The rise and fall of Oriental Brothers!
By Benjamin Njoku
He ushered his august visitor into his living room, looking casual and awry. Perhaps, he was not expecting any visitor at that time of the day, when the sun was in its meridian splendor, and the stars in an ever unclouded firmament.
Hanging strategically inside the village-setting living room, were some of his memorable photographs and awards he received back in time, confirming to one that he’s in the right place.
Nonetheless, his countenance suddenly changed when the visitor told him the purpose of his visit. And after much persuasion, he was ready to go down memory lane, and it was not disappointing.
After several years of going underground, our reporter went in search of one of the Igbo highlife legends, Godwin Opara, popularly called, Kabaka, the erstwhile leader of the defunct first highlife group in Nigeria, The Oriental Brothers International Band.
In his country home, Imerienwe town, located about eighteen kilometers’ south east of Owerri, the capital of Imo State, Kabaka is less celebrated as a genius. He lives like every other villager, struggling to make ends meet. In fact, nothing differentiated this man of golden guitar and priceless awards from his kinsmen.
“My people here mock me whenever we are joking, but they don’t know that I am not in their class,” he began.
“I am now a farmer’, he continued. “If I don’t have any show, I retire to my farm to make ends meet.”
For Kabaka, things are not working out as expected in the village. He lamented the emergence of the bongo musicians in the south east, blaming them for the low patronage of standard highlife music in the region.
According to the highlife legend, while they are charging about N150,000 to perform at any social gathering such as wedding ceremonies, funeral rites, naming ceremonies and birthday parties among others, the bongo musicians would accept as low as N50,000 to perform at such functions. More so, lack of sponsorship is also affecting the visibility of the veteran highlife musicians in the south east. But unlike their contemporaries in the south west, Kabaka said surviving in an environment, where the government doesn’t appreciate their heroes, is as difficult as living.
The highlife legend said in as much as he’s not ready to switch over to bongo music, there is imperative need for the governors of the south east states to do well to accord respect and recognition to those musicians that, through their music, helped to restore hope to the Igbos after the devastating civil war that ruined millions of lives in the region.
Going down memory lane, Kabaka refuted Ferdinand Dansatch Emeka Opara’s claims that he was the brain behind the setting up of the famous Oriental Brothers International Band in the early 70s.
Dansatch, who later became the leader of the band after Kabaka’s exit had claimed in one of his interviews that he was the founder of the Oriental Brothers which first performed at Biaduo’s Hotel called Ambima in Enugu between 1971 and 1972.
According to him, while the group suffered major setbacks in Enugu, with some of its band members dropping at some point, Kabaka came on board to replace one of their guitarists, Awoma, alongside Sir Warrior. But refuting this claim, Kabaka said the group, which started as an in-house band at Easy Going Hotels in Owerri, owned by Chief James “Ewele” Azubuike, was his brain child.
He maintained that he was the one that invited Christogonus Ezebuiro Obinna popularly known as (Sir) Warrior, the group’s vocal powerhouse, after he founded the band. Later, they were joined by Ferdinand Dansatch Emeka Opara, Livinus Akwilla Alaribe and Fred Ahumaraez a.k.a Ichita.
The group, he further recounted, moved to Kano at some point, in search of sponsorship. They later relocated to Lagos, where they met and struck recording deals with Afrodisa and The Decca Record company, while playing at a few hangouts.
“I founded the Oriental Brothers International Band, and brought in Sir Warrior. Then, we were playing at Easy Going Hotels in Owerri, before we moved to Kano and later, Lagos, in search of sponsorship.
While in Lagos, we were playing at a
few hangouts before we got
recording deals with Afrodisia and The Decca Record company. The record companies bought instruments for us. And it was during that period we released our first album,” Kabaka recounted.
Kabaka, however, recalled why he walked out of the group in 1977, to set up his own band, Kabaka International Guitar Band, saying it was as a result of unresolved differences among the band members.
“We recorded about 15 albums before we fell apart. My walking out of the group really affected its performance. The reason I left the group was because there were unresolved disagreements among us. In order to allow peace to reign, I decided to leave the group to establish my own band, Kabaka International band,” the highlife legend added.
