Defining Nigerian popular music

Defining Nigerian popular music

In the run-up to
planned celebrations of the arts and culture sector of Nigeria, 50
years after her independence in 1960, there was public discourse
instigated by academia as to where the timeline should fall in
identifying any art form as Nigerian. Quasi-academic arguments proposed
that ‘Proto-Nigeria’ become the designated term for art forms and
genres that were developed before Nigeria was officially declared one
country by the colonial administrators in 1914.

By this
definition, it was argued, the Benin bronzes, Igbo Uku and Nok
terracotta, as well as the photography of Jonathan Adagogo Green in the
1890s, did not qualify as milestones in defining and celebrating art
forms and genres that can truly be categorised as Nigerian. All the
same, at the risk of incurring the academic wrath of the progenitors of
this school of thought, I will attempt a preliminary examination of the
roots and development of Nigerian contemporary popular music.

Nigerian folk
music, which evolved to create and shape Nigerian contemporary popular
music, is a much older genre of music than Nigeria itself. Folk, or
indigenous traditional vocal and instrumental, music predates the
British colonial efforts to create the geographical territory now known
as Nigeria. Interactions and manipulations within the colonial process
resulted in creating regional and national centres for administration
and commerce. The drift from rural areas to these new centres in turn
created a new urban culture and music that can best be described as a
melting pot of various indigenous rhythms and folk tunes. Out of this
mix came highlife, which is unquestionably Nigeria’s first genre of
contemporary popular music.

In his interview
(published in 2005) with the then 86-year-old Ambrose Campbell, the
producer of the very seminal ‘Highlife My Life’ project, Osaze Iyamu,
asked Campbell about the roots of Nigeria’s urban music. “There was
juju music with Tunde King,” Campbell explained, “and then by 1939
Ibos, Itsekiris, Liberians (crew sailors) and we the Yorubas, the Lagos
boys, brought our own kind of song and they their own kind of song; we
used to jam together.”

Not surprisingly,
right from the beginning, there were noticeable varieties of flavours
and inflections of highlife music, characterized by the indigenous
culture and folklore of the particular musicians. It was no wonder then
that the first generation of Nigerian highlife musicians sang in their
indigenous languages as well as incorporating their indigenous rhythms.

According to the
late great musicologist and creative activist, Steve Rhodes, it was
this recognisable variety that distinguished Nigerian highlife as an
original, diverse and very creative genre of contemporary popular
music. The pioneer giants of highlife as a recognisable independent
genre of popular music who best exhibited these traits, not in order of
chronology or creative competence, were Victor Olaiya, E.C. Arinze and
Rex Lawson.

Origin of Highlife

But then was
highlife, per se, a solely Nigerian musical phenomenon? Benson Idonije,
Nigeria’s foremost researcher and radio presenter of early contemporary
popular music, has a satisfying take on the origin and creative roots
of highlife.

“Highlife, the
first fusion of West African indigenous music with western forms,”
Idonije explains, “is the sub-region’s popular form of music. Some
claim that it originated from Ghana; others say it was introduced by
sailors and crew men from Sierra Leone (and Liberia). The most credible
view is that highlife has been in Nigeria long before E.T. Mensah of
the Tempos Band introduced the Ghanaian version to Nigeria in 1952.”

Idonije cites
“King, Denge and Ambrose Campbell, Sam Akpabot and others from the
post-World War II eras as the Nigerians who fashioned Nigerian highlife
before Mensah. However, Bobby Benson was the first to create the
Nigerian highlife alternative and parallel.”

Bobby Benson,
musician, show business-man and hotelier, can be regarded as the father
of Nigerian contemporary popular music. His full ‘big band’ orchestra,
which played a variety of music from chacha to rumba, a bit of
jitterbug/jazz and of course highlife, was the training ground for many
musicians, including trumpeter Zeal Onyia and saxophonist Babyface
Paul. Benson’s (and Nigeria’s) first highlife megahit ‘Taxi Driver’
(1954) was a reaction to scorned love: “…if you marry taxi driver/I
don’t care.” Bobby Benson himself became the butt of another popular
highlife song in Yoruba, “Bobby has bought a car/but he has not bought
a house/There is no never-do-well like Bobby!”


