By Obi Nwakanma
Alan-B Onyemaechi, veteran broadcaster and Owerri city socialite, is on to something. His company OCBB Entertainment Co, is set for a music revival of the oldies, the great bands which came on stream with the end of the civil war in the 1970s, and gripped the Nigerian and West African music scenes with their memorable sounds.
Alan-B’s plan was originally conceived to first initiate the “musical return” of the now late Bob Miga, ex Hykkers and Strangers band lead guitarists, and one of those great legends of Nigeria’s big band scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Then it was not to be, following Miga’s death in London, and the outlines of this project was mooted again, to gather a celebratory performance in his honour by the super stars of yore.
The plan has quickly grown to convoke a great re-union of the “old school” playing on the same on December 23, 2016 at the at the Art Noveau Center, on Port-Harcourt road, Owerri, which is shaping up to be Owerri’s version of New York’s Apollo Theatre in Harlem in its heyday at the fulcrum social life in the era of the Harlem renaissance.
Those billed to perform in this night of the “old school” include some heavies – the Sweet Breeze, the Apostles, One World, Wings, Soki Ohale and his Ceejebs band, and Dan Ian and his Wrinkers Experience. It is quite a bill considering the stature of these stars, and the magic of their music that stirred a war-weary nation back to its dancing feet in the 1970s leading to the 1980s. Details of the event, not to detain us, can be found at www.ocbb.com.ng. But the point of this essay today is to note the cultural impact of the 1970s entertainment scene and its economic implication as a revivalist strategy. Long before Nollywood, Nigeria’s music ruled the waves and was at the point of breaking through the global stratosphere by the 1980s when the first cycle of the economic crisis began to challenge not the Nigerian imagination but the means by which it is retailed and absorbed.
Much of the sounds came from the East, and must certainly point to the unique ways that the East of Nigeria has always basically shaped Nigerian national culture through music, through its films and actors, and writers, and popular culture. The past, as we contemplate it, often gives us the goosebumps of nostalgia – because there somehow, we recognize ourselves, and the possibilities or promises of our lives, and of course, what the New England poet, Robert Frost means in his poem, “The Road Less Traveled” about the uncertain turns we take.
There is no greater inspiration than the music of our youth and of our childhood, and the folks who made us jump to the startling, invocatory power of the music of the land. Yes today, there is Flavor, whose “Shake ma ukwu” and “Ada, Ada” have become dancehall anthems: “Ukwu sara mbara n’adim mu mma n’obi o/ shake ma o…” or Bracket’s “Yori Yori” or Stanley Nnorom’s “Arabanko” – “egwu anyi eji ara uda…” These somehow seem like bookends to the music style and pulsion of the late 1980s and early 1990s led with the scintillating energy of Majek Fashek’s chart bursting “Send Down the Rain” from his Prisoner of Conscience album of 1988, Mike Okri’s “Omoge” and Alex Zitto’s “Tickle Me.” It was a good year for Nigerian music, when these really new stars in one sudden burst of energy arrived with blinding talent to the Nigerian music scene after the doldrums from 1984 when the clouds had gathered in Nigeria.
The Young Blacky, then a student at the University of Lagos, began the 1990s with his “Rosie, Can I have a Dance.” And these stars set the stage for the new generation, including Daddy Showkey’s Shaba Rank’s inspired acts. Mr. ‘Loverman”- Shaba Ranks – was part of the great global musicians brought to Lagos to play during the “Children of Africa” Concert organized by the now late Onwuka Kalu of the Onwuka Interbiz fame in Lagos in 1992. By this time, Lagos like the hungry cow of the lean years of Pharaoh Ramses’ dream, had swallowed the fat, and lazy cows of other parts of the nation.
The sounds of music had moved to Lagos. But before all these, the East had the sounds. Music historians might be able to prove that the first true pop super stars in Nigeria were the Hykkers, who began in Lagos in the 1960s, moved to Port-Harcourt just before the war to play at the Club Scorpido, Port-Harcourt, and ended up in Biafra. The Hykkers made up of Bob Miga, Pat Finn Okonjo, Emile Lawson, Jeff Afam, and Felix Umeofia, first broke to national limelight as lead acts in the old NBC-TV’s show, “Saturday Square.” At the end of the war, the Hykkers returned to Lagos without Bob Miga, who formed the Owerri band, “Strangers.”
