Listening to Oliver de Coque for the first time in 1984, I was made aware that there was a whole lot more to Nigerian music than King Sunny Adé and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
De Coque, born Oliver Sunday Akanite, passed away of a heart attack on Friday, June 20, joining in death his colleagues Sonny Okosuns (who died only in May), Stephen Osita Osadebe, Nelly Uchendu and Warrior. With his passing, Nigerian highlife music, on life support for the last twenty years, has sustained a mortal blow. It's doubtful that anybody, or anything, can take his place.
De Coque hails from Ezinifite, Nnewi South LGA, Anambra State, and got his musical start in 1965 at the age of 17 playing ekpili, a form of Igbo traditional music. In 1970, following the defeat of the Biafran war of independence, he got a job playing with a Lagos group, Sunny Agaga & his Lucky Star Band. Shortly after he engaged with Jacob Oluwole & his Friendly Unity Band, and was featured on their hit "Agbasisi." De Coque's stint with this group was also short-lived, and in 1973 he took up with Sule Agboola & his Moonlight Star Band.
De Coque emerged as a solo artist in 1976, when his LP Messiah Messiah (Olumo ORPS 48) was released. A series of classic recordings followed, notably Identity (Olumo ORPS 108) in 1980, and a series of records in honor of the People's Club of Nigeria. His great inspiration was to combine highlife, Congolese-style guitar work and the propulsive energy of traditional Igbo music. His called his style, or "system" Ogene, after the Igbo double bell.
On my first day in Nigeria with my family in December 1994, who should I see but my hero Oliver de Coque striding through the mayhem of the domestic air terminal in Lagos. He gestured to his entourage to join him and they marched out onto the tarmac to board their plane. No standing on line for the Ogene King!
Then, in Priscilla's home town of Awo-Omamma, De Coque showed up again. The occasion was a house-warming party for one of the local bigshots, Chief Amukamara, who wished to proclaim his accomplishments to the world and hired De Coque to do it! Oliver took the stage and sang of the good Chief's achievements in life, even though he was still a young man. I made a video of the event, which I will post on YouTube some day (when I find it), but Priscilla did take this photograph of Oliver and me:
As the years wore on De Coque's music lost much of its edge. The once-lively rhythms became flaccid and formulaic. It did not go unnoticed that De Coque seemed amenable to singing the praises of anybody with money or power, exemplified above all by his obsequious 1996 cassette Democracy (Ogene ORMC 15), a tribute to Sani Abacha, the stupidest and most venal of Nigeria's military rulers!
Still, still. . . the last time I saw De Coque was proof positive, in my mind at least, that the guy still possessed the old magic. The occasion was a Nigerian Independence Day concert in Chicago. It was 2000, and it was one of the last shows at the old, fabled Equator Club, in fact it may have been the last show. There was an air of impending doom. The toilet in the men's room was stopped up and the floor was covered with raw sewage. The first thing De Coque did on taking the stage was denounce management for the cheap sound system they had provided. I had a feeling the owner was a couple of steps ahead of the creditors - he was nowhere to be found.
For all that, it was one of the most electric concerts I've ever been to. From the moment De Coque touched his guitar he had the crowd in the palm of his hand with stirring renditions of his hits: "Nwa Bu Ife Ukwu," "Identity," "People's Club of Nigeria" and many more. Igbos dressed to the nines jumped up on stage to spray the musicians with money. A young lady in a short, short dress and no underwear was dancing her head off, every now and then bending over to give everybody a show. It was a wild and crazy scene.
Afterwards Priscilla and I chewed the fat for a while with Oliver and his brother Eugene. He remembered us from that appearance in Awo-Omamma and I had him autograph the picture we had taken there. I gave him a printout of the Oliver De Coque discography I had posted on the Internet and he was very excited that someone in America had actually taken notice of his work. I remember thinking that here was one of Africa's greatest guitarists, and who knew it? Where was the justice?
