Afrobeat might be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Nigerian music, but for close to a century it’s another style that has been the most widely and consistently popular in the West African country. Jùjú emerged in the 1920s in the drinking establishments in Olowogbowo, a Lagos neighborhood mostly inhabited by Saro people, and some ethnomusicologists even trace it back to a specific group of friends who would gather in Till Nelson ‘Akamo’ David’s motor mechanic “workshop15.” Since then jùjú has evolved both conceptually and in practice, closely mirroring the immense social, political, and economic transformations which have swept Nigeria during the 20th century. 

In the early days, before it was known as jùjú, the style emerged from the combination of different Nigerian and “imported” traditions that all came together in Lagos. On the one hand was Yoruba drumming, Christian church melodies, and traditional asiko dance music, while on the other were the sea shanties of the Liberian Kru sailors, the samba of Lagos’ Brazilian community, and the introduction of the tambourine drum by the Salvation Army Missionaries. All these different elements came together in this new, syncretic style, in which one person would sing while others would accompany with a box guitar or banjo, as well as making rhythms with cigarette boxes, bottles, and empty palm-wine kegs. The lyrics were usually about important events in a person’s life or that of the community, and carried reflections on morality and virtue. 

This is the context in which Tunde King, one of the boys who would gather at workshop15, emerged as an early Jùjú pioneer, influencing a whole generation of musicians — Ojoge Daniel, and Ayinde Bakare, Ojo Babajide, and Tunde Nightingale to name a few — and making the first jùjú recording in 1936. He is also credited with coining the term jùjú, which means “throwing in Yoruba,” an allusion to the way a musician in his band would throw a Brazilian, tambourine-like drum up in the air before catching it again. 

During these first few decades jùjú became an increasingly popular choice at ceremonies and in taverns across Lagos, but its instrumentation and musical style remained largely the same. This changed with the introduction of the Yoruba talking drum by Akambi “Ege” Wright. Not only did this small hourglass-shaped drum contribute its distinctive sound, which can mimic the tone patterns of human speech, but it also brought with it other aspects of Yoruba musical tradition, such as traditional proverbs and praise singing. At the same time another musician, the Kruman Sunday Harbour Giant, included the penny whistle flute, mandolin, and organ in his ensemble. According to Prof. Afolabi Alaja-Browne these additions were due to the competition between local groups who were all trying to come up with the most unusual and innovative sound to win the favor of local taverns and their patrons. The advent of electric amplification after World War II further enabled the introduction of new instruments, such as the electric guitar.

The true break between “old” and “new” jùjú music can be attributed to Isaiah Kehinde Dairo, who expanded the traditional ensemble to include the accordion and mouth organ. Diaro also turned his attention to regional singing styles, rhythms, and melodies, and by singing in dialect and introducing more traditional elements, he broadened jùjú’s appeal outside of Lagos and deepened its connection with Yoruba culture countrywide in the pivotal time leading up to independence. Dairo became the first jùjú musician to become a country-wide star, and released many hit songs with his band the Morning Star Orchestra (later the Blue Spots).

Although he remained popular until the 1990s, Dairo would soon be overshadowed by two artists who would go on to become Jùjú’s biggest stars: Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade. Their careers, which started in the mid-’60s but really took off in the ‘70s, would be defined by an intense artistic rivalry that sparked a period of creativity and innovation for Jùjú music.

Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey began his career playing with Fatai Rolling-Dollar’s band, but soon left to form highlife-jùjú fusion band The International Brothers, which then became the Inter-Reformers when they began playing straight Jùjú. Obey increased the size of the Jùjú ensemble, adding more guitars and talking drums, and performed extended dance tracks that brought together both Christian messages and Yoruba tales. He and his band specialized in praise-singing, the practice of extolling the virtues and qualities of an individual, usually a rich socialite or business tycoon. 

