One hazy morning in the second half of the noughties, I was at the Odo-Oba residence of my grandfather, Folarin Olawoyin (a.k.a Alhaji J14), and our conversations drifted toward the persona of then Chief Saliu Akanmu Adetunji.
Alhaji J14 had just returned to Ibadan from a campaign trip to Oke-Ogun, alongside the fearsome Lamidi Adedibu, his bosom friend. My memory of that encounter is now blurred, somewhat, by time but I remember now that the pendulum of discourse shifted to his many childhood friends.
As I sat watching him fiddle with the spinning disk of his old gramophone, a voice filtered out from the record player:
“Adebisi l’amo toni Idiikan o/Isale-Ijebu ni t’Abaasi/Akanmu Saliu lo ni Po-o-po…”(*Sanusi Adebisi owns Idi-Ikan/Abass Aleshinloye owns Isale-Ijebu/Popo Yemoja belongs to Saliu Akanmu Adetunji).
The voice was Tatalo Alamu’s, one of Ibadan most important artistes of his era. The vinyl was an old output in which he eulogized Baba Saliu Adetunji.
I was genuinely moved by the eulogy, and, like a nosy reporter-in-training that I was, wanted to know more.“Eeyan ‘re ni Saliu, koda o wa’bi suuna re”—‘Saliu is a good man, he was even at your naming ceremony’—my grandfather said to me, in response to my question about Baba Adetunji, his words wrapped carefully in thick Ibadan accent.
That morning, as Tatalo’s sonorous voice unfurled from the gramophone, Alhaji J14 stood from his seat and looked through the windows, a smile adorning his wrinkled face, like a man peering over a blissful past. If he considered that moment quite significant for me in my never-ending desire to stand on his shoulders and peep into history, he never showed it.
As soon as the disk came to a grinding halt and momentary silence ensued, he slotted another disk. But Tatalo seemed to have moved away from Baba Adetunji, his artistic gaze now fixed on his friend, Alhaji J14 himself:“J14 Oko Eji o/Oko Dudu, Oko Pupa/Oko Iya Oloti l’odooye/Afinju oni-taya l’eko o…Lehinkule Aboderin n’ibadan…Igbesi aye re, konidojuru…”
Together with other influential figures, including Alhaji Alasaro, Oba Saliu Adetunji and Alhaji J14 and allies were considered the ‘Gbajumos’ (prominent people) of their era, and they preened at every major social event in downtown Ibadan, from Popo Yemoja to Odo’ye, attracting the attention of society women and earning praises from every musician that mattered. Think Amuda Agboluaje. Think Tatalo Alamu. Think Dauda Epo-Akara.
As was fashionable among their peers at the time, Oba Saliu Adetunji got his ‘Omo Aje’ sobriquet from his father’s own ‘Babalaje’, which he later took ownership of after the old man’s demise in 1989, while my grandfather earned his ‘J14’ nickname from the number plate of his popular car at the time. Like most of their friends, they were successful businessmen who plied their trade in Lagos—Adetunji, a tailor turned music promoter and Alhaji J14, a tyre merchant —but like others, they never left their Oluyole roots, and a weekend wasn’t complete without an Owambe in Ibadan.To be sure, the Adetunjis and J14s weren’t essentially the most visible businessmen of that era in Ibadan, which, true to its origin, remained a melting pot, throwing its wide arms open to strangers from far and near.
There were the Odutola Brothers, comprising of Adeola, a literate Christian, and Jimoh, a self-made Muslim. Interestingy, their father was a Muslim, while their Mother, Sabina, was a Christian. There was also Chief Theophilus Adediran Oni, who was popularly known as T.A Oni and Sons (Corrupted by locals as ‘Oni o Suwon’), as well as Chief Bode Amoo, who owned Bode Foams. Aare Arisekola Alao, who started as a trader of insecticides (Gamalin 20) was also on the radar, with his fleet of businesses, and, later, Mufu Ajadi Lanihun—nicknamed “Olowo ti n f’owo Saanu”—came around to hog the limelight.
There were also influential figures in the Lebanese community who settled in Ibadan in the 1930s and were integral to the business growth and development of the city. But because Saliu Adetunji and peers hailed from and operated within the central part of the city, they made their marks like true colossi, shaking the heart of the city with their presence.
Born on August 26, 1928, at Popoyemoja, Oba Adetunji was raised by a tailor father. He would later record modest success, first, in the same craft. Like most people from his generation and social class, the young Adetunji had no educational certificate and never attended any school, but he attended lesson classes. Yet whatever he lacked in western education in his early years, he made up for in native intelligence and entrepreneurship spirit that took him to Lagos in 1949. Upon arrival, he trained under one Disu Alade Igbalajobi from Ijaye, learnt how to sew both English and Yoruba dresses, and his business boomed afterwards. Ever dutiful and adventurous, his journey from tailoring to entertainment began with the avant-garde Badejo Okusanya, considered one of the first Nigerians to own a “record label”. One afternoon in the late 1950s, Badejo effectively gave Adetunji the needed push by paying him four and a half shillings as royalty on each record he sold in a business experiment Saliu himself was a tad oblivious of.
