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Nigerians and their music: A historical perspective

Nigerians and their music: A historical perspective

The geographical entity called Nigeria emerged from the amalgamation of multiple nations with diverse customs, traditions and idiosyncrasies. The coercive transformation to a nation state warranted a common popular identity, however, there is no one definitive music form called ‘Nigerian music’, but rather, a composite of music derived from the different regions of Nigeria which differ based on instrumentation, style and techniques.

Nigeria comprises of three major ethnic nations, namely: Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The music culture of the Islamized Northern Nigeria is highly conservative with an Islamic-influenced vocal praise tradition. Some of the key music signifiers of the north include instruments like the Goje and Kakaki. The Igbos of the South-East are musically versatile and count as the main creators of Nigerian Highlife music. Common traditional instruments of Igbo extraction include: flutes, obo, ufie, udu, xylophone, etc. In the South-West, the drums feature uniquely in the Yoruba music tradition with the typical dundun drum or “talking drum” at the forefront.

The music antecedents of the entity called Nigeria, prior to colonization, remains mostly shrouded, apparently, due to the suppression of indigenous musical traditions by Missionary schools and Churches, and the promotion of skills acquisition in Western instrumentation during the colonial era (Omojola 435).

In any case, music possessed a utilitarian nature with a marked presence in daily or recurring life events like births, marriages and interments. The most common feature of music is the call and response system which is generally, ubiquitous in African music culture. Before modernization, music was performed for recreational purposes bereft of the capitalist and competitive drive it currently embodies.

Some of the genres created within the Nigerian environment include afrobeat, fújì, highlife, jùjú, palm-wine music, sakara, waka, traditional folk songs, etc. The onslaught of globalization also engendered a cross-pollination and transplantation of foreign music styles into the Nigerian music palette, thereby recreating bifurcated music genres like afro-pop, afro-soul, afro-funk, afro-disco, as well as afro-gospel and afro-reggae.

The earliest known form of popular music in Nigeria was the palm-wine music which dominated the music landscape in the 1920s. Coined from the palm-wine, a fermented alcoholic wine derived from the palm sap of the palm tree, palm-wine music owes its aesthetics to string instruments and drums, and functioned as an accompaniment to drinking in bars and other recreational spots. Prominent names in the genre were Tunde King, Speedy Araba, Ojoge Daniel, etc. These artists were also instrumental to the emergence of the jùjú genre.

Meanwhile, during this era and well into the 1960s, traditional music equally received positive acclaim with the likes of Dan Maraya Jos, the north’s most prominent music tour de force, on the scene. In the South-South region, musicians like Inyang Nta Henshaw and Peter Effiom of Cross River State, and Udo Abianga and Rex Williams of Akwa Ibom State kept the life stream of indigenous musicking afloat and relevant. Musicians of the era preferably utilized the mother tongue as a vehicle for articulate expression and endorsement of their cultural identity which was systematically being invaded by colonization with its concomitant English language and foreign music forms.

Highlife music, described by Chinweizu (1987) as a “modern African genre associated with the towns and cities of West Africa….and is of a mixed European and African derivation” (312), was a popular staple in the 1950s and 1960s. Having emerged from traditional music culture, it is first traced to Ghana. Thereafter, it became widely embraced and co-opted by other West African nations like Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra-Leone in the 1950s.

In Nigeria, it would later become a music signifier of the Igbos. Legend has it that Ghanaian highlife musicians like E.T Mensah regularly toured the Igbo regions and consequently enjoyed massive fanfare. Many Igbo musicians would also walk in his footsteps like Osita Osadebe, Oliver de Coque, as well as Victor Uwaifo from the Bini region. Following the Civil war, highlife would be perceived in the collective consciousness, as merely sectarian.

Nonetheless, it was a genre equally explored by the Yorubas with Victor Olaiya, as an instance. Bode Omojola (2012) interestingly notes that in the 1960s, highlife music reflected the “concept of national unity at a time when unity was a key political theme in the country” (438). He further notes that Olaiya’s music was bereft of partisanship and relatively detached “from oppositional politics”. This assertion would imply that the Igbo brand of highlife was politically-oriented, but we may never decipher the depth of this claim, since highlife’s lyricism was often traditionally-oriented as mirrored by the indigenous languages and melodies. However, it must be noted that Olaiya was a polyglot who spoke Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. This ability to linguistically navigate through music, the complex Nigerian State, conferred on him the role of a unifier.

Despite the steady entrenchment of assimilationist principles and dethronement of indigenous cultural identification, highlife performances were exclusive to State events and elitist dance clubs. It harboured westernized elements such as the predominant eurocentric instruments and tonality. Consequently, the mass class became instrumental in the coinage of its appellation which “describe[d] the elitist nature of the music” (439).

