the Nigerian philosopher and musician who left his mark on Igbo highlife · Global Voices

A screenshot from the cover of Celestine Ukwu’s “Igede Fantasia” album from 1975.

Read the first part of this series on the pioneers of Igbo highlife music here. The second part on how Igbo highlife music provided hope after a devastating civil war can be found here.

Celestine Ukwu (1940–1977), born in Enugu, southeastern Nigeria, is known as one of the foremost philosophical composers of Igbo highlife. Her music first gained prominence around the end of the civil war in 1970 and remains popular today.

Their music heritage armed it with a fundamental understanding of knowledge, reality and wisdom deeply rooted in his Igbo identity. Ukwu’s mother was a singer and his father played traditional Igbo music, while his grandmother was a folk musician and dancer.

In 1966, Ukwu formed his first band, The kings of music who played regularly at the Phoenix Hotel in the market town of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria. After the civil war in 1970, he formed a new band, the Celestine Ukwu and her national philosophers. With this band, Ukwu compound “a relaxed and sensual form of highlife” which greatly distinguished him from other Igbo highlife musicians of his time. This style of music continued until his abrupt death in a car accident in 1977.

His death was tragic because it prematurely destroyed an artist’s cultural potential before it had a chance to fully blossom. The member of the Ukwu band, the guitarist. emma ikediashi remembered on August 3, 2019 interview with the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard that Ukwu along with a friend were driving to a social event when “They were hit by a trailer somewhere around Ogidi and both died instantly.” What made the death more painful was that Ukwu had “already processed travel documents” for a big overseas music show. “He had performed a traditional wedding but never fully lived with his new wife before her death,” lamented Ikediashi.

philosopher and bard

Celestine Ukwu album cover “Ilo Abu Chi”

by ukwu music body established him as a prodigiously talented and pre-eminent Igbo poet-musician, Narrator, composer of philosophical music and oral music historian. Between 1971 and 1976, he released six albums:Real Philosophy”, “Tomorrow is so uncertain”, “Ndu Ka Aku” (Life is greater than wealth), “Ilo Abu Chi” (Enmity is not God), “Ejim Nk’onye” (I do not hold the no one’s rights). [property]) and “Igede Fantasy”. He has to his credit a compilation and eleven singles, some of which are: “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi” (Do not gloat over worldly possessions), “Ilo Oyi” (Hatred a friend) and “Ije Enu” (The path of life).

However, it was “Grade by Grade” (“Igede” album), “Ego Eju Aka” (album “Ndu ka Aku”), aand the single, “Ije Enu,” which markedly marked Ukwu’s genius as a bard, philosopher, and highlife musician extraordinaire.

In “Grade by Grade”, part of the 1975 album “Igede Fantasia”, Ukwu praises the Igbo’s egalitarian spirit that promotes the industry and detests the determinism of a premeditated destiny. He emphasized that no one was destined to be poor or rich. Thus, it was through providence and hard work that the Igbo have managed to climb the ladder of fame or wealth.

[…] Ka ogalanye si di, ka nwa ogbenye si di/ Maka na anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu/ Onwero kwanu onye chi kelu ka so ya nolu na uwa/ Maka na anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu/ Onwero kwanu onye chi kelu ka so ya bulu kwanu ogalanya/ Uwa bu onye lusia olu ike, obulunu ogalanya/ Onwero ka onye chi kelu ka obulu nwa ogbenye nu/ Uwa bu onye jisike, odili ya mma/ Ife m fulu na uwa bu na uwa bu nke onye buna aaa / Maka anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu.

[…] The human nature of the rich is the same as that of the poor / Because we are all equal before God / No one was created by his chi [personal god] to be alone in this world/ Because we are all equal before God/ No one was created by his chi to be rich/ In this world, he who works hard becomes rich/ No one was created by his chi to be poor/ In this world, yes keep working on it, you will succeed/ What I have seen is that this world is for everyone/ Because we are all equal before God.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this worldview, which Ukwu also denounced, the inordinate desire to make wealth, sometimes at all costs. ‘Ego Eju Aka’ (‘Money cannot fill the hand’), on his 1974 album ‘Ndu ka Aku’, was a scathing critique of the crude individualistic materialism that had displaced the pre-civil war communalism that previously characterized their Igbo ethnic group. cluster.

O nwelu onye amulu na uwa, obulu aku n’isi wee puta?/ Amudulu onye na ego n’uwa?/ Ego eju aka, aku eju afo/ Uwa ezu oke ooo/ ona zulu nuu onye?/ Ufodu bu faa kpachasia aku nke uwa, faa na-agala/ onwelu onye amulu n’uwa, ewe muo aku nke uwa?/ A mulu onye na ego?/ Ego eju afoo/

Is there anyone born in this world who came out with money on their heads? / Who was born with wealth in this world? / Money is insatiable, wealth is insatiable [literally translates as money does not fill the stomach/ wealth does not fill the stomach]/ Who has everything? / Some gloat over the riches they have acquired / Who was born in this world, was born together with riches? / Who was born with money? / Money is insatiable /

Thirty-eight years after the Ukwu song, the grandfather of African literature, Chinua Achebe, declared in his 2012 book: “there was a country that the crude materialism exhibited in “contemporary Igbo behaviour” was responsible for the “loud exhibitionism and contempt for humility and tranquillity” of his people. “I will be the first to admit that the Igbo as a group are not without their faults. Their success can and does bring deadly penalties: the dangers of arrogance, inordinate pride and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, worse still, which can obsess the mind with material success and predispose it to all kinds of gross ostentation,” Achebe wrote.

In a research paper published in 2012, music professor Richard C. Okafor described Ukwu as “a super critic of economic inequality” whose “philosophical lyrics” have had more impact “than many homilies by ministers of God.” This “richness of philosophy” distinguished him from “other musicians of his time and type” it states by ukwu biographers. Through his music, she fulfilled his mission as society’s prophetic moral conscience, notes ethnomusicologist Eunice Ibekwe, in a published article in 2014.

In “Ije Enu”, Ukwu was able to connect with the heart, shattered and walking through a dark night. The poetics of this moving song contrasts the mixture of raw and searing melancholic emotions with the various vestiges of light and darkness of life, which every human being has to face.

Ije enu/ Ndi na-akwa na-akwa, ndi na-awuli na-awuli [two times]/ Onye na-akwa nu uwa, ya malu na uwa na-eruyari/ Onye na-awuli na uwa, ya lote na enu na-eruyali/ Oburo ka anyi si loo, ka ife uwa si adi/ Oburo onye odili mma tata, ka oga adili mma echi…

Walking on earth/ Some are in mourning, others are rejoicing/ He who is in mourning in this world must remember that the earth [switches] changes [for each person] / He who rejoices must remember that the world changes [for each person]/ It is not how we imagine our plans, the world turns out to be / It is not the one that has it good today, it will be good for tomorrow…

Decades after her death, Celestine Ukwu’s philosophical lyrics and harmonious blend of instruments still resonate with listeners today.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify Playlist Highlighting Other Top Nigerian Igbo Songs here. For more on African music, check out our special coverage, A Journey into African Music.

Here it is a playlist from Celestine Ukwu’s Igbo highlife music: