Where are they now? That’s the question most music lovers, who were aware of the Nigerian scene in the 1970s, ask of members of the Ofege musical group, who changed the pattern of the country’s dance music.
Well, one of them, Paul Alade, just died in the United States from the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic. The others have been out of the music scene, doing other things since the band disbanded shortly after their fourth album.
The band’s leader, Melvin ‘Noks’ Ukachi tried a brief come back in the 1980s, but after that, little or nothing had been heard of the band until Paul Alade’s death in New Jersey last week.
Ofege was formed in the early 1970s by a group of teenagers at the St. Gregory’s College, Lagos. Influenced by the leading stars of the era, especially Carlos Santana, Led Zeppelin, The Funkees, and Ofo The Black Company, Ofege introduced a different dimension of funk laced with rock solos that made them one of the greatest Nigerian bands of all time.
A former member of the band, Captain Dapo Olumide, brought back memories of the band at the weekend through his tribute to the late Alade, who was one of his close friends at St. Gregs.
Olumide, who said he was friend with the late Alade for more than 50 years, disclosed that they “were only 13 years old when the boy band Ofege was born.”
The late Alade and Ukachi were the first members of the band, which later grew to a five-man team, wowing West Africa with their unique brand of music.In a treatise on the formation of the band in 2018, the leader, Ukachi narrated how the band grew from a school group to become the nation’s flagship ensemble that got rave reviews even from magazines outside the West African sub-region.
The idea of the group, which metamorphosed from the earlier name, Hitch Hykers to Ofege, he revealed, was muted while they were in Class One at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos.
“Paul Alade and I had passion only for music. While other students were doing regular school activities during free periods, we always secluded ourselves twanging away on our box guitars, Paul on bass, I on rhythm, rehearsing my composed and written songs.
“There was the school’s band with electric amplified instruments… we would beg to be let into it, borrowing their drummer, who was bluffly all the time.
“In one of the times with the musical instruments, a shy, quiet, strange and completely unknown and unseen classmate of ours appeared from nowhere and sat on the drums and played; I was bowled over at the end of the song. I asked him, ‘Who are you? What’s your name and where have you been?’
“It was how Mike Meme automatically became the drummer of the Hitch Hykers, a name Paul and I called ourselves. This went on till Class Three in 1973, when I needed a keyboardist and handpicked another classmate, Dapo Olumide, taught him the keyboard and kept him. By this time we had got to Class Four in 1974 and I had handpicked a junior member in Class Three to make us five as the lead guitarist. He was Felix Ijeh.”
With the group complete, they started real rehearsals with songs they wrote themselves until they felt ready to hit the studio. Initially, all the group wanted were souvenirs to remind them of their stay at St. Gregory’s College. So, in their last year in school, they approached a recording studio to wax some of their songs into an album; they wanted five copies of the album as souvenirs.
According to Ukachi, they decided to change the name of the band before meeting the recording studio. Their argument was that Hitch Hykers was old fashioned and did not reflect the persona they wanted to portray.
“Mike Meme suggested the name Ofege and we agreed that from now on, Ofege is our name, our game and our way,” Ukachi said, explaining, “Ofege meant something in the military called French leave or AWOL. This was coined out of a Yoruba word ‘Ofo’ meaning he has jumped, then the English word Gate, ‘Ofo-Gate.’
“During lights out in the dormitories, the housemaster on a roll call will demand the whereabouts of an absent student, everyone will announce ‘Ofege.”
Recalling their early days in the studio, Ukachi said, “One Saturday, we sneaked out without an exeat card (permission slip from the housemaster) to meet an audition appointment with Decca West Africa Limited. At the end, they told us to go back to school and read our books, adding that their studio was not a children’s playground. We went back solemn and heartbroken, but didn’t give up.”
The next Saturday, the boys went out again, but this time to EMI Records, where they met Odion Iruoje, who was amused at the souvenir idea. Ukachi said, apart from promising them their souvenirs, Iruoje painted a picture of big things that would happen to the group.
“We were more ecstatic the next Saturday when we saw a sign pasted on the door at EMI with the red light: In Session-Ofege. “Odion drilled us like a sergeant at arms in a military camp until he achieved what he wanted. Bouncing out, but weary the next morning from the overnight recording session, Odion Iruoje called us to his office and slapped a contract on his table. He said, ‘sign.’
“When we all did, he ordered us to come back next Saturday again for photo shoots, which we obeyed. At the end of which he said, ‘See you after your long vacation.”
Recalling his first inkling that they had become recorded musicians, Ukachi said, “I remember that long vacation in my father’s paint shop; I was glancing through the Daily Times and right on the centerspread was a big advert, Ofege Try And Love. It took me by surprise.
“Back to school at the end of the long vacation, it was a sensation, we were already celebrities. Of course, at EMI records, we were given our souvenirs, one album each. Many years after we left school, EMI went out of existence, leaving Ofege albums floating without control and free meat for pirates ever since.”
While they existed, Ofege recorded four albums, which were all hits in those days. Their first album (Try and Love – 1973) was recorded while the band members were still in school (average age of 16). It took some years before other albums saw the light since some band members still had to finish school. Further astonishing recordings include The Last of The Origins (1976), Higher Plane Breeze (1977) and How Do You Feel (1978).
According to lightintheatic.net, “Higher Plane Breeze (released in 1977 on Polydor Nigeria) is Ofege’s third album and it’s a strong one, combining funk and disco influences with Afrobeat and heavy rock guitars. The album provides one of the Nigerian scene’s most iconic images with its cover shot showing one of the members squatting amongst his bandmates, middle fingers raised high and proud toward the camera.”
Captain Olumide in his tribute to Alade recalls the exploits of a group of boys, who defied the odds to leave their names in the upper part of the history of evolution of Nigerian music. Such feats are near impossible today in a Nigeria where even some university students can barely find their feet.
“How many teenagers in the world today can say they were members of a band that went on tour and recorded albums while at the same time were studying for promotion exams and ultimately their O-Levels? Yet, by comparison today, a 13-year old schoolboy can barely read and write,” he queried.
Captain Olumide reminisces on the band’s escapades across the country in the early days and the enthusiasm with which their fans received them.
“I remember the time when Ofege went on tour to I.S.I. in Ibadan, and when we drove through the school’s gates, Paul asked me, ‘Why are all the girls dressed in table cloths? We found out later that this was the print design of the school uniform for the girls in boarding. As funny as it sounds today, you must remember that back in the ‘70s in Lagos, this type of fabric was used on tables in bukas in Obalende and Bamgbose Street, places that we frequented, and this is what drew Paul’s keen eye.”
One of the band’s hit songs is Whizzy Labo, which Captain Olumide explained was from the name of his dog.
“Paul would sometimes come over to spend weekends at my house during mid-term, and he was always very cautious not to get too close to my lunatic, mongrel dog called Whizzy. Ofege eventually made the crazy dog famous.”
The beginning of the end of Ofege started when the boys graduated from St. Gregory’s College. According to Captain Olumide, “As with all things in life, the good times soon came to an end when we graduated with our WAEC and GCE’S in hand. Paul remained behind in Gregs for his A-Levels, while I went abroad. Paul later emigrated to the U.S. Others went their separate ways.”
In truth, music was not meant to be the boys’ source of livelihood. They enjoyed it when the good times rolled, but soon they dispersed to make names in different professions.
Recently, Tidal Waves Music produced the first reissue of Higher Plane Breeze complete with the original artwork and exclusive liner notes/pictures provided by Ofege’s founding member Melvin Ukachi, who also supervised the reissue.