In the decades leading up to Nigerian independence in 1960, apala music developed when amateur musicians would play to arouse the faithful after the long fast of Ramadan. Born in the town of Ijebu-igbo, Haruna Ishola began recording apala numbers in about 1955, and soon became the most popular artist in the genre, and one of the most respected praise singers in Nigeria. Ishola adapted and stuck to a strong traditionalist approach, citing both Yoruba proverbs and Koranic scripture in his songs, and introducing no Western instruments into his musical lineup.
Ishola would sit when performing, surrounded by two talking drummers, shaker and bell, and a chorus of singers. Also central to his sound was the agidigbo, a hollow lamellophone (thumb piano), both plucked and struck to create a hypnotic ostinato at the center of the apala sound. Andy Frankel, who produced Apala Messenger (IndigiDisc 2001), an excellent retrospective of Ishola's work, lived in Nigeria during the 1980s. He writes in the CD liner notes, "Among the most memorable anecdotes were that Haruna Ishola's voice was so powerful that his praise singing could kill its intended recipient if not provided with restraint. It went without saying that if you had to go, being done in by the praises of this man was not a bad option."
In 1969, Ishola started STAR Records Ltd., in partnership with jùjú music legend I.K. Dairo. This was the first African record label owned by its artists. Ishola died in 1983, but his large catalog of recordings both on Decca and STAR ensure that he will not soon be forgotten.
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