…Says: The highlife maestro was set for International tour before his tragic death
Since his death in 1976 in an auto crash, the mystery behind the personality and character of one of Nigeria’s most popular highlife music singers and song writers Celestine Ukwu has remained underground and untold.
An encounter with his guitarist Emma Ikediashi, leader of popular Black Tops highlife music band puts paid to all that. Ikediashi discloses that Ukwu neither smoked cigarette or weed nor drank alcohol. He also spoke on the final days of the extremely talented artiste and more. Do enjoy this.
How and when did you meet Celestine Ukwu?
I met Celestine Ukwu in Onitsha about 1973 or there about. I had come to join the live music scene in the Niger City straight from my village of Ogwashi Ukwu. I had just dropped out of St Michael’s secondary school after my father’s death. I had started picking up the guitar. I was reading up about bands and their history. When I moved to Onitsha, I was about 23 years and joined Sunny Nwamama and his highlife music group. I started picking up rudiments of highlife guitar play really fast that in about two months, Celestine Ukwu sent for me. He said he had been hearing about me and later watched me play. When I joined him, he made me live with him and we would engage in daily private rehearsals in his apartment after breakfast.
We lived on one of the flats at the expansive Agbakoba family compound in Onitsha. I was the youngest and smallest member of his band which was made up of many Cameroonians and Congolese. He must have felt that he could make the best out of me by keeping me closer. I also made the most of that period. I was part of his tracks Omeife jideofo and Imago nke chi ga ekwu etc. We regularly played at Phoenix Hotel, Onitsha.
I can say that playing the guitar and indeed talents for music is hereditary for me. My father had brought home a guitar from his times during World War 11. He said he learnt to play in India during that war. But he warned me never to get close to the guitar not to talk of touching it. But I would steal it and play away without his knowledge. That was how I learnt to play the guitar.
Where were you when Celestine died?
Celestine Ukwu had left home in company of a friend of his named Nwobodo who just bought a new car. I suppose it was a social outing. They were hit by a trailer somewhere around Ogidi and they both died on the spot. It was a sad day for all. He had already processed travel papers to travel abroad for a big show. I was already hoping that I would make the trip with him but he died. He must have been aged between 34 and 36 years I guess as he started music early. Again he had done a traditional wedding but never lived fully with his new wife before his death. I am happy to note that his daughter born after his death is now a lawyer.
You also played with Osadebe?
I first spent a year with Celestine and later joined Osadebe who was then playing at Central Hotel Onitsha in 1974. I returned to Celestine Ukwu again sooner than I expected later that same year. I remained with Celestine Ukwu until his death in 1976.
Could you compare the two musicians as their close associate?
They were both in a class of their own. Osadebe was older than Celestine. Leave everything philosophical to Celestine (his band was the Philosophers National) while Osadebe may be melancholic and hedonistic and may sing about anything that came to his mind. Osadebe could easily create a scene anywhere but never Celestine who was a gentleman to the core and avoided anything that could attract attention to himself. Note that he never smoked or drank alcohol. But women flocked around. He spoke perfect central Igbo as well as his native Abor, Udi Enugu dialect.
I believe that in the heat of the competition that later engulfed the highlife music scene between top musicians later, Celestine would have found away to shy away from it.
Then the Philosophical National band he left behind also died….?
We tried to be together but since the driving force of the group had died nothing happened much after. We recorded as Celestine Ukwu memorial but…
I traveled to Enugu to join the then famous EC Arinze whose band was one of the biggest in eastern Nigeria. This was after the Celestine Ukwu memorial band died. With EC Arinze, we had a big contract at Premier Garden of Presidential Hotel Enugu which ran for years.
Every weekend was hot that the hotel became a place to be for all lovers of good music.
After the many years contract with EC Arinze ended, I started thinking of setting up a studio and forming a band of my own. That was when I started acquiring equipment and other musical instruments. I acquired a Sharp double cassette recorder to start recording and producing other artistes That was when I produced Nelly Uchendu album Ezigbo dim. Her sister Biddy Uchendu also started work with me and we released Onye bu nwannem.
Could you trace the origin of your unadulterated highlife music band .How did the name Black Tops come about?
It was my elder sister who worked with the federal ministry of Trades and Commerce that helped me register the band many years ago. I reasoned that I needed a registered outfit if I must function officially and reached out to her. I had given her Black Toppers Band but she forgot the piece of paper where I wrote it and registered Black Tops. I also gathered some of the musicians I had played with and we formed a quartet. The original Black Tops were Christian Akalonu alias Brusher on drums, Alex Ejemike on bass, Joseph Okeke alias Samanque on vocals and my humble self on Guitar and vocals. Our first contract was when the Premier Garden of the Hotel Presidential Enugu was revived by Silk Ugwu. After some time, some people were not happy with the success and killed his contract and killed the show. But my production studio continued running producing several artistes.
Do you think that experience with Celestine Ukwu has helped you in any way?
Yes. I learnt plenty from Celestine. He never joked with rehearsals. He always regarded himself as the least in the band. That’s what I also did. There was also frustrating moments when I felt like quitting and disbanding the band but held on. Later, Brusher and Alex left to start something on their own. Then my sons who were born in the studio had become graduates and eagerly joined me. We have performance contracts which we execute every Sunday. But they also do their individual musical things. One of them Fireboy is set to unleash himself with hiplife music soon.
How did you get the children to tow same lane with you?
I just see us as a family tree from my father to my children. I did not influence any of my children to join me in music. All of them are boys, no girl. I had wished for a girl for my last child but God gave his choice again. However I gave them the latitude to do whatever they wished. They literally grew up in the studio so toyed with any instruments of their choice as kids.
Again, my wife, their mum was taking them to the choir so they had all round music background despite that they are all graduates in other courses. When the other musicians had gone, we had no choice than to continue with our lives. So Black Tops is today a family band rendering unadulterated highlife music. We have several albums to our credit with the boys plotting their own solo career.