Sunday, November 18, 2007

Wayward Girls, Greediness and Fancy Hotels

When Nigerian highlife king Stephen Osita Osadebe passed on May 11 of this year, it could reasonably be said that an era died with him. Apart from Victor Olaiya, Osadebe was the last important exponent of "dance band" highlife in Nigeria, and the only significant Igbo artist working in that genre. His contributions to Nigerian music were incalculable; not only did he carry the torch of classic highlife to the very end, his compositions became evergreen classics beloved by millions: "Sisi Kwanangida," "One Pound No Balance," "Nri Sports di Uso," "Osondi Owendi," "People's Club Special" and many, many more.

Over the course of his fifty years in music, "The Doctor of Hypertension," or Osili, as he was fondly known, put out at least sixty LPs and numerous 45s. Some of the best of these recordings were included in 2001's compilation disc, Sound Time (IndigeDisc 495 001), and many others have been reissued on CD in Nigeria, although these are very difficult to obtain (try Sterns). Some years ago I compiled a discography of Osadebe, which you can find here.

One of my chief aims in establishing Likembe was to promote and explain the Igbo music that I love so much, and toward this end I hope to post as many recordings by the great Doctor as I possibly can. We're kicking things off with selections from four LPs issued in the early 1970s: Uju Special (Philips 6361 015, 1972), Egbunam (Philips 6361 024, 1972), Osadebe '75 (Polydor POLP 001, 1974) and Osadebe '76 (Polydor POLP 004, 1975).

Of course, Osadebe had been making great music since the 1950s, when he got his start with Zeal Onyia's band, and released his first single, "Adamma," in 1958. It was following the defeat of the Biafran war of independence (1967-1970), though, that he really began to make his mark
on the national and international scene. These four albums, massive hits all, played a major part in cementing his reputation.

"Uju Special," the opening track from Osadebe's LP of the same name (left), concerns Osadebe's sister Ononuju. Uju's husband and in-laws treated her poorly because she couldn't conceive. Osadebe and his family begged her to return home - "Ononuju nwannem ngi kam na kpo," which she did. She remarried, and gave birth to many children.

The closing, "Okwu fa kwulu ya dili fa na Uju difu o," proclaims "in spite of everything they said Uju is still here!"

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Uju Special

The derisive song "Sisi Kwanangida," also from Uju Special, concerns young Igbo women who sought the company of the Federal troops who occupied Eastern Nigeria following the end of the Biafra war. "Kwanangida" is actually a Hausa term and was applied generally to these soldiers whatever their ethnicity. Osadebe remonstrates with such women for pursuing these men and their money, and predicts that they will be disappointed in the end: "Sorry-O. Kwanangida no go marry you! Baby Kwanangida now you go tire!"

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Sisi Kwanangida

"Baby One Pound No Balance," also from Uju Special, similarly addresses the subject of what might be called "wayward women," in this case a prostitute who states her non-negotiable price: "One Pound, no balance!"

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Baby One Pound No Balance

In the early '70s the Matador Hotel in Onitsha was the destination for nouveau riche gentlemen to eat, drink and show off their girlfriends. I presume Osili was given a bundle of cash by the owners to record "Matador Special," from Egbunam (right), and it was a big hit for him. He asks, "Onye ma mbosi anwu?" "who knows the day they will die?" In other words, have fun while you can!

He further asks, "What does Osili want? Number one, that he will eat well. Number two, that he will have the most enjoyment. Number three, that he will wear the most beautiful attire. Number four, that he will have a beautiful lady by his side while he enjoys himself!" Of course, all of these things may be found at the Matador!

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Matador Special

"Ezi Ogolidi" ("Husband's Sweetheart"), also from Egbunam, is a love song. Osadebe pleads, "Onyeoma (beautiful one), you've done it to me again, but you've also done it to yourself ('aye aye ni ime onweyi'). Who is Osili going to go to now? Osili loves you. Must I kill myself for you to know? A woman can be beautiful on the outside but have a heart like a stone. A woman can be ugly but have a heart like a mirror. It is best to have the one with the beautiful heart."

