Fatai Rolling Dollar: Pioneer of highlife music


Fatai Rolling Dollar was a guitarist, percussionist, singer and songwriter. In a career that spanned some 64 years, he did a great deal to popularise highlife music in Nigeria, especially during his most active period in the 1960s and 1970s. He emerged in the 1950s but subsequently suffered three and a half decades in the wilderness before making a comeback, topped off with guest appearances on Tony Allen's 2005 album Lagos No Shaking.

This was followed by his solo album Won Kere Si Number for Ekostar (the title track being a re-recording of his best known song) and the compilation Papa Rise Again (2007). He made his only UK appearances in London in 2009 at the Majestic Restaurant, a Nigerian venue in Brixton, and clubs such as the Dex in Brixton and Cargo in Shoreditch.

Fatai's music was a rootsy take on highlife, featuring slinky "palm wine" style guitar, sometimes punctuated by talking drum and often the rustic plunk of agidigbo, (a large thumb piano) and topped with his gruff vocals. He sang in "broken" English as well as Yoruba and Hausa, often about financial matters.

Just before the Cargo gig, in an interview for fRoots magazine, he told me, "If you are singing, you must have message. If you don't have message in what you are singing, nobody will like it!" You have to say something better, he explained, before turning to a subject he regularly addressed in interviews: "All the people who are playing hip-hop in Nigeria, some are saying the truth, [but] some are just opening their mouth, saying what they like!"

He was born as Prince Olayiwola Fatai Olagungu in 1927 to Chief Olagungu, in Ede, Oshun state. He acquired the nickname that became his stage name from his schoolmates at the age of nine, from his habit of carrying around two shillings which his father would give him to spend on his brother and sister while his work as a driver took him to Ghana. Because this was more than most of his peers had on them, he was conferred the honour of performing the toss at football matches.

He left school in 1944 when his father died. He then began to train on the job as a mechanic, but his youthful "rascal" nature soon got him into trouble. At 19 he stowed away on a ship; his mother responded by having him detained in a "welfare" institution. While there he learned a new trade as a sign writer, but soon tired of it and decided on a career in music.

During the late 1940s he started out as a percussionist in the konkoma bands that were then popular. After konkoma fell out of fashion, he began playing agidigbo. After a spell labouring in the Lagos dry dock, he took up an offer to play agidigbo in Willie Payne's band, which led on to him joining JO Araba's band in 1953.

Although this was a high-profile gig, which involved playing live on air for the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, the prevailing industry culture meant that the money went to the bandleader, and the musicians saw little. Fatai's response was to teach himself the guitar in 1955 from a manual. By 1957, he had formed Fatai Rolling Dollar & His African Rhythm Band. Not long after, they began recording for Phillips West Africa Records and were booked to perform at the independence celebrations in 1960.

One of the musicians who had joined Fatai's band in 1958 was Ebenezer Obey, who would go on to become one of Nigeria's major stars of juju music. He left Fatai's band with six other members in 1963, but it continued as the New Millennium Band throughout the 1960s. But by the end of that decade his star was being eclipsed by the new wave of juju artists, so to make ends meet he set up a business hiring out instruments in the Lagos suburb of Moshalashi, close to Fela Kuti's "Kalakuta Republic". When government soldiers sacked this in 1977, Fatai lost all his goods to looters.

With his business in ruins he move to a tiny flat and his long spell in obscurity began. Having fathered 15 children to four women, he lost five of them and their mother to poverty-related ailments. He drifted for several years, doing odd jobs, but in 2002 he was "rediscovered" by the musicologist and manager Steve Rhodes, which led to his work with Tony Allen. His last albums were Fatai Rolling Dollar Returns (2010) and Better Life (2011). He was touring the US earlier this year when he was taken ill and diagnosed with lung cancer.

Jon Lusk

Prince Olayiwola Fatai Olagungu (Fatai Rolling Dollar), musician: born Ede, Oshun state, Nigeria 22 July 1927; died 12 June 2013.