Victor Olaiya, the
trumpeter, epitomised Yoruba highlife, though he was brought up in
Onitsha and speaks good Igbo. He introduced the drone-guitar effect as
played by Akanni, and his early hits include ‘Kusimilaya’ (Die on my
chest/breast) E.C. Arinze, also a trumpeter, epitomised Ibo highlife
and became legendary for his hits, ‘Nike Nike’ and ‘It’s Time for
Highlife’. Rex Lawson, an Ijaw trumpeter, took highlife to its golden
age, achieving national and international fame although he sang mostly
in the minority Ijaw language. Lawson introduced the three-membrane
Ijaw masquerade drum into highlife and the use of two electric guitars,
trends which were later adopted by other highlife and Afrobeat
musicians like Fela. Lawson’s numerous hits include ‘Love Adure’,
‘Yellow Sisi’ and ‘Jolly Papa’.

Yoruba highlife
musicians, naturally, introduced the talking drums. Popular
‘second-generation’ highlife musicians include Eddy Okonta, Crossdale
Juba, Roy Chicago, Adeolu Akinsanya, Erasmus Jenewari, Sonny Brown,
Apollos Fiberesima and a host of individualists and innovators.

Bala Miller, from
Kaduna North, and the Sahara Dance Band, based in Jos, were some of the
prominent bands in that sector. Mention must be made of Ralph Amarabem,
guitarist and leader of the Aba-based Peacocks who produced the
all-time hit ‘Eddy Kwansa’.

It would appear
that the vogue then was to have highlife bands led by
trumpeters/singers. Trumpeters Zeal Onyia (in whose early band Osita
Osadebe cut his musical teeth as a singer), Vicky Yemu Afumu (Vicky
give me my half-penny), Eddy Okonta (Bisi), Roy Chicago, Apollos
Fiberesima, and Sonny Brown were some of such leaders. It also became
fashionable for highlife musicians to sing in their indigenous
languages as well as in English, particularly Pidgin English, in a bid
to reach wider audiences as highlife gained prominence and acceptance
across Nigeria. Inyang Henshaw was proficient singing in both Efik and
English and set the tone for Etubom Williams and other musicians from
the Cross River axis.


Victor Uwaifo and
Celestine Ukwu are two highlife musicians whose innovative use of the
guitar and xylophone, respectively, revolutionarily changed the sound
of highlife. Historically, Sam Akpabot had used the xylophone earlier
but the instrument became Ukwu’s trademark signature. Uwaifo remains
Nigeria’s first and true master guitarist and he has incredibly
creative and fluid, lengthy guitar solos on ‘Joromi’ and ‘Guitar Boy’
to convince any doubters. Celestine Ukwu, the xylophonist and
philosopher, remains legendary for his ‘Ijenu’.

Eric Akaeze
(Ayolo), Orlando Owoh (Canary), Price David Bull and his Seagulls,
General Boliva, Saint Augustine (Asewo no be work/na management) all
deserve recognition for their contributions to developing and
sustaining highlife music.

For many of the
same reasons, Nigeria’s highlife music deserves a comprehensive and
well-edited book of lyrics, much like Sam Charters’ famous book,
‘Poetry of the Blues’, published in the 1960s. Socio-political
commentary, sarcasm, humour, veiled abuse, sweet nothings, plain good
advice, doses of ego-tripping and macho posturing, and the intricate
emotions of love and relationships have all been addressed in
indigenous and English languages in over 50 years of highlife music.
Highlife has also had its rude boys like Reggae’s Max Romeo.

The puzzle is: how come the high-class/highlife music to which
Nkrumah and Balewa danced at state functions for the independence of
Ghana and Nigeria respectively, tumbled socially and dramatically to
become the low-class music of dingy ghetto nightclubs and dives? Is
highlife dead and buried? Idonije, who postulates that “highlife
stopped evolving in all directions in the mid-60s,” also offers a
lifeline. “Highlife music,” he says, “has become Nigeria’s basic
popular music form from which creative musicians can tap into other

Click to read more Entertainment news

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *