Ifé infuses ancient Igbo philosophy and folklores, complete with their aesthetics, into her music. When she came into the scene, her music came with love. It was a call to awakening. It was comforting…
By Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera
At the summit of her university education at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Nigeria, where she was studying Music and Performing Arts, Iféchukwu Mercy Michael, professionally known as Ifé, was assigned to research and write on Igbo folk songs. To do this, Ifé often had to travel to her hometown, Umuawulu in Anambra State, Nigeria, to speak with people who were very knowledgeable about Igbo folk songs. From this endeavour, a new path opened before her in her personal journey. Igbo folk songs, like the folk songs of every other culture, have, for centuries, encompassed the culture, myths and traditions of the Igbo people. This oral tradition has been one of the numerous ways in which Igbo history was preserved and tradition enshrined. Remaking some of these songs into the new Afro sound of music casted upon Ifé the halo of a new direction on her path.
One of the songs Ifé remade was “Omenana,” which literally translates to “the practices of the land,” or “tradition.” It was a song that had been passed down her part of Igbo land for centuries on end, “Omenana bu kwa eze ee/ eme enu me ana, anyị anakwa n’ omenana ga na kwa n’omenana (the ways of the land rules us, whatever we do is guided by it).” The song became a hit, garnering hundreds of thousands of views on Audiomack, and became the hit track in what became her debut EP, “Darklight.” Like the folklores which she studied for her undergraduate thesis, her songs have come to embody, amongst other things, the Igbo culture, tradition, and history. Ifé had been doing music as an undergraduate, and had been part of the music band, “Ichoku ensemble” headed by the renowned oja player, Gerald Eze. Learning and experimenting African sounds with musical instruments had brought them together, and delving deeper into culture, tradition and history gave her the clarity to carve her own path.
In her final days in the university, the zeal to do the music overwhelmed Ifé. She was surrounded by the enormous difficulty of not having enough guidance from contemporary singers who were doing Afro music deeply steeped in the Igbo folklore and history. Since the likes of Nelly Uchendu and Onyeka Onwenu, there has been a void in the place of women in the music scene. Here lay some of the difficulties Ifé faced in making her music. These difficulties were so pronounced that it became necessary to fall back on the works of the older generation of singers and to acquire the patience to let the art fall in place. “Igbo traditional music is very difficult to do,” she tells me. “To make the instrumental and the singing fall in line takes a lot of time. And there were no examples for me to follow. And, so, I often had to wait for the music.” Inasmuch as the difficulty challenged her, it also inspired her to rise up to fill the void, treading a path that took nothing less than doggedness, seeking to defy the strongest odds.
Although Ifé grew up in a household where, according to her, “music was like the air we breathe,” she did not always want to do music. Her father played the guitar, and her mother was a choir mistress, and so from church to home, they were surrounded by music as leisure and professional activities. Her parents, at the peak of their music vocations, recorded three studio albums. But what first caught Ifé’s imagination as a child were stories. She loved to read books and get lost in between the pages of indigenous literature, especially those in the Heinemann African Writers series. This is a practice she still keeps today. “You know, sometimes, I still pick up Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta. Achebe, too. Those old writers, they have a way of holding me spellbound because of how they told stories the way Igbo people would usually tell stories. I also love reading Chimamanda because she also has that style.”
As a professional artiste and performer, Ifé also plays such western music instruments as the piano and guitar, as well as African music instruments like the African percussion, thumb piano, as well as the ụbọ aka. For four years, she has been an independent artiste managed by HWC entertainment headed by Kenechukwu Ibedu, with whom Ifé shares an explosive passion for the culture and tradition which has influenced Ifé’s music. In the course of four years, they have both treaded the journey of the past from where stems Ifé’s growing discography of her EP, Darklight, Sunsets and Paragraphs, and nine other singles including features.
The release of Ifé’s debut EP, Darklight, quickly established her as one of the most promising music talents from eastern Nigeria, and West Africa. The project contains six emotional and melodious songs which begin with love and the way it affects the heartbeat, rendered in the Igbo language. She teams up with Ụmụ Obiligbo in a track titled “Ozo” (short for Ozoemena), a philosophical musing typical of decrying tragedy, and wishing that it does not happen again. The Highlife brothers, a recent rave in the music industry, enrich the project with their deep philosophical tact. “Ozo” was followed by “Omenana,” the most popular song off the project, which centres on tradition and its importance in remembrance of genuine identity. Though the song is derived from the age-long Igbo practice of preserving culture and identity, Ifé extends the message of the song to the whole of Africa, singing in both English and Igbo. “O my people, don’t forget that We are black and strong,/ so stand up for who we are.” Here, a lot is said, and even the unsaid is uttered to the mind, especially about how loss of identity has been rampant among Africans because of their failure to heed to their roots. For a people to be profound, Ifé holds that they must take their culture and its blueprints seriously. “Omenana bu eze ee/ emekwa enu mee ana anyị anakwa n’ Omenana eme elu mee ala, ga ala kwa na omenana (our tradition rules, after all said and done, we return to it).” This song, with its depth, is what makes it the definitive song of the EP.
In the track which follows, Ifé espouses “Ije Awele,” which explores the concept of a smooth journey. She uses Igbo. She then talks about the Girl Child and her struggles in “Little Lady.” “I see you fighting in the war of rejection/ I see you struggle with the pressure of the nation…” She consoles the little lady saying, “Mmiri mara ugo ga akọ cha/ nke zoro ezo ga agba cha (the rain which beats an eagle will get dried, and the rain will come to an end).” Here, Ifé’s soft spot for the concerns and struggles of the Girl Child is made manifest. Ifé wraps up the project with a song about nwa nnụnụ, the proverbial blackbird which sings very late in the day, and whose music represents the difficulty of its sojourn. Black bird is a metaphor for the child lost in its wanderlust, but yet lives in denial that it has all it desires in exile. The singer appeals to it to come home. Here, Ifé calls home and all who are lost to the waiting hands of it.
