Born c. 1932 in Oyo state, Nigeria; member of Yoruba ethnic group. Addresses: Record company--Stern's Music U.S., Inc., P.O. Box 688, Belleville, NJ 07109.

A household name in Nigeria, Dr. Orlando Owoh has enjoyed a durable popularity that has cut across generational lines in his home country and beyond. Leading groups such as the Omimah Band, the Young Kenneries, and the African Kenneries International, Owoh remained popular even as Nigerian tastes shifted to the newer juju and fuji styles. Owoh's rootsy take on highlife music led him into political realms in the turbulent Nigeria of the 1980s, and he was imprisoned for a time on drug charges. Dubbed the "King of Toye," as he dubbed his particular musical mix, Owoh entered his fifth decade of performing with his powers and popularity undiminished.

A member of the Yoruba ethnic group, Owoh was born Oladipupo Owomoyela in Nigeria's Oyo state. Some publications have assigned Owoh's birthdate to the early 1940s, but Nigeria's P.M. News (in an article reproduced by the Africa News online service) reported that Owoh celebrated his 70th birthday on February 14, 2002, and a 2005 report in the Nigerian Sun tabloid gave his age as 73. Owoh's father was a carpenter who was known around the town of Osogbo as a good part-time musician, but he greeted his son's growing interest in music with little enthusiasm.

Blazed Through Carpentry Apprenticeship

The family moved frequently from place to place, but Owoh sought out musicians and formed bands in each place they landed. Owoh's father insisted that Owoh learn a trade as a condition of being allowed to work on his music, and Owoh obediently apprenticed himself to a carpenter. "I learned fast," Owoh told Tosin Ajirire of Nigeria's Daily Sun. "A trade that would take my contemporaries four or eight years to learn, I mastered in only six months. So, having satisfied my father, he couldn't help but bless my choice of career."

Owoh's first break came when he was hired as a musician by Nigeria's Kola Ogunmola Theatre Group, one of the country's first theatrical troupes. Owoh played drums and sang with the group when England's Queen Elizabeth visited Ibadan, Nigeria, in 1956, and he continued to perform plays mounted at the University of Ibadan. Performing with several bands, including one called Akindele (or Dele Jolly) and His Chocolate Dandies, and in another called the Fakunle Major Band, Owoh realized that music in West Africa was developing in a new direction, and sought out lessons on the electric guitar from musician Fatai Rolling Dollar.

The hot style of the day in Nigeria and Ghana was called highlife. It developed from a traditional Yoruba genre called palm wine music, overlaid with danceable guitar rhythms, and, in the hands of many musicians, it also contained a strong element of Trinidadian calypso. In Owoh's music, however, the sophisticated Caribbean-style horn arrangements of highlife were deemphasized in favor of Owoh's guttural voice, guitar, percussion, and down-to-earth lyrics. Owoh formed his first group, Orlando Owoh and His Omimah Band, around 1960 and quickly recorded his first single, "Oluwa, lo ran Mi" ("God has sent me") on the Nigerian branch of the Decca label.

Heard Record Played in Store

It's a thrill for any musician to hear his or her record being played on the streets for the first time, but Owoh's experience was more thrilling than most. "I almost died the first time I heard my record," he told Ajirire. "I was passing along Idi Oro in Mushin and suddenly I heard my record being played in a shop across the road. ... Without looking at both sides, I dashed across the road and ran towards the shop. I heard a car screech to a halt; it almost crushed me to death." The enraged driver pursued Owoh into the shop, but calmed down when Owoh pointed out that he was the musician heard on the recording.

Owoh notched several hits in Nigeria in the 1960s, but his career was slowed between 1967 and 1970 by the country's civil war. Owoh fought for the Nigerian government against the country's Biafran rebels. After the war he recorded a major hit called "Oriki Ilu Oke," and his fame spread to Nigerian expatriate communities. In 1972 he played in London, England, at a graduation ceremony for Nigerian law students, and went on to perform on a larger bill that included South African legend Miriam Makeba. "I played at the African center on October 1, 1972. That was where I was honoured with the doctorate degree in music," Owoh told the NigeriaArts website. From then on he was often known as Dr. Orlando Owoh.

Gaining fans as a result of these initial appearances, Owoh toured the United Kingdom and appeared in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. He also performed in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, but although his music was widely available in Britain, he enjoyed only one U.S. release, Dr. Ganja's Polytonality Blues, a 1995 reissue of earlier Omimah Band and Young Kenneries tracks. Back in Africa, Owoh's LP albums on the Decca, Electromat, and Shanu Olu labels were consistent hits. He eventually gave up trying to keep track of their number, but estimates have placed it above 40.

