By: Trevor Pour
Quickly, off the top of your head, name a wildly influential Nigerian Afrobeat jazz and soul musician from the late '60s and '70s. Got one? If you said Fela Kuti, you're probably not alone. While Fela and son Femi Kuti are essentially household names with the jam-rock crowd these days, the catalogue of highlife pioneer Orlando Julius has somehow flown under our collective radar. Well, the kind folks at VampiSoul released a retrospective double album, which includes two classic works, Super Afro Soul and Orlando's Afro Ideas, spanning Julius' far-reaching career.
"Orlando" Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode was born in 1943 in the Osun state of Nigeria. He first learned of his musical talent studying and playing drums and flute in school, but found his true love in the sounds of the alto saxophone. As early as 19, he was involved professionally in music as both bandleader and as a "Top Ace" with Eddy Okunta's popular band in Lagos. He immersed himself not only in the highlife style of the time but also in the complex sounds of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane drifting in from overseas. In 1964, he released his first massive hit single with his newly formed Modern Aces. As OJ's popularity began to rise to extreme proportions, he became increasingly influenced by the soul music that came to dominate American airwaves in the mid-sixties..
From Otis Redding to Smokey Robinson to The Temptations, OJ became enthralled with blending Motown with highlife, which is readily apparent on the first CD, Super Afro Soul. This was his first full release and met with great popular success. The album is primarily comprised of tight, short tracks that display a good deal of variance and stylistic range. Horns dominate the backdrop and OJ's voice layers nicely overtop. And by including a unique version of Robinson's "My Girl" the album paid homage to its influences. But, in direct contrast to Super Afro Soul, the compositions on Afro Ideas are significantly longer, averaging six or seven minutes each. This second album contains tracks recorded between 1969 and 1972, after Julius had toured American soil and was subsequently influenced by the rock n' roll and psychedelic rock of the time. Additionally, OJ was responding to Fela's new Afrobeat, which had come into peak form during his time in the States. I found myself getting into this latter album much more than the first. The arrangements display a maturity and complexity noticeably absent from the earlier recordings.
Now, I openly admit that I had never heard of Orlando Julius before listening to these albums, but now that hours upon hours of his music have poured through my headphones, stereo and car speakers, I feel qualified to speak on his behalf. For anyone interested in music history, the influence of American soul or the parallel roots of modern Afrobeat and jazz, this is a must-have. His beats catchy and smooth and his music changed generations of listeners and the direction of an entire branch of jazz and soul. Orlando Julius was both a pioneer and an innovator, and his story deserves to be heard.
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