However, contrary to reports that the highlife legend walked out of the group not only because of leadership struggle with Dan Satch, but also, their artistic differences too. Kabaka who’s in his 70s insisted that the reason was beyond the leadership tussle. There were claims that the multi-talented instrumentalist was bent on moving the band toward the faster-paced Ikwokilikwo style then being made popular by the Ikenga Super Stars of Africa and Oliver de Coque, which Dan Satch and Warrior resisted, thus prompting his exit from the group.
But how far has he been able to record a major breakthrough several years after leaving the group? On this, Kabaka boasted that he released some albums that were commercially successful. His first album under Kabaka International Band, “Mangala Special” was a tribute to Nathaniel Ejiogu, a founding member of the Oriental Brothers who died shortly after the founding of the group (‘Mangala,’ his nickname, literally means a type of dry fish!) was a commercial success. Also, drawing a comparison between their time and today’s highlife musicians, Kabaka regretted that today’s highlife music lacks depth and rich in content. During their time, he said they were passionate about playing standard highlife music, blending Eastern Africa region’s Congolese guitar rhythm with traditional Igbo percussion rhythms, which is a total departure from the kind of highlife music that’s being played by today’s musicians. Kabaka recalls that his guitar then invoked both alien styles, which is why his generation stood out when it comes to playing the highlife music genre. Though, he revealed that they were paid as little as 25 kobo per an album by their recording label, it, however, did not in any way affect the quality of their sounds.
Speaking further, Kabaka said while he wants to be remembered for his music and creative ingenuity, he has a desire to set up a music school, in Owerri, where he hopes to be grooming aspiring highlife musicians. He also wants to relaunch his musical career,but in dire need of sponsors to accomplish his dream. However, calling on the governors of the south east states to learn to celebrate their veteran musicians, Kabaka denied ever insinuating what has become a reference point in Igboland, where he was alleged to have made an insidious statement in his song, saying “ If you see a snake and an Mbaise person, that you should kill the Mbaise person and let go the snake.”
Refuting the allegation several years after the statement had locked him in a bitter feud with the Mbaise people, Kabaka said “I have never said anything like that. My God will bear me witness because that really created a big enmity between myself and the Mbaise people. They don’t call me for engagement, I have kept quiet all these years but I think it’s time for me to tell the world that I’m innocent of the allegation. I will release an album to put the record straight,” he disclosed.
Kabaka was a founding member and the first leader of the Oriental International Band that mainly comprised of Ferdinand Dansatch Emeka Opara, Livinus Akwilla Alaribe, Fred “Ichita” Ahumaraeze and Christogonus Ezebuiro “Warrior” Obinna. The group first split in 1977, after Kabaka left to start his own band following a disagreement that ensued among the band members. He was replaced by Aloysius Anyanwu, a former guitarist with Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe’s Nigerian Sound Makers Band and a founding member of the Ikenga Super Stars band after they left Osadebe’s band. Later, Ichita and Livinus Akwila Alaribe equally left the band to form another group called the Great Oriental Band. In 1978, a mistrust and copyright issue ensued between Dansatch/Warrior on one side and Aloysius Anyanwu on the other. This reportedly ended in a libel action.
The disagreement too forced Aloysius Anyanwu to walk out of the group as he embarked on solo career as Aloy Anyanwu and His State Brothers Band, leaving only Dansatch and Warrior as the only remaining founding members of the group. The duo, however, recruited freelance musicians around Owerri and some migrant musicians from Ghana to relaunch the band.
They had hit after hit, yet again dispute ensued between Dansatch and Warrior over the future shape of the band. The dispute bordered on artistic style. Sadly, after their 1980 hit album “Obi Nwanne” both men parted ways. Warrior retained the core of the band’s musicians and named himself “Dr Sir Warrior and His Oriental Brothers International Band.
While Dansatch continued as Oriental Brothers International Band led by Ferdinand Emeka Opara. Specifically, while each of the groups had their distinct sounds, they tried as much as possible to retain the name, Oriental Brothers, as their signature. Unfortunately, Sir Warrior died on June 2, 1999, after a protracted illness.
While they were together, the group released some evergreen songs that have continued to be relevant till date. Some of their early songs included, “Akwa Uwa (1975)’ ‘Ana M Ele Chi’, ‘Chi Abu Ofu’, “Nwa Ada Di Mma”, “Nwaanyi Di Ya Bu Eze”, “Onye Oma”, “Onye Si Naani Ya Biri”, “Onwetereni Nye Ibe Efe”, “Taxi Driver’ and “Uwa M Ezi Special”, all released in 1975.