I.K. Dairo and His Blue Spots

Equator Club, April 29

Flashback to the last year of ChicagoFest. Onstage are King Sunny Ade and His African Beats, a Nigerian band riding the crest of a sudden burst of Western popularity. Influential members of Chicago’s African community dance across the stage to affix paper currency to the sweaty heads of guitarist Ade and the singers and drummers of his huge band. Meanwhile the audience is standing on straining wooden benches outside Soldier Field, dancing joyously in one of the greatest, biggest outdoor dance parties our city’s probably ever seen.

Around 15 years later, on the same day that I went to see I.K. Dairo and His Blue Spots, I dug up an old ten-inch EP in a record store on the west side. Its cover has a photo of traditional African fishermen casting a net into the water, and says Catchy Rhythms From Nigeria. While the title and image may be trite and overly cute, when it comes to juju music, they’re not completely off the mark. Juju is a music that quietly surrounds its prey; the easygoing rhythms and light guitar and singing styles gently ensnare the dancer. Not as immediate a dance imperative as, say, soukous, township jive, Afro-beat, American funk, or even the closely related Nigerian fuji, juju creeps up on the listener, gradually catching her or him in a fishnet of interlocking beats and alternating accents.

Often referred to as a father of juju, Isaiah Kehinde Dairo made electric guitar and accordion a regular part of the genre’s instrumentation in the 1950s with his band the Morning Star Orchestra, which later became the Blue Spots. Already in the 30s and 40s, juju had developed as a distinctly Yoruba blend of traditional percussion music and banjo and guitar accompaniment. As juju’s prime modernizer Dairo is also credited with including the talking drum–now an essential component of juju’s sound–and the striking vocal harmonies of the Church of the Cherubim and Seraphim.

In 1964 Dairo was made MBE (member of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth, a gesture that illustrates his worldwide acclaim. Largely due to the overwhelming and overshadowing success of Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey, however, Dairo’s music became unfashionable in the 70s, and he took a long hiatus from performing. Now back on the scene, the 64-year-old Dairo has a wonderful new record, Ashiko (Green Linnet/Xenophile), and a one-year teaching position as the head of the African music program at the University of Washington in Seattle. And judging from this appearance at the Equator Club, he and his band are still in top shape.

Seated, wearing cool, dark sunglasses, his white robe offsetting his capoed, sunburst hollow-body guitar, Dairo pealed off bright, shimmering riffs and fills, occasionally stepping up for a more involved solo or playing cross-rhythms on dampened strings. He also picked up his accordion a couple of times, constructing a song around an anthemic melody. So gentle, yet so transporting, the music of Dairo’s Blue Spots is like a lullaby that makes the baby sway. Gradually, then like a great force, the two conga players (Chatta Addy and Wale Atobatele) locked into mosaic patterns with Oluranti Dairo’s shekere, a gourd shaker covered by a loose bag of cowrie shells. Mohammed Shaibu played a mean rhythm guitar part and Chris Waterman (African music scholar and author of Juju Music) held his own on bass. Like Jamaican dance-hall music, African pop loses much of what makes it distinctive when the drummer is replaced with a computer. The Blue Spots’ trapsman Olu Awe provided an awesome, spare backbone, though it’s a testament to the rhythmic solidarity of the ensemble that he could leave the kit unattended to argue with the soundman without the group missing a beat.

As usual with juju the tunes built up over time. At first the polyrhythms seemed amorphous, slippery, diffuse; then the beats began to take shape in my ear, the rhythmic relationships became more recognizable, and that old familiar urge to dance welled up inside. Indeed, though the crowd was smaller than I’d expected, the dance floor was soon full of dazzlingly bedecked movers and shakers. While one of his band members gathered notes and requests from the crowd, Dairo sang songs of praise for various audience members, who in return “sprayed” him–that is, laid money on him to show thanks for his public honor.

Drummer Tajudeen Adeleke was also sprayed, and rightly so. Clearly in charge of keeping the band’s time right, coordinating their various pulses, and occasionally changing the tempo, Adeleke would tap the pace on the rim of his hourglass-shaped drum before bursting out with an improvised interjection, squeezing the drum hard under his arm to shift its pitch. At one point the band stripped down to a drums-only ensemble and Adeleke took an astonishing solo in which he made it seem impossible that he was playing such rolls with only one small curved stick.

Scheduled for around 9 PM, the music started around 11:30, which is normal for African concerts–drink a few gigantic Nigerian beers, socialize awhile, then on with the show. With the exception of one short break, the band played almost continuously for three hours. When we left at 2:30 AM the drummer and rhythm guitarist had just switched places, no doubt steadying themselves to play several more hours of “catchy rhythms.” And the dance floor was still full of willing fish squirming and squiggling into the waiting juju net.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marty Perez.