“I have been forming bands for years,” explains Prince Bola. “Always, it has been just me and my friends deciding to come together to do something. We may have chosen different names to call ourselves, but it’s always my friends and I.”
Prince Bola Agbana might hardly be the most immediately recognizable name in the constellation of Nigerian music stars, but for a significant portion of the last half-century he labored in the shadows, dutifully serving as one of the key movers in its development: An in-demand session musician. An early and respected exponent of funk. A catalyst in the retrofit of juju into a modern pop genre. Most of all, though, he is recognized as the founder, leader, drummer and principal vocalist of the SJOB Movement.
SJOB: Sam, Johnnie, Ottah, Bola. For a moment in the mid-1970s, they were le dernier cri in modern Nigerian music, representing the next step in the evolution of afro rhythms, and a new paradigm for the band economy. Their first album, 1976’s A Move in the Right Direction, was a minor sensation and was swiftly followed by Friendship Train in 1977. Then it appeared that the movement stopped moving, and SJOB disappeared from the scene.
Not so, says Prince Bola: “SJOB was not just a band of musicians. It was a band of friends. So even if you didn’t see us playing together under the name SJOB, we were still friends, and still playing together.”
But before he was a bandleader he was a band member, starting his professional music career in Lagos around 1970, playing drums in Atukase—a short-lived band put forward by highlife maestro Dr. Victor Olaiya. This was a time of tremendous change in the music world: Nigeria was crawling from the wreckage of a brutal three-year civil war. The bubbly big-band highlife sound that had essentially served as the country’s national music for the last decade suddenly appeared quaint and out of step with the times. In Lagos and other cities across the country, the kids were more into James Brown, Wilson Pickett, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Santana. Highlife bandleaders interested in continued survival had to get some young players in their groups and some rock and soul numbers in their set lists. Bola was one of those young musicians trying to energize the staid scene.
So was Johnnie Woode Olimmah, who like Bola was a drummer and singer, though he was switching to electric organ, an instrument that embodied Nigerian audiences’ recent bent towards a new, space-age sonic aesthetic. Hustling through the Lagos gig economy, Bola and Johnnie became fast friends.
“We were so close,” Prince Bola remembers. “We always found ourselves playing in bands together, doing shows together. Or when he has a studio job, he will call me to come along. When I have a job, I bring him with me too.”
Away from the uncertain schedule and paltry pay from live dates, session work became a fairly reliable meal ticket for skilled young musicians with a fluent grasp of a variety of styles. The recording industry was starting to boom, driven especially by the cutting edge releases from EMI Records, where former highlife bandleader Fela Kuti was developing his response to the soul music craze—a mutation of soul, Afro-Cuban and Yoruba rhythms he dubbed “afrobeat.” As Fela’s new bag started to take over the nation, EMI was grooming a new, up-and-coming “afro” star to follow in his wake: Sonny Okosuns.
Okosuns’ approach to the afro style smoothed out some of Fela’s rough edges and arty abstraction, presenting a more easily palatable, populist iteration of afrobeat that quickly enthroned him as Nigeria’s most popular music star. It was widely acknowledged that one of the essential ingredients of Sonny Okosuns’ appeal was the whip-smart keyboard work of Johnnie Woode, becoming a trademark of Okosuns’ records and live shows. Other frequent stalwarts of Okosuns’ band, Ozziddi, were bassist Ehima “Blackie” Ottah and guitarist Samuel “Spark” Abiloye.
While Ottah and Abiloye soon forged a close relationship with Johnnie Woode and Prince Bola Agbana and enjoyed playing together, Bola himself did not join Ozziddi. He had left Lagos, moving to the Northern part of the country with his sister. The predominantly Islamic Nigerian North is typically associated with religious conservatism. In the 1960s and 70s, the region was host to a nightlife culture so vibrant that there was a constant demand for musicians from Lagos and other southern cities to migrate northwards for attractive employment opportunities. In the city of Kaduna, Bola took over the drums in the Ghanaian “jungle beat” band The Big Beats, who had relocated to Northern Nigeria. He jumped from there to The Roof Toppers, a pop group led by rising singer-songwriter Bongos Ikwue. Then he was hired to assemble and lead a new band for Moon Rock Hotel called The Moonrakers, which became one of the most revered ensembles in the North.
