Sikiru Adepoju: The life and journey of Nigeria's only Grammy winner yet [Pulse Interview]
Sikiru Adepoju is a Nigerian drummer and percussionist who has worked with Sir Shina Peters, Orlando Julius, Mickey Hart, Carlos Santana and so forth.
The Grammy Awards are a huge deal. For some, it's validation for the hours of work that sales cannot provide. For others, it's a place in history.
Regardless, fans and well-wishers of artists celebrate in numbers and volumes when their faves get nominated. When news filtered in that Burna Boy got a nod at the 2020, it trended for three days.
It represented the zenith of 'afrobeats to the world' which places Nigeria at the epicentre of attention. While 'afrobeats to the world' is only just cracking the American mainstream, certain excite Nigerians - one of such is the Grammy Awards.
The 2020 Grammy Awards are set to hold on January 25, 2020. For the umpteenth time, a Nigerian is nominated in the Best World Music Album category. Excitement is in the air; Burna Boy - Nigeria's new pop heartthrob is nominated for his well-received album, African Giant.
But Burna Boy is not the first or even the second Nigerian to be nominated in that category. Over the years, Sikiru Adepoju, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, King Sunny Ade and Babatunde Olatunji have been nominated for Grammy Awards. While it’s likely to change later today, only one has won it - Sikiru Adepoju. He won it for an album titled Global Drum Project at the 2009 Grammy Awards alongside Mickey Hart, Giovanni Hidalgo and Zakir Hussein.
I had just finished having breakfast to cushion a groggy morning, but conversation with such a legend excited me and jolted me back to life. After one hour of back stories and 'off the record conversations,' we reluctantly said goodbye. The plan was to have the major conversation the next morning - we didn't have it.
After a few postponements and the miraculous victory over terrible internet quality for Skype, we finally got to it. I was surprised by Sikiru Adepoju's demeanour. In fact, for large parts of the chat that was drenched in back stories, three-minute laughter sessions that mocked terrible American internet and Skype's limitations, we spoke in a mix of Yoruba and English. With the most vivid authenticity, he'd say in Yoruba that, "Sometimes, I just forget that I've won a Grammy."
Interestingly, it should have been his second win in that category, but he only got a certificate for his first win in 1994 because he was only named as a collaborator and not a primary creator. That changed in 2009 when he walked onto the biggest stage in global music with his longtime friend and collaborator, Mickey Hart to get presented with the famous gramophone. The other two collaborators were not present.
In his words, "It's the Grammys - everything changed. The fees changed, the perception changed, life changed and even the way I walked changed (laughs). I will never forget that night." This ended our conversation the first time I spoke with him - it's funny that was not even the main conversation. Due to time differences, we always spoke very early in the mornings - which was close to midnight for him.
In our first conversation which happened via WhatsApp voice call, he warned that journalists need to start documenting people behind bands. Of course, he was that passionate about it - he is one of the few guys behind a band who has made a name for themselves. He told me about working with Commander Ebenezer Obey and the Inter-Reformers band in the 80's and not getting paid.
Sikiru Adepoju: The son of Ibarapa
However, he wasn't always a Grammy Award winner. On November 10 1952, Sikiru Adepoju was born to Chief Ayanleke Adepoju and Mrs Adepoju also known as Iya elewa in Eruwa, Ibarapa, Oyo State. He was born into a lineage of drummers. He has so much siblings that he can't remember his position or their number.
His great-great-grandfather down to his father all carried the name, 'Ayan' which is a Yoruba identifier for drummers by trade and heritage. He says, "I was born into a family of drummers. I am not an 'Ayantojubo' (a drummer by accident), I am Ayandoke (an original drummer)."
But interestingly, nobody forces anybody in the family - everyone who became a drummer down the years picked it up on his own volition. Despite this, all his male siblings were drummers and their father never really taught them how to drum.
