Monday, May 26, 2008

Nigeria's Golden Voice




Comb and Razor's recent post on Onyeka Onwenu has put me in mind of another exemplary Nigerian female singer. I'm referring to Nelly Uchendu, the "Golden Voice of Nigeria," who passed away on May 19, 2005. Actually, Uchendu was a bit of a musical oddity. While there has been no shortage of female "pop" singers in the Naija music scene, and women singers dominate Nigerian gospel, Nelly was one of the few female singers in the Igbo highlife genre (actually I can think of only one other, Queen Azaka).

Nelly burst upon the scene in 1977 with "Love Nwantiti," a song based on the folklore of her native Enugu, and quickly followed that up with a number of hits like "Aka Bu Eze" and "Mamausa." She had a much-praised appearance with Warrior and his Original Oriental Brothers in London in the early '80s, and recorded the soundtrack of the film adaptation of Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart." Toward the end of her life she devoted herself exclusively to Christian devotional songs.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain copies of "Love Nwantiti" or "Mamausa," Nelly's two biggest hits, but I am happy to own three of Nelly's LPs, as well as Late Nite Husband, by Sonny Oti & his group, on which she sings lead vocal. Here are some tunes from them. Enjoy!

"Udo Ego" from Aka Bu Eze (Homzy HCE 012, 1977) addresses the problem of whom to marry? You love your family more than anything but you have to marry outside the family. This means that your potential spouse might not share your values or your family's values. In the song a young man states that he would like to marry a girl like his sister, Udo Ego. Actually, the song expresses, in Igbo terms, the sentiments of an old American popular tune, "I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old Dad." If this sounds peculiar, keep in mind that the Igbo concept of incest is far more expansive than in most Western cultures - marriage between even distant relatives is considered an abomination.

Nelly Uchendu - Udo Ego

In the lively highlife tune "Elozekwanna Nwanne Gi," also from Aka Bu Eze, a mother sings to her son, "never forget your brother and sister" ("Nwanne Gi," literally "your mother's child"). "My child, remember that on the day you die, the person who will be called upon to bury you will be your brother or sister." For Africans, these family responsibilities are a blessing but also a curse, as successful family members are expected to support their ne'er-do-well relatives.


Nelly Uchendu - Elozekwanna Nwanne Gi


Compare "Elozekwanna Nwanne Gi" with the following song, from Celestine Ukwu's True Philosophy (Philips 6361 009, 1971):

Celestine Ukwu & his Philosophers National - Igede Pt. 1

"Late Nite Husband," from the LP of the same name (Homzy HCE 013, 1978) addresses the age-old problem of young women who marry "walk-abouts" who stay up at all hours drinking and chasing the ladies:

Sonny Oti & his Group w. Nelly Uchendu - Late Nite Husband

Detail from the cover of Late Nite Husband:



"Ezi Gbo Dim" ("My Good Husband") is from the album Ogadili Gi Nma (Afrodisia DWAPS 2168, 1982), as are the next two songs. Nelly sings, "My good husband, tell me what to do so you will love me? What can I do so that you will love me? I will dance for you, I will dance for you so you will continue to love me."

Nelly Uchendu - Ezi Gbo Dim

Anyone who has been in Igboland during festival season is familiar with the subject of the following song. The leader of a dance troupe calls out to the owner of a house to come out and give her money or a wrapper ("akwa") in exchange for their performance:

Nelly Uchendu - Akwa Alili

In "Nga Meji Eru Uwa" Uchendu sings to her parents, "see how much I have seen of the world." She then calls out to a succession of Nigerian musicians - Ebenezer Obey, Sunny Adé, Christy Essien Igbokwe, Warrior, Dan Satch and Bobby Benson - to "come and dance to my music":

Nelly Uchendu - Nga Meji Eru Uwa

The next two songs are taken from Uchendu's cassette of Christian devotional songs Sing Praises (Rogers All Stars RASLPS 132, early '90s). This sort of highlife/gospel music is omnipresent everywhere in Igboland. In fact, I would guess that it is the most popular genre of music by far. In "Cheta Tikue Jehova" ("Remember to Praise Jehovah") Nelly sings, "If you are sick, remember God. God is merciful and gracious. Only God can bless you."

Nelly Uchendu - Cheta Tikue Jehova

"Ekwensu Adago" means "Satan is Falling." Nelly sings, "Ife Jesu a sokammu-oo," "I love Jesus's way," and continues, "ife omelu mu'erika nu'wa, O solummu kam sobe ya-oo," "What he did for me in this world is very great. That is why I praise him." The chorus, "Osoluma kam sobe ya," means "I will always follow his way."

Nelly Uchendu - Ekwensu Adago

Thanks to my wife Priscilla for interpreting these lyrics.

Discography of Nelly Uchendu

3 comments:

Comb & Razor said...

hmmm... she did sing on the Things Fall Apart soundtrack, didn't she? i forgot all about that!

too bad you weren't able to find "Love Nwantiti"... i've been looking for that everywhere! (i'll definitely hook you up if i can find it, of course!)

now... to work my way through all these links!

Bellemskey said...

Awesome...... I so much love the part of latenight husband that says "Igbagam na im wife ooo." Listen to the voice combination and lovely ambience..... John, John, John.... I called you 3 times.... I just want to say - A BIG THANK YOU

Cheluchi Onyemelukwe said...

What else can I say, but God bless you for this? Dalu rinne. Dalu so