This transformative period for jùjú coincided with Nigeria’s oil boom, and as money poured into the country and people gained influence and affluence, praise-singing took on a more prominent role within popular music and enabled musicians like Obey to become millionaires. 

King Sunny Ade, too, appealed to the rich and powerful, but had more of a populist appeal with his fast-paced dance songs which often contained thinly veiled sexual innuendos. Born into a poor family of royal lineage in Ondo Kingdom, he moved to Lagos and played in Moses Olaiya’s highlife band before moving on to start his own band The Green Spots, and over the years further expanded his band (which went through more than a few name changes) to include several guitars, incorporating a steel guitar for the first time, as well as different percussion instruments and synths. 

Both Obey and Ade had an immense impact on the evolution and popularization of jùjú in Nigeria, but it was Ade who introduced it to the rest of the world with his 1982 album Juju Music. Although musicians like Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Manu Dibango and Hugh Masekela had released music and toured in the US before, none of them had had a major commercial success (except maybe for Dibango’s massive 1972 hit “Soul Makossa’’). Island Records recognized Ade’s star potential and thought he could achieve the same level of global success as their late artist Bob Marley. While he never even got close, Juju Music was both a critical and commercial success. 

Back in Nigeria Obey also continued to release hit after hit, and his songs soundtracked Yoruba weddings and ceremonies. However, the tide was about to turn: following the optimism of the 1970s, the Nigerian economy began to deteriorate in the 1980s. The 1990s dawned with a coup d’état, marking the beginning of military rule and the suppression of cultural expression. Ade and Obe continued recording and performing, but much less frequently, and the sun began to set on jùjú’s heyday as synthpop, disco, and fuji began to take over. 

When it seemed like the jùjú era was all but over, a new chapter in this versatile musical genre arrived in the form of Sir Shina Peters. Although he had spent time playing in Obey’s band, Shina borrowed his provocative style and racy lyrics from King Sunny Ade, but did away with the Hawaiian guitar Ade had introduced in favor of faster, heavier fuji-style percussion, futuristic synths, and Afrobeat rhythms. He called this style “afrojuju”, and although he’d already released a few albums (like the 1986 Sewele, which marked a turning point in the search for his own personal style) it was Ace which would propel his career to new heights and kick off a period of “Shinomania.”

Since then no other musician has come forward to claim Peters’ crown, and it’s been decades since a jùjú record has come close to topping the charts. But the genre is far from dead: local jùjú bands still draw the crowds in Lagos bars, and Ade and Obey’s hits are ubiquitous at weddings and other celebrations.

Megan Iacobini de Fazio

History of Juju Music Vols. 1-3

Various Artists
History of Juju Music Vols. 1-3 cover

A comprehensive look at the development of jùjú, starting from its early days until its latest iterations in the 1990s with some interesting analysis on its origins and influences in Volume 3. The first volume begins with two of jùjú pioneer Tunde King’s earliest recorded tracks, where he is accompanied by tambourine, guitar-banjo, and sekere. Irewolede Denge’s track “Orin Asape Eko” is a simple, melodic tune where voice and guitar take center stage, as opposed to Ayinde Bakare’s next two tracks, where percussion is the driving force. By the time the compilation gets to the music of I.K Dairo in the 1950s, you can hear just how much it changed in only a few decades. The music is much richer, with the addition of the mouth organ, accordion, talking drum, and echoes of more traditional Yoruba music. Volume 2 picks up in the 1960s with the music of Dele Ojo, an apprentice of highlife musician Victor Olaiya who remained popular throughout his life and even toured the United States (his political track “Freedom for all Black People,” recorded in the US, is also featured on the compilation — hold on for the incredible breakdown). By then electric guitars were ubiquitous, as you can hear in the music by Tunde Nightingale, one of the first jùjú musicians to become a star after World War 2. His style, full of the praise and incantations that won him the favor of Lagos’ rich socialites, was known as “s’o wambe” (is it there?), a risque reference to the beads worn by women under their clothes. Finally, the 1990s are represented here by Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, who, in his typical style, sings God’s praises in both tracks. Volume 3 is a great overview of jùjú music, and includes both music and spoken sections explaining jùjú’s genesis and influences.