(I apologize for the poor quality of this recording. If I can find a better copy, I will post it.)

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Ezi Ogelidi

Side 1 of Osadebe '75 (left) is a three-part medley that showcases the virtuosity of Osadebe's backup group, the Nigeria Sound Makers (unfortunately, as on all of Osadebe's albums, these musicians are uncredited.) "Onu Kwube" basically means "let people talk" and is more or less a collection of proverbs: "A child cannot go before his father. After a race, you will see who ran faster. Let no one wish each other death. Let mine be mine ('Nkemdilim')."

The title of part two of this sequence, "Ejim Ofor Aga," means "I keep my hand straight in everything I do." "What does the eye see that it cries blood? Let nobody kill each other."

Commander in Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Onu Kwube / Ejim Ofor Aga / Instrumental 1

Another killer double-header, from Osadebe '76 (right), closes out our survey of Osita Osadebe's early Seventies recordings. "Ome Ife Jide Ofo," a common Igbo proverb, means
"whatever you are doing, make sure you are doing right." In this song Osadebe addresses intra-family disputes: "Anger between brothers and sisters doesn't go to the bone. A sister and brother will not eat together and not trust each other." The title of part two, "Anya Ukwu Dinjo," literally means "big eyes are bad," or in other words, "greediness is bad." The song states that anyone who is used to greediness is in big trouble, that greediness is unholy, an abomination, etc. etc.

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound Makers - Ome Ife Jide Ofo / Anya Ukwu Dinjo

Once again, many thanks to my wife Priscilla for patiently translating these lyrics for me. We tried to render them in vernacular English as much as we could, but because of differences in dialect, etc. there may be some discrepancies in interpretation. Feedback, as ever, is appreciated.


Tim said...

Hi John

This is a fantastic post containing both great music and a welcome dollop of informative background information about the songs - kudos to you and to Priscilla for putting this music into context so well.

avocado kid said...

right on!

Comb & Razor said...

if my vote counts for anything, i would really love to see a lot more entries like this one... it's becoming a bit of an embarrassment to me how little i know about Igbo highlife despite having been surrounded by it so much of my life!

i'm especially looking forward to educative posts on the likes of Rogana Ottah, Waziri Oshomah, and the likes (i recently discovered i had some records of theirs in my crates all along and didn't even know it!)

good show, man... you should definitely do an Osadebe, Pt. 2 post!

"Big Al" Maghreb said...

Great post! Can't wait to listen.

Anonymous said...

JohnB: Over the years, I have followed what you've done for african music, appreciating it every step. This tribute to Osili (Osita) is wonderful and to be commended. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Oops! Inadvertently left a comment on the above Somali music post... In any event, I hope you can explore Osadebe's music further in later posts. Any (further) album recommendations would be appreciated! I hope to snap up as many CDs as I can-- given his demise, and that of the CD era, who knows how long the stuff will be out there, flying under our Western radar screens into oblivion....

griotmedia said...

I was totally taken aback, woo! 'One pound no balance! we were dancing to that in the 60s when I was in boarding school. john B you are simply too much man, thanks for making my day. This is a great tribute to Chief Osita Osadebe. He was a great musician, I happened to have the opportunity of interviewing him in my younger days as a producer with the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria, that was in 1986.I think I still have some excerpts from that interview, that is if I search hard enough. Keep up the great job mate.

Anonymous said...

All fantastic music by the late and great Osita Osadebe, one of Africa's greatest musicians. This is music I can listen to for hours and hours! I was very sad when I heard that he passed away last year.
But I'm happy that most of his music is now being reissued on CD in Nigeria and becoming available again.

Anonymous said...

This is great info to know.

Unknown said...

With apologies for my late comment (11 years after the original post -- may be a record), this is a wonderful gift to highlife lovers. I was taken back to the first time I heard Rex Lawson, another Igbo Highlife genius, at a party (in NY) in 1972. I can still hear that music.
Thanks, also, for the great work of curation on this site -- much appreciated!