How Tolu Obanro, Nollywood’s Top Composer, Crafts the Sounds of Its Biggest Hits

Hopping between genres, his scores are heard in almost every major recent box office and streaming success, including A Tribe Called Judah, Jagun Jagun, Gangs of Lagos, and Battle on Buka Street. “I’ve been trusted by filmmakers,” he said.
Tolu Obanro: Nollywood's Top Composer

Obanro’s musical storytelling is characterized by careful curation, a keen eye for tone, and a distinct intensity. Image from Instagram.

How Tolu Obanro, Nollywood’s Top Composer, Crafts the Sounds of Its Biggest Hits

When the filmmaker Niyi Akinmolayan began executive-producing Jagun Jagun, he reached out to a trusted ear: Tolu Obanro. He had worked with the composer on two previous hits: 2021’s Prophetess, which he directed, and 2022’s King of Thieves (Agesinkole), which he executive-produced. In fact, it was the then unknown Obanro’s work on Prophetess that earned him a full score gig for King of Thieves.

“You have ideas in your head that don’t seem like what people will want to accept,” the composer recalled the filmmaker saying during their first collaboration, “but I want it.” After their second, the industry, it turned out, wanted it, too.

A call from the director Jade Osiberu brought Obanro onboard for her film Gangs of Lagos, but only as a consultant. Osiberu had a clear plan for the sound and was working with non-Nigerian composers, until Obanro made an observation about a character who is murdered in the film. “Chike is an Igbo guy,” he told them, “there should be an oja that will play, and when he dies, the oja will play a sad tune.” With that, Osiberu gave him the job and simultaneously hired him for another film, Brotherhood. Obanro was working on both when he got another call, this time from superstar actress and producer Funke Akindele. She wanted him to score a film she was developing called Battle on Buka Street.

By the time Akinmolayan called yet again for Jagun Jagun, the newbie he gave his big break was on his way to becoming the industry’s top composer. He had shown dexterity across genres: comedy-dramas, historical epics, crime and action flicks — in films that became major box office and streaming hits.

Jagun Jagun
“Jagun Jagun.” Credit: Adebayo Tijani and Tope Adebayo, Netflix, 2023.

The sound of Jagun Jagun, Akinmoloyan told Obanro, must be bigger than that of King of Thieves. Obanro replied that if he had to do something totally different, then he had to be invited on set, where he could develop ideas. After hesitation, Akinmolayan said yes. Jagun Jagun is a story of a precolonial Yoruba warrior kingmaker, and the first thing Obanro did, on set, was to create a specific sound for anytime the character appears on screen. The presence of Yoruba kingmakers is traditionally announced by a talking drum and Obanro used that in his sound. Another character controls wood, and Obanro sought a sound that imagined trees as spiritual beings; when that character appears, “you hear trees creaking in the reverb.”

In an often-overlooked art form, Obanro’s musical storytelling is characterized by careful curation, a keen eye for tone, and a distinct intensity. He also demonstrates a refreshing vision: although he prides locality and is ever aware of the boundless potential of Nollywood, he keeps international audiences in mind. Last year, he garnered two Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA) nominations for Best Soundtrack, for King of Thieves and Battle on Buka Street in 2023. He scored four films on Open Country Mag‘s “The 10 Best Films & TV Series of the Year,” including Jagun Jagun, Gangs of Lagos, Battle on Buka Street, and the thriller House of Secrets, another collaboration with Akinmolayan. Often, he pushes himself, like with the eight compositions he went through for the climax of A Tribe Called Judah, which recently became the first film to gross over N1 billion.

Here, he discusses his process of tailoring sound to elevate Nigerian stories, his experience working with top filmmakers, his thoughts on the scores of Black Panther and The Woman King, his hopes for the future, and the epic he is currently working on, which will require budget-breaking 400-man choir and a 100-man band.

 — Introduction by Otosirieze

Interview by Paula Willie-Okafor.

What, about your relationship with music, led you to make it for films? How did you enter the film industry?

