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Queen Salawa Abeni: The Housemaid Who Modernized ‘Waka’ Music

Even today, the Nigerian music scene is dominated by men. You can count on one hand the number of female artistes at par with their male counterparts.
40 years ago, it was 40 times as hard. Yet a young teenage girl broke off the chokehold Fuji/Juju/Highlife/Afrobeat held on the music industry and carved a niche for herself, one she has ruled for four decades.
Salawa Abeni

Born in Igbogun, one of the mangrove villages that borders Ogun and Lagos Sate, young Salawa Abeni‘s life started out hard: as one of the several children in a polygamous family, hers took a sad turn that her other siblings – her mother was sickly and she was sent off to work as a housemaid in the closest big town to her village, Epe. Although her father did not particularly care about education, the ‘guardian’ saw to it that she at least got the basic primary education.

But she had a gift that was spotted early by her minders: her melodious voice was perfect for ‘Waka’, the indigenous traditional Yoruba music sung mostly by women.

The genre had become widely popular in the proceeding decades, pioneered by Alhaja Batile Alake. As matter of fact, Batile Alake was one of the musicians that entertained Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Nigeria in 1956.

In the ’60s and ’70s however, Waka was slightly overshadowed by the newer Fuji and Juju sounds. King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and so many others had broken out and were becoming stars while Waka was relegated to women’s gatherings and such like.

Salawa knew she wanted to be like the stars she heard on radio but her childlike mind could not even fathom how that was going to happen. Nobody could have: she was a barely educated child, far from the city centre where things could happen.

But she found happiness whenever she could sing, either she was playing with her mates or attending the ‘asalatu’ prayers at the local mosque. Soon she began singing at parties and social gatherings of the mosque women.

Around 1974, she was spotted by Lateef Adepoju, a businessman with interest in music. He was attracted to the raw talent in the young girl performing so freely and prodigiously at an event in Lagos.

After months of negotiation with her parents who felt (rightly so) that their daughter was too young to be exposed to the uneasy world of music entertainment, she eventually was signed to Adepoju’s Leader Records.

Her very first album on the label was her 1976 record, Late Murtala Muhammed, dedicated to the recently assassinated head of state. It sold over one million records, thrusting the teenager into instant stardom.

In later years, she disclosed that she saw very little of the proceeds of that record, along with 14 others she released under that label. But while her relationship with Lateef Adepoju and Leader Records lasted, she shone brightly despite competing with established male megastars that were making music at the time.

Like Shina Peters would do with Juju music years later, Salawa Abeni infused a contemporary touch into Waka music. Her youth made her appealing to the younger audience that did not care so much for ‘old women’s’ music.

She compared herself with Yvonne Chaka Chaka – and why not! She was a youthful musician who was in tune with what the youthful audience wanted. She even rode the Indian movie wave at the time and released an album called Indian Waka.

It was inevitable that such a young, single lady would be inundated with love proposals of all sorts. She began a love affair with Fuji star, ‘General Kollington’ Kolawole Ayinlawhich she suspended when she got married to her label boss.

She and Kollington then got involved in a bitter crisis that birthed a number of extremely scathing songs. Salawa did ‘Ikilo’ (‘Warning’) and ‘Eni Tori Ele Ku’ (‘The Man Who Died Because of A Babe’) in 1981 and 1982 respectively. Kollington fired back by claiming paternity of Salawa’s child with Adepoju on his ‘Tani O Jo’ (‘Who Does The Child Resemble’) record.

Adepoju got involved in the matter and threatened to take Kollington to court for slandering his wife. But in a shocking twist Telemundo fans would envy, Queen Salawa Abeni dumped the older man she was married to and pitched her tent with her erstwhile younger lover!

As she became his wife, she also signed on to his record label Kollington Records. She marked the new marriage with ‘Ife Dara Pupo’ (‘Love Is Good’). The enamoured groom also released a new record to welcome his own child with Salawa – ‘E Mi No O Jo’ (‘The Baby Resembles Me’)The union became the most high profile celebrity marriages of the 80’s.

In a 2016 interview with TVC, Queen Salawa Abeni described her life story as ‘long and tough’. She’s correct: while her music career was successful, her personal life wasn’t quite as merry. Her marriage to Kollington came to an end in the early ’90s.

They had survived tough times, notably when Kollington’s Alagbado mansion (the whole neighbourhood is in fact named after the man) got burnt in 1990. But matters had come to a head – Salawa was one of at least fifteen wives that were married to the ‘Megastar’.

Her case was peculiar; she was also a popular musician with her own crowd and concerts. It was either she stayed in a marriage that had become loveless or focus on her career. She chose the latter.

By the end of her second marriage in 1994, she had done twenty seven albums. She released a handful more before the end of the millennium and had a stint with SONY Music. Can anybody forget the incredible Gentle Lady? (The original version, not the remix with her son Big Sheff). She also appeared in a number of Yoruba movies.

Tragedy however struck in 2000 when her older son, the one she had with Lateef Adepoju, Olanrewaju died in a car crash. Incidentally, his father had died months earlier. Salawa retreated from public to mourn her dead child. She later had serious health concerns for eight years that all but took her from the audience’s mind.

In later years, she revealed that she felt used and dumped by the men she loved and trusted. The masters of her early records are still in possession of the Adepoju family and have never been released to her. Although she and Kollington maintain some sort of civil relationship now, she had said in several interviews that she raised three children by herself.

With her son, Big Sheff

Nevertheless, her impact on Nigerian music cannot be brushed off. She ranks up there with the likes of KSA, Ebenezer Obey, Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Sir Shina Peters, Onyeka Onwenu and more as genuine Nigerian musical icons.

There hasn’t been any other ‘waka’ muscian that has reached the heights Queen Salawa Abeni has – and even the younger pop stars still have quite a long way to go. 30 years at least, to catch up with the ‘Waka Modernizer’.

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