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What We Speak Of When We Talk About Osita Osadebe and Highlife Music

What We Speak Of When We Talk About Osita Osadebe and Highlife Music

Chief Osadebe Highlife music

As a musician, Osadebe seems to have come to music fully made; in a journey through his discography, it is hard to find a bad song.

By Chimezie Chika

The Pioneers

When Stephen Osita Osadebe became a household name in the 1980s, few people outside Igboland knew his story. He had become interested in music in the early 1950s while attending secondary school in Onitsha, where he lived with his parents. In 1956, aged 20, he moved to the city of  Lagos, Nigeria, to work and pursue further education. In the fledgling Lagos of the 1950s, vibrating with the rhythms of a country gradually acquiring its own distinct character, Osadebe left education and intensified his musical activities. He joined E.C. Arinze’s Empire Rhythm Orchestra and began to upgrade his musical skills. E. C. Arinze was a pioneer of Highlife in Nigeria — a contemporary of Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo, and Bobby Benson — and one of its early practitioners who had drawn inspiration directly from the genre’s Ghanaian originator, E. T. Mensah.

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Empire Rhythm Orchestra, as with most Highlife bands in the 1950s and 1960s, played in hotels and nightclubs. Early in his career, Osadebe’s foray into music was met with strong opposition from his father, who believed that education was the way to go and that nothing good came out of dabbling into music. In a video interview that introduced his album, Kedu America (1996), Osadebe narrates how his father, upon learning that his son was dabbling with music, sent a message to him in Lagos, informing him that he was about to die. Osadebe quickly rushed down to Onitsha, only to find the old man reclining in his easy chair. His excuse: I will not be alive and see you while away your time in the name of music. 

Osadebe’s songwriting was prolific. His first album, Adamma, came in 1958 and put him on the track of a rising star, frequently featuring at nightclubs and hotels in Lagos. In a career that spanned nearly five decades, Osadebe would go on to write more than 500 songs. In 1960 he interrupted his music career to study economics in Russia in a Soviet educational exchange programme. 

Upon his return in 1962, Osadebe spent time in some popular Highlife bands in Lagos (including Central Dance Band and Stephen Amache Band), before forming his own band, Chief Osita Osadebe and His Nigerian Sound Makers, in 1964. Social life in Lagos was dominated by Igbo Highlife musicians who seemed ubiquitous wherever there was the semblance of a gathering. Osadebe held deep traditional values that influenced the rhythms and philosophy of his music. His peculiar innovation in those early years was to combine familiar and unfamiliar sounds, from within and without the Igbo cultural nucleus, to form an intense, heady rhythm. 

The Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967 to 1970 disrupted the progress of Igbo Highlife in Lagos, for all the Igbo musicians had to return to the Eastern Region (in the succeeding years, Juju and Fuji would take over social life in Lagos — the Civil War being the perfect opportunity for a shift in musical tastes). During the war, Osadebe continued to hold public performances in Biafra.  

The Golden Years

The 1970s, the golden age of Nigerian Highlife started auspiciously for Osadebe. It was during the early part of this decade that he signed on to PolyGram Records, an epoch-making record label under whose auspices many of the great Highlife musicians of that decade and the preceding one flourished. “It was from this time that he truly became a maestro,” says Emeka Nzekwe, a relative of Osadebe whom I have known for a long time. “He was recording hit after hit and he was pulling crowds.”

There is a kind of ecstasy that Osadebe’s music evokes in people; almost everyone I have met has expressed awe for his music. There are tracks in Osadebe’s discography that are simply virtuoso. The instrumentals are extended, and the lyrics calm and unobtrusive. As his career matured, this style became distinctly recognisable as Osadebe’s. Through the ‘70s decade, Osadebe’s music made a steady ascent into the limelight. His first album after the war was the aptly titled Highlife Parade (1970). Many of his albums from the 1970s were eponymously titled. His renown reached its frenzied crescendo in 1984 when he released his single, ‘’Osondi Owendi.’’ The song became extremely popular in Nigeria and West Africa, selling more than 750,000 copies. 

