You are currently viewing Celebrating Ken Calebs Olumese, The Guv’nor @ 80, by Reuben Abati
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Yesterday, May 27, one of Nigeria’s iconic figures in the entertainment sector turned 80: Ken Calebs Olumese, an Esan man from the university town of Ekpoma as he likes to describe his home town of which he is proud, as if every other town these days does not have a university but in those days when a university was established in Ekpoma (1981), it was such a thing of pride and achievement that Olumese took upon himself as a personal badge. But the real story about him and his life is his immense contributions to the cultural space in Nigeria, the impact that he has made in turning music, art, song, food, drinks, space and dance into entrepreneurial tools for the promotion of social cohesion, inclusion, solidarity, creativity and pure fun. He was the Don Cornelius, without the controversy, of the night club scene and entertainment arena in Lagos in the 80s and 90s.  He was colourful, charismatic, decent, debonair, affable, and quite astute in making friends, and building bridges and relationships. In the Opebi, Ikeja area where he ran a nightclub that was famously known as Niteshift Coliseum, he was a lord of the territory, father of the kids on the streets and friend of the gentrified class with an understanding of the register of social and communal survival beyond the pale of regular entrepreneurship. He moved with a swag. He strutted with poise.  He was the Guv’nor: who never went on transfer, or had to seek seasonal elections, or go on break, he was his own constituted authority running an entertainment empire. The phrase Guv’nor was first used in the 1840s, a variant of the more popular noun – Governor, but over time, it would gain resonance as the title of a film in 1935, and as the nickname of a number of sports figures – Diego Costa, Bobby Abel, Paul Ince, Lenny McLean. When Ken Calebs Olumese established the Niteshift club in Opebi, Lagos in 1988, he took the title as label, brand and cognomen, and thus began a fresh chapter in the entertainment story of the city of Lagos. 

Ken Calebs Olumese did not invent nightlife in Lagos, but he helped for about two decades to shape and enrich it. The people of Lagos, being Yorubas are naturally fun-loving, and having fun at night time has been part of their culture even before the Victorian times in the 19th century, aspects of which have been examined at great length by Professor Michael J.C. Echeruo in a book titled “Victorian Lagos.” The city that became known as “The Liverpool of West Africa” in the 19th Century, an emerging commercial, port city was also a community of persons and cultural developments, including the media, culture and nationalism. Lagosians love the good life. They enjoy the thrill of evening fun be it at the beach, or at the clubs, or on the streets of Ebute Metta where there used to be a party every evening, or anywhere else where the people could dance to highlife. By his own account, Ken Calebs Olumese arrived in Lagos in the late 60s or early 70s just like many of these persons from the hinterland who continue to troop into Lagos on a daily basis. Thousands arrive daily from all parts of Nigeria, very few go back to where they came from, indeed over time, they become part of the Lagos ecosystem, get lucky and excel. In Olumese’s case, when he left Ekpoma, he lived in Benin. He got involved in the Socialist Movement, which was quite a rave in Nigeria’s 70s, the season of the cold war. He would eventually gain a scholarship to study Medicine in the Soviet Union. Many young Nigerians went to the Soviet Union at the time. The then young Ken Calebs Olumese returned with a degree in Microbiology. By 1977, he, with the help of his kinsman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, played some role in the arrangements for FESTAC 77, his first major direct involvement in cultural diplomacy. He was also closely associated with the likes of Dr Tunji Otegbeye, trade unionist, medical doctor and leader of the Socialist Workers and Farmers Party of Nigeria (SWAFP). The most notable part of that phase of his return is not necessarily FESTAC 77, however but the fact that he eventually ended up as a Sales Representative with the French Pharmaceutical Company, Roussel, where he rose through the ranks to become the Director of Administration and Finance. Olumese was like the rest of us: waking up in the morning, pursuing the nine to five hustle, struggling like everyone else to raise a family. He had a good career.

