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Osita Osadebe: Nigeria’s Master of Highlife Music

I love music. And I appreciate it even more in its diversity (don’t ask me about dance…lol!). For Africa, I enjoy various nations. From Mali (Oumou Sangare, Fatoumata Diawara, Amadou et Mariam (a married couple, both blind), Ali Farka Toure, don’t blame me, blame my Dad for that…lol!), Senegal (Vivian Ndour, the mbalax legend), Cote d’Ivoire (Alpha Blondy), Tanzania (Bi Kikude of Zanzibar, the queen of taarab and the oldest performing musician on earth before her death in April 2013), Eritrea (Yohannes Tihabo, love Selamawit Gebru die! LOL), Algeria (any rai artiste will do but Cheb Khaled tops the chart for me) to Egypt (oh, the sonorous Umm Kulthum!), I am into various forms and genre of music, as in, musik.

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Although some of my friends say it to my face that my taste of music is simply crazy (especially when I sing the lyrics which obviously make no sense to them), I cannot think of a more ecletic selection of tracks (some shake their heads pitifully when I cool off with a Kenyan song or nice Namibian jamz but do I send them ni? Variety na the thyme of life na! LOL!). Not that I am not into Naija songs too o, just finished Kcee’s Limpopo…lol! So it was, I was ‘innocently’ enjoying nice selections on Gidilounge’s gPlayer (went straight to Essential Highlife) and then after a few tracks, the next thing I was nodding my head to was Chief Osita Osadebe’s Nwanem EbezinaI knew it was time for me to write on this star in the firmament of African entertainment. Hubert Ogunde will have to wait till another day…lol! Dear Esteemed Reader, I present to you, Nigeria’s master of highlife music, CHIEF ‘Nnanyi Ukwu’ STEPHEN PATRICK OSITADIMA ‘OSILI’ OSADEBE, Nigeria’s master of highlife music.

BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS

Born on the 17th of March 1936, the late Chief Osita Osadebe hailed from the Umukeke Quarters of Ogbaru Local Government (Ogbahu or Ogbesi) in Atani, an agricultural and fishing city on the eastern bank of the River Niger, near Onitsha in Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria. His father was Chief Dennis Obi Osadebe while his mother was Iyom Nwanjiego Uzoka-Osadebe. Like many others, his family was one long lineage of dancers, singers and other entertainers. He attended the St. John Catholic School and Our Lady’s High School, both in Onitsha, Anambra State. However, it was not until he was in secondary school that his interest in music really surfaced. As a boy, he was a chorister in the church and also played in the school band.

After completing his secondary school education, he worked briefly with SCOA as a clerk and was into music full-time in 1958, two years before Nigeria became an independent nation.

MUSIC CAREER

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After a while, he moved to Lagos State, the nation’s commercial center where he would perform at disco clubs, dance halls and parties, starting small and climbing the ladder steadily under the tutelage of Zeal Onyia, an expert with the trumpet, said to be the best trumpeter in West Africa in his time (Osadebe was a genius with the guitar). At first, he was with the Empire Rhythm Skies led by Stephen Amaechi where he was a vocalist and maracas player. Then later, he joined groups formed by EC Arinze, Eric Onugha, Agu Norris, Eddy Okonta, Chuks Nwamama and Charles Iwugbue. He started out in Lagos at the now-defunct Empire Hotel (later turned to Kalakuta Nite Club by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti), Idioro, Ojuelegba, a club owned by Chief Kanu who said of him:

Two personalities were greatly respected and sought after during those highlife days -the vocalist and the guitar player. The guitarist provided palm wine chords which held the orchestra together and also indulged in interminably long guitar solos that kept dancers on the floor for long periods of time. The vocalist projected the entire band and remained the main focus. Osadebe was one of the leading singers on the scene, along with Joe Mensah, Tunde Osofisan, Godwin Omabuwa. But the edge Osadebe had over all of them was that he was a prolific composer; and for this reason, he was in great demand.

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  From Empire Hotel, Osadebe would later shift to Central Hotel, Yaba, Lagos.

Osadebe’s musical career is one of the longest in Nigeria as it spanned a period of more than 40 years. Starting before independence in 1958 in his early 20s when he released his first album, the late Igbo high chief would sing until his last year on earth. His first album had only two songs, and one of the two, was called Adamma, which he sang as a tribute to a pretty lady. His energy was impressive and his vibrant nature on stage endeared him to many who would do anything to attend his live performances. Apart from being an exponent of highlife music itself, the late Osadebe was also a songwriter and record producer. He worked under the Polygram Records Nigeria Label. Here, I need to make some clarifications. Some narrations have it that his first recording was actually not Adamma but Lagos Na So So Enjoyment , a single, which was a collaboration with the late Onyia. There is also another account that in 1958 he worked first with Stephen Ameche and had his first recording with Zeal Onyia in 1959.

