Afrobeat legend Orlando Julius returns to Brussels
A living legend of Afrobeat is coming back to Brussels with the Heliocentrics, and something tells us this is going to be a really special concert: on 22 September, Orlando Julius will be celebrating his 74th birthday! “Can you lay on a big chocolate cake?”
Orlando Julius made a name for himself in the 1960s, when newly independent Nigeria danced to highlife and a new genre that was really taking off, Afro-funk. The extraordinary saxophone player recorded a number of albums, had some hit singles, and was popular in the countries around Nigeria, but took quite a while to make his international breakthrough.
The rerelease of the 1966 album Super Afro Soul by Strut Records, in 2000, put Julius on the international map. The breakthrough finally took place when the label suggested recording an album with the Heliocentrics. When it comes to getting the best out of musical collaborations, it is hard to beat the London groove band, as shown by their work with the living legend of Ethiojazz Mulatu Astatke.
Since his album Jaiyede Afro came out in 2014, Julius has flown from Nigeria several times a year to bring superior Afro-funk and Afrobeat to European festivals and clubs. Last year, we met up at Felabration in Antwerp and, in August, at the Afro C Festival in Bredene, where he shared the stage with another living legend: Oghene Kologbo, tenor guitarist for many years in Fela Kuti’s band Africa 70.
Orlando Julius also played with Fela Kuti, when Kuti was still young and unknown: “Fela often came along to my club in Ibadan. He was young and used to do the rounds of the Nigerian and Ghanaian clubs, looking for inspiration. I always used to invite him to play with us – he was a good trumpeter and an outstanding musician.”
“Those were the years of highlife,” recalls Orlando Julius. “Afro-funk was completely new and nobody had heard of Afrobeat yet. Back then, I was playing in Eddy Okonta’s band; he was my mentor, a real virtuoso on trumpet and saxophone. During my solos, the musicians urged me on with ‘go, Afro, go for it, Afro...’ Afro was my nickname, because they thought my saxophone solos sounded so African.”
Afrobeat was in its infancy back then. “It was only when Fela came back from the US [he spent ten months in Los Angeles, where he came into contact with funk and with the Black Panther movement – BT] that he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and thus helped to bring Afrobeat into existence,” explains Julius. Fela Kuti encouraged Tony Allen to create a more African sound on the drums, closer to traditional Yoruba rhythms. The Black Panthers were a major influence on his political commitment.
Orlando Julius was experimenting with a more African sound just then. He was there at the birth of Afrobeat. So why doesn’t he get any credit for being one of the fathers of the genre? “Fela’s great merit is that he took Afrobeat to the world. He toured in Europe and in the US. I did international tours too, but that was limited to the countries around Nigeria.”
But as we said, since the release of Jaiyede Afro, things have changed, Julius has been on tour non-stop. How does it feel to have broken through with your music at last? “It’s great. I’m getting a bit older, but the collaboration with the Heliocentrics is going so smoothly that it’s all plain sailing. My wife helps me a lot too, and I’m hugely grateful for that.” Latoya Aduke Ekemode is also a dancer and backing vocalist with the band, so she is always there on the tours. “Making music is my passion. I’m turning 74, but I’m never going to stop.”
That’s made clear by Julius’s new collaboration with the Brazilian band Bixiga 70. “Yeah, we met each other on tour in Croatia. Really friendly people, who showed a lot of interest in my music. Then I saw them again in São Paulo. They are my babies, you know – I’m an old man. We recorded a single in their studio and this summer we performed live for the first time in Portugal. It’s amazing how they sing along in my language, Yoruba, which is also the language used in the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé.
There’s a new single due out soon. “And I also have another six tracks that are ready to be recorded. With the Heliocentrics or with Bixiga 70? That will depend on the interest shown by those labels. I’ve got tons of new music coming up!”
> Orlando Jules & The Heliocentrics. 22/09, 20.15, Flagey, Elsene