To him, it is heritage and providence, "When you're born into a family of drummers, you don’t really need to learn it. It's assumed that it's a part of you. Anywhere the drum sounds, you can pick it up. I can't remember my dad teaching me how to drum."
Through the family's history, their drum of choice is the 'Talking drum.' Younger Yoruba people call it, 'gangan.' However, Adepoju schooled me on why 'gangan' is the wrong word for talking drum. He says, "Older people used to play gangan because it's longer than the normal talking drum. All gangan are talking drums, but not all talking drums are gangan. The smaller drum is called, kanango."
When Sikiru Adepoju was growing up, he had the knowledge of drumming. However, he never wanted to be a drummer because he hated the struggles his father and grandfather went through because of drumming - especially the terrible treatment they got.
He says, "I had a gift, but for a long time, I ran away from it. However, I discovered that nothing I did succeeded and I always found myself back at drumming either for leisure or quick cash. It made me realize that in life, we're all just messing with what we think we know. But destiny is a funny thing, isn't it?"
Despite his earnest desires, Adepoju never really had a formal education because his mother died early. So in 1974 and as he was running away from drumming, he moved to Lagos and tried to be a shoemaker in Olateju, Mushin. Nonetheless, word somehow got out that he could drum and people would come to beg his boss for his services.
While in Lagos, he was also living with his brother, Rashidi who was also a drummer with Wale Olateju. "I used to go to Itire and there I met Mr. Saka AKA Ori Kan Body who played with Kollington Ayinla. There, I went out with them and I met a band that wanted me to play for them - this was before I started training to be a shoemaker."
But in 1975, his boss from whom he was learning shoemaking took on a gig as a driver at the airport shortly after Murtala Muhammed died. Slowly, the man took more interest in that and it became his life. Thus, young Sikiru had to find his own path - drumming beckoned. "Around Agege, I met Sunny Edan who doubted me at first, but eventually gave me a chance to start drumming in 1976."
A child of joy: 'Making money' from music and learning both sides of humanity
In 1976 and Adepoju's shoemaker boss started making money as a cab driver at the Lagos airport and he began disappearing more. Young Sikiru then took the natural path of music that beckoned. However, he still wasn't making money. By this time of the conversation, the Grammy-winner seemed happy to tell the story about this phase of his life.
Around this time, he also started hanging out and pulling all-nighters with his fellow musicianships and instrumentalists at Mayflower, Mushin. There, he met Yomi Israel and Ade Olusayo - both bands.
But around this time, he also became a creative nomad - Ade Olusayo was the third band he joined in 1976. He would change band association as quickly as an MTV Award show host would change clothes. He was looking for a band that would be a home - a band that pays.
Most of the bands he was playing with were doing it for the fun of it - no money was being made. "The idea was to make money from whatever we were 'sprayed' by attendees at the hotels we would play at, but Lagosians have always been crazy. They would enjoy our music throughout the 'jump' and won’t even spray us a dime (laughs)," he says.
He was with Yomi Israel and Ade Olusayo till 1977. Then, he joined Professor Adelowo. There, he learned how big human heart could be after what he'd seen at Mayflower, Mushin.
"Ashamu bought an entire set of instruments for Professor Adelowo because he believed in his talent - I'd never seen anything like it. There, I also spent one year," he said. At this time, he had left his brother, Rashidi's place for another person's place. He calls himself, 'A child of joy,' with whom a lot of people wanted to be associated.
The early days of Sir Shina Peters era
Then, in 1978, he upped and joined Iya Caroline (A band) in Shomolu, Bariga. In 1979, he had his first child with his partner at the time. It made him hungrier to make more money.
While he was working with Iya Caroline and he was making some money, they had a recording session at a studio in Ikeja, Lagos. There, he met with Biodun, the lead guitarist for Sir Shina Peters in the early days. Biodun was also a close friend of Sir Shina Peters'.
