Olabisi Ajala is quite possibly the greatest African traveler that ever lived, legend has it that he rode through 87 countries on a scooter for 6 years, and lived to tell the tale. The feat was so astonishing that, in Nigeria, Ajala’s name became synonymous with traveling the world. Eastern high-life icon Flavour has been around the world too, not on a scooter though but on the strength of his music. The singer is so well-known outside of the country that he’s bestowed on himself the heavy title of the Ijele 1 of Africa.
Ijele is the masquerade of all masquerades, it is revered in Igboland but is native to the people of Anambra and Enugu. Flavour is originally from Anambra but he grew up in Enugu, so he carries the rich cultural heritage of both states across his broad shoulders. Going on to title his 5th album album Ijele – The Traveler therefore sounds like a double entendre – a subtle reference to Ajala and his achievements, and an appreciation of where Flavour is coming from and how far he has been able to go.
But before he starts his journey, the Ijele needs a scooter to go around and let everyone know it’s album time again. Unlike Flavour’s more recent projects, Ijele – The Traveler wasn’t released off the back of a huge record. The high-octane “Baby Na Yoka” and Tekno-produced “Catch You” have potential but oddly, they weren’t released before the album hit the streets. Those songs are the creative low points of an otherwise solid project.
On “Baby Na Yoka”, Flavour and Masterkraft went for safety first and re-used the formula that gave the singer his biggest song to date “Nwa Baby” – although without the timeless samples from Osadebe and Rex Lawson this time – while “Catch You” finds Flavour pandering to today’s sound, the mid-tempo sway.
It’s strange listening to an artist who has gone his entire career standing out now trying to fit in but you understand why. Flavour has reached icon status, so he is pretty much just updating his music legacy at this point. But at this very moment, he doesn’t have an “Ada Ada” or “Wake Up” in rotation. So if his marketer were to repeat the same ridiculous claim they made with the disappointing Thankful album and say that this new project too moved 1 million copies in 5 days, they would look even more stupid than they did the last time.
The only record Flavour has in rotation at the moment is “Gbo Gan Gbom”, which you’ll hear 10 times on radio in the East before you’d hear once on Lagos radio. For some reason “Gbo Gan Gbom” didn’t make the cut, nonetheless the record is still important because it was the moment Flavour incorporated what he calls ‘Une Soul’ into his music and added a new dimension, it was also the moment he officially introducing himself as Ijele 1 of Africa, in the midst of his Igbo brothers Phyno and Zoro.
Just like he did with Nigga Raw and MC Loph (RIP) early on in his career, Flavour has formed an impressive tag team with the 2 rappers to support each other and promote Igbo pride, the right way, from within, not like the Biafra-or-else agitators. They’ve given the young veteran a new vibrancy, it seems. Flavour worked with them again on ITT but this time, they worked separately – Phyno on the light-hearted “Loose Guard” and Zoro on the album’s absorbing title track. The latter captures the very essence of the project.
Whenever Ijele performs, it has a special band that comes out to entertain it. The intimidating masquerade dances to the vigorous sounds of the local instruments beating, the ogene, the ubom, the oja – ufele and so on. In different parts of Igboland, Ijele music sounds different, that Zoro and Flavour collaboration in particular salutes the Waawa people of Enugu in its dialect and aesthetics.
Elements of that sound, mixed with Enugu street culture, are sprinkled throughout the project and give it a rich texture but they don’t drown it, ITT is still very contemporary and progressive. After all, the idea is to export the music like containers on the high sea, not to keep it in the yard. There’s a hint of juju music in the sagely “Oppressor”, more than a hint of trap soul on “Body Calling”, and gospel music lovers will find a special number in the triumphant “Chimamanda”. But in all this, Flavour doesn’t lose sight of what makes him so special – highlife.
Flavour is one of, if not, the biggest highlife singer in Africa right now, so he’s especially loved across the western coast, where the indigenous music form remains hugely popular. He has worked with Ghanaian rappers in the past, so collaborating with Sarkodie on “Sake Of Love” doesn’t feel like he’s jumping on the recent trend of doing anything and everything Ghanaian but it’s Flavour’s collaboration with a special Liberian boy on “Most High” that shows an important evolution.
In April this year, Flavour was awarded the title of Chief Zanzan of Liberia. While he was there, he met Semah G Weifur a visually-impaired boy who, according to Flavour, could sing his songs better than he could.Flavour added Semah to the album, more for humanitarian and sentimental reasons than for artistic reasons, if I’m being honest, but the song is buried at the end of the ITT album, where it doesn’t disrupt the flow.
That moment, in its own way, shows how far Flavour has come not just as a singer but also as a man. Now in his mid-30’s, there’s a steady growth that is evident in how much he’s toned down the raunchiness and oringo lifestyle in the music, even if it’s just a little bit. I know it’s a crazy thing to say when ITT has a song titled “Oringo” that suggests jollification is the cure for everything, including hypertension, but this is a tamer Phyno. Who would have thought that the same man who once famously said that the beauty of a woman is in her backside will one day be singing about wanting a “Virtuous Woman”?
That said, as long as he has a golden voice, a mischievous mind and a six pack, Flavour will always be Flavour but in addition to feeling fun and sexy, ITT also feels very grown. It’s a joy to listen to such an established artist allow himself to grow and reach deeper into his culture than ever before, before sending it out into the rest of the world.