Showing posts with label "Igbo Blues". Show all posts
Showing posts with label "Igbo Blues". Show all posts

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In Praise of "Mami Wata"




For many months now I've put off posting this in an effort to find out more about our featured artist, Bob Sir Merenge. Unfortunately, I can't say I've found out much. I can tell you that he is one of innumerable traditional Igbo musicians who have released recordings, sometimes to great acclaim, sometimes without making any ripples at all. I would say that Merenge's efforts have not gone totally unnoticed (I have a couple more records by him) but haven't drawn much attention outside of a small area of eastern Nigeria (and the Igbo diaspora, of course).

The second thing I can tell you about Bob Sir Merenge is that he is from the town of Uli in southern Anambra State. Uli is a fairly nondescript down on the Onitsha-Owerri Highway, but during the Biafran War (1967-70) the airstrip at Uli was literally a lifeline for the embattled rebel enclave, all sea access to the nascent Biafran republic having been lost early on (the map is from John de St. Jorre's The Nigerian Civil War [Hodder & Stoughton, 1972]):



Anyway, Bob Sir Merenge's album Eze Nwanyi (Okoli Music Co. OFC 4) is about as representative and fine an example of Igbo traditional music as you'll find (in the near future I'll be posting Show Promoter's LP Azu Alala, which is also an excellent example of the genre).

Eze Nwanyi begins with an elegy entitled "Ugbo Ezeh," "The Chief's Lorry." It tells the tale of Asampete, who was married for 20 years but was unable to conceive - the couple had money but no child. When she finally got pregnant Asampete was the object of cruel gossip by the villagers, who whispered that she was either sick or had slept with another man. When she finally gave birth to a daughter, her husband was very disappointed and beat Asampete. Finally she took her daughter and went to live with her mother.

Asampete's daughter grew up to be very beautiful, but one day the villagers came running to inform Asampete that she had been struck and killed by one of the fleet of trucks owned by the village chief. The chief told her to wait until the lorries came back from Asaba to see which one killed her daughter. Asampete wailed that she had no husband and now had no daughter. She went with a rope to the tree to hang herself but one of the villages stopped her. Asampete asked God how He could let this happen:


I wouldn't be surprised if "Ugbo Ezeh" was based on a true story, as are many songs of this type. The song, along with the others on Eze Nwanyi, also ably displays the various instruments in the arsenal of Igbo music: the opi (horn), the ogene (twin bell), udu (pottery drum), ekwe (slit drum), ashakala (beaded gourd), and samba (square drum).

"Ude Ndi Egwu" also concerns people who wish to become parents. A woman is praying to God to give her a child while she is still young. The singer expresses that while many wish for children, those who already have them often complain of the trouble they bring:


The title track, "Eze Nwanye," relates the "Mami Wata" legend, which, in different forms, can be found throughout Africa and the diaspora. The invocation at the beginning of the song states, "Ekene kene eze nwanyi," "Greetings to the Queen, our mother, the mother of the waters." The song further asks for her divine protection: "Great praise to the Queen, the one who lives in the ocean, the most beautiful, the lady of all ladies, we are asking for your protection sailing on oshimiri (the deep sea). When you bless us we will have a good life."

The choruses, "Onye o gaziri orie" and "Uwa e, uwa bu ogaziere onye orie" mean, respectively, "Whoever gets the blessing enjoys life" and "If you are blessed you will enjoy this world."

Bob Sir Merenge & his Igbo Cultural Singers - Eze Nwanyi

"Onwu Bu Onye Ilo" ("Death is the Enemy in this World") is a standard praise song, a tribute to those who have passed on. At the beginning a man is crying, and his comrades console him, saying "Uwa anyi no aburo nbe anyi," "This world is not our home." The singer recites the names of the fallen, preceded by the phrase "Onwu gburu ogaranya" ("Death killed a great man") and followed by the chorus "Amaghi m onye irom" ("I don't know my enemy"):

Bob Sir Merenge & his Igbo Cultural Singers - Onwu Bu Onye Ilo

Download Eze Nwanyi as a zipped file here. Many thanks to my wife Priscilla for interpreting these songs.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An Igbo Minstrel




There is a parallel universe of popular music in Nigeria that exists mostly unknown to the international audience that listens to Fela, King Sunny Ade and other World Music™ icons. It consists of the innumerable amateur and semi-professional musicians and performing troupes who contribute so much to the richness of village and neighborhood life. While most of these artists remain unheralded outside of their own localities, enough have been recorded that traditional, or "Native Blues" music is a significant part of the Nigerian music industry.

