Sad as it is for me to report, I think the Igbo highlife sound, at least as we have known it, is dead and buried, the great stylists - Osadebe, Warrior and Oliver de Coque - having passed on in the last few years. In their places have emerged a new crew - Eke Chima, Sunny Bobo and the like - who have numerous fans but offer a synthesizer-and-drum-machine-based style that's just a pale imitation of the classic sound, at least in my humble opinion.
In a future post I'll be discussing some of those new guys, but here I want to talk about some of the lesser-known musicians of the '70s and '80s, just a few of the journeymen who made the Igbo highlife scene of the time so vital and productive. In a way they're equivalent to the "garage bands" of the 1960s in the US, who toiled away in obscurity in hopes of someday scoring a regional hit. In the Nigerian case, some of these musicians put out numerous recordings and were quite popular. They just weren't in the top tier of the Igbo music scene.
One such musician was Owerri-based Douglas Olariche, whose LP Me Soro Ibe (Fontana FTLP 109, 1980) makes inspired use of native xylophone and the Igbo ogene bell. The title track, whose title means "Let the World Let Me Follow My Mates," is basically a series of Igbo proverbs such as "a gift knows who wrapped it" strung together, while "Elele" sings the praises of various individuals such as a man who makes his living in the transport business and the Owerri highlife band the Imo Brothers:
Douglas Olariche & his International Guitar Band - Me Soro Ibe
Douglas Olariche & his International Guitar Band - Elele
Also of Owerri, the guitarist Joakin followed a similar career trajectory, scoring a number of regional hits in the mid '80s. In "Nwagbeye Ebezina," from the album of the same name (Sann SR 13, 1984), he sings "poor man's son, do not cry." The chorus is "nobody comes into this world with wealth." "Chikereuwu Buonye Ogbubbonjo," from the same LP, means "God the Creator is the Preventer of All Evils." Joakin calls on God to prevent evil. He also asks God to reveal what will happen to him:
Joakin & his Royal Guitar Band - Nwagbeye Ebezina
Joakin & his Royal Guitar Band - Chikereuwa Buonye Ogbugbonjo
Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri's Anti Concord/Apama (Nigerphone NXLP 011, 1988) was one of the outstanding highlife releases of the '80s, combining traditional Igbo percussion and agile guitar work. The song "Anti Concord" is actually about Aunty Concord, the singer's betrothed, whom he questions about her sincerity. He asks, "you can see that I have many new cars and a great mansion. Is it me you love, or my wealth?" He goes on to sing that some women are like a beautiful present that a man takes home, only to find snakes and scorpions inside:
Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his "Anaedonu" - Anti Concord
"Nara Ndomadu Chukwu" ("Accept God's Advice") tells the story of a young man named Augustine, a trader who has the opportunity to go abroad to buy goods to sell. He asks a prophetess at his local church for advice, who tells him not to go, then he asks a prophet, who tells him the same thing. He then goes to a traditional healer, who tells him to go abroad, but asks 1000 Naira for his advice. Augustine goes abroad and buys his goods, but when he comes home the Customs service check his parcels and find only newspapers inside. Augustine has lost all of his money. Now he sits in the village shooting small animals with a slingshot:
Ibealaoke Chukwukeziri & his "Anaedonu" - Nara Ndomadu Chukwu
Finally we listen to Elvis Nzebude of Amagu, Anambra State. In "Ije Awele" ("Good Journey"), from the album of the same name (Rogers All Stars RASLPS 124, 1992), Elvis sings, "Ganiru, ganiru ("go forward"), we go where there is love, we go where there is peace, we go where there is respect. Because where there is respect there is peace. Let no one wish others death. Let everyone live."
Elvis Nzebude & his Metalic Sound - Ije Awele
Many thanks to my wife Priscilla for her interpretation of these lyrics.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Monday, January 21, 2008
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.