Dubbed Music "Kennery"

Around 1975, Owoh named his backing group His Young Kenneries, a term that later changed to His Africa Kenneries International, or His African Kenneries Beats International. The word "Kennery," also spelled Kenery or Cannery, seemed to be related to the word "canary." "They say my voice is unique like that of a bird called Cannery," Owoh told Ajirire. "And in truth, if you see Cannery, it has the colour of a rainbow and its voice has different tunes."

As Western production electronics began to infiltrate the music of other West African bands, Owoh stuck to his low-tech approach; heard today, his music sounds distinctly rootsier than that of other highlife bands and strongly evokes the music's traditional base. He also generally remained true to the small guitar-band format of highlife rather than adapting his style to the huge, kinetic ensembles of the rising juju genre of King Sunny Ade and his African Beats, although some of his records were designated as juju on their printed labels. He sang mostly in Yoruba but recorded music in English on occasion. His recordings, like those of other African musicians, consisted of long, dance-suitable medleys of connected pieces; they gave only a small slice of what would occur during an actual Owoh performance, which might last all night.

In the mid-1980s Owoh's music took a turn toward what Ronnie Graham, in The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, called "saucy and provocative lyrics," and he apparently ran afoul of the Nigerian government. He was also imprisoned for six months on cocaine possession charges. Graham, in his book The World of African Music,) noted that Owoh was "associated in the public mind with various forms of drug abuse," but Owoh later denied the charges. "I cannot forget the experience. It's so painful," he told Ajirire. "They say I sniff cocaine, it's a lie. ... Do I smoke Igbo [marijuana]? No, I don't smoke Igbo, what I smoke is Ajuwa. Ajuwa is our local herbs."

The affection of the Nigerian public for Owoh and his band survived this setback. Owoh released at least a dozen albums between 1990 and 2005, sometimes adding the honorific "Chief" in front of "Doctor" before his given name. In 2000 he launched a lawsuit against Decca, seeking back royalties for his many recordings for the label. A sign of Owoh's lasting influence was the tribute paid to him by youthful Nigerian rapper Dele Bravo, who told P.M. News that "Orlando is my mentor," although the two met for the first time in 2003. Bravo put his music under the inventive genre category of "Ju-Fuji-Makosa with Kennery touch." A large group of musicians and clubgoers gathered at the O Jez Nightclub in Lagos to pay tribute to Owoh in 2005. There were reports that year that he had been slowed by a stroke, but he shrugged them off. "Don't bother about my present condition," he told Ajirire. "I still play music like I used to do. ... Only death can stop me from playing music."

by James M. Manheim

Orlando Owoh's Career

As a young man, served as carpenter's apprentice; formed Orlando Owoh and His Omimah Band, ca. 1960; fought on government side in Nigerian-Biafran war, 1967-70; toured Great Britian, 1972; formed Orlando Owoh and His Young Kenneries, 1975; continued to record and perform frequently, 1990s and 2000s.

Famous Works

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 3 years ago

I love Dr Orlando's music.There is no comparism in terms of uniqueness and pasonality. I did not die anyway as his music will always be enjoyed by us. We are in the process of setting up another band from Owo ( his homeland) in honour of our beloved Doctor who gave us so much inspiration. May his soul rest in peace.

about 5 years ago

Dr Orlando Owoh-Chief/Dr Stephen Oladipupo Olaore Owomoyela was born in Ifon,Ondo State in february 1932 and his mother was from Owo while his father came from Ifon but was a well known contractor who lived in Oshogbo and Ado-Ekiti and others wherever he had contract-construction jobs.I was in primary school and would be coming from school in the afternoon while i would be hearing Dr Orlando Owoh's tunes from Charity Record Stores,Arakale road/Okearo junction,Akure.Dr Orlando Owoh was like an uncle to me later in life.May God Almighty Father bear his gentle soul in eternal peaceful rest road/Okearo junction,Akure,Ondo State,Nigeria.Over the yaers i continued to develop much more intrest in Dr Orlando's consecutive tunes till when i met him personally later in life and he was a real human being very generous and friendly as well as accomodating.There is no other artist that can compare with Dr orlando Owoh's music.Nigeria has lost the greatest philosophical composer,guiterist and singer with special distinguished Kennery's voice,which even in death,is inimitable and irreplasable and untrammelled.What we have in the country today in Nigeria are not real artists or composers most of whom who can not play guiter or any musical instruments and with the lose of Dr Orlando Owoh,i pray the African Kenneries Band led by Dr Orlando's son Kunle Owomoyela who had been on stage for some years with his father after he suffered stroke and with the leadership of the respected best drummer in the world-Ade-Conga who leads Kenneries band even while Dr Orlando was alive the music and Dr Orlando Owoh's legacy and fame with good name shall continue to rule the music scene in Nigeria and worldwide. Dr Patrick Kolawole Boboye,Canada

