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  Brewster Hughes (1912–1986), by unknown photographer, c.1958–60 Brewster Hughes (1912–1986), by unknown photographer, c.1958–60
Hughes, Brewster [real name Ignatius Abiodun Oke; later Ernest Henley Oke Hughes] (1912–1986), guitarist and bandleader, was born on 12 December 1912 at Ibadan, Nigeria, one of at least three sons and one daughter of Ernest Henley Oke, and his wife, Rebecca Olamide, née Hughes. His father was from Ijaiye; both parents were Yoruba. Like Ambrose Campbell, later his colleague in the West African Rhythm Brothers, he belonged to a family with clerical connections. He moved to Lagos with his mother, then to Port Harcourt in the eastern region to live with his maternal grandfather, David Ayodele Hughes (1856–1936), a teacher, missionary, and farmer who, as general superintendent of the United Native African Church mission (1918–36), was a significant figure in an African interpretation and practice of Christianity. He remained in the east to be educated at Hope Waddell Training Institute, Calabar, before returning to Ibadan, where he attended Government Training College, did some acting, and became known as a boxer. He worked as a schoolteacher and policeman in Lagos and, after the death of his mother, adopted her family name.

In Lagos Brewster Hughes, as he became known, spent his evenings playing guitar in waterside bars. There he met Ambrose Campbell and joined him in the Jolly Boys Orchestra, which recorded in 1939. His two eldest daughters, Sumbo and Mojisola Oke, were born before 1939, when he left Nigeria as a stoker in the merchant navy, using the name Ernest Henry (or Henley) Hughes. After arriving in England he settled in Manchester, where he lived with Elizabeth Jessie (Betty) Ogle (a munitions worker, and daughter of Sidney Robert Ogle, gardener) while doing wartime service at sea. In 1943 his eyesight was badly damaged by glare from the ship's furnaces. He lost his sight for four weeks and was hospitalized in Canada, being discharged eventually from the service on health grounds. His sight was restored, but continued to be affected. He continued his wartime service as a fitter in an aircraft factory, and on 15 May 1943, at Manchester register office, married Betty Ogle.

From Manchester, Hughes moved to London where he settled in the Camden Town area and renewed his connections with Campbell. In February 1945, shortly after Campbell formed an ad hoc band, its members were attacked at a London underground station by racist thugs. An attempt to throw Campbell onto the tracks in the path of an oncoming train was halted by Hughes, who had a gun and shot and wounded one of the assailants. He was sentenced to fifteen months' imprisonment, escaping a longer sentence because the gun was not found; his partner, Betty, had hidden it. On his release he rejoined Campbell and some of the other musicians to accompany Les Ballets Nègres, Britain's first black ballet company; he played lead guitar for the dance troupe's début in the summer of 1946. Shortly afterwards, with a slightly different personnel, the band became the West African Rhythm Brothers, local purveyors of the Nigerian highlife.

While Campbell was credited as the group's leader, Hughes's role was important. He played an amplified instrument, sometimes in a harsh, attacking style, and his confident, boisterous singing made a welcome contrast to Campbell's gentler, more diffident manner. As a more than competent guitarist with an affinity to jazz, he often provided the group's musical impetus and direction, and as the Nigerian highlife made inroads into the consciousness of Londoners in the early 1950s Hughes acted as spokeman for the group, spelling out their philosophy and aims. A residency at Soho's Abalabi Club (run by the Nigerian Ola Dosunmu and his wife, Abeni) exposed him to a wider audience, but when Campbell, too, began playing guitar, Hughes found his contribution often taken for granted. This created discord between the two men and Hughes left to form the International Rhythm Band, otherwise the Nigeria Union Rhythm Group, with which he created music for advertising films and recorded. He rejoined his erstwhile companions for their visit to Nigeria in 1957, then replaced Campbell as resident bandleader at Club Afrique, successor to the Abalabi.

Hughes actively celebrated Yoruba culture. He was seldom seen in public without his filla (the Yoruba cap), and flowing agbada robe, and he fulfilled his cultural obligations as an officer in the Oshugbo Iwashe (the Ijebu name for the Ogboni, the prominent Nigerian fraternal society); he bore the military title of jagunna (soldier, warrior), and helped organize events to welcome visiting politicians and traditional rulers. As a respected community figure he received obeisance from students affiliated to his family, and his help was sought by many new arrivants; when interceding with the authorities on immigration matters he could, uniquely, cite as character referees the politicians Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee, supporters from the Ballets Nègres days.

In London, after separating from Betty in the 1950s, Hughes lived with a woman called Elsie, and then formed a relationship with Thelma Valerie Clarke (b. 1931), the daughter of Albert Edward Clarke, police constable, mother of Emanuel L. Oke Hughes (b. 1957), Naomi Yinka Hughes, and Caroline R. Oke Hughes (b. 1959). They married on 28 May 1966. On 8 June 1974, after divorce from Thelma, he married Patricia Smith (1939–2010), pram-hood maker and daughter of Edward George Boatman, railway maintenance worker. Their children were Ruth Ibijoke Awero Oke Hughes (b. 1970), Daniel Ephraim Bode Oke Hughes (b. 1973), and Jason Domingo Bolaji Oke Hughes (b. 1974).

For nearly three decades Hughes played for the annual dances of such bodies as the Law Society and for student functions. A productive association with Caribbean instrumentalists, which began when two Barbadians joined the West African Rhythm Brothers, continued when he recruited others for his Starlite Tempos: the trumpeter Dave Wilkins, another Barbadian, and the Jamaican saxophonist George Tyndale were both well-known jazz musicians. The Guyanese trumpeter Rannie Hart, another associate, explained the affinity. He likened Nigerian highlife to music he had always known: ‘It just like calypso, only their language’ (private information, R. Hart). In 1985 Hughes visited Nigeria, where he was interviewed by journalists and fêted. He died at Greenwich District Hospital, London, on 30 September 1986 from lung cancer. He was cremated in October following and his ashes taken to Ibadan, Nigeria, where they were buried in his mother's grave, and where a memorial service was held later that year.

Val Wilmer


St Pancras Gazette (2 March 1945); (16 March 1945); (30 March 1945) · West African Review (Sept 1946); (Nov 1952); (July 1953); (Sept 1956) · Illustrated (12 April 1947) · Oyez News (June–July 1965) · Daily Times [Lagos] (7 Aug 1986); (8 Oct 1986) · V. Wilmer, ‘Get rhythm!’, Mojo (Dec 2005) · P. Gilroy, R. Noblett, and M. Ainley, London is the place for me, 2, CD notes, 2005 · V. Wilmer, London is the place for me, 3, CD notes, 2006 · E. H. Hughes, letter to Ministry of Labour, 28 June 1965 · Brewster Hughes papers, priv. coll. · seamen's papers, ships' crew lists · personal knowledge (2010) · private information (2010) [Ruth Hughes, daughter; Eben Olatunji Hughes, cousin; Mary Ogunremi, maternal relative; A. Bashorun; H. Beckett; R. Hart] · indexes to births, General Register Office for England · m. certs. · d. cert.


A. McBean?, photograph, 1946, repro. in West African Review (Sept 1946) · E. Mandinian, photograph, 1947, repro. in Illustrated (12 April 1947) · photograph, c.1952, repro. in West African Review (Nov 1952) · photograph, c.1952, repro. in Mojo (2005) · photographs, c.1953–c.1957, repro. in London is the place for me, 3 · photograph, 1956, repro. in West African Review (Sept 1956) · photograph, c.1958–1960, priv. coll. [see illus.] · photograph, 1965, repro. in Oyez News (June–July 1965) · photographs, priv. coll.