One such artist is the legendary Igbo musician Chief Akunwafor Ezigbo Obiligbo, who was born on August 10, 1904 in the city of Nteje near Onitsha in eastern Nigeria. He apparently died sometime in the '80s. Some years ago a friend of mine loaned me one of his LPs, which I dubbed to a 10" tape reel. Unfortunately, the record had a bad warp, and the first tracks on Side 1 and 2 were unplayable. As best I can remember (the written notations I made have been lost) the album was entitled Egwu Ogbada and was on the Melody label.

So that's where things stood until a few years ago, when I was able to digitize Egwu Ogbada and a number of other recordings. Obiligbo's music lay further neglected on my hard drive until a few months ago when my friend Ed Keazor posted a very interesting write-up about the great artiste on his Facebook page. It occurred to me that Ed could not only identify the tracks, but provide first-hand insight into their meaning and context for Likembe readers and listeners. Here are his thoughts:
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For those who are unaware, Akunwafor Ezigbo Obiligbo was a famous minstrel (Akunwafor being his traditional Ozo title) whose career spanned the period 1940 till his death in the early 80's. Obiligbo was a master lyricist, composer, poet and exponent of the Ekpili style and master of the native thumb piano (ubo) similar to the mbira of Southern Africa, but marginally different in the flat tapered metal key arrangements and the variations in size from smaller sized version to the larger varieties used by more contemporary performers like the popular transvestite performer Area Scatter.



Ekpili was a style peculiar to the riverine area of Anambra state such as Onitsha, Nsugbe, Nteje, Umuleri, Aguleri etc. The musicians often played alone, singing along central themes of morality, praise singing, sorrow and pain- essentially reflecting the society's heartfelt thoughts. The bigger players often had a native orchestra of sorts with the native maracas, ekwe (gong) and udu (bass claypot) and backing vocals as components. Sometimes for funerals or coronations (ofala) they would add the native drums igba, which were usually employed as part of a distinct style of same name (Igba), which differed to the extent of having the oja (as the lead vocal instrument and voice as chorus). One key element of Obiligbo's Ekpili is the almost ethereal use of the backing vocals as a form of musical instrument either in bass format or even as percussion.

The main difference between Obiligbo's and Area Scatter's music was that the latter was from Owerri area, hence his style was not Ekpili. His singing style was also a faster and more syncopated, rather than melodic, style akin to Igede. His ubo playing style was very similar, however, to up-tempo Ekpili. The simple answer is that the differences were very subtle, being more based on the structural differences inherent in the dialect of the Anambra riverine area and the faster-paced Imo based dialects, which then translated into differences in the musical output.

While he was one of many native musicians, Obiligbo very quickly gained popularity via a thriving local fan-base, performing at funerals, weddings and other traditional ceremonies in and around Nsugbe. His fame grew exponentially, driven by his powerful lyrics - steeped deeply in native idiom and with hugely thought-provoking lyrics - with a fair dash of praise-singing to boot.

Obiligbo left a huge body of work, mostly in the gramophone record format, but many of his greatest works have been preserved, especially those recorded in the pioneering Nigerphone Recording Studios at Onitsha. Owned by the famous Igbo businessmen of the early 20th century, T.C. Onyekwelu, it was the most advanced (if not the only) facility available in the East of Nigeria at the time (the 30’s-50’s) and was the forebear of subsequent recording studios/companies like Rogers All Stars and Tabansi Records. The tracks were subsequently released by Onyekwelu's employee Chief Melody Okpelo through his Melody Record Company.

"Nteje Enyi No Bianya" is a mid tempo easy-listening track. It praises Obiligbo's home-town Nteje and his kinsmen, with names like Emeka Enyiogugu, Chima Mgbogu, Mayor Udenka, Apaka Udealor, Sunday Okeagu, Nweke Ijego, and ends in praise of himself - "Ezigbo Obiligbo Nwa Nteje":


"Odogwu Umuleri" is basically a story (not sure if idiomatic or factual) about Odogwu, a native of Umuleri (Anambra State, Nigeria) who impregnates his mother in furtherance of a money-making ritual. It is a mid-tempo track starting with the standard call and response chorus and quickening into a feverish up-tempo Igba.