Of course, Prince Bola still made trips to Lagos to jam with his friends. With the backing of juju superstar King Sunny Ade, they were able to secure some gear and a record deal with the independent record company African Songs. The result, recorded under the name The Believers, was the afro-rock LP Sounds of the Moment Vol. 1, released in 1974. The album received a good splash of promotion but ultimately faltered because African Songs (a label specializing primarily in juju, apala and other indigenous Yoruba music) couldn’t really get a handle on the rock market.
The friends all went their separate ways and returned to their day jobs, but they would try again two years later, this time working with EMI, the premier label for afro-rock. By 1976, of course, the popularity of the afro-rock was starting to wane with the public so the friends changed their tactics a bit. This time they shifted the sound more toward harder-edged funk, away from the earthy textures of afro-rock toward the spacy tones of the Moog synthesizer. With the new approach came a new name, derived from all of the guys’ names: SJOB Movement.
SJOB’s 1976 debut was a considerable success and fed directly into its sequel, Friendship Train, in 1977. “SJOB was for us more like a workshop where people
could come in and out without any real commitment,” Prince Bola explains. “We all had other jobs with other bands, but we would come back together to do SJOB because we were friends. Whenever we got the chance, we would come back together and continue together. And that was the friendship train.”
After the success of Friendship Train, the members of the group saw their profiles rising, and with that came new opportunities. King Sunny Ade, wanting to inject his patented juju sound with a more modern, funkier edge recruited Prince Bola to join his African Beats band. (“That was the first time you had the drum set in juju music,” Bola recalls. “You know juju usually always had only traditional drums, but I was the first one to play the modern drum set in juju. Nobody can take away that achievement from me!”) Johnnie Woode meanwhile was officially appointed by Okosuns as Ozziddi band captain, leaving him little time for freelance projects outside of his regular session work. The friends continued to play together as an informal musical aggregation, but not as a headlining recording unit.
Undeterred by the absence of the band’s “J” and “B,” Ehima and Abiloye were determined not to lose the momentum; with the help of a handful of friends and hired guns, the duo released in 1978 the album Freedom Anthem on Shanu Olu Records under the name “S. Job Organization.” Prince Bola does not hesitate to emphasize that this album is considered an apocryphal entry in the SJOB canon: “That is not a real SJOB album because I’m not there, Johnnie is not there. Those are my friends, so I don’t blame them for making the record but as far as I know, the real SJOB group only recorded two albums.”
Prince Bola, Ehima and Abiloye reunited in 1981 to record another album, but Johnnie Woode declined to participate. (“Johnnie was not really a risk-taker,” remembers Sonny Okosuns’ brother Charles. “He always cared about maintaining his security, and he didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize his job as Ozziddi’s bandleader.”) Without the “J,” recording under the SJOB rubric was out of the question, so the trio took on the new identity of Roots Foundation, putting out the album Gimme Some More on Skylark Records. It wasn’t until 1987—when the classic Ozziddi band finally disbanded—that Johnnie Woode fully returned to the fold. With him he brought Ozziddi sticks man Mosco Egbe to hold down the drum duties while Prince Bola focused fully on vocals. With the group newly-rechristened Jambos Express, they released the album Mother Afrika, the title track being a bright calypso scorcher that ended up being the biggest hit of the band’s career.
In the wake of Mother Afrika came an offer for a US tour. Prince Bola and Johnnie Woode were unhappy with the money being offered so they opted to sit it out. Ehima, Abiloye and Mosco went off to play America, eventually resettling there. And so the friendship train finally came to an end.
“Make no mistake, we are all still friends!” Prince Bola says. “But because we are all so far away from each other, we can no longer continue our project working together. But I still love them as friends. Me and Johnnie stayed here in Nigeria and we continued together until his death.” (Woode passed away in the mid-2000s)
Prince Bola remains active as a musician, though he has had to reach out to different friends rather than the crew with which he enjoyed his biggest successes.
“For me, even now that I’m old, I’m still forming bands,” he says. “Not long ago, I started a new band called Sound Millionaires with my friends.
“That’s the way it always is… I just love playing music with my friends.”
Uchenna Ikonne – Boston, 2016