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Jewels of the Yoruba Song

Jewels of the Yoruba Song

Poems Inspired by Classic and Contemporary Tracks of Yoruba Music

Transcribed, Translated and Written By Michael O Banjo

Copyright © 2017 by Michael Banjo

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Published by Gnitavonni Limited, Milton Keynes, England

First Printing 2017

Illustrations by John Adesanya

Author’s photo, back cover, by Stephen Drew

ISBN 978-1-9998364-8-1

Gnitavonni Limited 2017

Jewels of the Yoruba Song

Poems Inspired by Classic and Contemporary Tracks of Yoruba Music

Transcribed, Translated and Written

Michael O Banjo


About the Author

Michael Olugbenga Olatubosun Banjo was born in Hull, England and grew up there and in southwest Nigeria. He attended Ibadan Boys’ High School and Federal Government College, Odogbolu. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Combined Honours degree in History and Political Science from the University of Ife, Nigeria. After Ife, he undertook national service in Maiduguri in Borno State, northeast Nigeria. He studied Law at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye and was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1990. He worked as a lawyer and did postgraduate studies in Passenger Transport Management at Aston University, Birmingham and, later on, studied Management Consultancy & Organisational Change at Birkbeck College, University of London. Banjo is a trainer, coach and accredited mentor.

Banjo is one of those restless individuals with a natural ability to wear many hats of talent. Apart from his writing which include short essays and poetry through which he voices his thoughts about life, he is also an amateur landscape photographer and Life writer.

In this volume of poems based on his transcriptions and translations of the music of the most talented of Yoruba musicians, he has brought to life the thoughts and the idiosyncrasies of Yoruba society which is a way he has chosen to tell the stories of the Yoruba through the voices of their musical icons.



Benedict Sunday Olusegun Banjo

My Father and Friend

For Instilling the Love of Music

Table of Contents


This collection of poems represents a very small part of the volume of Yoruba music that has been recorded for well over a century.

I have not set out to write verse from every one of those recordings. That would be nigh impossible. In fact, I did not set out to write this book. I actually embarked on the transcription of Yoruba music, partly out of boredom and also as a way of coping with the life of a young bachelor freshly relocated from Nigeria to England.

Here is how it all started. In my early career in transportation, I worked in solitary roles where I had much time - perhaps, too much time, to brood and ponder on my own life as well as life in general. And growing up in Ijebuland, in deep southwest Nigeria, I was very close to the heart of Yoruba culture. As a younger man in the middle 1990s, I became starkly appreciative of my cultural milieu and sought anchor in reading widely about culture in the Diaspora. The now defunct Index Bookstore on Atlantic Road in Brixton, south London was a regular haunt where I bought loads of books on Afrocentric subjects.

Armed with my WALKMAN personal cassette player – the precursor of the ipod - I played my cassette tapes that were primarily music of Nigerian origin that I had taken with me to England. It was in the process of enjoying the music and thereby also retaining my Yoruba language proficiency that I was nudged to do my first transcription. A Guyanese friend, and later an English work colleague had wondered about one of the songs I was listening to and I explained the lyrics as best as I could. In the case of my Guyanese friend, it was a big surprise for her to receive a typed translation of the song a few days later. That song was ‘Mawo mi Roro’ by Juju-Highlife maestro, the late Dr Orlando Owoh which is included in this volume as ‘Lai Ku Egiri’.

After that, I began to transcribe and translate my favourite songs. I love Sakara and Apala music. These two genres represent what you can call the avant-garde, high-end of Yoruba music, enjoyed by thorough aficionados. At their apogee, both genres were not tainted by European instruments. They were also repositories of traditional idioms and usage. The richness of the songs was overlaid with excellent musicianship and choruses that take you to untainted lyrical lands. Hence, you will find quite a few poems from the music of Sakara grandmaster, the late Yusuf Olatunji and Alhaji Haruna Ishola, the late grand doyen of Apala music.

I have tried to infuse a measure of balance in this volume. I treated a range of topics and also brought in Juju music greats King Sunny Ade who opens this literary show with Agbada Nla Ti Mo da and the classic ‘Eni Ri Nkan He’ by Miliki exponent, Ebenezer Obey. One of the beautiful things about Yoruba songs is their role in recording the social, political and economic history of the society.

As you can see from some of the poems, there is a vast range of historical material on display. For me, the most poignant of the songs is ‘Yoruba Ronu’ by Chief Hubert Ogunde. In its original form, it is a powerful song that reverberates with pure pathos. It is a true gem. King Sunny Ade and Sir Shina Peters also help capture Yoruba praise-singing that cuts across all Yoruba musical genres with references to the top socialites and politicians of the day. I particularly like Sir Shina Peters’ Tribute to Chief MKO Abiola, the undeclared winner of Nigeria’s 1993 Presidential elections who later died in detention in 1998.

