Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Unsung Genius of African Music




In a just world, Nigeria's "Gentleman" Mike Ejeagha would be considered one of the giants of African music, accorded the same respect as, say, Congo's Franco or Tanzania's Mbaraka Mwinshehe. As it is, he is barely recognized in his own country, such is his intimate connection to the folklore and culture of his native Enugu. But make no mistake - among the Igbo people Ejeagha is a colossus indeed. His lyrics are full of the parables & shaded meanings that are the essence of Igbo culture. His arrangements & guitar work, in addition, are sublime.

Ejeagha was born August 1932 in Imezi Owa, Eziagu LGA, present-day Enugu State, and learned to play guitar from two fellow residents of the coal-mining camps of Enugu, Moses "Moscow" Aduba and Cyprian Uzochiawa. Around the age of 18, he formed his first musical group, the Merry Makers. Soon he was performing and producing for Nigeria Broadcasting Services, and later joined the Paradise Rhythm Orchestra, a group owned by an Enugu hotelier, and the Leisure Gardens Dance Band. He founded the Rhythm Dandies in 1964, which later changed its name to the Premiers Dance Band. The group was forced to disperse during the Biafran war of independence in the late '60s, but reformed after hostilities ended in 1970.

Since the early 1970s, Mike Ejeagha's musical explorations of Igbo folklore have earned him a much-beloved place in the pantheon of modern Igbo highlife music. Some years ago I posted a discography of his recordings, which my friend Maurice O. Ene circulated among his acquaintances, eliciting these heartfelt comments:


"Let me begin by telling you that I am relieved to know that someone is considering to do a discographic project on the works of Gentleman Mike Ejeagha. I almost wrote my University of Nigeria BA thesis on Ejeagha. But, . . . well, that is a long story I'd rather not tell. To cut it short, I have a modest collection of Oga Ejeagha's songs on tapes. I also have some of his records, including Onye Nwe Ona Ebe, Onye Enwero Ana Ebe (POLP 057) and Akuko N'egwu (POLP 094). Ejeagha's music belongs to a genre of music that I call Igbo Popular Traditional as opposed to Igbo Popular Commercial. The latter to which most highlife music belongs is less faithful to Igbo tradition. That is all I can say about that for now." - JAK.

"I grew up (sort of) with Gentleman Mike Ejeagha. My father, a "master" of the Bachata guitar, taught Mike Ejeagha how to play the guitar - that is, the Spanish Guitar (so I'm told). As a four or five year old, I used to "hang out" with and enjoy them playing together for the "house" at their favorite beer joint on Gunning (Hill?) Road, Abakaliki, enjoying the free time my dad had just shortly after the Nwa-Iboko Obodo trials (my dad was one of the judges on the case at the Abakaliki High Court). Mike Ejeagha visited Abakaliki regularly in those days, spending much time with my dad as they investigated their musical interests together - for both of them it was more of a hobby than anything else. It wasn't until the middle of the sixties that Gentleman Ejeagha was talked into considering music as a profession. In the seventies, when he had become an icon of Igbo folk music, I used to visit with him at Enugu, and listen to him think out loud on the ideas he had of making Igbo folk music larger than life..." - Obi Taiwan

"The Gentleman is a very unique musician. He has been playing for a long time. He used to come and play in Ihe during Christmas festivities. I was only a kid then, but I remember some of his early tunes, 'Okuku Kwaa Uche Echebe Onye Ugwo,' 'King Solomon's Wisdom' and others. I believe these were some of his first songs... He is a phenomenal Musician and an exceptional guitarist. I am not sure he has played any thing recently, but he is still alive and well. Unfortunately, when I inquired about him last time, I was informed that he suffered glaucoma and is clinically blind. I cannot confirm this news yet, and until I do, I refuse to believe that it is true." - Hygi Chukwu
I present here a selection of tunes from several of Ejeagha's albums, with translations by my wife Priscilla Nwakaego. "Yoba Chineke" ("Pray to God") from the LP Ude Egbunam (Philips 6361 074, 1974) is a popular gospel tune in Nigeria. The chorus, "Yoba Chineke, chekwube Chineke, yoba Chineke, ogaazo yi" means "Pray to God, put your hope in God, pray to God, He will save you." Ejeagha sings, "Jesus come and hear our voice. Father who created this world, we your children are calling to you to ask for your help. Have mercy and answer our prayers." He calls on listeners to pray to Chineke (God) every morning and night:


Another song from Ude Egbunam, "Nyelu Nwa Ogbenye Aka," calls on listeners, "Always Try to Help the Poor." Ejeagha states that the poor do all the hard work in the community, and asks if there is anything that happens that they do not play a part in?


