Nigeria: What Igbo Gave the World Musically

21 September 2020

As Nigeria attains 60 years of age in its chequered history, and the Igbo Question which translates to the Nigerian Question is broached on the global stage, the precious gift Igbos bequeathed Nigeria and the world through their philosophical songs, irresistible rhythms, and melodies, especially from the Oriental Brothers International, Dr. Sir Warrior, and other highlife musicians, loom so large and deserves to be properly told:

After Emmanuel Tetty Mensah (popularly known as E.T Mensah for short) and his Tempos Band brought the highlife music to Nigeria in the 1950s through his extensive tours of West Africa, the new highlife music was quickly adopted by notable Nigerian musicians like Bobby Benson, Victor Olaiya, Eddy Okonta, Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Peter King, Chris Ajilo, Zeal Onyia, Bala Miller, E.C Arinze, Sammy Akpabot and many others.

It took only a little time before highlife music became primarily an Igbo music, even though it took several regional styles. More significantly, the highlife music also became the Nigerian National Music and the cultural identity of Nigerians. The highlife music was deployed as a potent weapon in the struggle for independence, both in Nigeria and Ghana from where the music originated.

In those days, before, during, and after independence in 1960, most Igbo highlife musicians resided in Lagos and Ibadan where business was good playing in hotels, nightclubs, and at other social events. On January 15, 1966, some young army officers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, a native of Okpanam town in the former Mid-Western region whose people till this day vehemently reject any attempt by anyone to identify them as Igbos, led a military coup in which some prominent politicians, especially of Northern origin were killed.

As Admiral Alison Madueke writes in his autobiography, "Riding the storms with God in my sails... (2019, p. 99), Igbos were "chased around and killed like rats across the country for the actions of a few Army Officers that had acted on their whims and caprices, a military action which Ndigbo were not privy to." In all, more than 30, 000 Igbos were massacred in Northern Nigeria by mobs carefully organized and led by soldiers of northern origin.

As a result of that genocidal attacks against Igbos all over Nigeria, the Igbo highlife musicians residing in Lagos and Ibadan ran out of the towns back to Igboland in search of safety. After the exit of Igbos, highlife music died in Northern and Western Nigeria. Putting it mildly, Austin 'Maro Emielu, Professor of Performing Arts, in his book, "Nigerian Highlife Music" (2013, p. 84) writes:

"One of the implications of the civil war for the development and sustenance of highlife music was the exit of Igbo highlife musicians from Western and Northern regions to the newly created Biafra Republic in the East. The exodus of veteran highlife musicians like E.C Arinze, Eddy Okonta, Osita Osadebe, Rex Lawson, Stephen Amechi, Charles Iwegbue, Inyang Henshaw, Zeal Onyia, Eric Omugha, Sammy Akpabot and many more may have meant a relative decline in the practice and patronage of highlife music in the Lagos and Ibadan areas."

What the highlife genre did for Nigerian and Ghanaian independence struggles, it repeated for Biafra. The highlife music also became a potent instrument in the Biafran struggle for survival. "In the East during the war," Professor Emielu continues, "highlife music became a rallying point for Igbo and the Biafran nationality generally. Highlife became an object of hope, encouragement, emotional release, and a symbol of group identity in the face of gruesome military assault and deprivation. Although the war was on, highlife music did not cease (in the East)."

Like the proverbial good that sometimes derives from evil, musicians bearing musical ideas and resources from Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, and other East and Central African countries who were sympathetic to the Biafran cause, found their ways into Igboland. "Consequently, the period after the war saw the rise of the new sound of highlife which incorporated stylistic resources from Zairean guitar music, Makossa, and Soukous from East and Central Africa. These musical resources greatly enriched Igbo highlife in the post-civil period as can be observed in the music of the Oriental Brothers, Ikenga Superstars of Africa, Prince Nico Mbarga (of the Sweet Mother fame. Nico Mbarga grew up in Igboland in Abakiliki because he was of Igbo mother and a Cameroonian father), Muddy Ibe, and Oliver de Coque - all of them post-civil war Igbo highlife musicians" (Emielu, 2013, p. 85).