The oil boom era in the 1970s would engender an immediate socio-political evolution. Politicians would become richer, while the economy would experience a capital boost. Parties and merry-making became normalized and at such events, musicians capitalized through the use of epithets – the element of praise – to flatter their patrons and harvest immediate financial rewards (439).

This was the case for jùjú, a traditional music idiom embodied by Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey which catered to the evolving needs of the new political class. Obey emerged in 1964 with his International Brothers band, while Ade came into limelight in 1966 with Green Spots. Theirs was an incorporation of highlife guitar influences and the dundun drum. In the 1970s, innovations like the keyboard and background vocalization would be added. Characterized by “praise epithets”, “expansive dancing” and “the use of powerful talking drums”, jùjú would displace the national appeal initially held by highlife, especially for the Yoruba political elite.

The rationalization for this displacement included the non-utilization of praise epithets, western instruments and the preference for western-type performance settings like dinner parties and night clubs. Whereas, jùjú had a widespread mass appeal and unlimited performance venues (Omojalo 439). Interestingly, praise singing would also be adopted by highlife maestro, the flamboyant Oliver de Coque, to the egoistic appeal of the Igbo elite class.

A close friend and associate, Anthony Akaeze who was a journalist at Nigeria’s Newswatch magazine did recollect in a private conversation about an interview he had conducted with de Coque. In the interview, de Coque alluded to the fact that while many listeners were often appalled by the time allotted to praise singing and vocalizing the names of illustrious Igbo sons, the sponsored roll-call was at the instigation of these dignitaries who craved popularity and recognition and readily paid a price to achieve their goal.

Meanwhile, fújì emerged around the same timeline. It is an integration of Muslim songs and apala, a traditional yoruba music form embellished with the Hawaiian guitar and tambourine-drum. Named after Japan’s Mount Fuji, the foremost fuji voices include Ayinde Barrister, Ayinla Omowura, Ayinla Kollington and Haruna Ishola.

The 1970s was the era of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the music maverick-extraordinaire, Nigeria’s foremost protest musician and pioneer of the Afrobeat genre. Afrobeat became Nigeria’s most important music export, with a strong influence on musicians, local and abroad, in subsequent generations.

Following his exposure to the American counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, Kuti changed musical direction and became the voice of the people. He would musically tackle issues of social injustices, effects of colonization on the African mental integrity, eurocentric religion’s exploitative propensity, economic exploitation by multi-national corporations, military corruption and complicity in the overall sociopolitical and economic subjugation of Nigerians, etc. Kuti’s authenticity and outspokenness often incited military resistance and drew the ire of the elite class.

By the 1980s, the aftermath of colonization in an acclaimed era of postcolonialism, had taken its toll on the Nigerian society. Assimilationist values were palpable in the music. It became apparent that Nigeria, and indeed Africa, was a far cry from a state of independence, but securely tied economically, culturally and politically to colonial apron-strings. It was the period when more Nigerian artists embraced and appropriated foreign music influences, albeit for a good cause, as could be seen in the case of reggae.

Reggae was a musical response to British colonialism from the Caribbean Isles, particularly Jamaica. It embodied Pan-Africanist thought and raised consciousness to the massive subjugation and oppression of indigenous peoples around the world. Through its prioritization of social justice, the genre gained social currency in Africa. Bob Marley’s concert in Zimbabwe in 1980 marked the transplantation and flow of reggae onto Africa.

Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff hugely impacted Africans. The political solidarity towards Africa which reggae embodied enhanced a cultural exchange between diasporic Africans and Africans. Thereafter, a plethora of reggae artists emerged, who took the mantle like the biblical Elisha, and further disseminated the music of liberation.

In Nigeria, artistes like The Mandators, Majek Fashek, Evi Edna-Ogholi, Ras Kimono, Andy Shurman, Orits Wiliki, and a plethora of others, adopted the Rastafarian aesthetics and vernacular. Reggae became a site for the critique of the Nigerian military dictatorship which lasted till 1999. It critiqued Eurocentric religion understood as a weapon for the destruction of African consciousness and collective identity. Reggae thematized the impoverishment of Nigerians despite the abundant mineral resources and the corruption within the corridors of power. Overall, it focused on domestic politics, raised consciousness and championed the cause of social justice and egalitarianism.

During this era, it was common to observe the synergy between Nigerian-inspired sounds and foreign music idioms like disco and funk. Nigerian artistes adopted the foreign fashion aesthetics of the 1980s like the jerry curls and shiny metallic costumes for good measure (think Dizzy K, Felix Lebarty, Jide Obi, Kris Okotie, etc). Generally, they became “Americanahs” (apologies to Chimamanda) with a forced foreign accent and dance moves.