I started playing piano when I was 12. My first production was when I was 14 or 15. I studied Petroleum Geology, but, anywhere I went, a job in an oil company or construction company, music ended up facing me. Gradually, I started working. Then people started calling me for scenes. A lot was for YouTube then. I was doing it for free, I was just enjoying it.

And then, gradually, I started having sounds in movies like His Excellency and series like King of Boys: The Return of the King. I had people asking me to score the first one hour or the whole movie. Prophetess was where everyone noticed, “Okay, this sound is good,” and it caught people’s attention. Then Niyi Akinmolayan gave me a shot at making a full movie with King of Thieves, and God did it wonderfully that it was a hit. From then on, I’ve been getting movies back to back.

The relationship I had with music — I would say versatility and being able to emotionally interpret themes. Versatility in the sense that there are different genres that can combine in a movie. I’m not even talking about Afrobeats and all that. Some could say orchestral line, single line, piano line, things that interpret a movie per year the movie is set to. Some movies are set to the 1970s; you can’t take the Afrobeats of now and go and put it in the 1970s. It won’t work. Some movies are set ahead in the future; you have to look for something different to infuse that would make it look like something has advanced. For movies, you have to be able to say, “This is an emotional scene, this is a sad scene, this is suspense,” and I love to do that.

Tell me about your process. How do you find the sounds for your film projects? At what point during production do you usually begin to work on the score?

My process is different based on the movie, and the point when I start working on each movie is also different. For some, I start from the script. I try to read through the script and understand where it is. For most, I talk to the director and ask, “What do you want for this?” And I try as much as possible to interpret it.

For House of Secrets, it was from the script. For Gangs of Lagos, it was very postproduction; it had already been shot and the final cut was with me. For some, like Jagun Jagun, I joined at preproduction. I was in there, just thinking about it already, so it gave me time to put things together. For Brotherhood, it was also postproduction.

My process is always pretty simple. First, I talk to the director: this is what I’m thinking; what do you think? We share ideas, then I try to develop those ideas. Then I start to think: what year is this set? What are the references playing in my head? For the years I’m not sure what the music then was, I go online and just search for random songs and try to listen to them for weeks, just to be in that mind frame and be set for the work ahead.

Gangs of Lagos
“Gangs of Lagos.” Credit: Jade Osiberu, Prime Video, 2023.

Gangs of Lagos emerged as one of the biggest crime dramas of 2023. The composition of the film is particular, from Yoruba folk arrangements to Fuji music to the ominous keys that all lend to the film’s gravity and thrill. What informed those choices?

I’m very proud to be part of Gangs of Lagos. To think that I was not supposed to be the composer on that film makes me prouder. I was first invited on Gangs of Lagos as a consultant. Of course, Jade Osiberu had what she wanted. So we just sat and I was talking about it with the non-Nigerians who were working on the film — and who are very good at what they do — but at the point where I started saying, “Okay, Chike is an Igbo guy, there should be an oja that will play, and when he dies, the oja will play a sad tune,” they were just, like, “Well, I think this is our composer.” And that’s how I got the job.

From everything I suggested, I just started building. I had very specific theme sounds for people, and when [the characters] come together, there are theme sounds that would have a bit of what everybody had. For example, every time you see the bad guy, you’ll hear the clash of machetes in the theme sound.

It was so interesting to do. The choice of music was really Nigerian. It was made from the local. I had to look for suspense from the local that would also be accepted internationally. The sounds were just coming together, there wasn’t a particular way to it. I just made sure I interpreted every scene, every character, as accurately as I could. It was just God, and it was a bomb.

Femi Adebayo’s Yoruba fantasy epic Jagun Jagun flourishes with intense sounds. Did you have any period-specific musical influences in composing the score? And how did you integrate those elements with a contemporary audience in mind?

