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Ambrose Campbell and Nigerian music

By Wale Olayanju

Today, 22 June,  marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Ambrose “Rosy” Campbell.

Except you are a Juju music buff or collector, chances are that you have not heard or read about that name. Campbell was a musical legend and the progenitor of modern Nigerian Juju and highlife. Many notable musicians had used Rosy’s compositions to make money and fame.

I’ll tell you a story.

In 1968, little Peter Akanni Akorede left Ipokia, a rusty town in Ogun State to seek greener pasture in Lagos. Like his contemporaries, his aim was to get any available job and settle down as quickly as possible. Mother luck smiled at him, or so he’d thought, as he got a job with Pfizer in Lagos. Unfortunately, he did not last more than a year before he was laid off.

Though he’d had a flair for music while in Pfizer, it wasn’t until he was laid off that he started thinking of it as a career. With the severance benefit paid him by his former employer, Peter bought his first set of musical instruments which included guitar and talking drums. He then started learning the guitar by “picking” the rhythm one by one.

That was how Emperor Pick Peter was born. Though a good artist, Emperor Peter was unknown outside Agege and Mushin axis until he had an orchestrated squabble with King Sunny Ade.

KSA, as he was otherwise known, had released an album which he entitled “E kilo f’omo ode”. Many insinuated that the album was directed at Peter and he was the one being referred to as “Omo Ode”

There seemed to be a connection.

King Sunny Ade (KSA) had just left TYC Records/African Sounds due to a misunderstanding between him and Late Chief Bolarinwa Ishola Abioro, owner of the recording label. KSA was taken to court and the Igbosere High Court banned him from performing and/or releasing albums for one year.

Abioro, who coincidentally was also from Ipokia later signed Pick Peter. So, it was as if Abioro replaced KSA with Pick Peter. Though KSA came out to deny that the song was directed at Peter, the matter was compounded when Admiral Dele Abiodun (another Juju prodigy) came out with “O jebi, o jebi, omo ode”. This led to series of abuse-laden albums that sold like hot cakes in those days.

Pick Peter later released “E juba f’omo ode” which catapulted him to stardom. The album is arguably his best to date. Though his father was never a hunter, he accepted the appendage and that was how he became known and addressed as “Omo Ode”. Coincidentally, KSA’s “E kilo f’omo ode” was also one of his best albums till date

Unbeknownst to many, KSA was not the owner of the song. He only covered it!

“E kilo f’omo Ode” was written and composed by Ambrose Campbell!

Campbell songs were so popular that everybody who was anybody in the Nigerian Juju music scene had sampled him at one time or the other. These include notable names like Commander Ebenezer Obey, Ik Dairo, Admiral Dele Abiodun, and even Dr. Victor Olaiya.

“Eni ri nkan eh” was a song made popular by Chief Commander. However, it was composed by Ambrose Campbell. The same with “Iya n kigbe malo malo” remixed by Sunny Ade. There are many others.

Ambrose Campbell was born Oladipupo Adekoya Campbell in Lagos on 19 August 1919. As a son of a preacher, he started by singing in the church choir. He was kicked out of the house when he started performing palm wine music against the wishes of his family. For a while, he lived under the protection of nationalist leader, Herbert Macaulay and worked as a printer, as well as a musician. He later met guitarist Brewster Hughes and performed with him in the Jolly Boys Orchestra.

Soon after the start of World War II, Campbell moved to London where he came into contact with other members of the small Nigerian community, including Brewster Hughes who had also moved to the city.

Campbell first came to public attention by performing with his band at the VE Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus in 1945.

In 1946, Campbell and Brewster Hughes formed a professional band, the West African Rhythm Brothers. They were employed to provide music for theatre performances by the black ballet company, Les Ballets Nègres. They later toured the UK. The group appeared on British television, and around 1952 established a residency at the Abalabi club in Soho, playing a mixture of palm wine and jùjú music and associating with jazz musicians.

In the 1960s, the Abalabi club moved and became the Club Afrique in Wardour Street. Campbell learned the guitar and, after a disagreement with Brewster Hughes, formed a new band. He toured Italy and formed a production company with the help of lawyer and Labour Party adviser, Arnold Goodman.

He recorded an album for Columbia, Highlife Today, in 1968. Campbell travelled to Los Angeles in 1972 with record producer Denny Cordell, intending to start his own business. There, he was introduced to keyboardist and record producer Leon Russell, who invited Campbell to tour with him. He recorded as a percussionist with Russell– who referred to Campbell as his “spiritual adviser” – and Willie Nelson on the album, One for the Road.

Campbell toured worldwide with Russell, before settling in Nashville in 1982. He returned to Britain in 2004, to live in Plymouth with his daughter and grandchildren.

Ambrose “Rosy” Campbell has been described as the progenitor of modern Nigerian High Life and Juju music. He was celebrated as the father of modern Nigerian music by no less an authority than Afro-beat giant, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Rosy was credited with forming Britain’s first-ever black band, the West African Rhythm Brothers. He’s also the unsung pioneer from whom all of the contemporary British black pop originates.

Some of his other works include Omo Laso, London Is the Place for Me, Oba Adele, Ominira, Oh Je je, Ero Ya Ke Wa Wo, Awolowo, and Ob La Di. Many of these works can be seen on YouTube.

Campbell died peacefully on June 22 2006 at the age of 86. He was survived by two daughters and three sons.

May his beautiful soul continue to rest in peace.

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