It is one of those ironies of life that he would eventually become famous through his hobby, rather than his vocation. In 1988, he decided to set up a Night Club at 21 Opebi Street with a corporate office was at 5, Ogundana Street, off Opebi Road, marking Olumese’s transition into the arena of entrepreneurship, from selling pharmaceutical products, to the retail of songs, food, drinks, and whatever brings joy. He had been a prolific nightlife denizen himself. He turned his interest into a passion and his passion into business. When Olumese arrived on the nightclub scene in Ikeja and Lagos in the 80s, there was already a thriving, habitual ecosystem in place. From Idi-oro in Mushin, to Jibowu, Ayilara and Ojuelegba,, there was a buzzing axis of nightlife entertainment. In Ikeja, Ipodo, Awolowo Road, Allen and Opebi streets came alive similarly at sun down. There was a gentleman called Omieba Dan Princewill, he ran two clubs – City Tavern and Daniel’s. There was the colourful, stand-up comedian, John Chukwu who owned a club called Klass, with Eddie Jay Omodiagbe as Dee Jay. There was Ozone owned by Jibola Shitta-Bey on Allen Avenue. There was also at some point, De Roof, Singer’s Cruise, Bread and Butter and another club called Princes. On Allen Avenue, Jerry Jones Anazia ran a night club called Ace. On Toyin Street, there was Climax, with a DJ called Stagger Lee. In those days of course, there was Shrine, the main watering hole for night crawlers, and beyond Ikeja, all the way towards Ojuelegba, there was a long list of fun spots including pepper soup joints such as Igbinedion, or Fafolu: point and kill joint, No. 67 Bode Thomas in Surulere, Empire Hotel, Tarmac. Many would also remember Kakadu Nite Club in Alagomeji, Yaba, where Fela used to perform in the 60s, and Bobby Benson’s Caban Bamboo, which in many ways was the old version of what the Niteshift Coliseum later became. There was at some point Paradiso in Yaba, Faze 2, Lord’s Club around Maryland, and Hotspot Club at Abibu Oki, off Broad Street. Basically, for a while, the Lagos social scene was a mix of band life, joints and discotheques. The latter would later prevail. 

Ken Calebs Olumese changed the face of night life in Lagos, particularly with the rise of the discotheque, which he capitalized upon turning Niteshift Coliseum into a space where the hottest and latest music could be heard. He invested heavily in music and equipment.  He raised the bar to such a level that others began to learn from him, and even copy him. He changed the game. Even when there was a seeming rivalry between Lagos Island and the Mainland, the arrival of Niteshift Coliseum gave nightlife on the Mainland, an edge. What Olumese did was simply to be different. He carved a niche and constantly reinvented it. Whereas you could go to Ozone, DeRoof, Klass and Climax and run into celebrities and prominent persons, mingling with others, dressed in both formal and bohemian attires, Olumese made it clear from the very beginning that his club was meant for the middle class and the upper middle-class members of society. It was an exclusive club and there were rules. There was a man at the door, “The First Man” who would not even allow you to buy a ticket if you looked out of place. Jeans, slippers, any form of scruffy dressing were not allowed. You didn’t have to wear a tie, but you were required to appear decent.

The club also had different segments. There was an exclusive section reserved for Senior Fellows of the Gold Card Sector.This was a section reserved for prominent persons, diplomats, captains of industry on a discreet night out. The lighting for that section was also deliberately dim. And there was the Section for the Glamour Boys (later and Girls) of Nigeria: the reserved section for the upwardly mobile in society, but even then you had to be admitted as a member to sit there. In the general hall was the popular section. The status of a guest or member was indicated in the colour of the glass with which you were served. The staff were trained to know the differences. Everyone wanted to be part of the Niteshift crowd. Usually, when people left other clubs, they ended up at the Coliseum. The food was good. The air-conditioning was the coldest in the business. To add to the snobbery, Niteshift did not use the same terms as other clubs. Its bathrooms were called “The Vanity” for example.   The hostesses wore something called “Oriental Ornamental.” The Dee Jay was “The Flight Captain” sitting in “The Cockpit.”  And the entire night was a cruise. Olumese was the master of razzmatazz.