"Ikpechakwaa Kam Kpee," from 1975's Onye Ndidi (Philips 6361 110) is one of those Igbo folk songs, riddled with allegory, that almost defy literal translation. The title means "After you tell your side, let me tell my side." Ejeagha sings "Do not let the ngene [a wild animal] impugn my good name." He sings that he saw Ngene grazing on on the turf of Eleh (a deer), but that Ngene lied to Eleh about him, turning him against Ejeagha. In the spoken interlude Ejeagha says, "After the child tells his side, listen to the mother's side," and sings, "When the elephant goes, when mgbadu goes, when my turn came I didn't get what I wanted." The chorus is "Ajabula aja o ma nkwe kwa mee" - "I'm not going to let that happen."

Gentleman Mike Ejeagha & his Premiers Dance Band - Ikpechakwaa Kam Kpee

"Obiako Nnwam (Omenani No. 2)" from Akuko Na Egwu Vol. 1 (Polydor POLP 009, 1976) concerns a great chief and his conflict with his oldest son, Obiako. The chief has come to hate Obiako's mother so much that he can't even stand the sound of her voice. In return Obiako has come to resent his father so much that he has grabbed his igene (the staff that is the source of the chief's status and power) and is threatening to shatter it. The chorus:

Obiako obi nnwam,
Ngekene m igene mu,
Igene mu ji agba mgba
Obulu na be mmuo igene mu na akpa ike ya,
Obulu na be mmadu igene mu na akpa ike ya
means, "Obiako my son, give me back my igene. Even in the land of the dead it is very powerful. Even in the land of the living it is very powerful." Obiako does not understand how his father can hate his mother so much, but his father knows that if Obiako breaks the igene, he himself will die. He gathers the village together to beg him not to break the igene, but Obiako breaks it and dies. The "Omenani" in the title means Igbo folklore.


"Udo Kan Mma," also from Akuko Na Egwu Vol. 1, means "Peace is Better." Ejeagha sings, "Peace is more beautiful. Sibling should not hurt sibling. Friends must not seek to hurt friends. Children of the dead should not hurt children of the living. A wife should not hurt her husband (& vice versa)."




"Onye Nwe Ona Ebe, Onye Enwero Ana Ebe (The Haves Complain, and the Have-Nots Also Complain)" from the 1982 LP Onye Nwe Ona Ebe, Onye Enwero Ana Ebe (Polydor POLP 057) is notable not only for its brilliant guitar work but for its wry social commentary. Ejeagha sings that people with children complain about the trouble they bring, while people who can't have children beg God for any progeny at all. A healthy person complains, but a sickly person wishes for health. Some people say that money is trouble, others say that money doesn't complete a household, while still others say that health is worth more than wealth (ndu ka aku).

"Uche bu akpa onye kolu nke ya, (Ogaba) (ona aga)." In other words, thoughts are like a handbag (akpa). To each their own, and you cannot read someone's mind.

Ejeagha sings that the haves complain that guarding their money is too much trouble, while the have-nots say that their worldly troubles are too much to bear. Healthy people complain that God didn't give them wealth, while the sick pray for health instead of money. He asks, "My friends, do you see how the world is? Nobody is happy where they are."

Finally Ejeagha relates the tale of a wise, wealthy chief, and a poor man who was once well-to-do. The poor man spends his days looking at the chief and his affluent friends, wishing to be like them. The chief remembers that the poor man had once been wealthy himself and had spent much of his riches on those less fortunate, and gives him a big bag of money as a reward.