I cannot talk about Yoruba songs without mentioning the role of superstition, religion, witchcraft, rivalry and envy. In many of the songs you will find a fairly common thread along these lines. It seems to be accepted by music makers and their listeners that there has to be someone somewhere intent on bringing down the musician. That is the crux of King Sunny Ade’s ‘Agbada Nla Ti Mo Da’. The same is also true of Orlando Owoh’s Agba Ni Tara, Ma Kobami. The really good thing is that that each songwriter makes the case for their ‘superiority’, ‘exclusiveness’, ‘uniqueness’ in oblique and never direct reference to the ‘detractors’ and ‘charlatans’.

A number of these songs were composed at times of intense rivalry with other musicians. There were legendary ‘battles’ between musical giants, the most notable being that alleged to have been between King Sunny Ade and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. Both men are now in their seventies and enjoying a new season of comradeship. Orlando Owoh also had a struggle with a younger musician, Ade Wesco who seemed to be ‘copying’ the juju- highlife sound popularised by Owoh. You’ll find a dearth of female Yoruba musicians represented but am sure you’ll nevertheless enjoy Alhaja Batuli Alake’s offering, esepecially the beautiful love song, Women Too Need Loving. It’s even better listening to it.

So, there is deep meaning to the songs because they reflect real fears and anxieties of very talented performers. And when you add the pervasive belief in witchcraft and other ways in which a musician believes his star can be dimmed, it is little surprise that the songs always contain such highly-strung appeals for divine protection. In any case, the songs reflected the beliefs and expectations of the society at large at the time of the recording. What’s next? I am compiling another volume. Two contemporary Yoruba artistes will feature: 9ice and Asha are going to be part of the future of the Yoruba song. Their output is excellent by any standard and I feel great pleasure in bringing their words to a wider audience.

In preparing this volume, I have benefitted from a lot of help and support from numerous people. I wish to thank my wife, Kofoworola for her encouragement and patience in listening to my repetitous playback of the same songs over and over again. My children, Ebunoluwa, Sayofunmi and the twins, Ayowonuola and Oladimeji were my willing (and long-suffering) listeners when I recited aloud for the right tones and rhymes.

I wish to thank my cousins, Femi and Korede Oloruntola. Their infectious enjoyment of Yoruba music which we share is a bond beyond mere family ties. I also want to thank my friends, Tunji Olugbodi for his help in Lagos; Babs Ajayi Jr, in Montreal for reviewing the manuscript and offering suggestions. I wish to thank Dr Kunle Olatawura who was the first person, many years ago to see the raw transcriptions and urged me to continue. I wish to thank my editors at Gnitavonni for their very competent execution of the collection. I also wish to give credit to the musicians, websites, bloggers and other music enthusiasts to which I provided links to the music that inspired the poems. Without their generous offerings, the pleasure of giving wider voice to these talented players would be more difficult.

For all else, I accept responsibility about which I can only give glory to God for His inspiration and sustenance.


Milton Keynes,

August 2017

Foreword to Jewels of the Yoruba Song

I am privileged to be asked by my friend of many years, Michael Banjo to write the foreword to his new book. I have known Michael for many decades now, and one ‘secret’ he successfully hid from me was his love for traditional African music. Of the cuisine I know, but this came as a good surprise.

When I studied music to advance another vocation of mine, one of the basics that I learnt was that music is measured in metres. I am therefore thrilled to discover that what Michael Banjo has done in this work is to bring a lot of African music, usually not measured in metres, to this level of artistic appreciation; and hopefully in the process add verse to the enjoyment of traditional African sounds of the Yoruba variety.

I reckon that, given the impressive work Michael has done in this presentation of JEWELS OF THE YORUBA SONG, music as a learning art gets a unique reference material. I therefore have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending this book, not just to lovers of traditional African music, but to all who desire as it were a serving of the uniquely ‘tasty and satisfying’ rhythm of music of the African touch.

Enjoy, as I have!


Agbada Nla Ti Mo Da

My Garment of Protection

Inspired by King Sunny Ade

I made myself an ample agbada1

I walked through thorns but was unhurt

I dressed myself in folds of etu2

I encountered nettles and was not cut

Even the spotless white which I donned

I emerged unstained from the palm-oil stall

This is my warning to the backbiter

Desist from speaking ill of me

We can petition against sorcerers by sacrifices

That is easy

Even wicked witches?

We can placate them if we asked the elders

O, indeed we can appease evil men

If we asked the elders, our fathers and mothers

But who has skills to placate the backbiter?

Who can sacrifice to the gossip - pacify them?

We know they cannot be appeased

Even the babalawo3 cannot do a thing!

No diviner can appease the slanderer.

All the same our faith is in God, our Provider.

Yes we still anchor our hope in the Lord

And do we know our reward?

We sure will not be at a loss

On earth we have no fear of a curse

We neither panic nor dither

God remains our favoured anchor

Those who trust in Him do not inherit perdition either

And have no fear, have no fear at all

Our hope is high in Olodumare4, and at peace

While still the wicked await my downfall

Ha! Where have you placed our divine armour?