Juju Roots: 1930s-1950s

Various Artists
Juju Roots: 1930s-1950s cover

A great primer on the early days of jùjú, which in some cases, like on the lovely “Orin Asape Eko” by Irewolede Denge and Dickson Oludaiye, still closely resembled the palm wine music it was derived from. Pioneers like Ayinde Bakare and Tunde King and his group are of course present, with their banjo, mandolin, guitar, shekere, and what sounds like a goje, a Yoruba one-stringed fiddle. The Yoruba talking drum or Iya Ilu, now a symbol of modern jùjú music, is nowhere to be heard on this compilation, as it hadn’t yet spread after being introduced by Akambi “Ege” Wright. A real highlight is Lagos’ Mozart Orchestra’s brass heavy piece, which lends itself surprisingly well to the melodies and rhythms of jùjú.

The Original 'Owa Nbe' Sound, Vol. 1

Tunde Nightingale
The Original 'Owa Nbe' Sound, Vol. 1 cover

Tunde Nightingale recorded several volumes of “The Original ‘Owanbe’ Sound”, named after the style he pioneered in which “S’owambe” and “O’wambe” were a customary call and response in reference to the waist beads worn by female fans or the money and gifts he expected to be placed on his head or at his feet as a sign of appreciation. Nightingale was born in Ibadan and formed his first jùjú group in 1944, becoming one of the first successful jùjú musicians following the Second World War. Nightingale helped popularize the electric guitar, but more than anything he changed the culture around this style of music: when he began playing jùjú was not popular among the elites, and was seen more as bar music for the working class. However, starting in the early ‘50s Tunde Nightingale and his Agba Jolly Orchestra began performing regularly at the West African Club in Ibadan, where he would entertain his high-class patrons with animated talking drum intermissions, nimble guitar playing, and by singing their praises. This practice would become a huge part of the jùjú culture, which would see future stars like Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade become darlings of Nigeria’s rich and powerful.

Juju Master

I.K. Dairo
Juju Master cover

No jùjú history book can be complete without a chapter on Isaiah Kehinde Dairo, the artist who more than anyone helped shape jùjú’s modern sound and broadened its appeal beyond Lagos, transforming it into a genre loved across Nigeria. In the 1960s he and his band The Blue Spots began experimenting with traditional sounds from different Yoruba regions, incorporating rhythms, melodies, and even lyrics from the Edo, Urhobo, and Hausa ethnic groups. They also absorbed more Latin American influences, expanded the traditional ensemble to include the mouth organ and accordion, and often included a section of praise singing — in between the incredible percussion breaks — that helped Dairo become an elite favorite and a popular star across the country.

Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and His Miliki Sound

Ebenezer Obey
Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and His Miliki Sound cover

This 1973 album marks a significant moment in Obey’s musical journey, as he transitioned from the highlife-jùjú fusion he’d played throughout the 1960s with his band The International Brothers to the more classic jùjú sound that would make him a superstar. Obey was inspired by pioneers like I.K. Dairo and Tunde Nightingale, which kept the original jùjú-heads happy, but he also strived to appeal to new, younger audiences by experimenting with Yoruba percussion and adding more drums and guitars to weave lively dance compositions. This was before he also added keyboards and synths in the 1980s, but the interplay between the different percussions and guitars — a tenor guitar, a rhythm guitar, and a lead for the solos — is more than enough to create hypnotic, Hawaiian-tinged dancefloor fillers.

