Orlando Julius obituary

Saxophonist, singer and bandleader whose fusions of highlife and American styles helped transform Nigerian music

The bandleader, songwriter, singer, saxophonist and keyboard player Orlando Julius, who has died aged 78, helped to transform the Nigerian music scene in the 1960s with highly commercial, ground-breaking fusions that influenced Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat.

He began playing professionally as a teenager, working with leading musicians in Ibadan, a major Nigerian cultural centre, before starting his own band, the Modern Aces, in 1964. The group developed a strong local following thanks to Orlando’s experiments in mixing highlife and other African styles with American influences – and the young Fela took note. He regularly attended the band’s concerts at the University of Ibadan or the Independence hotel, and Orlando allowed him to join them on stage.

Although Fela and Orlando had very different personalities – Orlando was easy-going, not interested in writing political songs and had a more conventional lifestyle – they were both adventurous musicians with eclectic tastes, and when Fela was ready to form his early band, Koola Lobitos, Orlando gave him some of his musicians to get him started.

Later, in the mid-70s, Orlando moved to the US, where he recorded and toured with the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Towards the end of his career he also won a cult following in the UK and continental Europe, recording and touring with the Heliocentrics, a London-based band.

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Born in Ikole Ekiti during the British colonial era, Orlando was the son of Adeojo Ekemode, a trader and shopkeeper, and his second wife, Tinuola Dorcas, who farmed and made handwoven cloth. As a child he sang with his mother and played drums “while she worked on the yarn … and I knew that music was the way for me”.

He played the drums and flute at St Peter’s Anglican school in Ikole, but left when he was 14, after the death of his father. Making his way to Ibadan, he worked at a bakery as he tried to get experience with local bands, initially playing drums in the Action Group, run by Jazz Romero, and studying at the Ibadan music school. He went on to work with other leading musicians, including Eddy Okonta and IK Dairo. They played highlife and juju styles, but Orlando had other ideas. “I was listening to John Coltrane, Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson, and wanted to make my own soul music,” he said.

He was only 22 when he and the Modern Aces became household names in Nigeria with their single Jagua Nana, in which a woman is compared to a Jaguar car. It became a massive hit across the country thanks to its infectious, catchy riff and tight rhythm section, matched against sturdy horn playing and vocals. The song reappeared on Orlando’s first solo album, Super Afro Soul (1966), along with other hits including Topless and the James Brown-influenced Ijo Soul, plus a highlife treatment of Robinson and Ronald White’s My Girl.

Malcolm Catto, the Heliocentrics’ drummer, said he had 'never met anyone with so little ego'

He went on to record further albums in Nigeria, responding to popular taste by introducing more funk, rock or Afrobeat influences into his songs and notching up more hit singles. When he relocated to the US in 1974 he based himself first in New York and then Washington, forming a new band, Umoja, that performed alongside stars such as Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.

Masekela, who was passing through Washington, heard Umoja playing at a rehearsal and joined in on flugelhorn when they played Ashiko, a rousing Orlando composition. Orlando was subsequently invited to join Masekela’s new African band, Ojah, and Masekela’s 1975 album The Boy’s Doin’ It (for which Orlando co-wrote the title track) included a glorious, lengthy treatment of Ashiko. He toured with Ojah for two years, also appearing on the 1976 album Colonial Man.

In 1977 Masekela’s producer, Stewart Levine, was asked to produce an “African-American” album by the Motown singer and songwriter Lamont Dozier, and decided that his song Going Back to My Roots “should have an African chant on it”. He called Orlando, who turned up at the studio in double-quick time with half a dozen singers, and the recording was made in two hours. The song became a classic of the soul-disco era, and a cover version became a big international hit in 1981 for the New York group Odyssey.

Orlando remained in the US until 1998, although in 1984 he had returned briefly to Nigeria to record the Dance Afro-Beat album (1985). Needing a dancer and backing singer at the time, he hired Latoya Gill. They got married in 2002, by which time Orlando had set up a recording studio in Nigeria and Latoya had begun to act as his manager.

Although Orlando was largely ignored by western record companies during the “world music” era of the 80s and 90s, growing interest in African music led to “crate diggers” searching out his early recordings. In 2000 the British label Strut re-released Super Afro Soul, and further re-releases on other labels followed.

Strut then invited him to team up with the Heliocentrics, with whom he released the popular and much-praised album Jaiyede Afro in 2014, supported with tours in Europe and Latin America. He greatly enjoyed his association with the band, who played their last gig with him in Mexico in January 2020.

Almost everyone who encountered Orlando spoke of his openness and sense of humour, as well as his laid-back temperament. Malcolm Catto, the Heliocentrics’ drummer, said he had “never met anyone with so little ego”, while their bass-player, Jake Ferguson, described him as “a gentle giant, unique, a joy to be around”.

He is survived by Latoya, a son, Kayode, from an earlier marriage, three children, Tunde, Juliet and Ajamu, from other relationships, Latoya’s children, Dettrick, Ibrm and Emaun, and two brothers, Kehinde and Olugbenda.

• Orlando Julius Aremu Olusanya Ekemode, musician, born 22 September 1943; died 14 April 2022