Sunday, June 21, 2009

Divided Loyalties




The recent dénouement of the 25-year Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka was reminiscent in many ways of the end of the Biafran war in Nigeria in January of 1970: both of them were hard-fought popular rebellions that collapsed very suddenly. In both cases the human and economic cost was horrendous.

In its time Biafra was a cause that engaged people the world over in support of its beleaguered people. The proximate reason for the start of the war was a series of pogroms across Northern Nigeria in 1966 directed at natives of the Eastern region of the country, mainly Igbos. In response, Eastern Nigeria, under the leadership of
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, seceded as the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967.

Sometime during the course of the war, Nigerian highlife star Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson recorded his song "Odumegwu Ojukwu," commonly known as "Hail Biafra." I'm told that this was released on Onitsha's Nigerphone label, although I have no more information about it. Given its controversial nature, it's not surprising that "Hail Biafra" was more or less banned in the post-war years, and was not on any of Lawson's five "official" Nigerian LPs. The song came to light again in the late 1990s when it was released as part of a compilation entitled Rex Lawson Uncensored: Hail Biafra (Mossiac MMCD 1036).

"Odumegwu Ojukwu" is apparently in Ijaw, so I can't give an exact translation of the lyrics, but in spoken English comments toward the end, Lawson clearly indicates his support for Biafra's Head of State. These sentiments are said to have earned his detention by Federal troops, to whom he is said to have told that he recorded the song "to uplift the rebels." Here's the song:

Rex Lawson - Odumegwu Ojukwu (Hail Biafra)

More interestingly, sometime later Lawson recorded a song in tribute to Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro, who not only had led an earlier separatist rebellion in the Niger Delta (the so-called "Twelve-Day Revolution") but died fighting on the Federal side against the Biafran separatists. Boro was an ardent defender of the interests of his Ijaw people, and by some accounts his sentiments toward the Igbo (who predominated in Biafra) were chauvinistic bordering on racist. Such are the dynamics of ethnic politics in southeastern Nigeria! "Major Boro's Sound" was included on the album Rex Lawson's Victories Vol. 2 (Akpola AGB 003) and is also featured on Rex Lawson Uncensored: Hail Biafra:

Rex Lawson - Major Boro's Sound

If there was one thing Rex Lawson wasn't, it was a narrow-minded tribalist. A true cosmopolitan, he had an Ijaw father and and Igbo mother, and his Majors Band (later The Rivers Men) included musicians from various ethnicities. He sang in all of the languages of southeastern Nigeria. Some years ago a fellow named Ofon M. Samson emailed me with English-language summaries of some of the songs on Lawson's LP Love "M" Adure Special (Akpola AGB 002, below). I believe the original songs were all in Efik. In the first of these, "Saturday Sop Di," Lawson sings that he wants Saturday to hurry up and arrive:

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Saturday Sop Di

"Abasi Ye Enye" was supposedly written after Lawson had lost a child. He sings, "Whoever killed my child, God will see him or her":

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Abasi Ye Enye


"Tom Kiri Site" means "The World is Bad":

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Tom Kiri Site

"Ese Ayang Iso" is about a leper, about whom Lawson sings, "ese Ayang iso, kuse ikpat," meaning "look at Ayang's face not her feet because she has a disease":

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Ese Ayang Iso


"Akwa Abasi" means "Almighty God." Lawson quotes John 3:16, ". . .For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Akwa Abasi

In "Nkpa Ke Da Owo," Lawson sings about death taking someone away. During the break one of the band members asks, "Death why have you taken our master? Who is going to lead us?." A prescient question, given that Lawson would die in 1971:

Cardinal Rex Lawson & his Rivers Men - Nkpa Ke Da Owo


18 comments:

icastico said...

Nice posting. I like how you've put these songs into context. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thank you again for all your excellent music...
It's very difficult to share with us and the back side of the cover of LP?
It is impossible for us to find it.
Thank you again...All the best!!!
Kostas from Greece.

Comb & Razor said...

Great stuff... I don't think I had heard the Ojukwu or Boro tribute songs before!

