Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Small Love and a Soft Voice

No sooner had I mentioned that I was lacking two of Nelly Uchendu's legendary recordings, Love Nwantinti (Homzy HCE 005, 1976) and Mamausa (Afrodisia DWAPS 2066, 1978), than Uchenna of With Comb and Razor mailed me copies of both that he had located in Nigeria. If that weren't enough, he also enclosed a copy of Hosanna (Homzy HCE 039, 1979), a previously-unknown-to-me gospel album by the State City Singers, a trio featuring Nelly and her sister Bridget. Thanks, Uchenna! I owe you one (or two, or three).

Not only do all of these LPs differ in "feel," they contrast interestingly to the recordings featured in my previous post. The one constant is Nelly's glorious voice, an instrument that earned her the appellation "Nigeria's Golden Voice." I'm more than happy to devote another post to this great Igbo chanteuse, who was woefully neglected outside of Nigeria during her lifetime, and is in danger of being forgotten completely now that she has departed this world.

Love Nwantinti, Uchendu's first LP, is the recording that put her on the map after some years of celebrity in her native Enugu. It is actually credited to Nelly Uchendu and pianist/organist Mike Obianwu, and what a combination it is! Love Nwantinti is one of the few African records I've heard that feature piano prominently, a very interesting effect. The liner notes state that Obianwu had 45 years of experience under his belt as of 1976. Indeed, I'm wondering if he is the uncredited pianist featured on Celestine Ukwu's classic LP True Philosophy (Philips 6361 009, 1971). Producer H.N. Nnamchi writes, ". . . As some of these evergreen tunes gradually fading away hence I called Nelly and 'Uncle' Mike Obianwu to make this evergreen, exciting, top hits into an album for me and you to own in our own individual record library. . ."

We open up with a medley of three tunes, actually part of a six-song medley that comprises Side 1 of Love Nwantinti. In "Love Nwantinti" ("Small Love"), Nelly sings "My life's journey of love ("ije love") needs just a little more time." In "Ada Eze" ("The Chief's Daughter") she beseeches her best friend, "Ada Eze, come tell me what I should do in this world. What you have in your heart is love. . ." The chorus, "onyi mu oma,' means "my best friend." Finally, in "Onye Nwulu Ozuluike" ("When Somebody Dies, They Rest"), she sings "A bus has taken Joy to Sokoto in the North ["ugwu Hausa"]. A guest has no enemies. If another animal sees a monkey jumping and tries to jump himself he will be hurt. When somebody dies, they rest":

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

"Chukwu Onye Okike" ("God Our Creator") from Side 2 of
Love Nwantinti, is basically a prayer: "God our creator, God our Lord, God who loves us, please help us. Please save us." I love the instrumental break & Obianwu's sharp piano work:

Nelly Uchendu & Mike Obianwu - Chukwu Onye Okike

Sharp-eyed readers will note that the track titles and recording information given on the label differ somewhat from the cover and titles given here (click the image to enlarge). I don't know why this is, but I have a hypothesis: After Nelly's smash debut at FESTAC '77, the original LP by "Uncle Obianwu and Nelly Uchendu" was reissued credited to Nelly Uchendu and Mike Obianwu with a new title and cover. As there were no doubt copies of the original pressing around, only the cover was reprinted. It's as good an explanation as any.

I had heard of Mamausa, but was unprepared for what greeted my ears after actually putting it on the turntable. Who would have thought that in 1978, after a tidal wave of soul and R&B had swept over Nigeria, people there would still be making first-rate dance-band highlife? Interesting also is the presence in the lineup of Ken Okulolo, who has been a respected purveyor of African music in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years now.

"Mamausa" seems to be a nickname, perhaps referring to someone from the North of Nigeria (the song is sometimes referred to as "Mama Hausa," and since the hard "h" sound is not usually pronounced in Igbo, this seems plausible), probably an older lady. Nelly sings to her friend, ". . . I'm so very lost, I'm so much in love. Mamausa, beautiful woman, I'm telling you I'm lost. The journey of love ("ije love" once again) has killed me":

Nelly Uchendu - Mamausa Pts. 1 & 2

On the album, "Mamausa" is actually parts 1 and 4 of a four-song medley. the track listing is: Mamausa Pt. 1/Jesu Chelum/Ugbo Ndi Oma/Mamausa Pt. 2. For convenience I've combined the two parts of the song, but if you'd like to hear the whole medley, click here.

"Okwu Di Nlo" ("A Soft Voice") from Side 2 of Mamausa, preaches the virtues of moderation: "A soft voice brings down anger. That's how a person succeeds in life. A soft voice brings peace, it brings happiness. . .":

Nelly Uchendu - Okwu Di Nlo

The final song on
Mamausa, "Kpokube Olisa," ("Call on the Lord") is another hymn. Nelly sings that today people can't even trust their own relatives: ". . . The world has changed. The world has gotten bad. Call on the Lord so we can survive":

Nelly Uchendu - Kpokube Olisa

I wanted to include a couple of tracks from Hosanna in this post, but I just haven't had time to do the necessary audio restoration (as you can tell, these records have all been much-loved and much-played!) Perhaps another time. And many thanks, as usual, to my wife Priscilla for her interpretations of these lyrics.

Discography of Nelly Uchendu

Update: Cheeku Bidani confirms my suspicions regarding the two issues of Love Nwantinti. At above right is the original cover (click to enlarge). It is currently offered on Ebay here.