Osita Osadebe Highlife music
Cover photo for Osadebe’s “Osondi Owendi”

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Osadebe came into a grand mastery of his music from the mid-1980s. Each of his songs possessed an inimitable “Osadebe-esque” quality. There is grandeur in the guitar and piano riffs, the perceptible inputs of drums, saxophones, and trumpets. Much of Osadebe’s music is dominated by the long instrumental grooves, fronted by the lead guitar. There is a distinct jazz influence in the sustained rhythmic tempo that alternates between moderate highs and lows, broken only at intervals by the proverb-infused lyrics. One powerful show of this sonic intensity is in the song, ‘’Nwannem Ebezina.’ Here, Osadebe spreads his considerable vocal talents over the mid-tempo rhythm of the song. He has the peculiar ability to stretch his voice to its elastic limits, from a comfortable baritone to a long drawn-out tenor. 

This style is replicated in all his popular songs, such as  “Onu Kwulu Njo,” “Onye Achonam,” “Yoba Chukwu”  “Makojo,” “Ana Masi Ife Uwa,” “Oyolima,” “Gwam Okwu,” and others. These songs are also marked by their fluid lyrics, and the philosophy espoused therein. For Osadebe, the substance of his music comes from the spring of life, its trials and tribulations. His theory was to throw a thoughtful proverb at a human problem, and imperceptibly highlight lessons to be learned from it. For instance, on the issue of why land tussles do not always end well, Osadebe had the proverb in the song title, ‘Agbara Aka na-Azo Ani.’ The full proverb, “Agbara aka na-azo ani, onye ji ji a na-akonye” translates roughly as, “When people fight empty-handed over a piece of land, the only person who makes use of the land is the one who brought yam seedlings to plant.”

And so Osadebe’s music continued on in this interplay of rhythm and economical lyrics until the end. Throughout his career, Osadebe performed in many African countries, including Ghana, Gabon, and a few others. In Europe, he performed a number of times in the United Kingdom. In 1995,  he went on his first US tour — a highly successful enterprise that marked the beginning of his long relationship with his producer and manager, Nnamdi Moweta (aka Nnamdi Holy Wood), a well-known promoter of Highlife music in America. The result of this partnership in America culminated in the greatest physical manifestation of Osadebe’s genius, his album, Kedu America

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Kedu America and the Legacy

I have often talked about Highlife music (in Nigeria) with a deep reverence for the towering achievements of its most prominent practitioners. Highlife music is immensely successful in this part of the world because of its democratic qualities, its accessibility, its flexibility and its ability to acquire an enriching potpourri of musical influences while maintaining its core identity. On this note, I have asked myself if there is a perfect Highlife album. This question is not borne out of some ephemeral fixation. It is the result of a roving, questioning, introspection. Osadebe’s Kedu America is that perfect Highlife album, a masterpiece of sheer musical prowess. 

Kedu America is the joie de vivre of an impeccable musician in the bright sunlight of his staggering genius. It is the album of Osadebe’s life, quite literally, for some of its nine songs have been recorded years prior. The music mirrors the man; Osadebe’s eloquence in speech is also evident in the clear, coherent structure of his music. The slow-burning songs grow on the listener. The music is soothing, preaching peace and brotherhood.

Osita Osadebe Highlife music
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe

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It is hard to quantify the tremendous influence Osadebe has continued to exert on Igbo Highlife music. From the late 1990s to the 2000s, he spent a great deal of time in America, where he continued to record songs until his death, from lung complications, on May 11, 2007. As a musician, Osadebe seems to have come to music fully made; in a journey through his discography, it is hard to find a bad song. Did he go through formative years? Of course, he did. No Highlife musician is an exception to that rule. The truth is that Osadebe, like many of his peers, came out of the internecine fallout of the Biafran War with a renewed vitality and warmth towards life. This renewed vigour explains the baroque musical abundance that was the 1970s. It explains the existence of many highlife musicians today and, perhaps most tellingly, the trajectory of the Nigerian musician, Flavour.

What do we talk about when we talk about Osita Osadebe, a man widely called, “Osankwa,” the “Doctor of Hypertension?” We talk about the sheer celebratory aura of his music, the music of relaxation and contemplation. Osadebe’s music entrenched the idea of the high life — music that chronicles both the colourful and less bespoke moments of life; calming music in a time of strife, despair, and disagreements. Osondi, owendi: The world is give and take. Today it is joy, tomorrow it might be pain. But the machinery of life clatters on. So says Osadebe, whose music, more than anything, celebrates the enduring human spirit.

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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