Opening: "Ogbondu na ekwu ndi ogbu, Orimili na ekwu ndi oli" ("The waters always reveal who they have consumed") "Odogwu ebulu afo ime ya na aro ato." Chorus: "Oro Misita Odogwu [note the corrupted use of the English title "Mister," used clearly here in derogatory terms] Ewe puta ofu mbosi, ewe muta yabunwa, ewe muaya izu nabu na azu no, mama ya ewe bebe akwa." Odogwu's mother is pregnant for 2 and then 3 years and in labour for 2 weeks. She then bursts into a lament as to her plight, "Have you ever seen any one suffer the way I have?" The community discusses it. "Odogwu answer your mother," they say. "She is lamenting at the back of the house." When she delivers the child, he is asked, "What did you do to this child? Who carries a child for three years?" Odogwu essentially admits that he impregnated his mother for the purpose of a money-making ritual. The chorus then changes to “Ebenebe gbulu odogwu" ("Sacrilege has killed Odogwu.") The song tempo increases on this discovery: "Ndi Umuleri, Atu uwa bili na be unu" - "A horrible evil resides in your midst. Odogwu, the evil child who placed his hands on his mothers womb. Umuleri cleanse yourself of this evil:

"Late Chief TC Onyekwelu" is a great track epitomising once more Obiligbo's typical style. An 11 minute tribute and dirge for the late Chief T.C.Onyekwelu, it starts off with the slow ubo intro and call-and-response chorus, building up to a feverish vocal crescendo. The real power behind this track is the lyrics. The track starts with Obiligbo tracing his relationship with Onyekwelu, back to the first meeting, after Onyekwelu's return from Europe when Onyekwelu invited him to play at an occasion at a location called "Berger," (which is presumed to be a meeting of the ruling regional party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Camerouns, which Onyekwelu belonged to), ferrying him to the occasion in a chauffeur driven car and challenging him to perform "wonders with his music" by promoting consensus at the meeting, at which Obiligbo did not disappoint, even affirming that the gathering "agreed to his words." Subsequently Onyekwelu gave him two bags of money as his reward.

He then extols his virtue as his benefactor from that day onwards. He describes a day when he arrives at Onyekwelu's residence to hear the sounds of wailing and sorrow, only to hear of his death, which was confirmed by the look of despair and sorrow on the face of Onyekwelu's wife, whom he describes as Amalu Uche Diya ("she who knows the thoughts of her husband"). He expresses his sorrow with the chorus: "Onyekwelu Onye Ocha, Onyekwelu Ala na zu nwa" ("Onyekwelu a white man; Onyekweku, the breast that feeds the child"). He extols the symbolism, that the burning of Otu Onitsha Market is a huge blow to the Igbos. He further extols Onyekwelu's generosity, by the saying that a stingy man dies dies poor and miserable. The song carries on to give praise to named greats of Igbo land at the time: George Mbonu, Aaron Obijiofor (my children's great-grandfather), Sunday Nwankwo, John Ibeanu and Eze Omenaka. The song then ends after a roll-call of these greats by his repeating his usual refrain- "Okwo Chukwu Ka anyi na gbalu Odibo" ("In spite of wordly wealth, we are all still slaves to God.")

Mention must be made of Melody Okpelo, who is a recurrent mention in Obiligbo's song. Apparently, Melody Okpelo was the owner of Melody Records, Obiligbo's original record company, Onyekwelu's involvement being as financier of this company:

Chief Akunwafor Ezigbo Obiligbo & his Group - Late Chief TC Onyekwelu

"Oyi Mu Ikegbunem" appears to be a dirge, mourning the death of hi friend Godwin Nwa Ukonu (Godwin the son of Ukonu). The lyrics being thus: "Okpelo invited us to go to the town, anyone who needs the record come quickly." He then goes into a roll call of Igbo great and good, inviting them to mourn the dead man: Patrick Nwa (son of) Analiko, Nkwocha na Enugwu Ukwu (Nkwocha of Enugu-Ukwu) "Kanyi na kwa ya" ("let us mourn him") Alfred Nwa Onyiuke (A succcessful businessman of Nimo town) "bia ngwa ngwa" ("come quickly"), Angus Na Abagana (Angus of Abagana- referring to The King of Abagana- Angus Ilonze), "let us mourn him," Ejidike Bread (Mazi Ejidike was the owner of one of the most popular Bakeries in Igboland), Nwafor Orizu (Dr Nwafor Orizu was The Senate President) , Oye Aga Ufoeze, Michael Umeadi (a businessman of Nri in Anambra State):


Download Egwu Ogbada as a zipped file here.