I love this question a lot because I think it is the most interesting process I’ve gone through so far. So at the beginning of Femi Adebayo’s movie, I was working directly with Niyi Akinmolayan, who was one of the executive producers of Jagun Jagun. He was telling me that this had to be bigger than King of Thieves. So I told him that if I had to do something totally different, I had to go on set. At first, he was, like, no, it’s called postproduction for a reason. But I told him I have ideas and I think I’ll get them better when I’m on set. And he was, like, okay, no problem, and that was it.

On set, I started thinking. This character played by Femi Adebayo is a bad guy, and, in some sense, a kingmaker. For every Yoruba kingmaker, they have a talking drum that announces their presence. So I composed that first. Then I started bringing in the sounds, a lot of generic sounds, most of which I recorded on set. From the warriors chanting, people stamping, people just dragging something on the floor, the punches — it was so much fun. I think I was able to make the trailer sound before they finished shooting. And after recording all that, I started thinking: What do I do with all this? How do I make it international? I started bringing in sounds, tunes, dirges, all that.

For Agemo, the spiritual being, I started thinking that if I had to make dark sounds for every character, there won’t be that real distinction when you hear them. This character flies and moves with speed, so that brought about that very thin sound that is close to 5K, 2K kind of sounds. There are some sounds that are not very audible to the ear. I tried to move close to that frequency, so that when you hear it, you’ll think, “Ah, there’s something about this.”

For Gbotija — he controls trees. If trees were spiritual beings, how would they sound? That was the question I asked myself. So anytime you hear his theme sound, you hear trees creaking in the reverb. And there was the general sound I gave to Gbogunmi. The opening sound was the last one I made.

Battle on Buka Street
“Battle on Buka Street.” Credit: Tobi Makinde and Funke Akindele, Prime Video, 2023.

Battle on Buka Street and A Tribe Called Judah both treat family dynamics with significant emotional depth. How did you amplify the resonance of the bonds in the films?

Battle on Buka Street and A Tribe Called Judah are almost set in the same year and same kind of community, but they are totally different films. I think I approached Battle on Buka Street scene to scene, because you never really know where the story is going. There are songs you listen to in those markets, old songs that are not even set to that year. If Battle on Buka Street were set in, say, 2003, the songs being played in markets those days would be, like, 1985, old folk songs. That’s how I came up with the apala songs, the old guitar songs. And when they were doing a flashback, I did the same. When they went spiritual, I also went spiritual! So I took it scene by scene.

But with A Tribe Called Judah, I watched it first, I watched it again. I already knew where the film was going, so it gave me the right attitude to build from scratch. It took longer than Battle on Buka Street, but I really enjoyed it. For the family, I had a sound tying them together and also calling their name, Judah; all that just to make sure people heard the title in the movie, which is not very usual. But if you watch the brilliant work Funke Akindele did with that, there is always something coming up so that the title would also come up in a way. I had the opportunity to also mention it where I had the chance, like in the beginning, for every frame freeze.

“A tribe called Judah” is a phrase in the Bible, most commonly used in the C and S scene. So that was what brought about the local akuba and other percussions that were played live. I made sure all those were there to tie the family together. Then I started interpreting each character, each scene, one by one, till it got to the fight scene.

I think I had, like, seven takes on that fight scene. I did the first one and wasn’t satisfied. I did the second, third, fourth, fifth. On the seventh or eighth one, I was, like, “Okay, I think I like it now.” Because there are times you overinterpret scenes and there’s just this disconnection with the audience. You, as the person making the sound, might never really know there’s a disconnection, except you leave it for a while and go and listen again. I did that, I listened, and felt like something was not connecting. So I went back to it. Eight times in almost two weeks. But while I was doing that and moving away from it, I was doing other scenes, then coming back to see if it connected.

Tolu Obanro: Nollywood's Top Composer
“The relationship I had with music that led me to make it for films — I would say versatility and being able to emotionally interpret themes,” Obanro said. Image from Instagram.

Many of the films you score take on the fraught realities of contemporary Nigeria. How do you embark on a musical storytelling that follows our unique socio-cultural landscape? What goes into soundtracking the everyday experiences of Nigerians?

