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f70 The Fuji King


There’s more to Nigerian music than Afrobeat(s), Juju and Highlife. From his origins influenced by Barrister – the original inventer of Fuji music – by the late 1980s Wasiu Ayinde Marshal was crowned Fuji King. Jack Pepper gets a royal audience.


B


ehind the high walls of Wasiu Ayinde Marshal’s mansion, in the dusty town two hours from Lagos, there are rare birds, gazelles, and tortoises roaming


the grounds. Past a marble gatehouse manned by heavily armed security guards, up a lengthy and winding drive, and next to a swimming pool where his associates sit compliantly, hiding them- selves from the blazing sun, stood Wasiu – known to most as the Fuji King.


The sturdily built band leader, 61, wore a regal white agbada robe and a pair of delicately made striped slippers; he had toured the world and now performed when he wanted. He could now drive one of his two Bentleys in his spare moments, or entertain his friends with a brimming bar of liquors, liqueurs, and decanters located in one of his several reception rooms, or even listen to his newly made gramophone-style record player. He had plenty of time for leisure now that his career was in its twi- light. Today, however, he had no time for that; he had a visitor to attend to.


The visitor walked up the drive, past the animals, the swimming pool, the asso- ciates, and the large Roman pillars that surrounded the building, and shook Wasiu’s hand.


“Hello,” Wasiu said in a raspy voice that emerged from his mouth as if from another man. “A pleasure to meet you.”


Welcoming the visitor inside, Wasiu led the way to a living room which was full of memorabilia. Photographs of the singer on his own, with famous friends, and with family covered the walls, while through a walkway, a portrait of The King and a carefully carved wooden sculpture of a saxophonist uncannily resembling him fur- nished the next space.


Wasiu had a warm smile but his demeanour was solemn and quite distant. His resting poses were ones of considera- tion and he would, while standing, hold his hands in front and clench them as if speak- ing at a formal event. He was a man of details: the generous silver on his left ring finger, the bracelet on his right arm, the reading glasses around his neck, the metic- ulousness of his grooming. The King was virtually a walking waxwork, and as he sat


down in probably his favourite chair, he began to tell the visitor about his life.


Born in 1957 in a working-class neigh- bourhood on Lagos Island, Wasiu, the son of a tailor, had music in his blood. His mother, who traded textiles on a market stall, was also a musician, though she gave it up to care for him. However, unable to resist his musical disposition, Wasiu began experimenting as a singer when he was as young as five years old.


But it was a friend of his older broth-


er’s, Siriku Ayinde Barrister, who made the biggest impression on him. Barrister was one of the rising performers of a style known as were, a form of Koranic chant- ing which could be heard throughout Yoruba Muslim districts during Ramadan. And when Barrister and his band played, Wasiu would stand, among the crowds of onlookers, mesmerised by his vocal talents.


“It didn’t take much to walk up to


him,” Wasiu recalled to his visitor. “To tell him I want to be like him.” Initially this was something Barrister simply laughed off. Yet Wasiu was certain – determined – that this was the path he would carve for himself. He eventually persuaded Barrister to let him become a roadie for his band and dropped out of school to take care of the heavy lifting.


B


arrister’s music became part- time when the civil war hit in 1967 and he was conscripted to the army. Young Wasiu, while Barrister was away, would stay


at his boss’s house on Lagos’s mainland and run errands for him of all shapes and sizes. He would clean, sweep, and iron out the creases in Barrister’s military uniform, never losing sight of his dogged ambition to play music himself.


When Barrister’s band practised,


sometimes Wasiu would be caught singing along. His voice was powerful and he could recite every lyric, to the astonish- ment of all present, with complete accura- cy. There were regional were competitions and it wasn’t long before Wasiu began entering them. Just as Barrister had done, he began impressing the judges with his vocal talents and understanding of current affairs. Having won every contest there was to win, several times over, he started


his own group at the age of fifteen, leav- ing Barrister behind.


During this time, the early seventies, a more secular music was surfacing from were, spearheaded by Barrister. It became known as fuji and was clear-cut in its rhythmic density and lyricism. Played by colourfully and traditionally dressed back- ing bands of over twenty percussionists (the calabash, bembe, and sekere, and others) and vocalists, leaders began singing long, drawn-out improvisations of fifteen minutes or more on subjects span- ning love, marriage, politics, corruption, and wealth. As the style progressed, West- ern instruments were added: the guitar, the keyboard, and the saxophone.


This message-driven sound would often involve lengthy praise-giving tangents, where singers would give the most impor- tant people in their lives relentless recogni- tion. This would also go together with, dur- ing live shows, the throwing of money over the praised person as a sign of respect and wealth, which has long been a Yoruba cus- tom. The politics, the praise, and the sheer length of tracks meant, unfortunately, that fuji was rarely played on the radio.


“When I turned pro,” Wasiu said, “I


left the were aspect and turned it to fuji.” He was now reclining in his armchair and had grown into his role as a storyteller. The visitor, on a sofa adjacent to him, was attentive but Wasiu knew he had a lot to learn. The fuji singer would precisely and periodically correct the visitor on the his- torical details of his life: the right years, the right titles, the right names, and the right places were of the upmost importance.


One of those crucial details was his


first record, Iba, released in 1979, which Wasiu used to thank the people he learned from. In a culture where respect for your elders is key, he went one step further: adopting the Barrister name as a nod to his mentor – something he later dis- carded when promoters and the press began confusing the two. Wasiu, at this point, was a second-generation artist try- ing his best to be noticed; he didn’t stray far from Barrister’s blueprint and was still finding his feet. It wasn’t until the eight- ies, however, that he became a name to be reckoned with in Nigeria.


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