John B. said...

Hi Kostas: The back cover is exactly like the front, except there's a track-listing at the bottom right-hand corner, which is wrong.

If anyone would like the other 6 songs on the album, they are here:

http://likembe.net/Sounds/Lawson%20Biafra/Lawson.zip

dat one okrika girl...xyz said...

I gotta talk to my dad now, I wonder if "Hail Biafra" came out before "amanyanabo ama okite" because on that song Cardinal Rex basically tells Ojukwu we are coming for him that biafra isn't going to happen. I wonder what caused his change of heart.
Either way thanks for the great post.

Anonymous said...

thanks for these

John B. said...

Okrika Girl: I suspect Lawson recorded "Odumegwu Ojukwu" in the heady days after the Biafran declaration of independence, but then, when the tide of war turned somewhat, and especially after Gowon gutted the Biafran cause by declaring Rivers & Cross River States, decided he'd "get on the winning side" & start praising the Federal Government.

Hence, "Major Boro's Sound." The sleeve of "Love M Adure Special" also lists a song, "Gowon Special" which I have never been able to track down. It's not on the actual record itself.

By the way, if you'd be interested in translating Ijaw song lyrics for us, I'd love to hear from you: beadlejp@yahoo.com

trumpetaaa said...

fantastic rex lawson tunes
i love this old highlife music
many many thanks

Anonymous said...

there was a great 7" with Lawson's "god bless colonel ojukwa" on one side and "a nation is born" by Celestine Ukwu on the B side. Bit of a mysterious record - all it says is "biafra association in the americas", "republic of biafra", and "first anniversary special" on the label.

John B. said...

Anon: Do you have that record? I'm sure we'd all love to hear it!

Anonymous said...

http://www.sendspace.com/file/n4mwwv

the lawson side is hail biafra under a different name. the okwu side is one of his finest moments. i'm assuming it was sold in USA and might be easier to find than the nigerian versions.

John B. said...

Wow! Thanks for that! I have an LP entitled This is Biafra which was issued by the Biafra Students Association in the Americas probably in late 1967 or early 1968. Side 1 is the Biafran National Anthem & a speech by Ojukwu. Side 2 is 7 highlife songs - the titles are given but not the artists.

I think in the next week or so I'll post that album and the Celestine Ukwu song you've given us. Maybe we can do a little detective work and figure out who the musicians are.

Anonymous said...

there was also Biafran Freedom Fighters on Afro Request in the USA and i am sure i once saw another US Biafran 45 - someone might know what it is but hazy memory says it was a Ojukwu speach intended for radio stations to play in their news broadcasts. No idea what the B-side was. To the best of my knowledge nothing came out of the UK (although i'd love to be proved wrong! Eastern Nigerians historically seemed to favour education and travel in USA whilst Westerners favoured UK which might explain it) but the USA Biafran lobby seemed pretty organised when it came to issuing music.

I've always assumed that Lawson and Ukwu's Biafra songs were indeed made by Nigerphone during the war but it's always been a mystery to me how they were able to press them up as i always thought the pressing plants were in the north and west. Be very interesting to know if Nigerphone issued anything else during this period and where those mystery highlifes came from on This is Biafra. Looking forward to your posts as usual

John B. said...

I'm not so sure that there weren't pressing plants in Biafra but it probably could have been arranged to have records pressed in one of the countries that were openly or tacitly supporting Biafra - Ivory Coast, France or Portugal.

At any rate music was being produced there during the war - Priscilla remembers Celestine Ukwu recordings on Radio Biafra, including songs that were rerecorded in different versions on the LPs that came out in the '70s.

Could we have a scan of the Celestine Ukwu side of that 45?

Anonymous said...

no problem. here's the ukwu side.

www.sendspace.com/file/87wh2j

John B. said...

Thanks!

Comb & Razor said...

I recently found this in one of my long-neglected crates: http://i54.tinypic.com/2mq2b11.jpg

Anonymous said...

wow great find comb & razor and made in Nigeria! mystery solved!!

this lawson track was also issued in the UK by Biafra Choral Society