The era of the big rock bands were vital, and the Eastern parts of Nigeria, fed the Nigerian boom years with music that illuminated both the possibility of those years, and the lingering renascent spirit of war survivors. The band, “One World” broke with ‘Strangers” and moved on to dig in in with the Actions, already in Warri. The Fractions had regrouped under a new name, the Funkees with Jake Solo, Harry Mosco Agada, and Sunny Akpan. In Port Harcourt, there was already Geraldo Pino, dishing out his own kind of Afro-soul, inspired no doubt by the “soul bother” himself, James Brown. But there was also Founders 15, with Ike Peters and Marshall Udeoru, whose monster hit “Be My Own” is still a head turner. There was Soki Ohale and his Ceejays, with his signal song, “Oto n’Uburu.” From Calabar came the Doves, with their memorable single, “The Lord is My shepherd” and years later, “Everything will be Alright.” In Aba, the Apostles – made up of Walton Arungwa, Murphy Williams, Barry Starr, Chyke Fusion, Joel Madubuike and Henry Asu Tandu – held sway.
I still hear their lead vocal, Walton Arungwa crooning their 1977 “Enyim lee.. Oku mgbara eke oha lee…” in my head, and their memorable appearance on Pal Akalonu’s “Now Sound” program on the NTV Channel 6, Aba, as it was then known, at the release of that hit. Pal Akalonu was not only a fantastic TV producer, he was also a brilliant music producer, and he, Osochi Egbuna, and the Ukonus – Mazi Ukonu and his brother Elekwachi Ukonu – of the “Ukonu’s Club” fame brought these sounds to our living rooms: Pat Finn, then at NTV Benin often came to Aba as a guest performer; the Wings then led by the late Spud Nathan Udensi, Dan Ian (“Money to Burn,” “Fuel for Love” etc.); Lasbrey Ojukwu’s Semi-Colon (“Slim fit Magi”) in Umuahia, and all that good stuff.
In 1977, a fantastic group, the Sweet Breeze – made up of guys out of the IMT, Enugu: Bazzy Cole Akalonu, Dallas King Anyanwu, Jackie Moore Anyaorah, Nestor Phillips, and Vin Ikeotuonye – came to the scene with a bang. They were something new, with such memorable dancehall favorites like “Mr. and Mrs. Fool,” “She’s Cooler than you” “Good luck” (“good luck to you baby/ good luck to you darling/ really wish you no harm…”), “Palmwine Tapper” and my all-time favorite “Igbara Aka Bia Ilum.” Sweet Breeze was the hottest thing out of the East in the late 1970s. Somehow, I remember them always in pari-pasu with Hot Chocolate’s “Love Coming on strong,” perhaps they were the two most powerful songs that gripped us all from 1977 till 1980, when another phenomenon happened around us.
In that year two students from the University of Nigeria Nsukka’s Law school, Chris Okotie and Jideofo Obi changed the texture and thrust of Nigerian music with their hit albums. Chris Okotie’s “I Need Someone” was heady and Jide Obi’s “Front page News” was scintillating. They were new and cosmopolitan and electrified youth culture in the last years of our national boom.
Then followed another Nsukka undergraduate, this time from its Department of Fine and Applied Arts, Gbubemi Amas, with his criminally neglected song “Ereyon” and his brilliant re-interpretation of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” from his “Amas Grill” album of 1981. There was the then fresh, American-inflected voice of Onyeka Onwenu (“For the love of you baby” “Kene Jehovah,” etc.) from the “In the Morning Light” album, and the very memorable Oby Onyioha’s American pop inspired album, “I want to Feel your love” and whose single, “Nwa Ezelagbo” still drives me to tears.
The 1980s were a great moment for Nigerian pop music. It is a great musical tradition that Alan-B and his company are trying to celebrate, and I have barely touched upon all its great moments – like the arrival of Sunny Okosun’s beautiful song, “Help” or the arrival of the schoolboy band, “Ofege” in early ‘70s Lagos, led by Melvin Ukachi, and perhaps even going further back to the great highlife traditions that swirled in the East, starting with Israel Woba Njemanze’s Palmwine guitar highlife that has grandfathered the current “Bongo” sounds of Owerri city’s libertine sounds signatured by the late Ikediala’s “Nwakaego” and “Uwa Tuto, Uwa Fufu.” The East, indeed, has got sound.