When highlife ruled the airwaves in Nigeria in the past decades, voices of Igbo musicians and others of south East extraction added to its popularity. But in the burgeoning contemporary music scene in Nigeria, the distinct voice of Igbo music has become muffled, and almost frazzled out to near extinction. Sad enough, this is not as a result of marginalization by the political class that has subjugated the east development wise, but a phenomenon that is Igbo-driven. Igbo music has become so sequestered that the classic tunes and rhythms for which the Igbos were known for have become a rarity in Nigerian parlance.
In contemporary Nigerian music, there are a few distinct musicians that have criss-crossed generational boundaries and have become acceptable to most Nigerians, and by extension the international community. Such recognition came the way of Tu Face Idibia, lately courtesy of MTV for his musical artistry. A lot other young Nigerians are doing a lot of creative “imitations” of American rap, and hip hop such that they have successfully “nigerianzed and domesticated” rap music. Now people like Rugged Man, Mode 9, Weird Mc, 2 Shotz and many others have entrenched themselves in the Nigerian rap music arena, and they creatively use pidgin and “Naija English” to deliver their rhymes. As things stand now, hip hop and rap music can no longer be brushed aside when Nigerian music is being discussed anywhere.
On a closer look however, there seem to be a “tribal” feel or dominance in the music scene. When critically analyzed, it is not as though a particular people group or tribe is marginalizing the other because as a creative expression, music cannot be unduly influenced by the oppressive instrument of the State. We saw it happen in the days of slavery and apartheid because; music reflects the emotional and spiritual dynamics of individuals which does not temper to the whims and caprices of organized political forces. For amidst the horror and peril of slavery and apartheid, oppressed and subjugated blacks gave the world what we can call, music at its best. Thus, the harmonious tunes that emanated from the plantations of North America have reshaped the world of music, and who wouldn’t sway to those sonorous chants and tunes from South Africa?
I have wondered why just a few tribes in Nigeria are standing taller musically than the rest. This is not about past achievements or the glorious yore years of Highlife music but what obtains in the interim. To an ardent observer, the contemporary Nigerian music scene seem to be dominated by class acts fromplaces like Yoruba land, Middle Belt, and Niger Delta, with a negligible number of Igbos.Where there are Igbos, their voices are subsumed in the broad spectrum of hip hop in which their ethnic identity or feel is lost, or insignificant. Those who stand out in hip hop music trace their musical influence mainly to their humble beginnings in A.J. City ( Ajegunle Lagos), the cradle of contemporary Naija hip hop sounds!Even in the hip hop scene, the Yoruba feel is so palpable that it can’t escape detection. Thus many hip hop and, R & B stars in Nigeria garnish and bedeck some of their songs with “funkified” Yoruba rhymes and clichés.
It is enlivening to know that the so called minority groups in Nigeria are stamping their weight in the musical landscape. They have been able to transmit and project their musical culture to the notice of anyone who cares. For instance, Tu Face Idibia who hails from the middle belt is one example and he is today regarded as one of the best musical exports from Nigeria. He is not the only musician from the middle belt that has garnered national prominence. The list include such stars like Zakki, Zule Zoo, 6ft Plus, Jeremiah Gyang, Funky Mallam and a host of others whose music reflect the culture of their people. In the gospel genre, the looming figure of Panam Percy Paul cannot be ignored even internationally.In addition, minority tribes from the Niger Delta have also made their marks musically, and more especially in the gospel music scene. They include such household names like Sammy Okposo of the “Jesus I thank you, wellu wellu” fame; Asu Ekiye whose “ewe ewewo…”, set Nigerians dancing the Niger Delta way. The list also includes Kefee,Ese Agese and many others not mentioned.
As things stand today, it will take another decade of concerted efforts at redefining contemporary Igbo music for its effect to be felt and appreciated by the average Nigerian. When one talks of Nigerian contemporary music in international settings, what rings bell is Yoruba music and its variety of hybrids like Fuji, Afro juju, and Afro beat sounds. When Femi Kuti was nominated for the Grammies, it was in recognition of his international exploits with his afro beat efforts. Lagbaja has brought Yoruba music to an enviable height with his creative restlessness that has earned him international repute.Yinka Davies has distinguished herself inNaija jazz. Ara has exported the Yoruba talking drum to international heights that it can’t be brushed aside for any reason. In essence, the Yoruba race has produced musical icons and legends in contemporary terms that have become brand names all over Nigeria and overseas.
