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.


Anonymous said...

Excellent IGBO!!

Anonymous said...

I've just done a post on Nigeria Blues over at Matsuli - describing the latest offering from Soundway..which I know you are going to love....

griotmedia said...

Hmmm, nice one. Like the great Hugh Masekela will always say 'categorization' This came to my mind when I read the title 'Igbo blues'that notwithstanding, for scientific reason, something must belong to a category and if I were asked to suggest Igbo music that should belong to this genre, I will stick more with the 'Ekpili Music' because of the the fact that the lyrics are most of the time reflective of the singers deep feelings and experience. While growing up in Nigeria in the 60's there was a genre referred to as 'Igbo Native Blues. They were mostly choral or a as the case may be. These were incredible songs/stories in Igbo with a lot of encouraging words and moral teachings, having many parts that are delivered in harmony. A great many vinyl were produced in this category by very talented composers and musicologists like late Rev Okongwu , Chief Nwokolobia Agu, Angus Okosa, and many more I cannot remember now. Some of the popular ones include songs like Obiageli, and thie other song that told of hopw the tortoise stole some food from his in-laws. Indeed it will be great to do a complete coverage of this era if I could lay hands on some of the materials.
Whoops! What a long comment. Thanks again JB, as always you have again woken up my music stimuli.

mattgy said...

Thanks for the shout-out, John.

Great post today!


matthew said...

Hello John,

Great post!! I love Igbo roots music. I can't get enough of the vocals. We have a few Nigerian 45s in our collection that are labeled "Nigerian Blues"- or something similar. I'll pull them out and post them. It would be interesting to compare them to the tracks you have posted. Thanks for the music.

best matthew

Africolombia said...

Musica Grande Igbo, fantastico


Anonymous said...

It just occurred to me that there are three African music blogs run by "Matts," and all of them have just commented on this post! What are the chances?

Sometime in the future I'll have to post, in its entirety, the 1980s LP Nwanyi Ma Obi Diya by the Obi Wuru Otu Dance Group of Ihiagwa-Owerri.

This is probably the biggest-selling Igbo Roots album of all time! Put it on at an Igbo party and you'll bring everyone to their feet.

Anonymous said...

mats with 1 t & no blog says
thanks for this wonderful igbo music

Anonymous said...

You mentioned Morocco Maduka - I have a great 1981 LP by Morocco Maduka & His Minstrels on Sammy Sparkle records which is the real deal - hardcore traditional stuff... Thanks for all the wonderful music by the way - not that this is a contest or sth but yours is hands down the most satisfying African music blog going right now - keep it up! - Tom

Comb & Razor said...

*thumbs up*

Anonymous said...

... correction: yours, and With Comb & Razor of course :-) And AMT! - Tom

John B. said...


I'd love to hear some "real deal" Morocco Maduka. I have 1 or 2 cassettes by him, but the sound quality is terrible, not that they're really worth listening to anyway, what with the degraded-sounding synths & crappy drum machine.

Anonymous said...

John, I'be happy to digitize the Morocco Maduka LP for you. You can e-mail me at arnaert(at)skynet(dot)be. - Tom

matthew said...


I think we also have several Morocco Maduka lps in our collection. I'll dig up the titles for you.
best matthew

Andy Healey said...

Thanks for the music John. How about a post on Igbo "ogene" style - there's a fantastic new dvd out featuring Shidodo - see clip below:

Andy (Africabeat)

Andy Healey said...

Oops! - only just listened to the first 2 tracks you posted - I guess the track by Queen Ann & ensemble is in the same style.
Do check the Shidodo vid tho, it's really well put together.

John B. said...


That Shidodo video is truly awesome - one of the best recordings of Igbo music I've ever heard. I see that our friend Codewit has posted 3 more videos by the group, all of them great.

When I get a chance I will embed links on the blog, along with commentary.


Anonymous said...

Hello John B., I just wanted to say I am pleased and thankful to know that you are posting these igbo records. I wanted to know if you had any more of the other Nkwerre women recording albums or some albums from other villages in Imo or Abia state. Thanks for your understandings.

John B. said...