What becomes immediately clear is that Umu Obiligbo is the symbol of the changing times and the need for the globalisation of traditional Highlife sounds in Africa…
By Chimezie Chika
Let us begin with “Anya Na-EneUwa,” a song Umu Obiligbo (Children of Obiligbo) released on the brink of their stardom: standard Igbo wisdom and words of advice about life are reeled out in slow, laidback rhythm, with oja and ekwe percussions; the voice of the vocalist tells us that one can become whatever one wishes to be in life. It is followed by a proverb referring to how a mere human hand can never cover the sheer brilliance of a full moon, the lesson here being that focused people will always achieve their aims no matter what stands in their way.
In the chorus, there is a reference to Chukwu, the Supreme God who looks upon the world with his one big eye, the sun. Through the ancient Igbo belief in the divinity of the Sun as the Eye of God, the song springs into lyrical clarity like the rising sun at dawn. The final line of the chorus is a meta-musical invitation to listeners to measure the rhythm of the music, to weigh the cadence, not to pass a critical judgment on its beats or tempo, but to partake in the lessons of the age-old wisdom therein.
This is egwu ekpili Highlife, the traditional Igbo music of life.
The rise of indigenous Igbo Highlife music group, Umu Obiligbo, is a watershed moment in the Highlife genre of Nigerian music. Starting out with egwu ekpili music, Umu Obiligbo has managed to create something unique in their modern practice of Highlife.
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Growing up in the dusty streets of Attah Road in Nkpor-Agu, Anambra State, the brothers, Chukwuebuka Akunwafor Obiligbo, and Ifeanyichukwu Okpuozor Obiligbo could be seen present wherever people were gathered for any sort of entertainment. Street music groups were popular, and the brothers relished the noise of bottles in beer parlours on Sundays, the sound of the ogene, igba and oyo, which were played frequently in the speakeasies scattered all over Nkpor, Obosi, Onitsha, and other surrounding towns. During the festivals, Ntu and Mgbaagbogho, Umu Obiligbo observed with great interest the masquerade groups, the culture of the Nkpor people and the ogene music accompaniment of specific masks.
In those early years, they joined some of these ogene groups in some of their journeys during the festivals. Almost immediately, their ability to vocalise to the beat of Igba drums, ogene, and other traditional music instruments became clear and they began to earn a bit of money busking in some places. What people saw as a problem was the ubiquity of these young boys in a town where they were not natives but mere residents. Many people expressed open disgust at what they saw as their waywardness. But the Umu Obiligbo brothers ignored these public imprecations and continued their outdoor activities. A lot of people would conclude at the time that Umu Obiligbo brothers would amount to nothing, for what time had they to focus on their education? They were especially called names like ‘osa-aka’— an Igbo colloquial term that refers to an idle loafer, subsumed in the combination of two words meaning to open your empty palms upwards, the way beggars do. The duo have made copious references to this early event in their music, most notably in “Anya na-ene Uwa.”
In Ideal Minds Foundation School, Nkpor, and other places where they had their early education, some people admitted to knowing and appreciating their natural inclination for music. Many of their friends and classmates were aware of this—and no secret was made of where this talent had come from.
In the old town of Nteje Abogu, in Oyi Local Government in Anambra State, where Umu Obiligbo are from, music runs in the Obiligbo family lineage. Their great great grandfather, so the story went, was a practitioner of local folk music. Their grandfather, Chief Ezigbo Obiligbo, was the ekpili folk music maestro, and he was active during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Their father, Ajana Obiligbo, was also a Highlife musician. Years later, making references to their hometown, Nteje, in the constant intoning of the words “Obododike” “Ebubedike,” Umu Obiligbo would sing of it as an ancient land of warriors and strong men. In the slow beat-and-stop percussion of ogene and ekwe drums, a story of a time in the distant past would begin, and the rest of the Igbo world, always angling for tales of lustrous history and ancient lessons, would sit up on sultry days and listen.
