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:
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
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.