Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Mysterious Ali Chuks

Some years ago an acquaintance passed on a cassette of a Nigerian musician who was previously unknown to me; the tape was simply labeled "Ali Chuks." "He's an Igbo, and he's a Muslim," my friend explained. Which caught my attention, because if there's one thing that would seem to be hard-wired into the DNA of every Igbo man, woman and child, it is an abiding allegiance to the Christian faith. The reasons for this are rooted in history. Suffice it to say that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Igbo embraced Christianity with a vengeance after stubbornly adhering to their traditional religion from time immemorial, and this identification was only strengthened during the privations of the Biafran war. An Igbo Muslim? Who had heard of such a thing?

As a matter of fact, there are small communities of Igbo Muslims, not only in the Islamic north of Nigeria but in Igboland itself. My friend Maurice O. Ene of Kwenu magazine describes the efforts of one Suleiman Onyeama, scion of a prominent Igbo family, who established an Islamic school in his home town of Eke.

Which is all beside the point, really, because as far as I've been able to find out, Ali Chuks, better known as Ali Chukwuma (his LPs also tag him "Ali Chukumah" and "Ali Chukus"), was a true-blue Igbo Christian and not a Muslim at all. Apparently he took his name from Ali Baba, a famous African wrestler of the sixties and seventies (and if you want to learn about yet another African "Ali Baba," go here.)

I have heard varying accounts of Chukwuma's origins and activities before he became a well-known musician, but he was apparently from Aboh in the "Anioma," or Igbo-speaking area of present-day Delta State. He is said to have moved to Atani near Onitsha following the death of his father and made the acquaintance there of native son Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. He spent some time in the great master's Nigeria Sound Makers band and later left to form his own Nigeria Peace Makers.

Chukwuma died of liver failure in the mid-'80s, leaving a legacy of much-loved highlife music.

I had wanted to showcase selections here from various points in Chukwuma's career, but listening to the different recordings, one album stands out: Club 25 (Editions Namaco ENLPS 54), recorded sometime in the late 1970s. Therefore, I'm offering it to you in its entirety, and in future posts I'll present other recordings by this master of Igbo roots music.

"Club 25" is another typical praise song about one of the many Igbo social and charitable clubs. Chukwuma recites the names of and praises the various officers and notable of the organization:

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Club 25

"Henrietta" apparently is addressed to a demanding young woman who thinks she can do better than the narrator. "Henrietta, onye d'imma n'azu:" "Who is beautiful behind their back? Who has everything they want or need in this world?"

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Henrietta

"Onye Melu Ogo Amazi" means "The person I did a favor for doesn't realize it." Chukwuma sings, "What you don't know won't kill you. The good that I do for someone will not kill me." He further sings that no one will carry this world on their back when they die. In other words, your wealth won't do you any good in the afterlife:

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Onye Melu Ogo Amazi

"Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu" means "A truthful word is life." Truthfulness leads to a perfect life. Truthfulness is worth more than money. Further, "Nkem fulu n'anya, bu ezi okwu, nkem nulu n'nti bu asi," or "What I saw with my eyes is true, but what I heard with my ears is lies." In other words, don't believe it unless you see it yourself. Chukwuma further sings that a very good friend is better than family. He recounts that when he first started making music everyone said he was a fool, but now that he is famous they all want him to sing their praises. He sings that he went to Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto and Nnewi and mentions various individuals. "Asi na Chinedu nwa ogbenye. Asi na ifeyi nwa": "They say that God guides the poor man's child. They say that a child is priceless":

Ali Chukwuma & his Peace Makers International - Ezi Okwu Bu Ndu

Discography of Ali Chukwuma

Thanks to my wife Priscilla for her help translating these songs. Any errors in transcription are my own.


trumpetaaa said...

that was a wonderful record of an artist i never heard before
many many thanks said...

thanks for the kind words, john!

your page is great, and i hope that by linking to it on my blog, more people are able to discover and enjoy it. keep up the good work!


Anonymous said...

this music brings me back to my childhood.

i can't say i've ever heard anything by ali chukwuma, but this is good stuff. thanks for posting it.

Tony Obi-Ozomah said...

No! You are not right with your narration of "Henrietta". Ali in this track, was simply praising "Henrietta" as a realiable and worthy backup. He dignified "Henrietta" and same for Emeka Onuorah and Zik (perhaps, all three are his band members) for their worthy role as backups.

Barrister, Son of Delta, Nigeria said...

John -
You have my endless thanks for de-mystifying (& there4, schooling me on) Ali Chuks. More importantly, your discography has been pricelessly helpful as I prepare to revisit Nigeria to bury my dear mother. In Dec 2009, after 11 yrs (immigration wahala, etc) I was finally able to visit Nigeria to spend time with my Mom. Yes, she WAITED that long! She was lucid and happy beyond measure...and died peacefully this Jan 2010 (just 14 days after I returned by to USA).

Although I never met Ali Chuks, we both hail from the Anioma geo-sphere of Iboland. Although I grieve, I am also consoled by the memory of the countless hours my Mom and I spent listening to Ali's uniquely gifted voice THEREFORE it is my intention to serenade my mother's burial ceremony with Ali's music. Your webpage just made putting a list together a lot easier, and I thank you so much.

- Barrister, son of Ogwashi-Uku, Delta State, Nigeria.

BarryB said...

After that last comment, all I can do is say how much I appreciate the Ibo music, and how well it demonstrates what a wealth of it in excellent quality, there was during that period. Thanks for making it available to all.

Sistasoul said...

I am from Aboh and i appreciate this post so much. He was a fantastic musician. Where has this site been all my life. I love it so much. Ali Chukwuma is part of my musical influences, along with many others. You can peep my music here. Cheers for this great work.

Emma said...

This piece of info of and about ali chuks is a treasure. thank u so much.ur work is imeasuerable again thanks.

Unknown said...

Waooooow, this is magnificent. I am elated to read all these.

My best track from Ali Chukwuma is Chinyelu Ugo.

May the soul of the faithful departed, Ali Chukwuma, rest in the bossom of our Lord, Jesus Christ, Amen

Livy Odozor said...

When Ali Chukwuma died, something went out of me. He was an Igbo musician who captured much of the essence of our love of dignified art-making. The narrative about him did not state that he fled with his mother to Atani, his mother's place, as is customary with Igbos who are threatened in their fatherland. His mother had fled after his father's relatives swooped in to torment the freshly-widowed woman. If you listen carefully, you will note Ali's mention of her in some songs. It was in Atani that he got to know Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, his mentor. They had a rancorous separation later.

Living at Onitsha, I listened to some of his earliest songs after he left Chief Osadebe's band. One song that will always touch my heart is "Late Everest Oguchi" (Ogbuchi?). In that song Ali Chukwuma did an eternal panegyric to a respected teacher, not the usual rich subject of Nigerian music. In "Eje Anabu Isi" (Eje Ana Bu Isi) he captures the exile's longing for home. Unfortunately, he never accomplishes that longing for a return to Aboh.

Igbo Highlife Music said...

Nice one

Unknown said...

Thanks for these notes. I grew up living in Onitsha from the eighties through the mid-nineties. Ali Chukwuma's music often fills my evenings with pleasant longings.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this pieces of information about Ali Chukwuma