By Reuben Abati
I consider it a great privilege to count Shina Peters, the Afro-Juju maestro, who turns 60 this week, as one of my friends and brothers. Dele Momodu has already penned a short tribute in his honour and a committee of friends is planning a day of tributes to coincide with his birthday on May 30. Shina Peters deserves to be celebrated, honoured and serenaded for his contribution to the arts, his place in Nigerian music, his originality, and his humanism. I met Shina Peters in those early days of becoming.
I was a graduate student at the University of Ibadan and sitting through classes in musicology taught by Esi Kinni Olusayin, one of our teachers in the team-teaching component of Theatre Arts Theory and Criticism, I had begun to take a special interest in that aspect of criticism and the ethnographic accent that Nigerian-American Ms. Olusayin placed on it. Now, ethno-musicology is not a joke, but what is relevant in this piece is how I developed interest in the study and the critical analysis of music. And it just happened that I wrote in those days very actively for the Nigerian press – Daily Sketch – where I did book reviews, almost weekly, Nigerian Tribune where I also wrote reviews and essays, The Times Literary Supplement anchored first by Afam Akeh and later Dapo Adeniyi, and of course the seminal Guardian Literary Series anchored by Ben Tomoloju where literature was promoted and rigorous intellection was allowed, and The Guardian opinion pages where the most serious debates in the country were conducted in a very serious manner by the country’s best and brightest.
When Chinua Achebe wrote that there was once a country, there was indeed once a country – a country where talent flourished, where the town enriched the gown and vice versa and indeed, where it was not a sin to subdue the consciously material life and seek things of the elevated mind. It was in that context that I met Shina Peters. My childhood friend, Kayode Ajala, was the editor of Hints magazine. He and Dele Momodu were the youngest editors in Nigerian journalism at the time. Our boss at Hints magazine where I was Contributing Editor was Dr. Ibe Kachikwu. Hints was a romance magazine, indeed that magazine reinvented romance journalism in Nigeria.
When Kachikwu was not attending to his daily job as a legal adviser in Mobil, he joined us at Hints, to produce a magazine that became a bestseller in Nigerian higher institutions. We were a great team because there was no publisher-staff relationship. Dr, as we called him was part of the team. He wrote columns and stories like everyone else. He joined in the proof-reading of stories. He took an interest in everything, and even joined us in the staff canteen. He was our mentor. Hints magazine was about journalism but it was also family, a significant event in the lives of everyone who worked there. It is not an accident that the magazine produced quite a number of superstars- Chidinnma Awa-Agu, Amaka Obiofuma, Hetty Ajayi, Onah Dike, Ekerete Udoh, Kayode Ajala, Chim Newton, Toni Kan Onwordi, Helon Habila, Peter Nkwoche and so on.
Then Shina Peters happened. No, scratch that. He emerged. He evolved. In 1989, Shina Peters released an album which he titled Ace (Afro—Juju series 1). It was not his first foray into music. He started music at a very young age, music being the only thing he had ever done in his life. He served apprenticeship under Chief Ebenezer Obey and later joined General Prince Adekunle’s band where he learned to play the guitar and the piano and sing. He was the superstar of the Adekunle band: young, but dexterous on the guitar and the piano. Artists are peripatetic spirits: they listen only to the Muse that controls them. The Muse that guides every artist is unique. The muse is transcendental.
Shina Peters soon left General Prince Adekunle and he teamed up with a colleague of his, Segun Adewale to form a band that was known as Sir Shina Adewale and the Superstars International. It was a case of talent meeting opportunity; the partnership was electrifying; this combination of talent in a formal sense was perhaps the first of its type in the history of juju music in Nigeria. Students of business partnerships would find in the Sir Shina Adewale example a useful case study in why partnerships fail in Nigeria or generally in business. In the course of a study of the Odutola brothers, which produced a co-authored book with my colleague and friend, Sesan Ajayi, a book that was commissioned by General Olusegun Obasanjo as he then was, we had observed that even biology does not mitigate the challenges of partnership. In the Shina Adewale case, the partnership produced extremely beautiful music: nine albums in all and all masterly experiments in sound, meaning, and entertainment. Segun Adewale led the vocals; Shina Peters anchored the instrumentation. The two friends soon fell apart, and that was a tragedy for Nigerian music. Both men could not manage their success and their ego. Sir Shina Adewale remains a lost opportunity in Nigerian music and a bad script in the study of business partnership. The two men took juju music beyond the tradition already established from Roy Campbell to Ebenezer Obey and Sunny Ade, and then ruined it.