But in 1960, he took everyone by surprise when he left music and became a student. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), he studied Trade Union and finished in 1962 as one of the National Trade Union. When he came back after bagging his diploma, he delved into music once again, forming the Stephen Osadebe and His Nigerian Sound Makers.

In 1984, he hit gold when he released Osondi Owendi (meaning ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’), selling over 750,000 copies. In no time, it became the most popular record ever in the history of Nigeria. Even six years after his death and 29 years after he released it, Osondi Owendi is still wildly popular in Nigeria. The modern artiste, now deceased, MC Loph (Nwaozo Obiajulu) featuring Flavour N’abania (Chinedu Okoli) made a remix of Osondi Owendi, as a tribute to Chief Osadebe, giving it a refreshing urban flavour.

 

Osadebe was a very prolific singer and as a songwriter, he wrote a very impressive total of more than 500 songs, and about 250 of these went into commercial production. At first, he was with The Empire Rhythm Orchestra headed by EC Arinze, from whom he learnt a lot. As he progressed, his songs also reflected the events in the society and the nation at large, throwing subtle jabs at and uppercuts against the government. His songs were steady in rhythm and were thoroughly danceable. Slowly, rhythmic swaying of the body is my own formula…lol!

The outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970 meant that Osadebe, like many other Igbos had to flee for the southeast, and that meant an end to his successful career in Lagos. However, he was not a man to surrender easily to the travails of life. Even while the war was on, and subsequently, he still managed to have some performances and it was in the 70s that he reached the apex of his performance. Osadebe ’75 was particularly successful. In the year 1986, he clocked 50 and decided to pay more attention to his family life. Osadebe also had interest in classical music.

LOVE, MARRIAGE AND FAMILY

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He was married and is warmly remembered as a loving father to his son, Obiora and other children he sired with his wives. He reduced his tours and performances so as to dedicate more time to his kids and family. One of his children, Obiajulu Osadebe was also into music. His first son, Obiajulu was a student at the Christ the King College in Onitsha while his first child and daughter, Uju, studied Mass Communication in New York. Some of his other children are Patrick Okwy Osadebe, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Jr., Virginia Uju Okakpu, Gloria Nwando Robbins and Lisa Oge Osadebe.

ALSO READ  10 Nollywood Acts We Miss On Our Screens

OSADEBE’S WORKS

For a man who penned over 500 songs, and more than half circulated worldwide, you know that he is rich when it comes to the stuff. His music had its roots from highlife in its basic form, drawing influences from rumba, waltz, bolero, samba and calypso (he had over 30 albums to his credit). With time, he became more vocal against government policies but not to a radical extent like the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti. His words were measured and had the desired effect. One other thing with his songs is that atimes, they were clearly targeted at his personal enemies, whom he gave a megadose of his melodious (or sharp?) tongue. Some of his fans felt this personal vendetta was not really necessary but that was just an aspect.

Another very interesting feature of his performances was that his songs were relatively long and for those on the dance floor, it gave them enough time to dance and enjoy his tunes as he dished them out. Over time, and even as he aged, his voice remained delightfully consistent, with no loss in vigour and clarity. And yes, like many of the other musicians all over Nigerians, he also praised the rich and influential and in one of the interviews conducted with him, he explained why he was also a praise singer. Because of the calming effect of his songs, some of his fans referred to him as the ‘Doctor of Hypertension’.

In 1995, at the age of almost 60, he toured the United States of America with his band twice. His experience would later lead to one of the hottest albums of his, titled Kedu America (which means ‘How are you, America’) which was recorded in Seattle, Washington State and released in 1996In June 1990, he was in the United States with his 12-piece band to the Music Machine, that was his first tour of the US.

-Apart from Osondi Owendi, some of Osadebe’s other works include Aye Mama, ‘One Pound, No Balance’Nye m Obi GiMerenge SposaOnuigboKanyi JikotaAgbalu Akala Azo AniOgbaru SpecialGwam OkwuMakojo and many others.

INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT OSITA OSADEBE

-In Egwu Ogolo, one of his songs, he makes allusion to the fact that his musical talents and skills came from the assistance of a spirit dwelling in water. His hometown of Atani, is in the southern riverine part of Anambra State, where worship of natural features was once heavily practiced until the advent of Christianity. However, some pockets of African traditional worship remain in the area.

