Saturday, October 17, 2009

The "New" Igbo Thing




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.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Igbo Garage Bands




Sad as it is for me to report, I think the Igbo highlife sound, at least as we have known it, is dead and buried, the great stylists - Osadebe, Warrior and Oliver de Coque - having passed on in the last few years. In their places have emerged a new crew - Eke Chima, Sunny Bobo and the like - who have numerous fans but offer a synthesizer-and-drum-machine-based style that's just a pale imitation of the classic sound, at least in my humble opinion.

In a future post I'll be discussing some of those new guys, but here I want to talk about some of the lesser-known musicians of the '70s and '80s, just a few of the journeymen who made the Igbo highlife scene of the time so vital and productive. In a way they're equivalent to the "garage bands" of the 1960s in the US, who toiled away in obscurity in hopes of someday scoring a regional hit. In the Nigerian case, some of these musicians put out numerous recordings and were quite popular. They just weren't in the top tier of the Igbo music scene.

One such musician was Owerri-based Douglas Olariche, whose LP Me Soro Ibe (Fontana FTLP 109, 1980) makes inspired use of native xylophone and the Igbo ogene bell. The title track, whose title means "Let the World Let Me Follow My Mates," is basically a series of Igbo proverbs such as "a gift knows who wrapped it" strung together, while "Elele" sings the praises of various individuals such as a man who makes his living in the transport business and the Owerri highlife band the Imo Brothers:

Douglas Olariche & his International Guitar Band - Me Soro Ibe

Douglas Olariche & his International Guitar Band - Elele



Also of Owerri, the guitarist Joakin followed a similar career trajectory, scoring a number of regional hits in the mid '80s. In "Nwagbeye Ebezina," from the album of the same name (Sann SR 13, 1984), he sings "poor man's son, do not cry." The chorus is "nobody comes into this world with wealth." "Chikereuwu Buonye Ogbubbonjo," from the same LP, means "God the Creator is the Preventer of All Evils." Joakin calls on God to prevent evil. He also asks God to reveal what will happen to him:

Joakin & his Royal Guitar Band - Nwagbeye Ebezina


Joakin & his Royal Guitar Band - Chikereuwa Buonye Ogbugbonjo




Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri's Anti Concord/Apama (Nigerphone NXLP 011, 1988) was one of the outstanding highlife releases of the '80s, combining traditional Igbo percussion and agile guitar work. The song "Anti Concord" is actually about Aunty Concord, the singer's betrothed, whom he questions about her sincerity. He asks, "you can see that I have many new cars and a great mansion. Is it me you love, or my wealth?" He goes on to sing that some women are like a beautiful present that a man takes home, only to find snakes and scorpions inside:

Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his "Anaedonu" - Anti Concord

"Nara Ndomadu Chukwu" ("Accept God's Advice") tells the story of a young man named Augustine, a trader who has the opportunity to go abroad to buy goods to sell. He asks a prophetess at his local church for advice, who tells him not to go, then he asks a prophet, who tells him the same thing. He then goes to a traditional healer, who tells him to go abroad, but asks 1000 Naira for his advice. Augustine goes abroad and buys his goods, but when he comes home the Customs service check his parcels and find only newspapers inside. Augustine has lost all of his money. Now he sits in the village shooting small animals with a slingshot:

Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his "Anaedonu" - Nara Ndomadu Chukwu




Finally we listen to Elvis Nzebude of Amagu, Anambra State. In "Ije Awele" ("Good Journey"), from the album of the same name (Rogers All Stars RASLPS 124, 1992), Elvis sings, "Ganiru, ganiru ("go forward"), we go where there is love, we go where there is peace, we go where there is respect. Because where there is respect there is peace. Let no one wish others death. Let everyone live."

Elvis Nzebude & his Metalic Sound - Ije Awele



Many thanks to my wife Priscilla for her interpretation of these lyrics.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Scooped Again!




As you may know, I've periodically been posting classic and hard-to-find music from Ethiopia here. For some time, I've wanted to make available Lebäy (Toteel Music), a 1984 cassette by Eritrean musical legend Bereket Mengisteab (and yes, Eritrea is now an independent country, but in 1984 it was part of Ethiopia, so technically it qualifies). This is the only recording by Bereket that I possess, and I've long wondered about this enigmatic singer.