According to Professor Emielu, it was after Igbo highlife music and musicians exited the Western region that "other (erstwhile) competing musical styles, especially Juju music" found their footings and began to thrive. "Although Juju was relatively behind highlife in terms of popularity in the early 1960s in Western Nigeria, the exit of Igbo highlife musicians possibly created a vacuum that Juju music occupied... ."

Ronnie Graham (2000, p. 589) bears similar testimony with his work, "From Hausa Music to Highlife" in the book, "The Rough Guide to World Music" edited by Broughton et al and published by Penguin Books:

"After the civil war (began) in the 1960s, Igbo musicians were forced out of Lagos and returned to their homeland. The result was that highlife ceased to be a major part of mainstream Nigerian music, and was thought of as being something purely associated with the Igbos of the east... . The Igbo people live in the south-east of Nigeria, and play a wide variety of folk instruments. They are known for their ready adoption of foreign styles, and were an important part of Nigerian highlife."

To harvest this musical wealth arising from the new synthesis of Igbo highlife rhythms with the Congo guitar styles of Soukous and Makossa, a new sound which "became the definitive framework of Igbo highlife after the civil war", Rodgers All-Stars Recording Studio which had the unique privilege of recording Prince Nico Mbarga's chart-bursting Sweet Mother after EMI, Decca and Afrodisia rejected the demo tape describing the song as childish) sprang up in Awka, Anambra State.

Rodgers All-Stars and the blossoming Igbo highlife music also drew to Eastern Nigeria, renowned Ghanaian highlife musicians like Sammy Kofi 'Okukuseku' and his Canadoes International Band led by Robert Danso, Opambo, Amachie Dede, Konadus, T.O. Jazz, and others.

As the renowned author and Professor testifies, "The music business in the East grew by leaps and bounds and the dispersal of the Igbo across Nigeria (after the war) also meant the spread of Igbo highlife music nationwide. This trend has continued into the present" (Emielu, 2013, p. 89).

Before we return to the musical magic of the Oriental Brothers and Dr. Sir Warrior, it is important at this juncture to spell out in clear and concrete terms what musical legacies Igbos bequeathed to Nigeria and the world.

There are lots of wrong notions people who are not grounded in music education harbor about music. For that reason, you could be forgiven for believing that highlife music died at some point. As John Collins, Professor of music, University of Ghana, Legon, writes in the foreword to Emielu's book (p. viii):

"Social Reconstructionism (Emielu's theoretical framework) does not posit musical change as occurring in the once and for all straight-line process of birth, growth, and decline of a musical genre. Rather, it treats the decline of a musical style as a deconstruction in which some of the components of the older music style are then reconstructed, as they are creatively integrated within a new socio-cultural context into a novel and qualitatively distinct music idiom."

What all that professorial grammar means is that the Igbo highlife rhythms which fused with the Congo guitar styles of Soukous and Makossa, fashioned in the musical foundries of Igboland, did not wane or die as many believed. Those musical resources were carried and dispersed by the ever-adventurous Igbos across Nigeria and the world as they traversed the length and breadth of the earth in their quest for self-rehabilitation from the impact of the war.

When Victor Uwaifo (cited in Emielu, 2013, p. 100) asserted that "modern pop music in Nigeria is derived from highlife" and was supported by Emielu and veteran entertainment writer, Benson Idonije, what they were referring to was the Igbo highlife music which was constructed in the late 1960s and 1970s in Igbo land, deconstructed in the late 1990s and reconstructed in 2009 by Obumneme Ali and Nwachukwu Ozioko, two Igbo Afropop and R&B musicians that came together as Bracket and released Yori Yori in 2009!

Before Bracket, two musicians had attempted the reconstruction feat: Sunny Nneji with his "Mr. Fantastic" released in 1998, and Tony Tetuila, who released "My Car" in 2001. After Bracket midwifed the rebirth of Igbo highlife music into the Hip-hop genre, it appeared they opened the door for other young Nigerian musicians from different parts of the country who picked up the nwandandaotulaocha and owewelele, two rhythmic patterns that run through Igbo highlife music like golden threads, and by 2015, what has become internationally recognized today as Nigerian popular music with a distinct sound and unique dance steps, solidified. That is one of the gifts Igbos gave to Nigeria and the world.

... To be continued next week


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