One other feature that has distinguished Yoruba music is its trans-generational transmission.Successive generation of Yoruba musicians has doggedly carried the torch from their fathers to our generation. For instance, Fela Anikulapo Kuti is well represented by his sons Femi and Seun Kuti respectively, and by extension his “adopted son”, Dede Mabiaku among others. Ebenezer Obey’s son has carried the torchlight which his father used to lighten the path during his prime years. Paul Play Dairo has kept the musical estate and heritage of I.K.Dairo alive and relevant. Dare Art Alade has stepped up in his musical artistry and would not let the name of his father cum his musical exploits go down the drain of historical oblivion. Similarly, Ayo Bankole Jnr, is following the footsteps of his father who distinguished himself as a great composer and pianist.
I doubt if great Igbo musical icons have scions in our generation to whom they bequeathed their musical heritage. Prof Laz Ekwueme, one of Nigeria’s greatest musical composers of all time now reclines in his royal armchairs, as he is the Igwe of his community in Anambra state. I am yet to hear of any of his sons or proteges stepping into his musical shoes – I may be wrong though. No one hears of Zeal Onyia’s sons carrying the legacy of their father. Same trend dots the destiny path of other greatIgbo musicians such as Edi Okonta ,Gentleman Mike Ejeagha, Dennis Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, Sir Warrior and Kabaka of the famed Oriental Brothers Band, Bright Chimezie,Nelly Uchendu, the zylophone expert, ” Area Scatter” and many others. How could the musical landmarks set by these great Igbo artists be threatened by extinction when those of their Yoruba peers are being perpetuated by their offspring and mentees?
One area that Igbo musicians have produced countless Lps and albums is in the gospel music genre. Sadly though, their fame has been circumscribed just within the perimeter of Nigeria as many have faded like fad. Many of the so-called “ariaria gospel music” have one thing in common; they are hurriedly produced, the chords are monotonic, devoid of creativity, and are marked by crass plagiarism. Hence once released, they blow around like whirl wind and soon wane, fading away as quickly as they get released into the market because they seem to have been produced for commercial and pecuniary reasons mainly. Yet in the 1970s-1980s, great gospel musicians like the “Voice of the Cross”, Patty Obasi, Okwe and host of others produced heart-rending songs with Igbo feels that are appreciated till date.
As the Nigerian music scene undergoes a major flux, Igbo musicians need to make a musical statement
like they have succeeded in Nollywood and other art genres. The same way the “Ulli School” proponents( like Uche Okeke ) revolutionized painting and visual arts in the past, contemporary Igbo musicians need to go back to their roots and dig up some musical heritages that are turning into mere vestiges of the past. We need people who would play around “ogene music” in the studio of their mind to produce a hybrid of Jazz like Fela did to present “Afrobeat” to the world. We need men that will transform the great music of the Mbaise people, called ” Egwu Abigbo” into one that is appreciated internationally. We need visionary musicians who would fuse the traditional gongs (ekwe), drums ( ogele) and bass drum (udu) with piano and guitar to produce a hybrid sound that will make the world go red with envy. We need men who would do what Lagbaja did in his geat song “Far Away”, by fusing traditional Yoruba musical instruments with Western Orchestra to produce an eclectic sound ( Africano) that enthuses the ear and soothes the heart. Are there no more Igbo men who would blow the “oja” (flute) that rouses the masquerades (nnukwu mmanwu) and tears the atmosphere? Can we not give the world an “oja” tune in place of a clarinet’s? Nigeria is in dire need of such men and women who would redefine the music scene by injecting the rich musical heritage of the Igbos into the contemporary “Naija Sounds”. Until then, we will keep appreciating the creativity exuded by other tribes in Nigeria who have re-defined contemporary African Music in Naija!
Obi Felix is a Physiotherapist and writer based in Abuja. He is a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors, as well as Abuja Literary Society. The writer has written many articles, poems, short stories and essays which have been published in Nigerian newspapers and anthologies. He is the moderator of Cry of Adam Network, which is devoted to bringing emotional and spiritual healing to the wounded. He can be reached via EMAIL, or BLOG