I think, unlike the way we used to have film sounds, we have had to grow and improve because of exposure to what we listen to. But this is what I’ve also tried to think about: we have Afrobeats and we’ve been able to export that, so to now embark on musical storytelling according to our cultural and social landscape has been pretty much easy.

I grew up here, spent all my life here. Over the years, I’ve travelled to almost all parts of Nigeria for different reasons, to the South-South for service, to the North for university, born and bred in the West, to the East for a few years. I’ve had the opportunity to grow, listening to sounds in Nigeria and watching music unfold internationally. I’ve had the sense that there’s a way we can also export our soundtracks and film compositions, just as we did Afrobeats. I’d been thinking a lot about this even before I started having these opportunities.

When I saw The Woman King, I thought: this is not enough. I tweeted: maybe I should do The Woman King 2. And Black Panther was superb, but I just felt like the African parts could have been better. The composer [Ludwig Göransson] is one of the best in the world, no doubt, but I think, when it comes to interpreting our cultural and social landscape, it still lies so much on the shoulders of we Nigerians who have lived here, we Africans who have eaten it and drunk it, to now build it internationally. I think it should be, like, 70% Nigerian and 30% international, or you can vary that percentage to just make sure it sounds right for all audiences.

Niyi Akinmolayan, Funke Akindele, Jade Osiberu, and Femi Adebayo are some of the leading filmmakers in Nollywood today? What do you appreciate the most about their storytelling?

Niyi was the first to believe. Like, “You have ideas in your head that don’t seem like what people will want to accept, but I want it,” and I said yes, let’s try it! King of Thieves was the first Femi Adebayo movie I made, and Niyi was the postproduction person on that, too. So that’s how I got Jagun Jagun.

It was right after King of Thieves that I got a call from Jade Osiberu for Brotherhood and Gangs of Lagos. I ran those two at the same time. I finished Gangs of Lagos first and Brotherhood later, then I went back to Gangs of Lagos for QC (quality control). The time I was doing Gangs was when I got a call from Funke Akindele. So I’ve been pretty much very graced and lucky, but I think doing Prophetess, King of Thieves, and King of Boys got me those calls.

These filmmakers, these storytellers, have depth. And as much as they’re telling Nigerian stories, they also have different paths to it. Femi Adebayo does epics, Jade Osiberu does the urban, suburban, Funke Akindele tells family stories. These are different parts of cultural storytelling about how it feels to be Nigerian. What it feels like to be Nigerian in terms of family: Funke. What it feels like to be Nigerian on the streets, in terms of love, in terms of sacrifice: Jade.

What challenges have you encountered in marrying sound and storytelling?

I’ve never really had challenges doing this. I love what I do and I’ve been trusted by the filmmakers to actually do it. The only challenge might be budgets.

There’s an epic I have right now — I can’t tell the title yet but I’m looking for an elephant. I have themes I want to record around an elephant but I have not been able to get that. I’m also looking for a hundred-man band with a 400-man choir.

I have so much I want to do, but, you know, it’s not cheap. And we haven’t gotten to that place in Nigeria where we think that big and go all out for it. I’ve never had or seen anybody given that kind of budget in Nigeria. So budget is the main thing.

Which composers do you consider your influences?

I look up to Hans Zimmer, Ludwig Göransson, and M. M. Keeravani. Mainly those three.

What kind of films do you hope to work on in the future?

I want a film on the scale of — and I don’t just want music, I want sound design, I want music supervision — on the scale of Black Panther, The Woman King, RRR, Aquaman. I’m looking forward to way more than Nigerian sounds, to having Nigerian movies go global and all out in terms of budget, and our films going as far as the ends of the earth, just like every Marvel or DC movie does. ♦

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My process is different based on the movie. For some, I start from the script. For most, I talk to the director and ask, “What do you want for this?” And I try as much as possible to interpret it.


For Gbotija — he controls trees. If trees were spiritual beings, how would they sound? That was the question I asked myself. So anytime you hear his theme sound, you hear trees creaking in the reverb.

Paula Willie-Okafor, Staff Writer at Open Country Mag

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