Afrotunes: Best of Juju, Vol. II - Oba Mimo Olorun Ayo

Ojo Balingo
Afrotunes: Best of Juju, Vol. II - Oba Mimo Olorun Ayo cover

The partnership between BBE and legendary Nigerian label Tabansi has brought back to light dozens of records that might otherwise have remained in obscurity. Ojo Balingo’s mysterious Afrotunes – Best of Juju Vol. II - Oba Mimo Olorun Ayo is one of those, as little is known of this jùjú master or his band. The record wasn’t a commercial hit when it first came out in the 1970s, although it may have been well known locally as Chief Tabansi, the label founder, was known for his “grassroots” approach to promotion, sending “music vans” into villages that were usually ignored by the wider music industry. What is clear is that Balingo was an experimenter, blending traditional jùjú with funk and psych rock. Although the reissue is organized into eight tracks, the tracks actually divide two, very long, medleys. The first (side A of the record) sounds more traditional, with its bubbling rhythms and vocal harmonies. The talking drum of course appears throughout, but gets more insistent on side two, sometimes unfolding into powerful percussive breaks, alongside a hallucinogenic, serpentine Hawaiian guitar.

Current Affairs

Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey & His Inter-Reformers Band
Current Affairs cover

Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey released over 100 albums over his career, and many songs are played so frequently at weddings and other functions that they have become deeply ingrained in Nigeria’s cultural consciousness. While it’s almost impossible to pick a standout record, as almost all of them were huge hits, Current Affairs is up there with the best. The 1980 album was the first of Obey’s to be a success outside of Nigeria, and is composed of only two tracks. At this point Obey had added dozens of musicians to his ensemble, and his tracks were getting longer and longer, which became a standard in jùjú. On “Oba Sijuade”, which runs about 18 minutes long, Obey pays tribute to King Okunade Sijuade over leisurely percussion, a combination of congas, shakers, and the regular bounce of the talking drum, as vocal harmonies or a flowing guitar line take it in turns to lead. On “Ogunpa Flood Disaster” Obey commiserates with the family of victims who perished in a disastrous flood earlier that year, praising the politicians who helped in its wake. Obey has always been vocal about social, economic, and environmental issues, even writing a song about Coronavirus.

Best of the Classic Years

King Sunny Adé
Best of the Classic Years cover

The compilation collects tracks from Ade’s first foray as a solo musician, just after leaving Victor Olaya’s highlife band and forming the Green Spots, a homage to IK Dairo’s Blue Spots. Far from being a novice musician, Ade was already a master of his craft, weaving gorgeous, leisurely tracks that run for close to twenty minutes but never overstay their welcome. Though the steel guitar and synths that would become a trademark of his later music are mostly absent (except on the 18 minute “Synchro System,” which he would re-record years later for his second album with Island Records), the interplay between guitars is captivating, anchored by the chatter of Yoruba percussion and guided by Ade’s unmistakable voice. It’s interesting to compare tracks like “Synchro System” and “Sunny Ti De” with their later Island Records versions. Even without the sleek production and modern instrumentation they are as hypnotic as ever.

Juju Music

King Sunny Adé
Juju Music cover

This album is the first time most people outside of Nigeria would hear of King Sunny Ade, or hear the driving Yoruba percussion, interlocking guitars, and harmonized vocals of jùjú for that matter. But when Juju Music was released in 1982 Ade had already been making music since the mid ‘60s and had his own label, a large popular following, and the support of Nigeria’s oil-rich elites. Island Records hoped Ade would become their next “World Music” star following the death of Bob Marley, and invested heavily in the album as well as the 1982-83 tour that has since become the stuff of legends (Afropop‘s Sean Barlow credits a performance by Ade and his 15-piece African Beats band for opening his eyes “not only to jùjú but also to the vast and largely unknown Afropop styles across the continent”). To appeal to a wider, global audience, Island Records execs worked with Ade to slightly change his style and sound, cutting down the eighteen minute plus songs typical of jùjú to 3 or 4 minutes and heightening the production, making it tighter and more layered. But Ade’s spirit still shines through: “Ja Funmi” is lush and bright, enveloping you with its easy groove and taking you along for a mellow ride. “Sunny Ti De Ariya” picks up the pace with its vigorous talking drum work out, chanting, and synth interjections. There isn’t a dull moment on the album, and it’s no wonder it is considered a key record not only in King Sunny Ade’s career, but also for its role in opening the world’s ears to African music as a whole.