In the end De Coque's legacy was tarnished by his embrace of some of the more negative aspects of contemporary Nigerian society: showboating, toadying to those in power, and worshiping money above all. Tarnished, but not erased. Nothing can eliminate the power of his guitar and his words.
Oliver De Coque Kwenu!
Trying to come up with a "representative" selection of music by a musician like De Coque is difficult. I favor his early work, and although his praise songs like "People's Club of Nigeria" are popular, they just don't do it for me. So here are my own personal favorites. Let's start off with a cut from his 1979 LP I Salute Africa (Olumo ORPS 100). "All Fingers Are Not Equal" is a common Nigerian proverb. It expresses the sentiment that all human beings are not created equal. In the song De Coque states that some have more and some have less. If you don't have anything in this world, don't begrudge those who are rich, and if you are rich don't look down on those who are poor. It isn't God's intention for anyone to suffer:
Oliver de Coque & his Expo '76 - All Fingers Are Not Equal
"Identity," from the album of the same name (Olumo ORPS 108, 1980) is De Coque's best-known song, and shares some musical affinities with Prince Nico Mbarga's massive hit "Sweet Mother," so much so that many people think that the two songs are by the same artist! Oliver sings that he prays to God every morning and evening, that he always does his best and trusts in God. His father told him to sing his music with honesty and his mother advised him to respect his elders, furthermore he says that he always "cuts his coat according to his size" (this West African expression means that he lives within his means). He sings that sometimes he wears a suit & tie like a "boyoyo" (a man about town), sometimes he wears traditional clothing like "Chief Obi" (a village elder). He sings that he has a beard, that's his nature, and that music is his talent - that's his identity:
Oliver de Coque & his Expo '76 - Identity
Here's another tune from the same album. "Nwa Bu Ife Ukwu" means "A Child is the Greatest Gift." When a child is good, everybody says "That is my child!," but when a child misbehaves, everyone asks, "Whose child is that?" Do your best to raise your child; it will be a blessing in the end. In others words, "You reap what you sow":
Oliver de Coque & his Expo '76 - Nwa Bu Ife Ukwu
"Atutu Gepu Mpi Ekwe Gesiya Ike/Chukwu Ekwena Kifififele Meayi" from 1984's Atutu Gepu Mpi Ekwe Gesiya Ike (Ogene OGRLPS 04) has always been one of my favorite Oliver de Coque tracks for its deft use of traditional Igbo percussion. The title of the first part of the song means "A Ram Must Have a Strong Neck to Support his Horns." This typically Igbo aphorism means in essence "With great power comes great responsibility." De Coque sings, "Are we going to run away from a fight?" The title of the second part of the song means "God, Please do Not Let Us be Ashamed." De Coque calls on all who have come into this world to pray to their god:
Oliver de Coque & his Expo '76 - Atutu Gepu Mpi Ekwe Gesiya Ike/Chukwu Ekwena Kifififele Meayi
I've always loved this final selection, from 1985's Nne Bu Oyoyo (Ogene OGRLPS 06). For one thing, De Coque shows off some nice Franco-style guitar work. He also, atypically, utilizes a horn section. In "Nne Bu Oyoyo" ("Unbeatable Mother") De Coque beseeches all to never ignore their mother, for the suffering that a mother undergoes for her child is indescribable. Every time a child is hurt he or she calls for mother. When a child climbs a tree a mother holds her heart. When burning coals fall on a child and its mother she will brush it off her child before herself. Even when a child does wrong, even goes to prison, a mother will defend him or her. In the second section, "Ezigbo Nna" ("Great Father") De Coque praises the fathers of the world. A father is a child's pride, who shines like a mirror. A father leaves early in the morning to work to support his family. When a child starts school the father will pay tuition, and if he doesn't have the money he will swallow his pride and borrow it:
Oliver de Coque & his Expo '76 - Nne Bu Oyoyo/Ezigbo Nna
Once again many thanks to Priscilla for her interpretations of these lyrics.