The picture of the ubo above is from Wolfgang Bender's book Sweet Mother: Modern African Music (University of Chicago Press, 1991), which devotes several pages to Chief Akunwafor Ezigbo Obiligbo.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Real Deal




A few posts back I decried the current state of Igbo music, with its lack of true musicianship and over-reliance on synthesizers and drum machines, singling out for special scorn recent recordings by Morocco Maduka. Reader/listener Tom Aernaert in Belgium promised us some vintage recordings by the great Maduka, and he's followed through.

Maduka, who I understand hails from Awka in Anambra state, is one of the great traditional Igbo praise-singers, taking his place beside such eminences as Area Scatter, Show Promoter, and Chief Akunwafor Ezigbo Obiligbo.
Obioma Special (Sammy Sparkle All Stars SSAS 011, 1981) is the sort of album that made me fall in love with Igbo traditional music. It's all here: the traditional percussion (nary a synthesizer in earshot!), the brilliant interplay of the call-and-response vocals and the lyrics touching on contemporary concerns. Of course, there's the usual obsequious praise-singing, but that's par for the course. One thing I find quite unusual about Obioma Special is the use of talking-drum, something I've never heard in any other Igbo recording. Did there just happen to be a Yoruba musician hanging around the studio the day the recording was made, who was invited to join in?

"Obioma Special" is a song in honor of the Obioma Social Club, one of the many fraternal societies that arose in Igboland following the Biafra war. These social clubs, comprised of the upper crust of Igbo society, undertake various charitable and civic works such as financing schools and building hospitals. Maduka recites the motto of the Club, "Honesty, Love and Unity," and lists the various officers. The chorus, "Uwa Amaka Nma," means "The World is Beautiful."

Emeka Morocco Maduka & his Minstrels - Obioma Special


"Abortion Special" concerns a debate in Parliament regarding the subject of abortion. It is stated that there is a problem with young girls getting pregnant out of wedlock and resorting to the practice. How is this problem to be addressed? Maduka does not take a stand for or against abortion, although it is frowned on in traditional society and is generally illegal under Nigerian law, except to save the life of the mother. The chorus, "Agboyi Atulu Ime," means "a young girl gets pregnant."

Emeka Morocco Maduka & his Minstrels - Abortion Special

"Awka Leaders of Thought"
sings the praises of various notables ("Ndi Eze") in Maduka's home town.

Emeka Morocco Maduka & his Minstrels - Awka Leaders of Thought

Thanks once again to my wife Priscilla for interpreting the lyrics of these songs.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ogenes on Fire!


Thanx and a tip of the Hatlo Hat to Andy Healey, who alerted us to the existence of this incredible, mind-blowing sample of Igbo Roots music by Shidodo & ensemble from eastern Nigeria:



The amiri, or Igbo flute, gets things going here, soon joined by the ashakala, or calabash rattle. Especially notable is the masterly use of the ogene, the traditional Igbo double bell. I've never seen or heard ogenes used in ensemble in quite this manner - very interesting. The abia (drums) and opi (the conch-shell instrument that sounds like an ocarina) round things out beautifully.

With so many music videos out of Nigeria lately "underwhelming" (to say the least), it's a real pleasure to showcase one that really does justice to the true beauty and complexity of Igbo culture. More fascinating videos by Shidodo here, here, and here. And kudos to Codewit, who has diligently posted over a hundred videos like this on YouTube.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Elusive "Igbo Blues"




In Ronnie Graham's Stern's Guide to Contemporary African Music (Zwan Publications, 1988, published in the U.S. as The Da Capo Guide to African Music), there is an intriguing reference to something called "Igbo Blues," which he defines as
". . . basically a percussion arrangement supported by vocals and lacking even guitars. . ."

What Ronnie calls "Igbo Blues" would probably be more properly labeled Igbo Traditional or Igbo Roots Music, and this is an extremely popular and variegated genre in the Nigerian music industry, encompassing myriad styles and artists. I've never
actually seen a recording labeled "Igbo Blues," although the appellations "Igbo Native Blues" or "Igbo Native Music" are sometimes used. Below are two record labels featuring the former term, the first from Ogbogu Okoriji & his Anioma Brothers, a percussion and vocal ensemble from Delta State, the second by the fifty-member women's dance and vocal group group of the Nnewi Improvement Union (Lagos Branch). I've also seen "Igbo Native Blues" applied to solo pieces for ubo (Igbo thumb-piano) and voice, and also to straightforward Igbo guitar highlife, so who's to say what it really means?



