Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gospel Highlife from "New Calabar"

As you may have noticed, I've been writing quite a bit lately about the music of Nigeria's "Eastern Minorities." By this I mean the non-Igbo ethnic groups that comprised about 40% of the population of the old Eastern Region of Nigeria that existed from 1954 until 1967. In 1967 the East attempted to separate and form the independent Republic of Biafra. For the most part the minorities - the Ijaws, Ogonis, Efiks, Ibibios and so forth - supported the Federal Government in that conflict, and since they occupied the coastal areas this was a decisive factor in the defeat of the Biafran cause in 1970.

One of the biggest names of classic Nigerian highlife, Erekosima Rex Lawson, was the son of an Igbo mother and an Ijaw father from Buguma, in the "New Calabar" region of present-day Rivers State, and thus is claimed as a native son by both groups. New Calabar is said to have been settled by Efiks from Calabar in present-day Cross River State, but its language, Kalabari, is in fact a dialect of Ijaw. Lawson sang in this language and Igbo, as well as other tongues of Nigeria, making him beloved across the country.

Buguma produced another highlife musician, Emperor Erasmus Jenewari.
A retiring and urbane man, Jenewari's career was somewhat overshadowed by that of the great Lawson. In the years before the Biafra war he was based in Onitsha, where he recorded numerous hits like "Abari Nyanawa," "Oteke," "Opa Iweriso," and the evergreen "Odenigbo."

Following the war Jenewari seems to have forsaken secular music altogether, and devoted himself strictly to Christian devotional music with his group the Gospel Bells (shown at the top of this post; Jenewari is in the middle of the bottom row). Here are tunes from two of his gospel albums, Tamuno Belema (Philips 6361 168, 1976) and Joy Hallelujah (Polydor POLP 081, 1982). Listening to these lovely songs takes me back to eastern Nigeria, where the sound of gospel music is omnipresent.

"Tamuno Ne-Giye Ofori" and "Ichoro Onu" from Tamuno Belema are reminiscent in so many ways of Celestine Ukwu's brilliant album Ejim Nk'onye (Philips 6361 111, 1975). It's hard to say for sure, as there are no credits on either LP, but I suspect they share a set of backup musicians. The lyrics of the first song are simplicity itself: "There's nothing greater than God," repeated in the major languages of Nigeria. I detect Ijaw, Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa in the mix and there are probably several others as well:

Erasmus Jenewari & his Gospel Bells - Tamuno Ne-Giye Ofori

Erasmus Jenewari & his Gospel Bells - Ichoro Onu

"O Tamuno Boma/Ona Som" and "Joy Hallelujah" are from Joy Hallelujah. "Joy Hallelujah" was the most important hit of the gospel phase of Jenewari's career:

Erasmus Jenewari & his Gospel Bells -
O Tamuno Boma/Ona Som

Erasmus Jenewari & his Gospel Bells - Joy Hallelujah

I understand that Erasmus Jenewari passed on a number of years ago without much fanfare even in Rivers State, a sad commentary.

Many thanks to Eji I. Nwuke, who provided me with much of the information used in this post.


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nice post

Rico said...

Sorry John, just a little problem with the 2nd link (Ichoro Onu). I specialy enjoyed Aki Kiri Mele Mele in the former post on Nigerian Music. Happy New Year

dat one okrika girl...xyz said...

Thanks for this post and the many others you have had on Ijaw music in the past. I really enjoyed Tamuno ne-giye ofori

John B. said...

Rico: Aaaaarrrgh! What's the matter with me?! Once again, thanks for pointing this out. It's been corrected.

Anonymous said...

The past few posts on Southeastern Nigerian music have truly been a revelation. Please keep up the good work.

Comb & Razor said...

Jenewari was a true legend who is sadly slept on these days... great to see him get some shine here!

(and i loooove that Tamuno Belema LP cover!)

Gam said...

I love Niger Delta music. Much of the modern 'traditional' Ijaw music coming out of Bayelsa, Delta and Rivers these days is infused with the politics of "struggle."
A great post (or series, more likely) would be to profile the music of struggle. Some great African music (apart from the obvious choices such as South Africa and Zim, there's also more recently Cote d'Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Congo and of course, Nigeria) has been influenced by radical politics, whether positively or negatively, and the Delta is no exception.
Very interesting stuff, some of it.

zim said...

thanks for this, beautiful music.

Happy new year to you and your family

Chris said...

fantastic blog these days john, i have been out of it in the deep woods

thanks for the context, been on an ebizimor roll these days

i tried emailing but you may have a new email address?

could you please send it to me at boxengo@yahoo.com?



happy new year!

SocialNetworking said...

God Bless This Guys!

Website Designer said...

Thanks for this nice post.

Bellemskey said...

Haaa.... its been long i listened to Erasmus Jenewari and his Gospel Bells.....Oh Tamuno Boma eee, Halleluyah Joy.... See, John you may not understand what you are doing to us.... U are blessed beyond a curse i tell U..... God bless you reall good....

Robert said...

There are some very rare Lawson songs that I am still looking out for. I don't know the title of the tracks but I know one of them has the word Ibiriye repeated several times. These were songs of the 60s. Lawson remains the best highlife man ever to come out of Nigeria.

Dennis Amachree said...

Hello John.....this is a fantastic blog. You made my morning with the post on Erasmus....a great musician in those days when I was growing up in Buguma.

However, you turned history on its head with your second paragraph in description of who the Kalabaris are. "New Calabar" was not settled by Efiks from Calabar. The name "New Calabar" was a mistake by the colonials who moved inland from Calabar and met another tribe that go by the name Kalabari. In their confusion, just like when they say the native Americans and called them Indians, they felt this must be another Calabar tribe....thus Kalabari was named New Calabar by the colonials. The Kalabaris are an Ijaw tribe true and true, not Ijaw speaking Efik people as you inputed.

Anonymous said...

Shame about the misspelled "Halellujah" on the cover. Makes it look cheap. However, the music is fantastic.