Once again, I've been scooped by one of my fellow bloggers, as Matthew Lavoie of Voice of America's African Music Treasures devotes his latest post
to this iconic musician. With his usual meticulous attention to detail, Matthew supplies a wealth of background information on his subject, having interviewed the great maestro personally in the VOA studios. There's nothing more I can add, but here's a small taste:.


. . .Bereket Mengisteab was born in 1938 in the small village of Hazega, located about eighteen miles north of the Eritrean capital of Asmara, and this is where he spent the first two decades of his life farming. During these years in Hazega, Bereket taught himself the Krar (a five stringed lyre) and honed his musical skills, participating in all of the musical rituals that punctuate rural life. Then, after spending a few years in Asmara (which was part of Ethiopia at the time), Bereket moved to Addis Abeba in 1961. And it was in Addis that Bereket made his stage debut, as a member of the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra; during the previous year he spent in Asmara he never performed outside of his circle of friends. Bereket stayed with the Haile Selassie Theater Orchestra for a little over a decade, performing with the group throughout Ethiopia, in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal (at the 1966 Festival mondial des Arts Nègres), and in Mexico (at the 1968 Summer Olympics). During these years he also made his first recordings, nine singles for the Philips label (I don't know the exact dates and have not been able to find any of these singles). . .

Francis Falceto writes, in the liner notes of his excellent compilation Ethiopiques 5: Tigrigna music Tigray/Eritrea 1970-1975 (Buda Musique 82965-2):

. . . Tigrigna music, dominent in Tigray [province] and Eritrea, is quite distinct, both rhythmically and melodically, from "Ethiopian" music, although both share the so-called "pentatonic" (or five-note) scale. The instruments and the traditional musical practices are similar, while their names may vary. The massenqo (single-corded fiddle played with a bow) and especially the krar (a six-corded lyre) remain the most prevalent instruments. In Tigrigna country, the massenqo is more commonly termed tchèrewata and the same wandering minstrel that Ethiopians of the central highlands call azmari is better known here as a wata. Ethiopians call the lepers and beggars who sing at dawn lalibèla: here they are termed hamien or arho. Sometimes the krar is even called massenqo. In a notable development over the last few decades, many Eritrean musicians have encouraged the spread of the electric krar, used here widely (far more than in Ethiopia), and many excel at the instrument. . .
Of course, you need to read Matthew's post and enjoy the musical samples he provides. For those who want more, here's Lebäy, in all of its wild, wailing wah-wahed-out glory:

"Lebäy" means "my heart." It can alternately mean "my emotions":

Bereket Mengisteab - Lebäy

"Wind of the Desert":

Bereket Mengisteab - Nefas nay Bäräkha

"Wäzzamu" = "handsome":

Bereket Mengisteab - Wäzzamu

The title of this song means "wicked flute." He is scolding the flute, probably because her sound evokes bad memories:

Bereket Mengisteab - Täkkalit Shanbeqo

A comb made of ebony, worn as adornment:

Bereket Mengisteab - Zebbä Mästära

Part of a proverb, the title of this song means "restless hyena":

Bereket Mengisteab - Hewwekh Zeb’i

"His Horse":

Bereket Mengisteab - Färäsu


"Utter Darkness":

Bereket Mengisteab - Deqdeq S’elmat

Many many thanks to Andreas Wetter for transliterating and translating the song titles. Andreas has recently started his own weblog,
Kezira, devoted to music from the Horn of Africa. Of course, it's highly recommended.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

From Congo to Kenya Pt. 2




As a follow-up to my earlier post
From Congo to Kenya Pt. 1, here are some melodies courtesy of the Congolese diaspora in East Africa. Like that post, this one is focused on the early 1980s. In 1985, President Daniel Arap Moi ordered the expulsion of foreign workers, including musicians, from Kenya, and the Congolese/Zairean musical community there scattered to the four winds.

For some time I had wondered who possessed the soulful voice that featured on so many 45s issued during the '80s in Kenya by such disparate groups as the Kenya Blue Stars and Bana Ngenge. Was it the same person? Along comes Alistair Johnson to clear up the puzzle in his article
Congolese/Zaïrean Musicians in East Africa. Turns out the mystery voice is Moreno Batamba (nee Batamba Wenda Morris), who was born in Kisangani in 1955 and joined Orchestre Maquis Sasa in 1971. In 1974 he hooked up with Fataki Lokassa and a number of other Congolese exiles in Uganda to form Bana Ngnege, which seems to have undergone a number of permutations and name changes over the years. Although Alistair writes that Bana Ngenge broke up in 1976, a group called Bana Ngenge Stars Popote, featuring Fataki Lokassa, released this record in Kenya (Universal Sounds USD 005) in the early '80s. Moreno is relegated to supporting vocals:

Bana Ngenge Stars Popote - Dunia Imelaniwa Pts. 1 & 2

After serving stints with Orchestra Shika-Shika, Les Noirs (both featured in
From Congo to Kenya Pt. 1) and Orchestre Virunga, Moreno started Moja One in Nairobi in 1980 and recorded "Dunia si Yako si Yangu" (CBS/ACP 702) around 1983:

Moreno & Moja One - Dunia si Yako si Yangu Pts. 1 & 2

Finally Moreno shows up as part of the pop/disco trio the Kenya Blue Stars, along with Margaret Safari & Sheila (pictured at the top of this post), who recorded this infectious little ditty (CBS/ACP 1201) in 1984:

Kenya Blue Stars - Shufa Pts. 1 & 2

Along with Jimmy Monimambo and Frantal Tabu (about whom more below), one of Moreno's colleagues in Shika-Shika was
Lovy Mokolo Longomba, whose high-pitched voice was a perfect counterpoint to Moreno's. His father was Vicky Longomba, a founding member of OK Jazz, and his brother Awilo Longomba, is one of the biggest stars of contemporary Congo music. Lovy moved from Kinshasa to Nairobi in 1978 and joined Les Kinois, a predecessor of Orchestra Virunga. His sojourn there lasted only three months, after which he left for stints with Boma Liwanza and Super Mazembe. While a part of Orchestra Shika-Shika, he also helmed his own band, which recorded under the names Orchestre Super Lovy and Bana Likasi. Sadly, Lovy Longomba died in an auto accident in Tanzania in 1996. Here he is on Editions Lovy 01:

Orchestre Super Lovy - Elee Pts. 1 & 2

Frantal Tabu (picture below), like Moreno Batamba, hails from Kisangani, and also played a role in Orchestra Shika-Shika, as well as Boma Liwanza and other bands. He formed Orchestra Vundumuna in 1984, which also featured Ugandan Sammy Kasule on vocals. Here is a recording Frantal Tabu made with Orchestre Malekesa du Zaire on the Editions du Hudson label (EDH 01):

Frantal Tabu & Orchestre Malekesa du Zaire - Asali Pts. 1 & 2




Finally, here are a couple of sides in the style made famous by Verckys & Orchestre Veve, from a group I know nothing about. I don't know for sure that Python Mas's group Zaire Success was based in East Africa, although the name gives a clue (groups that were actually based in Congo/Zaire didn't usually include "Zaire" in the name), and this 45 (sides A & B of Africa AFR 7-36) was pressed in Kenya:

Python Mas & Orchestre Zaire Success - Sofia Motema

Python Mas & Orchestre Zaire Success - Mado

For more about these artists and many more I refer you once again to Alistair Johnson's essential article
Congolese/Zaïrean Musicians in East Africa.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mental Health Break


Courtesy of Lucas Silva:

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Taking It Easy (Well, Not Really)


I've been feeling bad about not being able to blog recently, but I see some of my fellow African music blogmeisters have also been slacking off this month! In my case the hiatus is due mainly to preparing for our first daughter's upcoming move to college - a big transition for all of us. To protect Aku's privacy I'm not going to say which school she's attending, but we're pretty happy with it, and of course we couldn't be prouder.

So I hope to be back in action in a week or two. In the meantime may I draw your attention to two worthy new additions to the African music blog scene?

ElectricJive specializes in South African jazz and jive, and I'm quite impressed with the first few entries, full-length LPs from Hugh Masekela, Barney Rachabane, Mahlathini and more, definitely worth your while. Then there's Afro-Synth, which for want of a better term features South African "bubblegum music," the synth-infused pop sounds that were all the rage back in the '80s and early '90s. For now the blog features mainly write-ups, but I understand it'll be adding more downloads as time goes by. I told Uchenna over at Comb and Razor this one was right up his ally! Not really my thing, but who knows? It might be yours.

Take care, and happy listening!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Man Behind the Music




One of the fringe benefits of doing this blog is that I occasionally hear from the musicians I write about, and their relatives. Thursday I got an email from Anthony Obianwu, the son of "Uncle" Mike Obianwu, whom I wrote about briefly in this post, reporting his death on July 20th. He was 93 years old.

