Veteran Nigerian saxophonist and pioneer of Afro soul and Afrobeat.
Born in 1943 in Ikole-Ekiti in Ondo State, Nigeria, Orlando Julius Ekemode (“Orlando was really a nickname, taken from the Nigerian actor, Orlando Martins”) had started in music from an early age, becoming the school drummer and learning flute, bugle and other instruments at St Peters Anglican School in Ikole-Ekiti.
When Orlando Julius was ready to form his own band on 15th July 1964, he formed the Modern Aces, and began a long-standing residency at the Independence Hotel. Students from university came, hailing from many different backgrounds. “My band played highlife but had to play jazz, blues, tango, calypso to cater for the audience because the crowd knew how to dance those steps … Even before I was thinking of recording with the Modern Aces, we rehearsed at home, we played live in Ibadan, we didn’t stop. By mixing the R&B and soul with the African rhythms, we didn’t know what it would be like in the future. A lot of the highlife artists back then started to put a bit of rock and jazz into their music.”
Those artists included a young Fela Anikulapo Kuti. He came to Ibadan for a period of six months. Ibadan was the mecca of Nigerian music at that time, with many different clubs and bands playing juju, highlife and other styles. He always came to Orlando’s club, liked the band and the band would feature him on stage. Ladies loved Fela, even back then.
Orlando’s life would change in 1972 following a trip to Germany arranged by his Nigerian label, Polydor. “I went with Polydor to the Munich Olympics,” he remembers, “and then to the U.S.A and I saw the opportunities for my music there. By 1974, I had moved to New York and then Washington D.C. and formed a new band, Umoja, in 1974. We had a manager called Ron Hood looking after us and booking shows and he handled some of the big US stars – people like Marvin Gaye, the Bar-Kays, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron and Isaac Hayes. Every time he had an act playing, he booked Umoja as support. We practised not far from Marvin’s house in North West Washington so he became a friend and we went to his house regularly.
After moving to the West Coast and its thriving music scene it would be home for OJ for over 27 years. “I recorded the Dance Afrobeat album between the US and Nigeria in 1985 and released it through Shanachie. I played many gigs across the US and Canada including the New Orleans Jazz Festival, twice.” Other highlights included the opening of the African section of the Epcot Centre and hosting a cable TV show called Afrobeat Videos from Nashville, where Orlando built a healthy fan base. “I also recorded an album there, The Legend Continues”.
He returned to Lagos on December 15th 1998, set up a recording and rehearsal studio in Surulere and formed his long-running Nigerian All-Stars band. He started the Nigerian Musicians Forum as a medium for musicians to discuss industry issues – members included Chris Ajilo, Steve Rhodes and Peter King. He appeared regularly on Nigerian TV, on NTA’s ‘Morning Ride’ and on Galaxy performing full live shows – Orlando Julius Live – and presenting videos from all over the world on Afro Hi! With Orlando Julius.
By 2001, Western audiences began waking up to Orlando’s illustrious career. UK label Strut reissued Super Afro Soul before other labels including Soundway and Vampi Soul began releasing his Afro Sounders recordings, all spreading the word on OJ’s pioneering role in Nigerian music. Other recent projects have included recordings with Hot Casa signing Setanta including a cover of his classic Ijo Soul and sessions with young musicians in Nigeria for a British Council project in association with Soundthread. His latest album with UK super-group The Heliocentrics was released on Strut in April 2014.