-A lover of football and tennis, Chief Osadebe was also into business, and he had a prosperous hotel business. He faced his hotel business when not occupied with music.

-Osadebe also sang in English, Pidgin (‘Broken’ English) and his native Igbo. His contemporaries include Bobby Benson, Godwin Omabuwa, ‘Cardinal’ Jim Rex Lawson, Victor Olaiya, IK Dairo, Celestine Ukwu, ‘Emperor’ Erasmus Jenewari and ET Mensah.

HONOURS, AWARDS AND LEGACIES

-A doyen of Igbo culture and rich repertoire of some of Africa’s most unique traditions, Chief Osita Osadebey proudly sang in his native Igbo and showcased some of the most colourful aspects of the culture of his people (you cannot but be mesmerized by the enchanting dance steps and the revolving hinges of the swaying hips…lol! The day I witnessed Igbo dancers from Nekede live and at close range, I knew there was no comparison, the performance was electrifying! Only if we can understand ourselves better and maximize the opportunities tourism will bring Nigeria from our diverse cultural assets). He was honoured by the Federal Government of Nigeria with the national honour of Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).

-His songs are full of wise sayings and anecdotes about life. His music is a fine fusion of culture, traditional values, philosophy and entertainment, not to mention the soothing and calming effect of his songs (he called it onyilima). In Osondi Owendihe muses: He that is faster than his God always ends before his time. What you like, others may not like. But the title of our music says: what pleases some people, others may not like it. Because as some people are happy over things of this world, likewise some people are not happy also. Some people are happy, while some are unhappy… In another song, he says: No matter how bad we must live. No matter how much it rains, it must someday stop raining.’

-Today, his songs are enjoyed not only in Nigeria but all across the globe. Just check out one of those meetings or celebrations of Nigerians in diaspora and you get what I’m saying :) As a skinny lad under Arinze, Osadebe learnt all that was there to learn and when his time came to shine, the heavens glowed.

-He has left a lot behind for the new-generation musicians. For example, the ‘call-and-response’ technique now in use by many highlife musicians was perfected by Osadebe.

-His people also honoured him with a chieftaincy title: the Ogbuefi Ezealulukwufe of Ataniland. He loved his people and the love they gave him in return was also massive. In 1987, he sang in honour of his people and his land in Ogbaru Akwulugo. In Igboland, his status as an icon of culture and tradition is recognized with his nickname of Osankwa. He was also the Omeokachi I of Ogbahu.

He was honoured by Polygram Records with a platinum album for his Osadebe ’75 which sold over 100,000 copies.

-He was the recipient of the Performing Musicians’ Association of Nigeria (PMAN)’s Best Highlife Artiste of the Year in 1988.

-In 1981, he received the Gold Disc for his Onu Kwulonjo.

HIS WORDS

‘A country without music is a dead nation. Nigerian musicians are great people, and musically Nigeria is great. The unfortunate thing is that we are not accorded the recognition due to us’.

‘My own belief is that if you cannot compose your own song, you are not worth being a musician.’

‘The man who mainly inspired me was the late Nat King Cole, an American. He sang in English, Spanish and other languages. I loved his music.’ 

WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT OSITA OSADEBE

‘In Nigeria, he is loved not only by one ethnic group but by all the ethnic groups. When you live in a country like Nigeria, people go through a lot to survive, and we look for avenues to soothe this daily pain that we go through. His music played a very important role.’ Nnamdi Moweta, his manager.

‘The poetry of his music and the philosophic way he speaks about life…really set him apart.’ Andrew Frankel, producer of three of his albums.

DEATH

In 2007, he flew to the United States for a medical checkup and he was later placed on admission for respiratory illness. Relatives would care for him for months. On the 11th of May, 2007, he breathed his last at the St. Mary’s Hospital, Waterbury, Connecticut. He was 71 and had suffered from severe respiratory problems (lung failure), leaving behind five wives (one of whom was Elizabeth-Edwin Osadebe) and several children, many of whom are based in the United States. On the 8th of February, 2008, a Friday, he was buried in a befitting ceremony organized by his people. That was after a funeral service for him on the 8th June, 2007 at BEECHER & BENNETT, Hamden, Connecticut, USA.

The legendary Atani man who gave Nigeria Osondi Owendi went to join his ancestors -where, he would hopefully, entertain and mesmerize them like he did for the inhabitants of the earth. The legend might be gone but his works remain -very much appreciated.

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