Egwu Ekpili and the Igbo Music of Life
Egwu Ekpili is one of the traditional folk music forms of the Igbo people. It is the music of uwa-mgbede—evening gathering and frolicking in Igbo culture. The instruments used were the ogene, oja, ekwe, igba, oyo, and others. The music takes its time to kick off. It begins with the beating of drums (igba and ekwe), then the oja joins in after about half a minute, followed immediately by the oyo and others. By the time the singer lends his voice to the beats, more than a minute or two or more would have passed. The singer often revels in constant repetitions and recaps during the performance, with a prosodic chorus, until the music reaches a crescendo before tapering out slowly. Egwu ekpili is the offspring of more traditional music forms such as egwuamala, egwuoja, egwummiri, and others.
Today, egwu ekpili is a subgenre of Igbo Highlife, and was particularly dominant in areas encompassing present day Anambra and Enugu States. Its incarnation in modern times has taken the genre into a marriage with western music instruments such as the guitar and the piano. But its core tools and practices remain untouched.
The basic philosophy of egwu ekpili is its constant commentary on the events of human life, concerning ego (money as symbol of success), iro (enmity), friendship, culture, etc; all part of the didactic Igbo concept of Ndumodu or advice-giving. In airplay, egwu ekpili Highlife songs are usually long-winded and could last more than 10 minutes, with a lot of storytelling bordering on morality and human vices, interspersed with proverbs. Consistent with Igbo beliefs, there is a persistent admonition to hustle hard and not lose focus in life, which mostly boils down to making money. Often, in the lyrics of the music, there is a constant iteration of the divine. The artiste never fails to announce that the music comes from God, water, or other elements of the divine.
Early practitioners of the genre include Celestine Ukwu, Mike Ejeagha, whose name has become a colloquial term for the tendency to tell tall tales or spin yarns. Later on, there were the Oriental Brothers band in the 1980s, who did more standard Highlife; Sir Warrior, the foremost practitioner of the Bongo subgenre of Highlife music in the 1990s and early 2000s. Others include Ifeanyi Agwuedu, Morroco Mmaduka, Odenigbo, Mike Udegbi, and others. Umu Obiligbo’s first album, Ife Di Mma, has become widely accepted as a classic of egwu ekpili Highlife genre.
Change and the Changing Times
In a January 2019 interview with BBC Igbo, Umu Obiligbo stated that when they were making pure egwu ekpili music at the beginning of their career, they became very popular but were not making much money. They mentioned that, for years, they did not believe that there was much money to be made from music until when they started collaborations with Afrobeats stars and changed the focus of their music. They may be referring to the particular dilemma of many Highlife bands who are always embroiled in some conflict or other with local marketing companies, especially before digital platforms became popular.
After the release of “Egwu Ndi Nne,” in 2014, a beautiful song extolling the virtues of motherhood, Umu Obiligbo gained so much popularity among the Igbos at home and in the diaspora. However, they realised that their popularity was Igbo-centric and that if they were going to take their music to the next level and expand beyond regional influence, they would have to do something drastic.
Consequently, they did the first of their collaborations with Flavour, which resulted in the highly successful song, “Awele.” Tweaking the slow Highlife essence of their music to fit into the faster rhythms of Afropop, they released their next successful single, “Culture,” in 2019, featuring Phyno and Flavour. With PSquare’s Rudeboy, they combined, in December 2021, on “Not for Everybody,” a song that raises awareness about drug abuse. Larry Gaaga featured them most famously in “Doubting Thomas,” together with Davido. The song was part of the soundtrack for the movie, Rattlesnake: The Ahanna Story. There are other collaborations with Zoro, Victor AD, and others. Umu Obiligbo’s third studio album, Signature, consolidated their artistic volte-face. The songs were short and mixed with the fashionable beats of the day.