Soon the formerly-poor man returns the money to the chief, saying "Since you gave me this money I can't sleep, nor eat, nor sit down and rest for worrying that someone will steal my money." The song praises the chief for his great wisdom:


"Praise my good deeds while I'm alive," is the meaning of "Ja'am Mma na Ndu" from the 1983 album of the same name ( Polydor POLP 100). This would seem to allude to the practice of having elaborate funerals for the deceased. Ejeagha sings, "If you love me, show it while I'm alive. Give me something when I'm alive, not when I'm dead. My mouth speaks what I see. I tell the truth and the truth is bitter":

Gentleman Mike Ejeagha & his Premiers Dance Band - Ja'am Mma Na Ndu


Download these songs as a zipped file here.

Thanks once again to my wife Priscilla Nwakaego for her translations, and thanks to Gilbert Hsiao for sending me a rip of Ude Egbunam many years ago. In a future post I will be discussing "Akuko n'Egwu Original," a series of recordings Ejeagha made for Anambra State Broadcasting in the 1980s. If you enjoy the music I've posted here, I would encourage you to check out some of Ejeagha's other recordings, which are available from My African Bargains. Much of the
biographical information in this post is taken from "Life at Old Age is Quite Enjoyable," an interview by Nwagbo Nnenyelike which appeared in The Sun of Lagos, Nigeria on October 15, 2004.



11 comments:

fortherecord said...

Wow - what a comprehensive and well researched post. Thanks John and Priscilla. I look forward to enjoying making my acquaintance with this introduction. Thanks.

reservatory said...

Beautiful stuff! Yet another great artist completely unknown to me. THANKS!

gilhodges said...

Every post a treasure! The amount of thought, time and care poured into these offerings shows profound respect for the wonderful artists and for us readers as well. It is so greatly appreciated.

Tim said...

John

Once again you have shone a spotlight on a neglected area of African music and done so with thorough and illuminating research. Every post you make is a source of enlightenment and for that very music fan should be grateful.

Comb & Razor said...

Great post!

Dolf Motz said...

Fantastic music!!!
MakossaOriginal

Ike Chime said...

Ejeagha,a gentleman to the core, and a custodian of Igbo culture.
I had the opportunity of working close with gentleman Mike Ejeagha in the 80s at the FRCN Enugu. He was very active in the popular Igbo radio drama of those days. Also we broadcast the yearly live music program 'Under The Club Roof' most times from his hotel in Obiagu with his band in performance and me as the compere.One thing I found hard to take those days was the fact that Stephen Amaechi was the trumpeter in his band. The great Amaechi who preceded and trained many great highlife musicians. life can be strange.
Amaechi is really a great musician. There is this other interesting encounter I had with Ejeagha which we always joked about. During the civil war I crossed the the battle line and was operating in the captured zone, then Enugu and environ. Ejeagha's home town Imezi Owa was a strategic economic lifeline for Biafra because it was not occupied and it was at the same time close to inactive battle lines that enabled die hard traders, popularly called 'Attack' traders to cross the line and buy lacking essential commodities for sale in core Biafra, and of course dozens met their untimely death in the process. The market is Orie Owa market. I was in my early teens and sometimes hung out there. This was around 1968-69.
In one of the sheds at a corner, there was this soft spoken jovial barber, and guess what, that barber was Gentleman Mike Ejeagha, and he once did my hair for 2 shillings. later when I mentioned this to him in the 80's we had a good laugh. Also each time we ran into each other he will jovially say to me," Hei Ike, I think you need a hair cut"

Frère said...

I love your posts, but I would absolutely love the full album rips you talk about. The songs are fantastic, and I need more!

John B. said...

CDs by Mike Ejeagha are available from My
African Bargains
at very reasonable prices.

jimmy said...

thanks a lot John for this beautiful post...comme d'habitude

David said...

Amongst all the fake Warriors, Commanders, Sirs and so on, 'Gentleman' Mike always strikes me as really owning his title - what comes through is a truly gentle man, who deserves to be better known. Thanks for this chance to do so!