How to explain the dire state of the Nigerian music scene? Judging by what's being spun at parties in Milwaukee these days, it's beset by a plague of cheapo synthesizers and ticky-tacky drum machines, and the less said about the derivative sludge known as "Naija Hip-Hop" the better!
The trend toward artifice and away from artistry is well exemplified by two Igbo musicians, Sunny Bobo and Eke Chima, whose recordings - copied, pirated and distributed from hand to hand - have been ever-present in the Igbo diaspora the last few years. Both singers are said to be masters of the Owerri dialect, which may well be, but judging by their recordings, Old Skool, Obareze, and the many sequels, one can't help but feel sadness at the decline of that city's music scene since the glory days of the Oriental Brothers and their colleagues. I suppose economics are behind the sparse production values of these releases, but it's a regrettable situation still.
Sunny Bobo burst upon the scene a few years ago with Old Skool, and the sequels have followed fast and furious. The first volume of Old Skool reworks a number of classic songs from the Golden Age of Nigerian highlife. In typical Igbo fashion, Bobo sings that a meeting of the minds works best with one's own siblings. He describes a problem he is having with one of his kindred. He goes to the market, or public square ("nkworji") to settle the problem.
In "Willie Willie," a rework of the Peacocks' "Mary Meriamam," he sings about a beautiful girl named Mary, with whom he is quite infatuated. The main theme of the song is to not lose your head: "Elewe ukwu egbuo ewu - look at nyash kill a goat." In other words, don't be so crazy looking at your love's behind that you will do anything for her. Sunny recounts that he and Mary were wed, but that things haven't really worked out. He asks his brothers, "What am I going to do? Love has wounded me!"
A remake of Rex Lawson's classic "Love Adure" keeps things moving. Bobo sings, "Owerri land, please forgive my sins, because love has destroyed me. I am mesmerized by Adure's beauty. O tukwusa m'ukwu odika pillow. O tukwasa m'ishi odika pillow. When Adure places her leg on me it is like a pillow. When Adure places her head on me it is like a pillow." He then calls to an old girlfriend whom he has rejected for Adure, "Rosanna, please forgive me."
"Kinkana," another old song by the Peacocks, refers to native gin, which unlike palm wine, doesn't go bad: "Kinkana no dey sour." Here the singer is proclaiming that, unlike some flashier fellows with their money and fancy clothes, he is for real. There is a reference to Osadebe's classic song "Baby Kwanangida": "Kwanangida no go marry."
"Echendu" descibes a man who goes on a journey and doesn't come back: "Please come home. My heart is broken by your loss." "Bottom Belle," the final song in the Old Skool medley, is a classic tune from the early days of Nigerian independence.
Sunny Bobo - Nkworji-Willie Willie-Love Adure-Kinkana-Echendu-Bottom Belle
Eke Chima's offering here is similarly "Owerri-centric." As this is from a copied CD-R I'm not sure of the exact title of the medley or which CD it is taken from, only that it is from one of his numerous Obareze recordings. Chima sings that people say they don't like Owerri, and in rebuttal offers the names of many prominent Owerri families and individuals: "Ole nde onwe Owerri? Who are Owerri people?," naming among others the Amanzes, the Njokus, Chief Onukaogu and Headmaster Boniface Oha.
He then sings that someday everybody will account for their behavior in life: "Eshi ahu omenjo ga ahu njo ya, omenma ga ahu nma ya. The sinner will see his sins and the good person will see the good he has done. Ole onye ozuru oke? Who on this Earth will say that everything is complete for him?" He then calls out to a friend, "Ahu shiele m'anya - I have seen many troubles." Chima admonishes those who have taken a child's thing to raise their hand and give it back. In other words, don't mistreat another person, especially the helpless. He states once again that all will account some day for how they lived on Earth.
Family relations are a prominent theme in Igbo music. Chima asks if a person doesn't have kin by the same mother (this is presumably referring to relations within a polygamous household) will he kill himself? Of course not. He states that since he has no other siblings by his mother he works very hard and hopes that God will be there for him: "Ebe mu onwehu onye inye aka, agam ime uwam nkpo ole."
Eke Chima & his New Generation Band - Owerri
In the interests of fairness I should present evidence that things may not be so dire for Nigerian music after all: two artists, both scions of musical families, who would seem to refute my thesis that Igbo highlife is on its deathbed, if not already departed. Emperor Teddy Obinna is billed as "Junior Warrior," but he's actually the half-brother of Owerri's favorite son, the late Christogonous Ezebuiro Obinna, better known as Warrior. Ogidi's Amobi Richard Onyenze is the nephew of highlife legend Stehen Osita Osadebe, who passed away in 2007.
Obinna not only has taken up his brother's legacy, but in the CD Uwa Shekiga e Shekiga (C. Meks Music CMS 114, 2004) takes it in bold new directions, incorporating elements of Congo music to great effect. The title song ("The World is Very Shaky") takes up current events, advising that because of the world's instability, everybody should do their best. He sings that he is doing all he can for his family, but that if they are going to be irresponsible and not do for themselves in return, it's not his problem ("Onye zuzuo n'elu uwu ya aka ya aka - if you are stupid in this world it is your own fault.") He says that even in America, people are afraid because of Osama Bin Laden ("Osama bin Bomb Bomb") and mentions the war in "Iraqi land." Even old women have confirmed that the world is not as it used to be. Obinna calls on Nigeria's leaders to help make things better:
Emeror Teddy Obinna - Uwa Shekiga e Shekiga
The Emperor seems to spend a lot of time outside of Nigeria performing for the Igbo diaspora. He certainly has a feeling for their problems and concerns. In "Onye Nchem" he decries lazy Nigerians who take advantage of their hard-working relatives abroad. The song itself is about God's concern for the world. Obinna sings that without God's protection all of the guns and all of the armies in the world are useless. All of the people who bear grudges need God's blessing because he will judge them: "Let the Lord not protect an evil plotter." The chorus is "Make sure you are doing right."
Emperor Teddy Obinna - Onye Nchem
Judging by his eighth release Livin' Dey Highlife, available from Akwaaba Music, Amobi Onyenze is capably carrying on the Osadebe legacy, but one hopes that in the future he will strike out into fresh territory rather than continue to till the old man's field. In "Akachukwu di Ya" ("God's Hand"), Oyenze sings, "In everything we do in life we must seek God's hand to make it success. With God's hand our success is guaranteed. Whoever God's hand beholds shall never fall nor fail. God's hand is in my life, in my family. That's why I'm a success."
Onyenze - Akachukwu di Ya
Thanks once again to my wife Priscilla Nwakaego for interpreting these lyrics. The translation of "Akachukwu di Ya" was provided by Akwaaba Music.