"Around this time, Sir Shina had just split from Adewale - they used to be Shina Adewale as a band. Aboderin had also just bought Sir Shina instruments to work with. Biodun then told me that Shina was looking for a talking drum player. Thus, I became part of the maiden members of Shina Peters' band. However, it wasn't really a band for about a year - we were just practicing.
"But at the same time, I was also playing with Yemi Kuti - not a Fela affiliate. Yemi Kuti was a protégé to Commander (Ebenezer Obey) who played juju like Commander. If Commander had clashing shows, Yemi Kuti or YK Ajao would be tasked with playing at the other show. When Shina Peters was ready, I went back to Shina Peters. This went on between 1980 and 1982 - when I joined Commander Ebenezer Obey and Inter-Reformers," he says.
He left Sir Shina Peters and his band because arguments had started creeping in over money-related issues.The final stroke in that drama was on the way back from a performance in Badagry. Band members wanted Biodun to vacate his position as Band captain.
"I was still young at the time, the issue of Biodun had been brewing before the performance in Badagry. When an argument ensued, Shina pushed my fellow talking drum player in the chest. I was behind Shina who was wearing an Agbada. I followed him and turned the agbada on his face before pushing him to the ground (laughs). That band ended after that," he said.
Becoming a tout on the streets of Lagos
After the Shina Peters debacle and considering that he never wanted to be a drummer, he decided to 'hang his stick.' With the hiatus, the frustration reached boiling point. In 1982, he became a tout as an independent contractor with the body that is now known as the National Union of Road Transport Workers. He was in charge of ticketing, identity and other permits.
There, he was making a lot of money - N150-a-day in 1982 Nigerian currency which was a lot of money. For context, his rent was just N20 per month at the time. That invigorated his appetite to never play drums again, but destiny had different plans for him.
Around this time, Sir Shina Peters was also trying to get his band back together - he called a meeting which Adepoju attended. It happened at a place called Ariya. But on getting back home, he got a letter from Simon - band captain for Commander Ebenezer Obey and the Inter-Reformers.Simon had taken his brother to audition for the Inter-Reformers, but his brother failed.
"I was still a tout when I joined Inter-Reformers by pure fortuity. Simon was the band captain for Inter-Reformers and a certain Baba Akilapa was playing back-up drums for Simon. When Baba Akilapa was about to travel to Mecca, I lived on the same street with Simon in Ilasa. After Akilapa travelled, Simon sent me a letter and I joined Inter-Reformers," he said.
Despite the good news, he was in a dilemma. Before he got home that day to Simon's letter, he had agreed to join Shina Peters once again and a show was set for Ariya.
In the end, the offer from Commander Obey proved too big to turn down. On the same day that Shina Peters had a show slated for Ariya, Commander Obey and the Inter-Reformers were billed to headline a show in Abeokuta - their host was the Alake of Egbaland. Thus, Sikiru Adepoju chose the bigger gig.
Shina Peters found out that Sikiru had joined Inter-Reformers when both acts were billed to perform at a show. A surprised Shina Peters saw Adepoju playing with Commander Obey.
The Inter-Reformers band and their leader, Commander Ebenezer Obey were a huge deal in Nigeria at the time. In fact, word has it that even though Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade were cream of the crop to western observers in the 80s, Commander Obey and Inter-Reformers were a cheaper option. Thus, they got a lot of gigs.
With Commander Obey, every Monday morning, members of the band used to get paid at a place called Miliki. Despite those plans, payment was never certain. Whenever payment was disbursed, you would have to make do with whatever you found in your envelope. Nonetheless, the love for drumming kept Sikiru going - that love even made him quit the street life.
With Commander Obey, he traveled to the USA and different parts of Europe in 1983 and 1984. Despite issues with payment and lack of recognition, his gratitude to Commander Obey is recognizable in his tone. He appreciates Commander Obey for giving him a chance in his band from the first day.