Shina Peters put into the partnership his mastery of instrumentation; melody and the rhythmic blend. Segun Adewale brought a rich, seductive, soulful voice that fitted naturally into Shina’s style, all laced with rich philosophy – a striking and intimidating combination of Ebenezer Obey, Prince Adekunle, and Sunny Ade. If both had remained together, they would both have emerged as the best thing that ever happened in juju music. But they blew it. I don’t want to take sides. But Shina Peters’ position is that Segun Adewale eventually began to think that he was the secret of the team’s success. It is perhaps Karmic that Segun Adewale practically vanished along the line, after the break up, and that Shina Peters evolved, even if I consider his collaboration with Segun Adewale, the most original phase of his career, and a significant moment in the evolution of juju music.
Shina Peters evolved through Ace, and that was the point at which we met. When the album titled Ace was released in 1989, there had been nothing like it, before it, or after it. Ace was not exactly juju – Shina Peters named it Afro-juju, to be interpreted in this analysis as a medley, a fusion, hitherto unseen, of rhythm, syncopation, polyphony, and dance with a touch of meta-spatial incandescence. This originality probably explains the popularity of the album. It was not just music; it was music as meaning, as psycho-motor, spatial, kinetic exploration, a combination of man and notes in the interrogation of sense and emotion. Both men and women latched on to every element of that album. Something new had happened again in the juju arena and the public could not have enough of it. Juju music is ordinarily sedate, more of sense than instrumentation and kinetics, but Shina Peters blended it all; he stretched the limits of the genre, he did to juju music what Fela did to highlife. Ace won double Platinum.
Shina Peters became a phenomenon. He sold newspaper copies. Hints magazine unleashed us on him. Dr. Kachikwu wanted every possible story on this phenomenon. Kayode Ajala had a supply of status cars. Money was also not our problem. He and I followed Shina Peters everywhere. We became his friends and brothers. It was during this period that I knew the likes of Segun Awolowo (met him earlier in Ogun State University), Femi Otedola (then of Impact Press in Mushin), Lanre Tejuoso, Kweku Tandor, Abayomi Jolaoso, Dotun Olaribigbe (Lobito Disco), Dele Momodu, Mayor Akinpelu, Gboyega Okegbenro, Kunle Bakare, Dayo Olomu, Wale Olomu, Wale Oluwaleyimu, Eko Round City (later Eko Kashoggi), a long list of society women, part of that routine of course also included nights in hotels, trips to clubs, joints, breakfasts in baby mamas homes and all of that. That was also when I learnt to drink beer – from a glass to half-bottle until I chose Star – Shine Shine Bobo – as my favourite brand, and practically became a connoisseur. We sat behind the stage and encouraged Shina Peters and wrote stories. We followed him everywhere. Ajala and I eventually became a member of his inner circle. We could enter every room in his house. Shina Peters is an open, unpretentious artiste. He worshipped his parents. He was devoted to his wife, Sammie who also supported him with the fanaticism of a disciple. He loves what he does –music.
In those days, he invited us to listen to his albums before they were released. After Ace and Shinamania however, Shina Peters could no longer reproduce the magic of the moment that brought him to international limelight. I may be wrong, but I attribute this to his departure from Sony Music. Art is essentially collaborative. It is an ensemble enterprise. When a critical link disappears, the implications may be far-reaching. The Sony Music team of Mrs. Keji Okunowo, Laolu Akins, Tony Alenkhe provided a natural home for Shina Peters’ talent. His exit from that home robbed him of the necessary support to fill the vacuum that had been created by the illness that took Sunny Ade out of the scene for a number of years. Sunny Ade’s return and Shina’s exit from Sony music changed the game.
As someone who can claim to know Shina Peters, off and on the scene of play, I state that there are many lessons that younger musicians can learn from his career and experience. My last major piece on music in Nigeria attracted very emotional responses from young Nigerian musicians. I predicted at the time that many of those egoistic and noise-making musicians would eventually end up as complete nobodies and that only artists of real talent would survive. I believe I have been proven right. Music is not noise, it is about meaning. It is about ability, talent, and relevance. Shina Peters continues to remain relevant because he is a man of true talent. His staying power is the product of his professionalism and his ability to reinvent himself. His commitment to the juju genre is impressive. In those days, he actively encouraged younger musicians particularly Dele Taiwo, and other younger juju musicians.
He can be sensitive, nervous about competition, and often insecure, but he has no doubts about his talents and capabilities. This is the source of his strength and staying power. He may not have produced any other platinum music for a while, but he has done much better than his contemporaries in the face of the competition of the musical genres: in the past, it was juju vs. Fuji, now the landscape is much wider and the competition is much stiffer than can be possibly imagined. When we eventually do a stock-taking of the evergreens in Nigerian music, Shina Peters and his oeuvre will certainly be close to the top of the list. That at 60, he already has an assured place among the masters is a remarkable achievement and on that I congratulate him. Star! SSP! Happy birthday, sir.