Song themes were more fun-driven than political. Lebarty’s uncanny love for women (just an observation, not a complaint) reflected in his song titles like “Chi-Chi”, “Ngozi”, “Ifeoma” and “Nneka”, but, “419” would probably be his most socially-conscious song. It drew attention to an emerging societal malady of advanced fee fraud which would severely tarnish the nation’s international image. Since art mimics life, this song in the same vein as Olu Maintain’s “Yahooze” transcends the border of atrociousness or romanticization of a plague. Both songs are efficacious and suitable socio-historical reference points which illuminate the evolution of the Nigerian State.

Still on language, many artistes shifted from the use of indigenous languages and English became the acceptable language of entertainment. One way of rationalizing this transition was the school system. The use of indigenous languages was condemnable and deemed punishable. Students were compelled to swim in the sea of Englishness, having never been to England. Musically, Kris Okotie’s “spree-spree” affinity would be transposed to the religious pulpit, following his abandonment of music. His church would gain an elitist reputation where members allegedly carry Bibles and English dictionaries, in order to decipher his English lexicon and rhetoric. In addition, “spree-spreeism” would also become a mechanism for church growth acceleration within the religious domain, as clergymen like Chris Oyakhilome and Paul Adefarasin, meticulously replicated Okotie’s technique in their respective churches. The success recorded proved that assimilation had become an important fixture in Nigerian culture.

On the British scene, child music acts thrived like the Musical Youth, similar to New Edition in the US, especially after the success of the Jackson 5. Nigeria matched this feat through child prodigies like Chi-Chi of Africa, Tosin Jegede and Yvonne Maha. But, one found problematic Maha’s lyricism in the song “Don’t Treat Me Like A Child”. One considered it age-inappropriate and a travesty against childhood innocence. The song was reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s rendition of “Who’s Loving You” at age 10. It felt awkward and violating to hear a child like myself sing about a love relationship, a course that was yet uncharted.

Meanwhile, nationalism was a reoccurring theme in many popular songs. Apart from the Ozzidi King, Sunny Okosuns, whose songs promoted Pan-Africanism, national cohesion and questioned Nigeria’s political direction (“Which Way Nigeria”), and Bright Chimezie, who advocated cultural preservation in “Respect Africa”, nationalism was mostly championed by the women artists, who were a minority on the landscape. It is common knowledge that even though music is feminized, the key players on the terrain have been men, who function as proprietors, managers and artists with access to unlimited resources.

Therefore, the gender imbalance on the Nigerian scene was unsurprising, but Christy Essien-Igbokwe (“The Lady of Songs”), who came on board in the 1970s, Onyeka Onwenu (“The Queen of pop”) in the 1980s and Evi Edna-Ogholi (“Queen of Reggae”) in the 1980s, were the most visible women who used their platforms for the dissemination of message songs and culturally-relevant themes geared towards the promotion of peace, harmony and unity in the family and nation. Igbokwe was a polyglot with an inter-ethnic appeal as she could sing in her native Ibibio, Igbo, Yoruba and English.

The high degree of impoverishment in the nation triggered a human capital flight or “brain drain” in the 1980s. At the time, it was called in local parlance “The Check-out Syndrome”. Veno Marioghae recorded this history for posterity in her song, “Nigeria Go Survive”. Currently, Nigeria still remains in a state of socioeconomic and political comatose, and history, as they say, continually repeats itself. In the meantime, the Check-Out Syndrome has since morphed semantically, into “Japa-ism”. Other notable women singers of the era were Funmi Adams, Nelly Uchendu of “Love Nwantinti” fame, Stella Monye, Tyna Onwudiwe and Uche Ibeto.

Towards the late 1980s, the emerging Black American rap/hip-hop had extended its tentacles towards Nigeria. Its effect would be conspicuous in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the punk genre gained visibility through Charly Boy Oputa’s music tapestry. The “Area Fada”, like Fela Anikulapo- Kuti, aligned musically with themes of social justice, equity, and fairness for Nigerians. He critiqued the shenanigans of the military junta and generally, raised collective consciousness.

Fela’s son, Femi, would also walk in his father’s footsteps, enabling a further expansion of the Afrobeat genre. Thematically, he was just as point blank and authentic. Musically, the sound of Afrobeat, given new technology, experienced a reinvention. One of the headliners of the late-1980s music scene was Shina Peters. Peters’ career began in the 1970s under the tutelage of Prince Adekunle. He would later form a short-term partnership with Segun Adewale under the auspices of Shina Adewale and the International Superstars.

