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African Legends

I.K. Dairo

By Tom Orr
Published November 17, 2006

King Sunny Adé may well forever remain the biggest name in Nigerian juju music, but Isaiah Kehinde Dairo will always have a place as one of its leading lights as well.

Juju, that combination of interlocked African and Latin percussion, call-and-response vocals, Yoruba tradition, colonial ballroom music, Christian and Muslim syncretism and ever-evolving levels of modernization, can be both furiously aggressive and lightly lilting. I.K. Dairo knew how and when to emphasize both in creating juju that could make people dance, edify them spiritually, teach parabolic lessons of everyday life and honor public figures.

A master of the accordion, guitar and talking drum, each figured prominently into the juju that Dairo began recording in the 1950s. He soon gained fame as an innovator, adding strains of highlife, Congolese and Afro-Cuban styles into long, intricate, mesmerizing songs that often broke down into passages of pure percussion or lavish instrumental soloing that were both spontaneous and controlled, adding to the unpredictable spark and delightful turns his compositions displayed. Sophisticated though the music could sometimes seem, there was also a humble simplicity at its core, fueled by Dairo’s unwavering Christian faith and the homespun heartfeltness his guitar and accordion playing bespoke.

Still, he wasn’t above showing off his musical chops or those of his band, the Blue Spots, when necessary to show he could hold his own against such competitors as Adé or Ebenezer Obey. In Nigeria it is not unusual for juju concerts to last until dawn—Dairo and his Blue Spots became one of most attuned ensembles around through such engagements.

Dairo recorded infrequently in his later years, though such albums as Ashiko (recorded with a stripped-down version of the Blue Spots in 1992) were ample evidence that he’d lost none of his musical muscle. He passed away on February 7, 1996. During the five-day mourning period that followed, Nigerian radio played only the songs of I.K. Dairo. Such was the love his country had for him, a love he likewise showed in the rich beauty of his music.

Recommended Recordings

Definitive Dairo (Xenophile)
Ashiko (Xenophile)
I Remember (Music of the World)