An Appreciation of the Life of Jajah Oga Onilu
By Ron Reid
January 23, 2012
It was last Friday night and as I picked up the phone with my caller ID flashing ‘Out of the Area’, I growled an unfriendly hello intended for telemarketers. With studied apprehension Theron Shaw relayed to me the untimely passing of Jajah Oga Onilu. He sincerely hoped and asked if I was OK. Silence. Muttering, I asked what happened and the details were hazy but that did not matter, as it hit me that my longtime band-mate, friend and teacher was gone.
My recollection of our first mid-70’s meeting is sketchy but it was not long before we were crossing paths backstage. Backstage of Queen’s Hall as ‘Jah’ (we affectionately called him), the backbone of the Mau Mau Drummers who laid the rhythmic foundation for Andre Tanker as well as resident percussionists for Astor Johnson’s Repertory Dance Theatre. I can vividly recall hearing the Mau Mau Drummers throbbing in the narrow wings of old Queen’s Hall as they pounded out the rhythms for Repertory’s classic ensemble pieces such as ‘Ganga’ ‘Africa, Africa’ and ‘Fusion’. For a while thereafter Andre Tanker and The Mau Mau Drummers were the manifestation of a post-1970 revolution musical conscience. Tanker had ‘come back home’ and his affiliation with the Village Drums of Freedom and thereafter the Mau Mau Drummers became the trademark to his new sound. Jajah connected Tanker with elders of the Yoruba community, drummers and singers who would bring an authentication to some of Tanker’s songs. Streetwise Jajah was also keenly aware of the tradition’s mystique as its mischief.
In the late 70’s, I replaced bassist Angus Nunes in the Tanker /Mau Mau configuration and thus began the cementing of our long-lasting friendship. As far as Jajah was concerned it was not enough for me to be a competent bassist, but that I had to learn the rhythms. I had to know the ‘rhythmic scale’ (his terminology), which I subsequently understood to mean the variations of these traditional rhythms, or ‘ hands of the rhythm’. How could I have expected to play ‘power music’ and not have this foundation? And then there were the times when Jajah ‘s single bass drum and my bass would ‘lock down de riddum’ to a Sayamanda groove. Aha…I got it.
He was always showcasing some new rhythm revealed in a dream, or fleshed out by grounding and grooving with other traditional drummers. Whether instinctively or by herbal assistance, Jajah could recall all the ‘riddum’. This master drummer in training knew what to play in every situation. Dance? Drama? Commercial? Soundtrack? Call Jah! He knew the rhythms and techniques of playing all these grooves, and for those he did not know the names, he created his own.
No one had to confer the title of ‘master drummer’ on Jajah. He took it on himself. But unlike many chest-thumping pretenders, he used his life in the tradition of a true elder, advocate and teacher. It was Jajah Onilu who was the cornerstone of the 80’s Network Rhythm Band and a trusted advisor to its torchbearers, Brother Resistance and Shortman while helping to redirect the frustration and anger of a young and restless community towards rugged rapso music and rapid-fire lyrics.
Even back then when we were young musicians, Jajah echoed his vision of a workshop where he could teach, fashion his instruments and play the music as he heard it. As our musical and professional paths diverged, he steadfastly built his workshop home in Caura guided by sheer determination and a deep ancestral spirit that informed his creations. It was at his home in January 2nd of 2011 that I last saw him; our impromptu drum circle cut short as he rushed off to a recording seesion.
I have hardly ever played a hand drum, particularly in my classroom, without reflecting on Jah’s compassionate instruction. I’ve shed no tears these past few days but listened quietly to find solace in scratchy tapes, recordings and video that are now invaluable documents of his legacy. ‘One bright mornin’ when my work is over, I will fly away home’ sang Marley. Jajah vision could hardly have been completed in one lifetime and through his ‘Jewels of Nature’ now in the hands of his sons Baba Ayinde and Modupe and hand-drummers worldwide, we will together ‘raise a riddum’ and honor his legacy with humility and gratitude.
Farewell, my brother and as the familiar Tanker lyric goes, I sing, ‘Old soldiers never die, they learn to make love and war, this old soldier will survive inside the music so play on and on, some more, some more.’
Musician and Associate Professor
Berklee College of Music, Boston
Originally published in the Trinidad Express. Reproduced with permission from the author.