He had a personal touch that could not be found among other club owners. He knew most of the regular clientele personally, and took an interest in their personal lives. He served drinks, and could be found correcting any error by any of his staff.  His dressing was impeccable. From his hair cut to his shoes, he paid attention to every detail. He drank Remy Martin, and he could hold his drink. He was very generous to his guests. For young persons and others close to him, the first drink was always on the house, and in the morning, the club served tea or coffee on the house depending on individual choices. There were days patrons stayed in the club till 7 am, not knowing it was daybreak. The Guv’nor of Niteshift Coliseum actively cultivated the friendship of the media. He knew every entertainment, arts and culture reporter and editor on the beat. He was similarly friendly with publishers and editors. He had one or two friends in every newsroom. Journalists were understandably some of the more prominent members of the club, and through this connection Niteshift became a place of choice for many media events. There were times however when he had issues with journalists. He protected the privacy of celebrities who came to the club jealously and he would not hesitate to quarrel with any journalist who published gossip about any of his patrons. He used to quip that the club does not ask for marriage certificates. It is place of fun, not a church. Funny enough, Olumese is the son of an Anglican priest.

Niteshift was not just about disco. The Guv’nor was constantly re-inventing the concept. There was in due course a full Niteshift band, which mixed the idea of disco with live performance. There was also the Niteshift Musical Talent Show, on the platform of which the club provided space for the flowering of many talents including Felix and Moses, Tuface, Tony Tetuila, Tony Montana, Eedris Abdulkareem, Platanshun Boys, Sunny Neji, Daddy Showkey, Nel Oliver. There was also Miss Niteshift beauty pageant. Niteshift was also the watering hole for many Nollywood artists – actors, actresses and producers. But the high point arrived in the early 90s when the club was moved from 21 Opebi Street to a bigger, more permanent space, the purpose-built Coliseum at 21 Salvation Road, off Opebi.  At this new location, the club had more space, more meeting rooms, a bigger dance floor, more of everything: an impressive edifice that was a testament to the success of the club, and the dogged vision of the founder. There was even a place called The Dacha: a block of 12 rooms reserved exclusively for the use of members. The major highlight at the Coliseum was the increased focus on a special programme which Olumese had introduced at the 21 Opebi address – the Grand House Reception (GHR). This further differentiated the Niteshift Coliseum from its peers. The GHR was an evening of interaction with major public figures. It was a huge hit which attracted exactly the clientele that the Guv’nor wanted. Some of the prominent persons who featured on the platform included, to cite just a few: Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Alhaji Balarabe Musa, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Beko Ransome-Kuti, Alhaji Tafa Balogun, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, Governor Gbenga Daniel, Governor Segun Osoba, Governor Orji Kalu, Chief Lucky Igbinedion, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu… H. E. Flt Lt. Jerry Rawlings, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar… and others. 

Ken Olumese kept raising the bar, and he was good at research, and monitoring the competition. I was one of the Glamour Boys of the Club, having joined that section sometime around 1989. I would later end up as one of the club’s major resource persons. I can conveniently report that I was actively involved. On many occasions we visited other clubs, before the start of business at the Coliseum. There were occasions when the Guv’nor would arrange for us to go on a West Africa tour. We were in Ghana again and again to attend different night clubs and observe their operations. We used to travel on Wednesday and return on Monday. Niteshift Coliseum would also eventually introduce a Wednesday programme, a Ladies night, free entry for ladies and other programmes to boost the clientele.

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In 2011, I left for Abuja on a national assignment. By the time I returned in 2015, circumstances had changed on the Lagos night scene. The pulse had shifted from the Mainland to the Island, with new clubs patronized by the nouveaux riche and Gen Z springing up on the other side of the city. Ken Calebs Olumese was also advancing in age. He has since retired and rented out the premises of the Niteshift Coliseum to another entertainment group called Floating World.  Indeed, we live in a world that floats. But the Niteshift dream would be remembered for its impact and longevity. Many ventures of its type have short mortality rates, but Ken Calebs Olumese kept it going for more than two decades, even after the club was razed down in a mysterious midnight fire on December 18, 2003. It was a brilliant run, still and long is the echo of the Niteshift Bugaloo, the opening sequence of the club at 12 midnight, taken from the song by the Commodores of the same title: Nightshift. Happy Birthday, Guv’nor.  Lord Have Mercy!

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