Some have expressed worry that the shift in Umu Obiligbo’s music may be detrimental to the original core of the egwu ekpili brand they espouse. There are others that argue that, in one sense, too, it may also have been beneficial and enriched their music from a certain angle. What becomes immediately clear is that Umu Obiligbo is the symbol of the changing times and the need for the globalisation of traditional Highlife sounds in Africa. Prior to Umu Obiligbo, the likes of Osadebe, and Oliver de Coque visited America a couple of times through the efforts of music promoter, Mr Nnamdi Hollywood, who has done a lot to bring traditional and Highlife musicians to the United States for concerts. But this is where the outward reach ends in the cold.
The truth is that Umu Obiligbo’s peculiar route to a more global audience (where their immediate forbears seem to have failed) met with initial backlash. A sizable majority of their fans who preferred unadulterated egwu ekpili Highlife tunes were upset.
Kenechukwu Ibedu, a friend of the band and an early member of the management team, revealed that he received several calls one morning in a hotel room in Asaba shortly after the release of “Culture,” with many people telling him that they were concerned about the duo’s decision to collaborate with mainstream Afro-pop stars. Ibedu believes that music is a generational thing—a question of influences from a number of life experiences. He does not think musicians wanting to better their augury is a bad thing. In fact, he argues that it is a necessity. It were, then, the fans who did not understand the economic dynamics at play.
In any case, Ibedu got together with Umu Obiligbo and helped to issue a public explanation of their actions on social media as a way to pacify their fans.
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A Philosophy that Remains
For years, it appeared that Flavour, who has achieved cult status in the contemporary African music scene, was the only prominent Nigerian musician who could be regarded as a Highlife proponent, with a mixture of Afrobeats and other trendy sounds. But in recent times, Highlife has begun to gain popularity, though in forms that are littered with formal experiments. Larry Gaaga is one of those people pushing this tradition. But, by far, it is younger artistes that are making the most impact. Asake’s music pays tribute to older music forms, and his recent album, Mr Money with the Vibe, is a testament to that. The Cavemen., too, has breathed a new lease of life into the Highlife genre with their infusion of elements of Jazz music. There is Ife, who is an exciting voice emerging with a new form of Soul Highlife. An argument could be made for the inclusion of Chike, whose music is an epitome of modern Afro-Soul, in this league.
Despite the initial criticism from indigenous quarters, there is no doubt that Umu Obiligbo has gained widespread traction across Africa and beyond without compromising the quality of the Highlife art, even if the egwu ekpili aspect of it has been completely watered down. If anything, some would argue that their music grew wings and took on new colours that enhanced it. In many ways, it is a surprising feat. This may seem to be part of the reason they won the AFRIMA Award in 2020 in the ‘Best African Group’ category.
When I observe that even though the shift in their music may have brought them commercial success and that it seems to me that the core of that Igbo wisdom that is the forte of Igbo Highlife may have become mixed with a trendy rhetoric and other things along the way, Ibedu was quick to defend them, stating that artistes should be allowed to express themselves as they see fit. According to him, “Nothing has left them. The philosophy remains. If anything, Umu Obiligbo have been enhanced. They are in a better place. What you must understand is that artistes live their reality and, oftentimes, it reflects in their music. This is the trajectory of artistry.”
The observation makes a lot of sense, in view of how many artistes usually go from singing about how to achieve wealth and well-being to singing about having acquired wealth and subsequently wishing for long life or simply boasting about this wealth. In this sense, Umu Obiligbo has come a long way from the days of their first album, funeral performances and Iweka Road marketers in Onitsha.
The evidence of their most recent song, “Ifeoma,” seems to agree with Ibedu. In the song, Umu Obiligbo tell a randy young man to “consider his pocket” in these hard times before he goes after women, for if he is not careful and burdens himself with an unplanned family, he will only have himself to blame. I will agree that the moral tinge and the tendency to advise is still part of the music, and that Umu Obiligbo, even while acquiring the new beats of the millennial generation, are still making the Igbo music of life.
Chimezie Chika’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Praxis 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.