Finding Stability: Orlando Julius (Ekemode) and moving to America
In 1985, Adepoju left the Inter-Reformers. The problem had started after they returned from their European Tour in late 1984. Commander Obey set another tour for 1985, but Adepoju had made up his mind that he was not going. A month after leaving Inter-Reformers in 1985, he joined America-based Orlando Julius Ekemode.
Narrating how it happened, Adepoju says, "It was very funny. Rasaki who plays for King Sunny Ade played drums on Orlando Julius' album in 1985. But as they were about to go shoot a video in Osogbo, Osun State, Rasaki who was moonlighting refused to go for the video shoot because he didn't want King Sunny Ade to see him.
"Thus, I was called for the video shoot. After the shoot, Orlando Julius asked if I would follow him to the US. I told him that if he would pay me, I would have no problems. I got a contract some weeks later. My fee was $250-a-week for three months. However, I never planned to stay in America."
For the first time in his career, Sikiru Adepoju had a long-term commitment to a band - but that was for an important reason. He took the job majorly because he wanted to buy a machine that could cut aluminum - at the time, there were very few of those in Nigeria; three in Lagos.
Despite his well-planned itinerary, things didn't go as planned. Instead of working for three months, Orlando Julius and his band only played three shows before issues arose over personnel and organization.
"Orlando Julius wanted to help Legion De Sisters by bringing them to the US. Channel P Records was distributing for Legion De Sisters at the time in America, but Legion De Sisters had never traveled. Julius knew that Legion De Sisters were gaining some fame in the states and he wanted to help them capitalize on it.
"He also planned to use them as opening acts on his tour dates while they gain notoriety on their own. But then, Legion De Sisters thought Julius was going to use them and they asked for down payment before they leave Nigeria. Julius, who couldn't pay them was left frustrated and Legion De Sisters was already on show promotion materials. Somehow, they fought and cursed each other," Adepoju says.
When Adepoju, Orlando Julius Ekemode got to New York on October 2, 1985, they were stranded. They were billed to take a road trip to Toronto, Canada for their first show on the tour. However, show promoters were not picking calls and the bus driver had to be paid. "Things went sour till someone rescued and borrowed money for us to perform two other shows in California," Adepoju says.
After then, they were idle for about a month until someone rallied round and got them an apartment in California. Their good samaritan whom Adepoju cannot remember then assumed a role as their manager. After then, this manager sought to extend their initial three month visa to one year. Then, the shows began rushing in.
For the rest of the 80's, he played with Orlando Julius before predominantly white crowds. The genre of music was afrobeat and according to Adepoju, "The genre of music aided love from white crowds. It was afrobeat that didn’t involve the homage and complications of juju."
Interestingly, there was also subtle rivalry between Orlando Julius and Fela. However, because they were playing on different continents - Julius in America and Fela in Africa and Europe - the rivalry was never really pronounced.
He worked with Orlando Julius from 1985 till 1992. He only departed from Orlando Julius Ekemode because Orlando Julius moved from California to Tennessee. "Since then, I never left the US and I never lived in Nigeria again," Adepoju says.
Meeting Babatunde Olatunji
At the time, Pa Babatunde Michael Olatunji was a Morehouse-educated Nigerian drummer who left the shores of Nigeria at the age of 23 in 1950. He is known for Broadway shows and composing for Hollywood productions, Raisin The Sun and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It. As a close friend to John Coltrane, a song on Coltrane's eponymous 1962 album, 'Tunji' is dedicated to Babatunde Olatunji. He also notably worked with Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.
By the 80s, Pa Olatunji was a mainstay of American niche music of the African brand. Intermittently, Adepoju worked with him during his long stint with Ekemode. Adepoju has credits on Pa Olatunji's 1986 album, Dance To The Beat of My Drum.
Through Pa Olatunji, Sikiru Adepoju met Mickey Hart in 1985 - together, they all worked together on multiple Planet Drum projects. At the time, Hart was on a hiatus form his band, Grateful Dead.
In 2005, Pa Olatunji, Sikiru Adepoju and Muruga Booker released Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations. Through journey across borders, the major difference for Sikiru Adepoju was increased transparency with which artists in the US worked.
