as “the undisputed largest collector of music of yesteryears.” His collection was said to include “over 150,000 vinyl plates made up of 78rpm breakable plates, 45rpm and 33rpm, hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes, thousands of cassette tapes of various music along with archival materials such as His Master’s Voice (HMV), various reel-to-reel machines, various turntables with the oldest 100 years old, books and newspaper articles on Nigerian music, video recordings of early Nigerian music icons.”

He was a music collector extraordinaire based on his extraordinary music collection. According to an anecdote about him, when he visited Ghana in 2008 to seek permission rights to release the works of some old Ghanaian Highlife stars, the late Jerry Hansen of the Ramblers Dance Band, who was then 86, “could not hold back his tears as he exclaimed that it was a great shame that Esho came all the way from Nigeria to present to him all his lost works.” The drama underlined his significance as a music collector.

Before he formed his musical company, he had worked for the Lagos State government, and was a secretary to the state’s first military governor, Mobolaji Johnson. He had a stint at a big architectural firm. He had also set up an Advertising/PR agency, and ran a printing consultancy.

His social life equipped him for his musical role. He had frequented popular clubs in Ibadan and Lagos before he eventually decided to devote his life to music preservation and promotion in the early 1990s.

He formed a band in 1993, known for its rich Highlife repertoire, which was patronised by high-profile figures and various corporate giants. He presented radio and television programmes promoting evergreen music, particularly Highlife. He presented “Highlife Renaissance” weekly on Raypower, the first private radio station in Nigeria, for about three years.  To mark Nigeria’s centenary celebration in 2014, he reviewed Nigerian music from 1914 to 2014 in a programme on the network service of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).

His musical company revived the works of music greats such as Bobby Benson, Eddy Okonta, Rex Jim Lawson, E.T. Mensah, Joe Mensah, Haruna Ishola, Victor Olaiya and I.K. Dairo through a repackaging project involving music from the 1920s. He also released the complete works of Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Ebenezer Obey.

According to him, “Highlife and some of its variants originated from Nigeria, Ghana and a few other African countries, hence it can be described as our gift to the world.” However, he observed, “you can hardly find more than three or four recreation spots where the music is still enjoyed by patrons of musical bands. We feel that the situation portends a great danger to our indigenous contribution to the world of music, something that has the potential of being a major income earner for Nigeria if properly harnessed.”

The last time I saw him, he looked frail. But he danced at the event tagged ‘Yaba Evergreen Happy Hour,’ organised by his company and the authorities of the Yaba Local Council Development Area (LCDA), Lagos. It was an unprecedented collaboration to promote live bands in the community, and celebrate the music of notable Nigerian musicians, particularly in the Highlife category.

The event took place on December 15, 2003 at Akinwunmi Centre, Yaba, Lagos. It marked the end of the year and boosted the month’s atmosphere of celebration. Chairman of Yaba LCDA Kayode Omiyale, the event chair, welcomed guests to “the home of music.”  The area is associated with the musical careers of legends like Sunny Ade, Fela Kuti, Ebenezer Obey, Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akisanya, Victor Olaiya, Orlando Owoh, and Bobby Benson, who used to play regularly at popular clubs located in Yaba and its environs.

Esho’s legacy includes the Evergreen Music Heritage Foundation, which he launched “to preserve and safeguard musical heritage.”  It is “a one-stop place for research and documentation” of a considerable number of Nigerian musicians, designed to “help to create a world-class archival institution to cater for the needs of researchers, anthropologists and sociologists the world over.”

It is a testimony to his vision and energy that a gigantic multi-purpose centre for the activities of the Foundation is under construction in Lagos, fulfilling his 25-year dream. A significant cultural figure, he will be remembered as a giant who made a name for himself as a music collector, preserver and promoter

Back to top button