People of the world, listen please:

You can broadcast ill news of us to far-flung places

You can disclaim us wherever you wish, with grim faces

Yet remember the blessings of nature:

Ahun5 never aches in the head - not in its nature

So too the snail does not suffer kidney failure

The fish is never diagnosed for a cold symptom

It is not heard for one to counsel courage to Odidimade6

And a strong tree feels at home in thick forests

The rod of the ebiti7 swings forward always

And the feeding hand always returns to base

Even so the trampled ground cannot recall a passing footfall

The grass does not rebuke an elephant as its feet fall

The needle is not denounced by the cloth

Just as no toad denounces the river’s call

So do we ask Mother Earth not to denounce us

We have no care for the slander of the idle ones

Your gutless gossip is damned forever

And when we see you all gathering together

Your caps are blown away while you gossip

In rikisi8 of which sad realm you have lordship!

The gust again lifts your infamous caps

Your destruction is assured, evil cabal, you are trapped!

Once more we will remind you, of truths:

The Iroko9 is the King of Trees in the bush

Olomosibata10 is the Lord among maize

Silence! You treacherous lot

We have only just begun to enjoy our spot

Join us, friends to celebrate

Come over, let’s dance and make merry

Because Sunny Ade is back again to play

Young and old, come aboard the jolly ferry

Where this ariya11 is bound to make your day.

Ko Sogbon To Le Da

None Can Please the World

Inspired by Ebenezer Obey

Ko sogbon to le da12

Unveil your wagons of wisdom

Amaze the world with careful conduct

Or show the roads leading to treasures

The world will rarely give you praise

Ko sogbon to le da

Life is clockwork waiting to run

Somewhere, someday a child is born

People near and far come to rejoice

The clock of life begins in earnest for girls and boys

Childhood rivalry is quite the earliest deal

Crawling children spilling meals

Or another’s drink: passions set in!

Walking tells the age of neighbourhood play schemes

In time, from papa comes a gift, a bike

We want a ride, let’s have a ride

Alas, the chorusing kids start a nasty hymn

They shrink from him saying to him

Take your broken bike away

We won’t play with you again

The clock of life turns further rounds

Our boy’s in school and very sound

First position crowns him in examinations

The mate in sixth position grits in consternation

All the class become his enemy

They plunged into their retronym

And give him a pseudonym:

‘ There, The Teacher’s Favoured Son `

Aseyin wa, aseyin bo13

The clock of life ticks...

Safely out of college and youthful cliques

The child of old takes employment

Arrives at work the prescribed moment

The sluggards, unpunctual and, illnesses feigned

Who always wished it rained and rained

In disdain they glare in bad taste

They soon create a silly phrase:

‘There, The Manager’s Favoured Son’

The clock of life counts hours and days

If you worked hard wouldn’t you play?

A little relaxation serves some good

Our human form is not like wood

The child of old does lightly drink

He says he’ll have Coca-Cola

‘Hen? A re!14 Hear this man! Coca-Cola?

Piles and pains will kill you swift

Get yourself a stronger drink’

They urge him towards the brink

If our friend were somewhat different

Who swigged drinks without deference

An oga-onifaaji15 whose glands sweated champagne and schnapps

Heineken beer, Star lager, Top beer, Becks beer

And Guinness stout; washed his mouth with beer

The same vain crowd will now acclaim:

‘What a fool this one is, so vain!

All his money goes on drink`

Alas, our man has changed his ways

He flaunts himself around, the Agba-Man16

Prince-Consort of the Revel

He decks designer suits, and perfumes so cool

The girls swarm him like in a school

Does the world applaud his ways?

Does he earn his status in this way?

The watching crowd lands a swift label:

‘Such arrogance, emperor of the revel

All the time he is carousing, wasting money at brothels`

Suddenly the clock of life swings, obirikiti17

Our man has changed his ways, again

Very kind, he is very tame

A quiet life, well organised

The vanities he well despised

One handsome wife he’d sworn to keep

He weighed his life in honours, and degrees

Yet sobriety will not avail!

The fault-finding world will still prevail

Thus accuse the gathered cabal:

‘Shove off, self-centred Acada18

Your face is lined all times in frowns

Take your miseries right away

We won’t play with you again’

So did our man look up and wail

Nothing you do can hit the nail

Take evidence from this narrative

By sound law devise your palliatives

Don’t ape the world or seek acclaim

Don’t court the flame of human fame

Ko s’ogbon to le da

Lai ku Egiri19 Unless the Gazelle has Died

Inspired by Dr Orlando Owoh

Don’t look at me like that?

Don’t stare at me so wickedly?

Why frown at me in distaste

As if I stole the festival yams at dawn?

Don’t study me like I stole the bridal jewels

Why watch me in disdain

As if I made away with the royal tributes?

Many of you see us in town

And ignore us as if we have no value

Remember that the elephant belittles the monkey

Yet even monkey feeds himself and is not a beggar

Just so the Catholics thrive in Protestant England

They depend not on Her Majesty’s pittance

So do we thrive as well