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Oliver De Coque’s Swansong: What is the Legacy of the Fabled Nigerian Guitarist?

Oliver De Coque’s Swansong: What is the Legacy of the Fabled Nigerian Guitarist?

Oliver Coque

What Oliver de Coque started is being used in new ways, with new musical alliances, and new expressions. These experimentations are incipient, but it is clear that Oliver de Coque’s riffs are finding a second life in Afrobeats…

By Chimezie Chika


The People’s Musician

During the 1970s and 1990s, when the People’s Club of Nigeria (PCN) held sway in Nigeria’s social circles, one of the musicians who helped to popularise their activities was Oliver Sunday Akanite, known by his stage name, Oliver de Coque. There was a raft of Igbo Highlife musicians in those years—many were directly affiliated with the PCN—who sang about the famed social club and its wealthy members. Some of these musicians included Osita Osadebey, Oliver de Coque, and Morocco.

Oliver Coque

Oliver de Coque’s song, “People’s Club of Nigeria,” dedicated to the PCN, is perhaps the most popular of the lot. The song is typical of his style: a mixture of patterns of egwu ekpili panegyric, Highlife instrumentals, and accomplished guitar play. Oliver had learnt to play the guitar as a young man. He began making music at the age of 11 during his early years in his hometown of Ezinifite, where he would sing or play the ogene during festivals. In his teens, the local bands he followed sometimes went to hotels and tried to secure gigs. During performances, Oliver, usually the vocalist, often felt let down by the guitar players. Some years later, he met the famed Congolese guitarist, Piccolo. An immensely influential figure in the early years of Highlife in Nigeria, Piccolo had either taught or absorbed many of Nigeria’s Highlife maestros, still finding their feet in the 1950s and 1960s, into his band. During practice sessions in his band, Piccolo taught Oliver to play the guitar.

(Read also: Celestine Ukwu’s Musical Philosophy: Is this the Sweet Spot of Highlife?)

Oliver’s talent was obvious, for he soon took the instrument and made unique rhythms from it which reflected his egwu ogene heritage. The weighted twangs, often mirroring almost exactly the lyrics of the singing voice, marked his style. By his late teens, Oliver was already well known in music circles for his dexterity with the guitar. At the same time, during the 60s, his reputation as an accomplished draught player was growing, too. His evenings were always booked with engagements in clubs and events; at various points he was an active member of the bands of Juju musicians, Sunny Agaga and Jacob Oluwale, periods in which he carefully studied their vocalisation and stagecraft. On some mornings, when he was not rehearsing for a show, he spent time playing draughts with his buddies. He was a wily and skilled player. There was no one who could defeat him, and so his friends started calling him Oliver di ka okwe, which means “Oliver, the master of the game” in English.

Congolese music was extremely popular around this time. Oliver, whose love for Congolese music started during his liaison with Piccolo, decided to Frenchify his nickname—Oliver di ka okwe became Oliver de Coque. The move was both an aesthetic decision and a publicity ploy; while a musician values artistic interpretation of things, he is also drawn to the things that will soar his name. For Oliver, a name that echoes the allure of other cultures increases his mystic and exotic appeal. Oliver de Coque would not be the only musician to recognise the value of a myth of origin. Many traditional Highlife musicians pushed that narrative. Osadebey, for instance, sang that his music was given to him by a water spirit or mammy water, as it is more widely known. Others like Pericoma claimed to have returned from the land of the dead with the gift of music.

Expo 76 Ogene Sound Super of Africa

By the 70s, Oliver’s reputation as a guitarist was at its peak. In 1973, he performed at a concert in London, his first international performance, with his small band called, Oliver and His Co-Singers. He was also playing in his brother’s band, Igede International Band. Highlife music was in its golden age in Nigeria in the 1970s. Many of the pioneering Highlife musicians we know today released their first or most important albums during that auspicious decade. Oliver de Coque felt an ever-present togging to work on a long project. He felt that it was time to coalesce his sounds into a single album, an act that would announce him as a mature artist. With an eye towards that end, he formed his band, Expo 76 Ogene Sound Super of Africa, in 1976. The same year, he worked on Prince Nico Mbarga’s extremely popular classic album, Sweet Mother, which came out in 1977. The album went on to become the all-time bestselling Highlife album in Nigeria and West Africa at the time. Oliver de Coque’s guitar work in many of the songs in it, along with others, received substantial praise.