about 5 years ago

i so much love Baba's music Dr.Orlando owo thanx 4yo nice and peaceful music may yo SOUL REST IN PEACE amen we will always remember u by playing yo music we love u but GOD loves u more

almost 6 years ago

Olando has always facinated me since my childhood days,he is one of those fairy heroes that characterise my childhood,larger than live,abstract to my village in okere,yet so close and real.we will really miss him.

almost 6 years ago

FIRST OF ALL I AM A YOUNG BOY AM 23 NOW BUT I AM DEEPLY IN LOVE WITH HIGH LIFE MUSIC THANKS TO THE LIKES OF ORLANDO OWOH..I GREW UP WITHOUT HAVING FRIENDS SO I AM ALWAYS WITH MY DAD AND HE LISTENS TO ORLANDO ALL DAY THAT MADE ME FALL IN LOVE WITH HIM SINCE I WAS 5 AND I HAD BEING AND WOULD ALWAYS BE A FAN I MEAN ONE OF THE GREATEST FAN F ORLANDO IN THIS FREE WORLD OF OURS THE MADE A REMARKABLE IMPACT ON NIGERIAN MUSICAL INDUSTRY TODAY. I WAS SHOCKED WHEN I HAD HE IS NOW LATE COS I WAS THINKING OF INVITING HIM FOR MY DADS 50TH BIRTH I MISS HIM I MUST CONFESS WHY ALL THE GREAT ARTIST LEAVING... CHEERS I WILL MISS HIM.......

almost 6 years ago

myself and my honey (Mrs Ranti Hassan) We realy love Dr. Orlando Owoh music and in person,we were in serious grieve since his death of a reel african legend and Doctor of philosophy in music and also beyond. We sympathized with the entire family. He has done best and left us with an unforgettable history and also fulfilled a success his destine, our prayer was that may his gentle soul rest in Bosom of the lord, Amen. It is actual fact of life that it has being appointed time each human being to die. "Baba Orlando Owoh sun re o"

almost 6 years ago

I realy love Orlando owoh music start from my youth, and till now even in oversea i'm i still enjoyed all his music so music so muc! i real sad when we read that we lost the man with special character and who make people happ all the time with his music!

almost 6 years ago

We have lost a reel African legend in music,Dr Orlando Owoh is one of the few musician that his music teach about african cultures.

almost 6 years ago

he is my familes best music artist right from the early 80'my dad has always love playing his songs,and so we all develop intrest in him.he is a mentor and a role model and a force to be recon with.as he is always called in my home[baba ganja] lives for ever in many lives.

almost 6 years ago

As a child, I had been fascinated to no end by the rhythm and lyrics of Dr. Orlando Owoh. Such was my love for his music that I could delay or forgo a meal to listen to his tracks! While it might be easier for some of his fans to identify his "best" production, I rate them all equally! However, it is an inevitable fact of life that it is appointed unto each human being to die. Orlando's time came and he is gone. That he left a legacy to be talked about is an invitation to us surviving mortals.

almost 6 years ago

As one of the lovers of the music of this late great legend of our time-Dr Orlando Owoh who just passed away to the great beyond, I sympathized with the family. He was an achiever whom we are proud to associate with and called our own during his life time. Even against all odds that stood his way he made an indelible mark in his chosen career. He was a success who came and fulfilled his destine. Sleep well baba Orlando.

almost 6 years ago

i have been Baba fans since i heard his music Saworo. since then i have love the lyrics in his music, voice, stage performabce etc. my prayer was that may his gentle soul Rest in perfect Peace Amen.

almost 6 years ago

BABA LIVES FOREVER

almost 6 years ago

That we have now lost icon of yoruba music is a grat loss

about 6 years ago

I am Yoruba man and I believe that the best musician, singing in my language, is Dr. Orlando Owoh. I find solace in his music and it is so soothing.Believe me,I can go into a trance listening to him. I attune to my inner self just listening to his voice and lyrics.I have converted many friends to being his fan. There is no song of his that I do not have.You can say that I am mad for his music!