An 85-year-old music legend in Nigeria, known for the “highlife” dance music that once dominated West Africa, Fatai Rolling Dollar has mounted a surprising comeback five decades after his heyday.
The octogenarian, who saw his fame and money dwindle when highlife’s popularity faded, is again playing the upbeat sound on guitar to packed venues and remains, despite his age, one of Nigeria’s snappiest dressers.
Wearing a yellow-and-blue outfit, canary yellow sunglasses and a military beret, he sits in a popular Lagos bar discussing the highlife music that was born in Ghana in the early 1900s and reached its peak in the region in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Highlife features quick, repetitive rhythms driven by electric guitar and wind instruments played beneath a sometimes melancholic chant that typically satirises modern life.
In highlife’s golden era, Fatai was a nationally celebrated performer along with Fela Kuti, the legendary afrobeat musician who also boldly campaigned against Nigeria’s military dictators.
Although the rise of hip-hop has radically changed the music scene in Africa’s most populous nation, Fatai is trying to ensure that highlife does not disappear completely.
“We are reviving and reforming highlife,” he told AFP outside his modest Lagos apartment. “Highlife makes people happy.”
The beat’s new guardians have also started to emerge.
Chijioke Enebechi, a saxophone player and front man of the Highlife Africa Heritage band sees Fatai as “a kind of inspiration.”
“Despite his age, he’s still playing, and… he advises us to make sure that we don’t let this music die off,” he said.
Fatai is unimpressed at the surging popularity of hip-hop in Nigeria and questions the musical credentials of the genre’s artists.
“Hip-hop… has its own time, when this time will pass, everything will close up, but highlife will be there, because highlife is the root of the music that we have in Nigeria today,” he said.
“If you want to know a good musician, a good musician should know how to play any instrument,” betraying a slight irritation with hip-hop artists he accused of sometimes being “lazy” and simply seeking “easy money.”
Sitting in the shade of an acacia tree, — this time sporting a leopard print hat and sky blue pants with matching embroidered shirt, plus white plastic sunglasses — he seemed ready to chat endlessly about his love of music, life… and women.
“I love women,” he said with a mischievous smile. “They are important to music. There is no music if there is no woman.”
He is the father of 15 children. The youngest, not yet two years old, was born he says of an “adventure” on the sidelines of a concert in Germany.
While Fatai claims he is 85, the date of birth printed on the sleeve of one of his albums puts him at 83. Regardless of the exact figure, the salt-and-pepper goateed artist seems unbothered by his advancing years.
Money, or his lack of it, is a more pressing worry.
With his talent ignored and his fame forgotten, he lived in poverty from the 1970s until luck smiled on him in the late 1990s. Nigeria’s Jazzhole Records released the album “Fatai Rolling Dollar Returns” and the German Goethe Institute funded a concert — marking his grand return from the musical wilderness.
That reignited his passion for music, and now he is working on a new album.
He hopes to set up a music school for young artists with no opportunity to develop their talents.
“They are roaming about the streets…. They leave university, they have no jobs but they have the talent to play music,” he said.
He has appealed to the government to back his plans so that “my name will not perish.
“I have no job than music in my life. If I stop what can I eat? But God knows what will happen to me when I become very old, because I am not very old now, I am still young,” he declares.