Uncle Mike was not a well-known musician. He is remembered mainly for his stellar piano work on Nelly Uchendu's famous LP Love Nwantinti (Homzy HCE 005, 1976), and the great irony of this achievement is that the album was originally credited to Obianwu himself, with Uchendu playing only a supporting role. After Uchendu's acclaimed debut at FESTAC '77 in Lagos, the album was reissued with a new cover credited to "Nelly Uchendu and Mike Obianwu." Anthony tells me that his father released one other album in his own name, Crashes in Love, and I suspect he was present on other recordings as well. The other members of his band were Bassey Edim on bass and Willie Udor on drums, with Nelly Uchendu supplying vocals until her death in 2005.

Let's take a moment to remember Uncle Mike and the many other unsung heroes of African music. Here is a touching tribute in his honor by his family:

Ezennia Michael Davidson Obianwu, God saw you getting tired as your youthfulness turned gray. The days flew by as you celebrated your well lived 93years of aging memories. You were our ROCK and you will forever live in us, a befitting metaphor is your name OBIANWU. Your name will never die for we your children will carry on your legacy with every breath we draw. Your heart was so beautiful and pure, so meek and gentle, so loving and very forgiving. We became greedy, wishing you could hang around for another 93. We can now see that your every awakening and perseverance, is your way of hanging around to protect your loving family. The Almighty God knew this too, so HE wrapped his arms around you, and whispered, "COME TO ME."

You went through a journey very few can only dream about, you married your beloved wife and our mother Victoria Obianwu on December 26, 1949, and you were both rewarded with beautiful children: Chinwe, (ADA) Obianwu, Okechukwu (Diokpa) Obianwu, Ebelechukwu Obianwu, Nnamdi Obianwu, Anthony Obianwu and the most supporting group of in-laws: Amaechi Mbanefo, Cecilia Obianwu and Chilo Obianwu. Our Daddy Ezennia was also blessed with many grand children: Uchenna Obianwu, Jane Mbanefo, Patrick Mbanefo, George Mbanefo, Ifeoma Mbanefo, Adaobi Obianwu, Osita Obianwu, Nnenna Obianwu, Ebelechukwu Obianwu Jr., Odiakosa Obianwu, and Adaeze Obianwu. Ezennia is also survived by a long chain of brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins and a sea of friends and well wishers. It goes without saying that you have led a fulfilled life.

After serving proudly, fighting as a soldier in Burma during the 2nd World War with sustained injuries to show for it, you worked at the Federal Ministry of Information in Lagos and retired proudly as a senior civil service worker. Despite all this, your love for music kept shinning through. You played music at famous hotels in Lagos like Gondola and the Federal Palace, including the Presidential and Hotel Metropole in Enugu, Nigeria. You became very famous in music and touched many hearts. Your genius earned you the name "Uncle Mike Obianwu" and you recorded two albums including the award winning folk song "Love Nwantinti". You became one of the respected Agbalanze of Onitsha and was crowned with the title; EZENNIA and for this we salute you.

Daddy, you were truly an accomplished man of God. He only takes the best. This is why He has called you home to give you rest. God's garden must be beautiful, and there must be a beautiful white Grand Piano, waiting for you in heaven, to strike beautiful melodies for God's listening pleasure and for the Angels to dance to. It was no surprise that on the day of your passing, you were jovial as usual and you told us how much you loved us. You then said "Tell 'V' I love her" (meaning Mom) and asked to let you rest. Your Doctor asked if you were ready to be discharged, your answer was "YES, I AM READY TO GO HOME" and home you went, drifting gently like the wind. When we saw you sleeping so peaceful and free from pain, we could not wish you back because the Lord needs you more now than we do.

"For YOUR gift O'LORD, we will rejoice and be glad."

Rest in perfect peace, Good Bye, All Our Love is with you.

On Behalf of All of Your Children,
Chinwe, (ADA) Obianwu, Okechukwu (Diokpa) Obianwu, Ebelechukwu Mbanefo, Nnamdi Obianwu & Anthony Obianwu
Wake will be kept for Mike Obianwu August 15th at 18351 Queen Anne Road, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, 20774, and his final resting place will be Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria on August 29. In Uncle Mike's memory let's listen to "Love Nwantinti":

Nelly Uchendu & Mike Obianwu - Love Nwantinti/Ada Eze/Onye Nwulu Ozuluike