JAJAH ONILU (SEPT 1955 – JAN 2012)
By AMON SABA SAAKANA
Death is a bold stalker of life and appears unannounced at any time, day or night, like a thief or murderer, without ample warning. Everybody referred to him as Jajah, a self-renaming based on that of the exiled 19th century African king who came to St Vincent and Barbados under the coercion of the British Colonial powers in 1888. But he was born Carl Junior Mulligan on September 24, 1955, in Park Street, Port of Spain (relative of former table tennis champion, Reds Mulligan).
Jajah always told me that he was brought up by his grandmother, a highly religious and organized Orisha woman, who worked hard, sang, and instilled the fundamental principle of working for one’s keep, and from whom he inherited the Orisha faith. Jajah was always a working, disciplined person. From a side-man in many bands in Trinidad and Tobago, he worked for years as chief percussionist and collaborator with the late Andre Tanker, in the running of the band. He also worked as a co-producer for two albums, but played on the seven albums, with Trinbago’s leading sacred Orisha singer, Ella Andall. It was with Andall that Jajah’s training and range as a multi-instrumentalist came to the fore.
Most importantly, he devoted the last fifteen years of his life to designing and constructing a building in Caura on Caura Royal Road which he shared with former UWI lecturer, Dr Shango, a leading organic farmer and musician in Trinbago. With his two male children, Baba Iyinde, 31, and Modupe Folasade, 26, both musicians and singers (a daughter Oshun, 19, lives in the USA), he completed a building in the round, decorated with life-size concrete sculptures with the assistance of renowned Trinbago artist, Sean Peters. In this building he designed extraordinary jewellery which he called “organic,” made from natural woods, seeds, fruits, etc. He never made more than one pair of anything and many famous Trinbago artistes of different genres competed to get a pair, sometimes giving him money blindly in advance for anything he created. Such was his creativity and reputation.
One of his most original but highly undervalued skills was as a designer and manufacturer of acoustic instruments which he also termed organic. He created the bamboolin, a violin made of bamboo, bamboo flutes, percussion instruments made with traditional goatskin but also shakers, scratchers and a variety of percussion instruments which were unique to Jajah only.
Although this enterprise was highly creative and unique, he never had the financial support or the vision of government patronage. A workshop such as what Jajah created was miles ahead of a CEPEP or URP which contained only a clean-up campaign function despite high-sounding catch-alls. Jajah’s enterprise called for skill-training and high discipline as well as the injection of cultural philosophy that would inevitably shape the individual to aspire to higher heights. The worldview and practice of his two young men is a real example of what Jajah’s life was about. He did not tolerate half-hearted approaches, he did not encourage slackness.
In his last years, he tried to pursue a saint-like devotion to religious and spiritual purification, to the extent of extensive fasting and not devoting time to eating. Just two days before his untimely death, some female friends visited him and urged him to have a woman contribute to his life, particularly with cooking. He rejected this completely. But it was the voice of God talking through the women. The ulcerated stomach which called for rapid surgery burst and invaded his lungs which quickened his departure.
On a professional level, he toured many areas of the world including the college circuit in the USA, Britain and Asia, and conducted music-in-education workshops for primary and secondary schools in Trinbago. About two years ago he recorded an unusual CD, Organic Awakening, that was entirely acoustic which he recorded with his two sons on his digital recording facilities from a computer. On this he featured a meditative rhythmic composition, “Chaguanas” which utilized the self-designed berimbau (first developed in South America among the indigenous peoples) on which he and his sons played. This was dedicated to Trinbago’s first peoples who first inhabited Chaguanas.
What Jajah aspired to was a spiritual music which inspired the listener to think and meditate to the higher aspects of the human being, rather than the lower levels of sexuality and sensuality.
In his passing, we recognize a true Trinbagonian with international standards, a fierce dedication to his talent, a do-it-yourself builder, agriculturist and instrument designer. He was a man devoted to clearing and caring for and planting the agricultural land he occupied and putting it to productive use.
Unfortunately, he was not recognized for the commercial exploration and possibilities his creativity represented. And one wonders whether his vast legacy will be inherited and extended by his children, although they had both worked tirelessly alongside their beloved father.
Jajah Onilu, may your ancestors receive you with pride and may God grant you protection and safe passage, and may you continue to create in the world of spirits where you will meet up with those who had departed before you.