As an example of an "Igbo Blues" artist, Ronnie cites the musician Morocco Maduka. Morocco's recent recordings feature the sort of stale arrangements, cheap synthesizers and ticky-tacky drum machines that currently blight the Igbo music scene. An artist with a similar, but superior, sound is Chief Akunwata Ozoemena Nsugbe (right), who places more emphasis on the traditional Igbo percussion line-up of drums and bells. Here's a track from his cassette Ifunanya (Olumo Records ORPS 1034). "Chief John Nnebeolisa" is the sort of obsequious praise song that is rife in Nigerian music. The honoree is lauded for his great success in life, his charitable works, and his tendency to give away cars as gifts. Mr. Nsugbe asks the great Chief if he could get a gift also:

Chief Akunwata Ozoemena Nsugbe & his Oliokata Singing Party - Chief John Nnebeolisa

Another popular version of Igbo traditional music is performed by amateur and semi-professional percussion and dance troupes. Around Christmastime or during village celebrations, such as the Iri Ji, or New Yam festival, these groups are ubiquitous in Ala Igbo, traveling from house to house and compound to compound to perform for money. During my first visit to Nigeria in December 1994 I made a number of videos of groups such as these, which I really should post on YouTube some day. From the cassette Chukwunna Njieme Onu (EMI Nigeria NEMI 0692), here is a tune by the Ifediora Mma Egedege Cultural Dance Group of Uga, which is a noteworthy examplar of this style.

Here the full panoply of Igbo traditional instruments is displayed to great effect. The amiri (reed flute) leads off, to be joined in succession by the ekwe (wooden slit drum), ogene (two-headed bell) and oyo (rattle). The title, "Chukwunna Njieme Onu," means "My God that I Brag About." Lead singer Ann Ezeh addresses God in a very personal way: "God, please bless us, God that we rejoice in, God give us your grace, God that is all-good, God in heaven ('Olisa din'igwe') make our way easier."

Ifediora Mma Egedege Cultural Dance Group of Uga - Chukwunna Njieme Onu

One of the outstanding Nigerian releases of the 1980s was Anti-Concord/Apama (Nigerphone NXLP 011, 1988) by Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his Anaedonu (right). Side 1 featured sparkling guitar highlife, while side 2 was devoted to some great Igbo cultural roots music, including this song, "Apama," or "carry me," which addresses the burning issue of Igbo women not being as tall as they used to be! You can see a video of it here.

Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his Anaedonu - Apama

Finally, any discussion of Igbo roots music would be incomplete without an example of women's choral music. There are literally thousands and thousands of Igbo female singing groups throughout Nigeria, and many have made recordings. One of the more popular ensembles in the '80s was the Okwuamara Women's Dance Group of Umuoforolo, Nkwerre in Imo State. "Nkwerre Imenyi Anyi Abiala" is from their LP Okwuamara '88 (SIL 001), and serves as an introduction to the group: "Nkwerre Imenyi [the group's home village], we have come, the beautiful ones have come." The chorus then replies "yes, we have come." Greetings are then given to the people of Nigeria, of Imo State, etc., etc.

Okwuamara Women's Dance Group of Umuoforolo, Nkwerre - Nkwerre Imenyi Anyi Abiala

Thanks once again to my wife, Priscilla, for interpreting the lyrics. Please let me know if you've enjoyed these tracks. I have tons of music like this, and I'd love to make it better known.
I like to give "shout-outs" to other African music sites whenever I can, and it occurred to me yesterday that I've never mentioned Matt Yanchyshin's excellent blog Ben Loxo du Taccu. This was the first serious African music blog, and it's been the inspiration for many others. If you're reading this, you've probably seen Ben Loxo already. If you haven't, though, do yourself a favor and drop by now. It's an excellent way to find out about and sample the latest sounds out of Africa. It's "Eritrea Week" at Ben Loxo right now, and Matt's got a platterful of musical treats from that country for your listening enjoyment.

I'm indebted to Matt in a number of ways. Not only did he directly inspire this blog, he personally advised me on some of the technical issues involved, and has been generous in his praise and encouragement ever since.