In 1989, Peters spearheaded the creation of the Afro-jùjú sound in his first album Afro-Juju Series 1. Peters’ album was massively appealing and a national unifier, from the streets of Calabar to the Owambe parties in Lagos, Nigerians danced and forgot their economic sorrows in the era of the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP).

On the gospel scene, the pacifying and sonorous voice of Lorine Okotie, the sister of Kris Okotie, left Nigerians in an Oliver Twisty – mode of insatiability, but she would disappear after the album Love Medicine, never to return. (N)didi Blessing and Panam Percy Paul also became household names.

The Okotie’s were not the only family on the entertainment scene. The Murray-Bruce family equally made a grand entry into public consciousness in 1986 with their multi-media outfit, Silverbird Group and its most enduring product, the Most Beautiful Girl In Nigeria (MBGN) Pageant. However, two siblings from the family which included Roy Murrray-Bruce formed a music duo under the name Xtasy, had a short-lived career, and disappeared into oblivion.

The 1990s ushered a musical paradigm shift. Multiple genres existed side-by-side. The women singers and their nation-building anthems thrived. Reggae and the advocacy for social justice persisted, but a derivative would emerge which deviated from the political nature of reggae. It was the Dancehall, another import. It articulated on everyday issues like romance, pleasure and partying. Prominent names on the scene were Daniel Wilson and Blackky.

The 90s was the decade of the smooth and suave Alex O. His was a blend of hip-hop and hypnotic dance-beats. It was the era of Esse Agesse’s reinterpretation of Sting’s “Englishman in New York”. Agesse claimed ownership of the song in her “Bendel Girl In Lagos”, at a time of rural-urban migration rampancy, when many sought to distance themselves from the narrative of retrogression and poverty attributed to rural living.

Other interesting acts in the 1990s were the ace thespian Segun Arinze. His “Moonlite Dance” was a classic which revealed Arinze’s endowment as an unquestionably talented singer. Mike Okri was an absolute stunner in his “Rhumba Dance”. Sunny Nneji reinvented highlife and imputed a modernistic and catchy edge in his creations. Lagbaja, “the masked one”, and one of Fela’s musical scions would also capture national attention with his enthrallingly dynamic fusion of Afrobeat and saxophonic- jazz.

By the mid-1990s, hip-hop/rap had transited the gestation period and the harvest was due. The musical harvest came in the form of male music groups like The Remedies and Plantashun Boiz. The early 2000s would see the emergence of PSquare, Weird MC, D’Banj and Styl Plus.

The frontman of Plantashun Boiz, Innocent Idibia, a.k.a Tuface or 2 Baba would depart his group to become Nigeria’s most recognized and awarded voice in the early 2000s with the song “African Queen”. Thereafter, Nigeria would be on the front-line as a focal point of world music. By the 2010s, the likes of Davido, Burna Boy and Whiz Kid with their afrobeat-inspired sounds would engrave the country’s name on the world music map as winners of Grammys and BET Awards, a feat that was hitherto, uncommon. Other artists would also derive inspiration from the past like Timaya (reggae) and Flavour (highlife).

But ironically, the music catalogues of Nigerian artistes in the 2000s, as many would observe, while garnering accolades and encomiums, would promote materialistic pursuits and extreme hedonism, a departure from previous decades. Many observe that nowadays, Nigerian music, and indeed music generally, has become lacklustre and depreciated in terms of the meaning and value bequeathed to the listenership.

As previously argued, music is a by-product of lived experiences and candidly mirrors society. If music has lost meaning and value, it is because society has lost same.

Artists have their mission which oscillates between either generic entertainment for mercantile reasons and societal change. These are not unjust pursuits. However, there are remnants of social justice-driven artists who may not be privy to mainstream acclaim, but are nonetheless, relevant. Artists like Seun Kuti and Falz (the bad guy) belong to this category.

While the listener has the power to filter the music received, the artist, on the other hand is entitled to his/her choice of messaging, because even though they wield enormous influence in society and may lend or decline from lending their voices to societal issues, the task of nation-building is the major prerogative of the collective.

In conclusion, ‘Nigerian music’ has evolved in tandem with the Nigerian State. It has been susceptible to the dynamics of sociopolitical transformation and veritably mirrors through song themes and styles, the values and preoccupations of the Nigerian society at every given period in her history. Just like other music ecosystems, there has been an asymmetrical gender pattern reflective of a patriarchal societal structure. Nonetheless, there are more women on the scene today than previously. While different music genres exist side-by-side and never truly disappear from national consciousness, mainstream Nigerian music has largely subscribed to colonial music sentiments (with cultural embellishments), which interestingly has been more American than British.

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