"Nigerians try, but they are flawed. But in the US, I worked on albums on which I still get royalties till date. Of course, that's also down to systems and not exactly people," he said.
Mickey Hart: Transforming to alternative music and the first Grammy
After Sikiru Adepoju met Mickey Hart in 1985 through Pa Olatunji, they began working together and they still work together till date. Adepoju has been on every Mickey Hart project since Music To Be Born By in 1989. But he had to transform to make music with Hart.
"I was determined to make it after I saw the immense opportunity before me. For some reason, God had plans for me and I wanted to make it work. I also knew was versatility could for me in a market that was continually opening up to African percussion and melodies. That was my mission then and now. I just want to be part of history and I have not done badly (laughs)," he said.
While with Hart, Adepoju has learned to play konga, djembe and shakers. In 1993, Adepoju also financed The Honeymakers who were a result of Commander Obey's depleted Inter-reformers band.
But in 1992, Sikiru Adepoju could have had his first Grammy award with Mickey Hart for Planet Drum (1991). However, they didn't realize that they all had to be named the primary makers of the album to get Grammy gongs.
Mickey Hart was the only one named as owner of Planet Drum in 1994. Instead of getting nine gongs, they got one gong and eight certificates. On it, Adepoju says, "It was what it was and we sought to correct that when were were recording Global Drum Project in 2006 and we did."
Fun fact:, Pa Olatunji was one of the seven makers of Planet Drum. The others were, Zakir Hussain, T.H. Vinayakram, Airto Moreira and his wife, Flora Purim, Giovanni Hidalgo and Frank Colón.
Making his own music
In 2003, Adepoju formed his own band, Afrika Heartbeat with his father and brothers . Together, they released the album, Ijinle Ilu - Yoruba for 'genuine drumbeats.' Then in 2009, he formed Sikiru Adepoju and Heart beat with Douglas Serrant, Peter Fujii, Deen Badarou, Deszon Claiborne and DJ Deegan Mack Adams.
On making his own music at different time, he says, "It was just fun and taking advantage of the moment. It was never really about making money, but to mark the moment and I did it. But there was a conundrum, I flew my dad and brothers to the US to record our album, but I still couldn't abandon my primary work for other people because I had to make money."
Winning a Grammy and a case for giving credit
After the 1992 event, Mickey Hart and Adepoju wanted to make sure that something better happened. So, when they set out to make the Global Drum Project with Zakir Hussein and Giovanni Hidalgo, they made sure that all the primary creators of the project were credited as makers and not collaborators.
He says, "We didn't set out to win a Grammy. As with anything, we set out to make quality music - nobody knows the future now (laughs). More so, Mickey, Giovanni, Zakir and I all had our bands and other commitments. In fact, due to band commitments, Giovanni and Zakir couldn’t be at the Grammy ceremony that day - only Mickey and I were there.
"The collaboration and the willingness to share credit is one welcome part of working with foreigners over Nigerians. If Mickey Hart was a Nigerian, he might not have wanted to give us the credit and I might not have won a Grammy. That's one conversation I hope to bring to my country soon - credit.
"When we were called, ah! It's beyond description (laughs). It was amazing."
In 1987, he married an African-American and had one child who is now married.
"The Grammy is a platform for me and now, I want to use it for a project. The project will be titled Ajaja by Riddim Doctor - which consists of me, Saminu Adepoju, Giovanni Hidalgo, Peter Fujii, Ian Herman, Femi Ojetunde, Val Serrant and Richard Nagan," he says.
The album will drop in March 2020 and its first single drops in January 2020. In finality, Sikiru Adepoju just hopes the guys behind bands get some form of recognition across the world. He feels members of a band don’t get celebrated enough.
At the end of our chat, we discussed my leave which began that day and his plans for 2020. He seemed upbeat about everything. Of course he is, he came from nothing to win a Grammy.