Later that same year, he released his first album, Messiah Messiah. In the titular song, there is an undeniable influence of Congolese rhumba in the quickened beats and in the rotating chorus. It was a solid first album. (Highlife musicians in the 60s and 70s all had solid first albums that would go on to become classics. It is hard to find an artist among them who had a weak first album.) That first effort, for Oliver, was the creative shove he needed to establish a career that remains unmatched in its productivity. By the time of his death in 2008, Oliver de Coque had over 73 albums to his name. Along the way, at the height of his powers in late 70s and 80s, he released songs that became the signatures of greatest years. The songs were artistically complete in every way: from Oliver’s gentle vocalisations to the long beautiful guitar grooves.

oliver de coques swansong what i

Oliver de Coque and Expo 76

He had a propensity for making hits that resonated with the urban population in the mostly Igbo cities of Southeastern Nigeria. His song, “Ana Enwe Obodo Enwe,” was the anthem of the nouveau riche in the 1980s. The chorus talked about people who own land and run the affairs in it; such people, Oliver sang, are the reasons why the land—the cities, the towns, the villages—throbs with activities and development. His 1981 hit, “Identity,” was one of his most successful songs. A fixture at clubs and events, it spent the entire year at the top of Radio Nigeria 2’s Top Ten. “Biri Kam Biri,” another of his popular songs, exhorted an Igbo wisdom: live and let live. “Father Father” is typical of his panegyric style.

(Read also: Storyteller and Gentleman: What is the Measure of Mike Ejeagha’s Influence on Highlife Music in Nigeria?)

Swansong

The most distinguishing feature of Oliver de Coque’s music is his masterful guitar play. Very few in Nigeria’s Highlife lore can match his handling of the instrument. His grooves are often hypnotic and rich in sound variations. The styles of his albums differed greatly: the seventies showed his Congolese influence; the eighties were his balanced and artistically satisfying period; from the mid-1990s and the 2000s, his music became more and more traditional, featuring more traditional ogene and ekpili instrumentals.

Oliver de Coque’s one enduring subject was wealth, its presence mostly, but also its lack. The admiration for wealth and influence—all the ways in which it can be acquired or not—can be felt in his music. In his music, wealth is glorified as the gateway to influence. Influence, for him, was a committee of wealthy individuals who understood philanthropy and personal gratification. His music espoused a philosophy that all human endeavours and toils are an aspiration towards one end: comfort and wealth.

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These views are not too far from his personal life, for Oliver de Coque was known for his generosity. He was a famously vain man, too. He had an obsessive interest in sartorial elegance and personal grooming. By the late 2000s, according to his son, he was spending 30,000 naira weekly to maintain his luxuriant beard.

Afrobeats and the Legacy

In the years since his death, many musicians have followed Oliver’s blueprint. His most ardent follower at the moment is perhaps Oliver Nayoka, who also bears an uncanny resemblance to the older musician. There are more subtle incorporations of his aesthetics by contemporary Afrobeats musicians. The new crop of Afrobeats artistes, prone to fusing musical styles from across African cultures, have found a way to wrest some of the enduring Highlife sounds of the seventies and eighties. There have been fusion songs from the likes of Kolaboy and Kcee. Most recently, the Nigerian artiste, Victony, has attempted to fuse some of those Highlife sounds as well as old gospel music from the 70s and 80s. His most recent releases, “Angelus” and “My Darling,” are successful examples of that potpourri experimentation.

Oliver de Coque. Photo Pinterest 670x1152 1 e1688038804585

Oliver de Coque’s panegyric style is evident in Flavour’s music. Two songs, “Levels,” and “Game Changer” embody that reverence for wealth, influence, and power. In the rhetoric of the music, there is a motivation to rise above the limits of poor achievers. The praise for men of influence is a way to drive men to go the extra mile in the search for wealth, to rise through the levels, to become the game changers and the owners of the land. There is a historical side to this rhetoric in Igbo music. After the ravages of the Biafran War that left much Igboland in shambles, Igbo Highlife musicians in the 70s felt the need to resuscitate the crumpled morale of the people. It explains the themes of music from that period. The formation of the PCN in 1971 served as the catalyst that enforced a healthy competition to acquire wealth and influence and thus rebuild the land.

We find the same spirit-stirring music of the Igbo panegyric in Kcee’s new afrofusion song, “Ojapiano.” The song incorporates the sound of the Igbo instrument, Oja, into Afrobeats. Kcee understands the role of the oja in traditional society, an instrument used to summon men of valour, men of influence and spirits. What Oliver de Coque started is being used in new ways, with new musical alliances, and new expressions. These experimentations are incipient, but it is clear that Oliver de Coque’s riffs are finding a second life in Afrobeats.

 

Chimezie Chika’s short stories and essays have appeared in or forthcoming from, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Republic, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Lolwe, Efiko Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. 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.

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