Sir Shina Peters
Ace cover

Jùjú was undergoing a major crisis when Shina Peters burst onto the scene in 1989 with his surprise hit album Ace. He didn’t exactly come out of nowhere — he’d been an apprentice under Chief Ebenezer Obey, had played with General Prince Adekunle, and had released four albums already, yet his meteoric rise to fame took people by surprise. With production by Laolu Akins, on Ace Williams added electronic keyboards and saxophone to the already large jùjú ensemble, and used an electronic drum kit to strengthen the traditional percussive instruments and create even more complex rhythmic patterns. While old school jùjú — including the modern sounds of Chief Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade — was still well loved among the older generations, Peters’ powerful mix of jùjú, Afrobeat, and Fuji-style percussion reeled the young crowds back in.


Sir Shina Peters & His International Stars
Sewele cover

Conversations around Shina Peters’ musical career usually only center around a couple of albums, the groundbreaking and hugely successful Ace and its followup Shinamania. But for years before that Peters had been experimenting with new sounds, taking the jùjú he’d grown up with into more progressive, modern directions. The 1986 Sewele, reissued by Strut with great liner notes by Peters himself, was a pivotal point in his career, just as he started honing his Afro-juju sound that would make him a star a few years later. It’s a testament to his ability to take different styles and make them jùjú, from the Afrobeat in “Yabis” to the reggae riff on “Agbe’ere De”, a nod to Bob Marley’s “Get up Stand Up” (there’s a sneaky rip of ABBA’s “I Have a Dream” in there too). Though it may have flown under the radar when it first came out, Sewele is an absolute knockout.

Nigeria 70: No Wahala (Highlife, Afro-Funk & Juju 1973-1987)

Various Artists
Nigeria 70: No Wahala (Highlife, Afro-Funk & Juju 1973-1987) cover

There must have been few places more exciting than Lagos in the 1970s. The city’s incredibly diverse music scene has been well documented, with Strut Records paying particularly close attention with compilations like The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos, Lagos Jump, and Sweet Times, all over them showcasing the psychedelic rock, jùjú, Afrobeat, funk, and soul that were dominating the dancefloors and airwaves back then. No Wahala: Highlife, Afro​-​Funk & Juju 1973​-​1987 shifts the spotlight away from Lagos and onto the Delta region and Abuja, which were just as vibrant. There’s a good dose of jùjú on the compilation, mostly a hybrid between tradition and the funky, psych-rock sounds of the ‘70s. Sina Ayinde Bakare, the son of jùjú pioneer Ayinde Bakare, adds trippy guitar to the typical Yoruba percussion, while M.A. Jaiyesimi & His Crescent Bros stay closer to tradition with their leisurely guitar, classic jùjú vocals and bubbling percussion.

Lagos All Routes

Various Artists
Lagos All Routes cover

Ebenezer Obey is one of jùjú’s undiscussed kings, but when “Eyi Yato” kicks off it’s immediately obvious that this is something different — which is, in fact, what the title means in Yoruba. The afro-disco rhythm might throw you off, but the jùjú’ trademarks — the talking drums, Hawaiian guitar, percussive breakdowns, and Obey’s honeyed vocals — are all there. The first track of the compilation is actually a medley of two Obey songs, and when it switches to “Eleri Ni Wa” about halfway through the steel guitar workouts get even more daring and the rhythms more intense. “Sowambe”, by Sagbeni Aragbada, is a more traditional jùjú workout, referencing the sowambe rhythm and dance devised by pioneer Tunde Nightingale. A great overview of Nigeria’s different folk styles, highlighting how they influenced each other and incorporated funk, psych-rock, and other contemporary sounds.