The success of “Darklight” took Ifé to tour across Nigeria and West Africa including Accra, Cotonou, Togo and Abidjan where she performed at the Mondial Music for Women Festival. Her experience across borders undid her sense of difference with people from neighbouring African countries. “I tell people who want to travel across Africa to cross the border by road, because the journey is more interesting in that way. You get to see that there is almost no difference between us and some of the people in these African countries.” Performing in neighbouring African countries further solidified this experience because the response to the music was no less profound than it would have been in Nigeria from where it came. Seeing many Igbo people across Africa embrace her music, and how it brought home to them further drove into her the lesson of how music unites people across boundaries and helps them keep abreast with their origins.
Ifé’s debut album, Sunset and Paragraphs is symbolic of the closing stages of her chapter as a beginner in the scene, as well as of the stories which the new body of work, she reinstates herself as a poet with a microphone and musical instruments. She begins by singing about a “Submarine” which is a metaphor for a spiritual part of her life that protects her like a warship, but also consoles and looks after her like a lover and guardian. Yet, their inter-existence is a matter of mystery to the rest of the world. In the chorus, she sings, “oh Submarine/ you’re a part of my life. I can tell nobody/ just stay right inside of my soul and body…” In the second verse, she sings, “Oh submarine/ I feel you in the silence/ your pretty eyes are watching/ I see you in the eyes of the vision when I close my eyes.” The song is a spiritual exaltation which symbolises the age-long Igbo belief that spiritual powers, as well as the gift of singing, come from water. Even the brilliant Oliver De Coque once sang, “Egwu m si na mmiri wee bịa (my song comes from water).”
In the three tracks which follow in the album, Ifé sings about a lover who has a penchant for not keeping his promises (Okwudili). She also sings about avoiding the tendency for disputes, “ị malụ ife ga-ebutelu anyị esemokwu, zelụ/ ọkwa ilo melu ọnọdụ ugo adịghị egbe mma…” The message of the song is simple yet deep: avoid whatever brings us dispute, because it is enmity which causes the kite to be opposed to the status of the eagle (not that the kite can do anything about it). It is a derivative from the Igbo proverb “egbe bere, ugo bere, nke si ibe ya ebe na, nkụ kwa ya (let the kite perch, let the eagle perch, that which says the other should not perch, let its wing break). Hence, it is in friendship that we soar. Avoid enmity since it clips the wings of the one who does not have the good of their neighbour at heart. The Igbo people are of the belief that one can succeed in life irrespective of whatever enemies they have because when a person says yes, their guardian spirit says same. They also believe that this enemy is not one’s God, hence the philosophy of “Iloabuchi,” which forms the basis of the next song in Sunsets and Paragraphs. Ifé follows in the footsteps of the Igbo musician cum philosopher, Celestine Ukwu who sang of this particular philosophy over five decades ago in his song, titled “Iloabuchi.”
The following tetrad of songs are about adulations where Ifé sings about her mother, and returns to the Girl Child for whom she is an ambassador. Ifé’s passion for Africa and the Girl Child are intertwined interests. She is an advocate for the education of the Girl Child in Africa for the African Union Centre for Girls and Women Education in Africa. She has linked up with many other artistes from Africa, including Burkinabe rapper, Smarty with whom Ifé sings about Africa as the land of the rising sun that will rise someday despite its difficulty.
What distinguishes Ifé as an artiste is the consciousness which her art projects, and also the depth with which she projects it. In “Igbo Kunie,” she calls upon the Igbo people to rise. Ifé understands the need for her people, a sleeping nation, to arise, and the burden of history which they bear. This is why she tries to project that consciousness in this song which, like her Igbo counterpart, Flavour’s “Ụmụ Igbo” in his Flavour of Africa album, asks all Igbo people to come together. Ifé’s awareness causes her to invoke the memories of the genocide meted upon Igbo people in the Biafran war in “ Ife Melụ,” the penultimate track of the album. In “Ife Melụ,” Ifé sings soulfully, ruing the great losses and the starvation of children in Biafra. “Ife Ifé Melụ” is a dirge, especially in how it is sung, and a eulogy in how it commemorates the memory of the children who fell victim to the war. On Biafra Heroes’ Day, Ifé released a video of this track in commemoration of the war.Ifé’s music is easy to understand, yet they are deep, and the introspective listener gets even more meaning from its symbology. Even in “Chekeleke,” a song which stems from children singing to the butterfly, asking it for white fingers, as the popular myth believes it does, Ifé brings in philosophy when she asks the butterfly to give her a white finger, but “not to change how the good Lord has made her.”
Ifé infuses ancient Igbo philosophy and folklores, complete with their aesthetics, into her music. When she came into the scene, her music came with love. It was a call to awakening. It was comforting. The depth which comes with combining these cultural and literary devices into music is what defines the landmark of her rare talent. Ifé’s music represents a breath of fresh air and the rewarding artistry that comes from patiently digging through the cultural landscape rich in precious stones of inspirations, but hardened by lack of constant artistic weathering. Ifé represents the idea of culture as a badge of identity and a tool for consciousness and healing. Her music calls all who are lost to find their way home, even as she finds her way deeper into her identity, in this immense journey which is sure to promote heightened consciousness amongst all who come across it.
Check out Ifé’s Linktree profile here
Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera writes on culture and music for Afrocritik. Follow him on Twitter @ChukwuderaEdozi.