The Gbedu Box: First Edition (Part One)
‘The Gbedu Box’ is an on-going collaboration between Omenka and Jazzhole aimed at exploring, and provoking thought and discourse around the cultural and critical contributions of musicians from Africa and her related Diaspora.
The title is drawn from ‘gbedu’, which means ‘big drum’ and is a percussion instrument traditionally used in ceremonial Yoruba music in Nigeria and the Benin Republic. In contemporary culture, the term also references forms of Nigerian Afrobeat and hip hop music.
Set up in 1995 as an offshoot of Glendora, the iconic bookstore franchise, Jazzhole has since become a venue for alternative Nigerian music and a rich repository of African culture, with several hundreds of vintage vinyl records, CDs, rare black-and-white portrait photographs of musical legends, experimental film stills, and piles of book titles covering various genres from art, design and fashion to lifestyle. Much of Jazzhole’s legacy is hinged on its role through music in promoting Black civility and consciousness while underscoring Lagos’ position as the cultural capital of the most populous Black nation in the world.
In this first edition of the series, founder, Kunle Tejuosho enlightens us about Jazzhole’s abiding legacy, while the second part features the influential work of Funsho Ogundipe.
Jazzhole was founded in the 90s, which was an exceptionally significant era: many African states, having gained their independence in the sixties and seventies, were then emerging democracies. And music was often used as a tool to raise awareness of the injustices within the society. With a focus on Nigeria, can you please tell us a bit about Jazzhole’s timeline and how it has evolved?
We started in a tiny shop at Obalende on Keffi road, right in front of Dodan Barracks, which was the seat of government. I partnered with a friend of mine, a close childhood buddy, Wale Oki. Oki ended up staying in the UK, and I stayed on here. We were young then. We had just finished college. So when I got back in 1988 from my master’s—I am an electrical engineer, but I never practised—I worked with my mom at her bookstore, Glendora, at the Falomo Shopping Centre. In 1991, I then wanted to extend, and she was a bit more commercial, poppy, more of novels and toys, and sweets. I wanted to extend to a bit more serious, and she always gave me the freedom to do what I wanted. So I got a small shop through this partner of mine at Obalende, and we were always into jazz, I mean very serious jazz.
We did not want to be strangers; [we wanted to] have African music. That’s where the African theme comes in. I was looking at the situation when Lagos at the time did not have a one-stop shop where you could get all the flavours of African music. There was no internet, and CDs were just new then; they weren’t very popular. So I wanted to have a CD store that would have jazz and African music, the whole flavour. When you come to a capital like Lagos, which to me is one of the most populous Black capitals in the world, how can it be possible that you go to a store and not find African music in general, and more strictly, Nigerian music? In Lagos it was more of Yoruba music than anything else. I thought, Why can’t we have the spread of Nigeria, West Africa, South Africa, and why can’t we have the whole diaspora?
So I started there in Obalende. We did it for a couple of years, and then I moved somewhere closer to Falomo Shopping Centre, where the MTN building is (NNPC). We just kept moving, then we eventually got here to this space, and we’ve been here since 1995.
Why was that important?
It was important because I was a music lover, and I couldn’t go anywhere in Lagos to find something like that. There was no space ever where you could pick music from Brazil or Cuba, from the Black world, or music from Port-Harcourt. If I liked Ikwerre music now, I couldn’t get it. Where was I going to get it—am I going to travel all the way to Port-Harcourt? There was no one spot where you could get it. In the 70s there were a lot of journals, a lot of things that you wouldn’t get in normal bookstores, which I wanted to have in that small, tiny spot.
I don’t think it is just highlife that is relevant. I also think our traditional music is more than relevant—and even offshoots of it, like highlife. And I think we should even go back more. I think our traditional music, which is looked down on, especially by the younger generation, is our essence. Those are the fundamentals. You know, back then, you would serve under a master. So there were ways that that tradition was always passing down. But now, you actually go and research and study, because there’s no one to learn from. So it’s harder, and there is so much distraction; we want these easy beats that you get from abroad. But this is the base of rhythm; this is the core, source, material, place, location for all the rhythms that we hear in the Black world. So I don’t know why we’re going out there when it’s right here. So we have to study [this traditional music]. In extension we see it evolved into highlife, Afrobeat, and all the other different forms locally in different places amongst the different ethnic groups that consist of Nigeria.
So when you talk about the era before highlife, what form of music are you talking about?
There is so much. If you look at say, Yoruba land, there are so many different forms: the Muslims had their audience; the Christians had their audience; there were the business men, all kinds of people, and types and strata, layers, of those that appreciate different forms of music from different occasions. I am sure if you go to the east—the Delta, Edo, it’s all different. Then if you go to the north, it’s all different—some just pray or sing. So there are so many forms of music and incredible rhythms that you can tap from, and they’re our own. You don’t have to steal them; they’re our own.
First of all, I was an engineer, but I didn’t practise. Music for me has always been a passion. Selling books I got from the family. My mother was a book seller. We’ve been selling books since I was small. [I remember] carrying books on our heads. We would always open up boxes of books, so that one is in my blood. Music has always been a hobby since I was nine, ten, eleven. My mom bought me a record player. I had a collection, which I’ve been collecting ever since. You know, everyone has a crime; mine is music—buying, collecting—so the idea of having a Jazzhole was automatic for me. Even if I had a job, I would still be doing Jazzhole on the side. Because the only thing that gives me sanity in this society is wherever I can just find my space and listen to my music.
Jazzhole was a platform where we could just share our choice of music, so we’re not commercial or poppy. The whole idea is for it to be a place for like minds, or people that are trying to buy into that kind of thing, or people trying to develop their minds in terms of culture. That’s what we do in the books and music that we pick.
And also why jazz? For me, one of the heaviest art forms the Black man has ever created is jazz. It has prominence and its own identity, and people can register it as a Black form. It might have different flavours—the ingredients are fundamentally African American. Yes, we have our African aspects of it—I am so fascinated that we are still stuck with highlife. With the exception of people like Fela, we are still stuck with this highlife. They’ve taken their forms and created an African American mood. Oyinbo can’t claim it. African Americans can say it’s their own thing, and it’s on such a high pedestal in every aspect. You’ve seen how they’ve taken voice, their own blues, and taken it to another level. So it’s an example of where us as Nigerians or us as Black people can be if we take ourselves seriously.
But really it’s a metaphor in a way for me. When I listen to the masters play, it gives me so much inspiration, because they’re taking you on a journey, and that’s how it affects me, that’s how I listen to music. Sometimes I even get upset when I listen to younger ones now. They’re making it so simple, I smile. They forget that music is such a powerful force that needs to have a message, a serious message, because they have such large audiences—and that’s power. You know, those that provide the internet—the structure—understand the power of the internet, and they use it. We don’t know what they use it for and how they use it. So I don’t think these young ones know the power that they have.
Check out the second part of this edition, which concludes Kunle Tejuosho’s interview and features the influential work of Funsho Ogundipe. Read more.
April 02, 2021