Some years ago an acquaintance passed on a cassette of a Nigerian musician who was previously unknown to me; the tape was simply labeled "Ali Chuks." "He's an Igbo, and he's a Muslim," my friend explained. Which caught my attention, because if there's one thing that would seem to be hard-wired into the DNA of every Igbo man, woman and child, it is an abiding allegiance to the Christian faith. The reasons for this are rooted in history. Suffice it to say that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Igbo embraced Christianity with a vengeance after stubbornly adhering to their traditional religion from time immemorial, and this identification was only strengthened during the privations of the Biafran war. An Igbo Muslim? Who had heard of such a thing?
As a matter of fact, there are small communities of Igbo Muslims, not only in the Islamic north of Nigeria but in Igboland itself. My friend Maurice O. Ene of Kwenu magazine describes the efforts of one Suleiman Onyeama, scion of a prominent Igbo family, who established an Islamic school in his home town of Eke.
Which is all beside the point, really, because as far as I've been able to find out, Ali Chuks, better known as Ali Chukwuma (his LPs also tag him "Ali Chukumah" and "Ali Chukus"), was a true-blue Igbo Christian and not a Muslim at all. Apparently he took his name from Ali Baba, a famous African wrestler of the sixties and seventies (and if you want to learn about yet another African "Ali Baba," go here.)
I have heard varying accounts of Chukwuma's origins and activities before he became a well-known musician, but he was apparently from Aboh in the "Anioma," or Igbo-speaking area of present-day Delta State. He is said to have moved to Atani near Onitsha following the death of his father and made the acquaintance there of native son Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. He spent some time in the great master's Nigeria Sound Makers band and later left to form his own Nigeria Peace Makers.
Chukwuma died of liver failure in the mid-'80s, leaving a legacy of much-loved highlife music.
I had wanted to showcase selections here from various points in Chukwuma's career, but listening to the different recordings, one album stands out: Club 25 (Editions Namaco ENLPS 54), recorded sometime in the late 1970s. Therefore, I'm offering it to you in its entirety, and in future posts I'll present other recordings by this master of Igbo roots music.
"Club 25" is another typical praise song about one of the many Igbo social and charitable clubs. Chukwuma recites the names of and praises the various officers and notable of the organization:
Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Club 25
"Henrietta" apparently is addressed to a demanding young woman who thinks she can do better than the narrator. "Henrietta, onye d'imma n'azu:" "Who is beautiful behind their back? Who has everything they want or need in this world?"
Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Henrietta
"Onye Melu Ogo Amazi" means "The person I did a favor for doesn't realize it." Chukwuma sings, "What you don't know won't kill you. The good that I do for someone will not kill me." He further sings that no one will carry this world on their back when they die. In other words, your wealth won't do you any good in the afterlife:
Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Onye Melu Ogo Amazi
"Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu" means "A truthful word is life." Truthfulness leads to a perfect life. Truthfulness is worth more than money. Further, "Nkem fulu n'anya, bu ezi okwu, nkem nulu n'nti bu asi," or "What I saw with my eyes is true, but what I heard with my ears is lies." In other words, don't believe it unless you see it yourself. Chukwuma further sings that a very good friend is better than family. He recounts that when he first started making music everyone said he was a fool, but now that he is famous they all want him to sing their praises. He sings that he went to Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto and Nnewi and mentions various individuals. "Asi na Chinedu nwa ogbenye. Asi na ifeyi nwa": "They say that God guides the poor man's child. They say that a child is priceless":
Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu
Discography of Ali Chukwuma
Thanks to my wife Priscilla for her help translating these songs. Any errors in transcription are my own.