Among the older generation, there is a reverence for the music of Celestine Ukwu, the young man from Abor, who coloured the 1960s and ‘70s with the mellow power of his music…
By Chimezie Chika
The Early Years and the ‘60s
Celestine Ukwu’s hometown of Abor, in Udi Local Government, Enugu state, Nigeria, which is located on the old road to Nsukka, is only 22 miles away from the city of Enugu by car. Perhaps it is this closeness to the city (and the open world) that influenced Ukwu’s early wanderings and observations about life. Born in the year 1940, in the days when the blackened coal miners of the Iva Valley Coal Mine—tired from the day’s work in the dark tunnels—emerged unto the last grey light of the day and flooded the bars along railways and roads of Enugu, seeking drinks, evening small talk, and mellow music. The sound of the banter and evening music must have thrilled the young Celestine Ukwu. Uwamgbede music is often a feature of Igbo social life; it is not surprising, then, that early Highlife musicians incorporated it into their music.
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Ukwu was born into a musical family. His father was a music performer, often playing Igede, Okpa and Ode. His mother was the lead vocalist and dancer in a local women’s Egwu Amala musical group. His grandparents were eminent folk music performers, and his grandfather played the ekwe odo (xylophone) during the Igodo Odo festival in Abor. Celestine Ukwu’s uncle, the first organist in the then Udi Province, taught him to play the harmonium at a young age. In those years, Ukwu was not settled and travelled around a lot with his uncle, who was also a choirmaster. He attended primary schools briefly in all the towns and cities they lived in—Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Igbariam and Buguma—and finally completed his primary education back in his hometown, Abor, in 1955. Buoyed by his early exposure, Celestine Ukwu spent the next three years at the Teacher Training College, Zaria, where he obtained his teachers’ grade three certificate in 1958. Unlike today, this move was hardly out of place; teachers were highly respected, and were part of the rising middle class. Many prominent Nigerians of the colonial era had been through teacher training colleges. After his graduation, Ukwu began to teach.
In 1962, Celestine Ukwu left teaching to pursue music full time. Uwa na-eme ntughari. Ma ndi na-enwe anuri, ma ndi na-akwa akwa oo. Life changes, for both those in joy and those in pain, Ukwu would sing in “Ije Enu.” The young man had mild views about life. Already, one of his qualities as a teacher, patience, was playing a role in his life. He had clear views of how life should be approached. He joined Mike Ejeagha’s band, Paradise Rhythm Orchestra, in 1962. In his time there he was a vocalist and maraca player. He would later learn to play the odo (xylophone), which was an integral part of his music. In the early sixties, travelling through Nigerian cities, he also played with Herbert Udemba and his African Baby Party, and Charles Jebba and The Republican Knights. He would leave Nigeria for the Congo to join Mr Picolo’s band. When he returned in 1966, he formed his own band, Celestine Ukwu and His Music Royals of Nigeria. His period of apprenticeship was complete but his timing seemed wrong, for Nigeria in 1966 was a volatile place, trembling from the shocks of the first military coup of its young existence. He played in a few venues, but by 1967, when he released a song titled “Hail Biafra,” the Nigerian Civil War was well underway and all went bleak for a while.
The 1970s and the Philosophies
Celestine Ukwu’s fame rose in the 1970s, after the war. He immediately assembled a band, Celestine Ukwu and His Philosophers National, releasing his first album, True Philosophy, in 1971. After the Civil War ended in 1970, much of Igboland was devastated—the streets littered with charred remains of vehicles, crumbled buildings, and husks of bombs and bullets, and the hospitals filled with the sick and the maimed—and people were exhausted from the three-years of suffering they had been through. There was dysphoria and ennui everywhere, and minds were shattered, but people were also ready to pick their lives up again. It was in this atmosphere that Ukwu began to make music that espoused his philosophy of life. In “Okwukwe na Nchekwube” (Faith and Hope), he sang about the need to always have hope and faith in life. For him, there was nothing for a man who did not have these qualities, for therein is the drive for living.
Most of the wisdom and philosophy that Ukwu preaches in his songs come from Igbo proverbs and aphorisms. In his music Celestine Ukwu tells us to mellow down in our hurry to chase after the better things of life. Don’t kill yourself over the material things, he says. Keep your head while everybody is losing theirs. Each of his titles broaches the theme of the particular song. “Ije Enu” is the journey of life, which he tells is liable to ups and down; “Mma Anyi Egbuna Anyi,” implores the Igbo prayer, ‘May our goodness not be our death’; “Obialu Be Onye Abiagbunia” invokes another Igbo saying, ‘Let my visitor not kill me’; “Ilo Abu Chi” which says that an enemy does not determine one’s destiny; “Uso Ndu” which preaches that life should be tempered with moderation, for too much enjoyment of life has killed many. Usondu egbugo anyi oo. The sweetness of life has killed us, Ukwu sings in his mild voice. Most of his discography proceeds along these lines. But these are not the most remarkable things about his music.
What will endure in Celestine Ukwu’s music is its timeless quality. His instrumentals were quite innovative in his time, and his stunning originality has been copied through the generations. It will be hard to find anything in modern Highlife music that matches the elongated guitar riffs in songs like “Money Palava,” “Elege,” “Okwukwe na Nkwekwube,” “Uso Ndu,” and “Igede.” His influences are evident in the works of Oriental Brothers International, Chief Osita Osadebey, Oliver de Coque, and others. His music combines elements of folk music genres, especially Igede music of the Udi people, with the percussion of wooden instruments. Igede music is the music of happenings and news—the music of the here and now. The rhythms call the community to come and listen to the news of life and learn from them. Unlike most Igbo Highlife musicians, like of Mike Ejeagha for instance, who became known for telling tall-tales to spice-up their music, Celestine Ukwu is content with the brevity of his lyrics (He sang in Igbo, Efik and Pidgin). His vocals thrive on the repetition of an aphorism.
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The Present and the Legacy
“His music has a nostalgic quality for me,” Ikechukwu Onyeji, a friend, tells me. “My father used to play it in the late 1990s when I was growing up. When I hear ‘Uso Ndu’ I recall the innocence of those years. It brings tears to my eyes.” Perhaps this quality is because of the calm progression of the music; it is not wild or overloaded, I suggest. “Yes,” he adds, “It is just great music, the highpoint of Highlife. That’s all I have to say.” Everywhere I went: in bars, in stores, in food bukas, the ordinary people I met, spoke of Celestine Ukwu’s music with great respect. “It is the kind of music I wish we had more of now,” says Nwunye Igwe, a shop owner in the street where I live in Awka. “I agree,” says a tall middle-aged man who simply identifies as Tallest. His eyes are glazed with something like awe. “We won’t see his type again. It’s sad that he died so early.” Celestine Ukwu had died in a fatal motor accident on the 7th of May, 1977, along the Onitsha-Owerri Road.
Among the older generation, there is a reverence for the music of Celestine Ukwu, the young man from Abor, who coloured the 1960s and ‘70s with the mellow power of his music. This is the music of deep thought, the music of enjoyment and high living, the music of evening clubs, the music of ennui and relaxation, the music mildness and hope, the music of loneliness even; for us in the younger generation, it is the music of wisdom and nostalgia—in short, the music of life.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. He is the fiction editor of Ngiga Review. His interests range from culture to history, art, literature, and the environment. You can find him on Twitter @chimeziechika1.