Comb & Razor said...

too true, John: it's distressing how quickly Nelly is being forgotten... some might argue that this was happening even during her lifetime, though.

listening to these early records, though, one can hear how fresh and visionary she must have sounded in the 1970s (Mamausa in particular surprised me; dance band highlife at a time when the Orientals and other guitar bands were king?)

she was truly a trailblazer, i can significantly hear her influence on one of my own (similarly forgotten) favorites, Martha Ulaeto. in fact, Martha even had a song called "Ije Luvu (Love Trip)"!

this too will pass said...

great Blog; will call back another day

this too will pass said...

try this music mix:

Frank Partisan said...

Thank you for sharing the Nelly Uchendu tracks.

This is one of my favorite blogs, that covers Nigerian and African in general cultural issues.

Anonymous said...

I had not hear Nelly Uchendu before. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

oh my goodness, i love the picture! african lady on the mixing desk. brilliant.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

John B,
I thank you a lot for the excellent work you have been doing in archiving and advertising of African music. I have been a fan of yours from the inception and I do periodically visit your blog without leaving comments. The temptation to comment was always heightened in me but I did not want to stop you from carrying on with your excellent work should you not appreciate visitors' corrective-like commentaries. I am taking a chance with this commentary and I hope you will take it as my effort to assist you to be very succinct in your narrations/interpretations.

Although "nwantiti" means "a little bit or small" as you indicated, in the context Nelly Uchendu used it, she was implying slowly/gradually. She was singing about a love that was on its death bed, not a budding one as you suggested. My interpretation is bailed out by her following up "Love nwantiti" with “Ije mu nala obu na ofodulu nwantiti” [only a little bit is left of a journey I undertook]. Journey represents marriage (a woman goes away from her folks when she gets married).

The rest of the commentaries are mild corrections on some of the words in your interpretation. My words are inside square brackets.

“We open up with a medley of three tunes, actually part of a six-song medley that comprises Side 1 of Love Nwantinti. In "Love Nwantinti" [slowly/gradually dying Love]..... The chorus, "[oyim] oma,' means "my best friend." Finally, in "Onye Nwulu Ozuluike" [One who dies, rests], she sings "A [train] has taken Joy to Sokoto in the [mountainous] North ["ugwu Awusa"]. A [traveler] has no enemies. If another animal [apes a monkey, it breaks its hands/limbs]”.

Cheers, buddy.

Anonymous said...

Leo: Of course I appreciate your input. I have a question, though: What part of Igboland are you from? I would assume that Nelly sings in Enugu dialect. Since my wife is from Oru LGA in Imo State, she may have misinterpreted the lyrics. Just wondering.

Anonymous said...

John B,
I am from Imo State too. It is quite easy to misunderstand Nelly’s Enugu dialect in this song because she told a story poetically--Love Nwantiti to Onye Nwulu… is one story. In scene I, the character recognizes that her marriage/love was gradually dying and she verbalizes it. In scene II, she summons her best friend, Adaeze, and elicits her counsel. She implores Adaeze to wait for her outside while she tells her a story (a metaphor for stand by me in my hour of need). In scene III, she emerges out of melancholy to carry on with life (Joy journeys to Sokoto on a train ride); she exudes free spiritedness (a traveler has no enemy); she was not going to stay in a miserable situation simply by mimicking societal dictates (an animal that apes the monkey breaks its limbs). Finally, she damns the consequences of the failed marriage (one dies and rests). I can go on and on, but this is not the appropriate medium for this type of intellectual exercise.

I will not deny having had some difficulty deciphering her wording, especially in the verse below.

Adaeze biakenu o, bia gwam ife nga eme n'uwa
ife ibo n'obi na ama ikula anya
biko chelu mu na ilo kam na agwa gi ife

Line 2 above was unintelligible to me but upon interpreting the entire verse, I was able to make sense of her message (poetically delivered). Below is my translation:

Adaeze come uninhibitedly, come to tell me what to do in this world [“in this world” emphasizes the dire need for the counsel she seeks]
What is harbored/alleged in the heart slaps the face
Please wait for me outside while I tell you something

Again, the key to making sense of this song is to recognize that it is a poem, which must not be translated literally because every line conveys deeper messages than the eyes see.

Anonymous said...

Leo: Yes, although I don't know Igbo I understand that it exists on numerous allegorical levels and that it is very difficult to do a strict "translation." Thank you once again for your comments

Chukwuma said...

Thanks a bunch for nelly uchendu's songs. Please how do i get one of her songs, ' Nigeria a maka ezigbo obodo oma, nigeria a maka anyi enye yi obodo ozo'

John B. said...

Chukwuma: I don't have Nelly's album "Nigeria Amaka." I was wondering if Nelly's soundtrack for "Things Fall Apart" was ever committed to disc. Anyone have any information?

Anonymous said...

how do i get nelly's love nwantiti album, live in the uk. thnks

Anonymous said...


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Anonymous said...

i like u blog

Comb & Razor said...

(I think the pianist on Celestine's True Philosophy is probably Okechukwu Ndubuisi)

Anonymous said...

Absolutely love how "Love Nwantinti" sounds (from a recording perspective), the progression, the vocals, rhythm, etc. What are some recommendations of other songs/groups with a similar sound? Thank you!