With Badejo’s baptism of the young Saliu into record promotion and all-round entertainment, the young Adetunji established his immensely popular Omo Aje records in 1957 at number 2, Oke Popo, by Oya compound, in the heart of Isale Eko. Omo Aje would later throw up superstars like Lefty Salami Balogun—a former drummer, Tatalo, Amuda Agboluaje, Jimoh Ayinla Anikura, Omo Kekere Amoo, Jaiyegbade Alao, Dauda Epo-Akara, among others.
In 1976, during the reign of Olubadan Gbadamosi Adebimpe (1976 – 1977) of Odinjo, Saliu Adetunji was persuaded to become the Mogaji of his family by the late Balogun Olubadan, High Chief Sulaiman Omiyale.In celebration of that epoch, again, the abundantly gifted Tatalo stormed the studio to make history:“Adetunji je Mogaji, Gbegede gbina o/Adetunji je Mogaji, Gbegede gbina o/Ibadan a t’Eko, l’owo e lowa o/Adetunji je Mogaji , Gbegede gbina…/”For decades, Oba Adetunji climbed the Olubadan chieftaincy stairs with patience and royal grace, staying off controversies. In a twist of fate, however, before the death of Oba Odulana Odugade, his ascension to the throne in 2016 was necessitated by the death within two weeks of Omowale Kuye and High Chief Omiyale who brought him into the line, both in 2015.Between the 1980s and the last decade, together with Ambali Adetunji, Oba Saliu redefined the face of Fuji music, picking the great Wasiu Ayinde Marshal (K1) from the gutters and making him easily the most consequential Fuji artiste not just of his generation but in history, bar Sikiru Ayinde Barrister.
Alao Malaika, the skinny youngster who emerged from Isale-Eko in the 1990s, also found fame and wealth through Babalaje Records.
In ‘Ayinde K’aabo’, a live performance that marked K1’s return to Nigeria after he was rumoured to have been diagnosed of cancer in 2009, before explaining how Oba Adetunji picked him from the gutters, he sang the praise of then High Chief Adetunji:“Agbigbo l’oba eye o/Chief Saliu mi (Adetunji)/Agbigbo l’oba eye…/”With his exit, a new chapter begins not just in the city’s cultural landscape, but also in its business and socio-political milieu.
When the late Governor Abiola Ajimobi brought forward the idea of a reform (which I consider a well-intentioned move messed up by a haughty strategy and poor communication in a deeply conservative environment), and there was turbulence, it’s a testament to Oba Adetunji’s royal grace that the city was not thrown into chaos. And we must have seen this manifest in the avoidable controversy that reared its ugly head amid conversations around High Chief Lekan Balogun’s rights to mount the stool—a chaos that every Ibadan man knows is deeply rooted more in politics than in protection of pristine traditional ethos. (More on this when the dust finally settles).At every epochal juncture of Ibadan history, there were leaders who stood on its threshold and wrote their names into our lore with royal grace. If Oba Okunola Abass made name as the first Olubadan to be so called in the 1930s, Oba Gbadamosi Adebimpe had the stool elevated as the first king to wear a beaded crown in 1976.
If Oba Yesufu Oloyede Asanike brought glamour—some may say ‘derision’, depending on perspective anyway—humour and popularity to that throne, and Oba Odulana Odugade brought respectability as a seasoned educationist, Olubadan Adetunji brought to the throne a masterful blend of royal diplomacy and Ibadan famed spirit of warriors.
Being on the throne at a time considered one of the most turbulent moments in the Olubadan chieftaincy history in recent decades, his most important legacy would be the stability he maintained in that office despite the turbulence.
I consider Oba Adetunji’s demise not just a communal, but a personal, loss. I was supposed to meet him, but in my weird fashion of avoiding people I revere so much (on the basis of the unfounded fear of not wanting to take the risk of having a “perfect” image I have of them tainted by any such encounter), I didn’t meet him.
As I type this, I return to Tatalo Alamu’s classic, Oro T’ojemo Ibadan, produced by Saliu Adetunji’s Babalaje Records, with the artiste’s melodious voice sending me back to that epoch era in Ibadan social life:“Oro to’jemo Ibadan se n so?/Se ki n so o, eyin eyan/Eleepo a te po/Epo o je oorun o pa’gi/Omo Iya kanna won sa jo je e/Lagelu l’olori won/Igba to ti’Ile Ife de’badan/Lagelu fi Ile re s’Oja Oba…”
And here I am, perched on the hilly surface of Oja’ba, nodding with pride to Baba n’Badan’s melancholy-tinged melody, beholding the brownish beauty of the many roofs scattered in the belly of the seven hills of this great city of warriors, praying for the peaceful transition of Olubadan Akanmu Saliu Adetunji’s soul to that other space where there is eternal rest.