the Nigerian philosopher-musician who shaped Igbo highlife Global Voices

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

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

Celestine Ukwu (1940–1977), born in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria, is known as one of the most outstanding philosophical composers of Igbo highlife. His music rose to prominence towards the end of the Civil War in 1970 and remains popular today.

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

In 1966, Ukwu formed their first band, kings of music who played regularly at the Phoenix Hotel in the commercial city of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria. After the civil war in 1970, he created a new group, the Celestine Ukwu and her national philosophers. With this group, Ukwu compound “a laid-back, sultry form of highlife” which greatly set him apart from other Igbo highlife musicians of his day. This style of music continued until his sudden death in a car accident in 1977.

His death was tragic as it prematurely destroyed an artist’s cultural potential before he had a chance to fully blossom. Member of Ukwu’s band, the guitarist Emma Ikediashi recalled in an August 3, 2019 interview with the Nigerian daily Vanguard that Ukwu and a friend were driving to a social event when they “were hit by a caravan somewhere around Ogidi and they both died on the spot.” What made the death more painful was that Ukwu “had already processed travel papers” for a big musical show abroad. “He had made a traditional marriage but had never lived fully with his new wife before her death, Ikediashi lamented.

philosopher and bard

The cover album “Ilo Abu Chi” by Celestine Ukwu

Ukwu’s musical corpus established him as a prodigiously talented and preeminent Igbo poet-musician, storyteller, composer of philosophical music and historian of oral music. Between 1971 and 1976, he released six albums –True Philosophy“, “Tomorrow is so uncertain”, “Ndu Ka Aku” (Life is greater than wealth), “Ilo Abu Chi” (Enmity is not God), “Ejim Nk’onye” (I hold no one [property]) and “Igede Fantasia”. He has a compilation and eleven singles to his credit, some of which are: “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi” (Do not rejoice in material possessions), “Ilo Oyi” (Hatred of a friend) and “Ije Enu” (The path of life).

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

In “Grade by Grade”, which is part of the 1975 album “Igede Fantasia”, Ukwu praises the The Igbo Egalitarian spirit that promotes industry and hates the determinism of premeditated fate. He emphasized that no one was destined to be poor or rich. Therefore, it was through providence and hard work that the Igbo rose through the ranks 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, the one who works hard becomes rich/ No one was created by his chi to become poor/ In this world, if you keep working on it, you will succeed/ What I saw is that this world is for everyone/ Because we are all equal before God.

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to this view of the world, which Ukwu has also denounced, the excessive desire to make a fortune, sometimes at any cost. “Ego Eju Aka” (“Money Can’t Fill the Hand”) – in his 1974 album “Ndu ka Aku” – was a scathing critique of the crude individualistic materialism that had replaced the pre-civil war communitarianism that previously characterized his Igbo ethnicity. band.

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 head?/ Who was born rich 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 rejoice in the wealth they have acquired / Who, being born in this world, was born with wealth? / Who was born with money? / Money is insatiable /

Thirty-eight years after Ukwu’s song, the grandfather of African literature, Chinua Achebe, said in his 2012 book, “There was a country that the crude materialism manifested in “contemporary Igbo behavior” was responsible for the “noisy exhibitionism and contempt for humility and tranquility” of his people. “I will be the first to admit that the Igbo as a group are not without flaws. Its success can and does bring with it deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, hubris and recklessness, which invite envy and hatred or, worse still, which can obsess the mind with material success and dispose him to all kinds of grossness. wrote.

In a research paper published in 2012, music professor Richard C. Okafor described Ukwu as “a super critic of economic inequality” whose “philosophical words” had more impact “than many homilies from ministers of God. “. This “philosophical richness” set him apart from “other musicians of his time and genre”, say Ukwu’s biographers. Through his music, he fulfilled his mission of prophetic moral conscience of society, notes ethnomusicologist Eunice Ibekwe, in an article published in 2014.

In “Ije Enu”, Ukwu was able to connect with the heart, shattered and going through a dark night. The poetics of this moving song contrasts the mixture of raw and scorching melancholic emotions with the various remnants 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…

The walk on earth/Some weep, some rejoice/He who weeps in this world should remember that the earth [switches] changes [for each person] / The rejoicing must remember that the world is changing [for each person]/ It’s not like we envisioned our plans, does the world turn out to be / It’s not the one who has it good today, will it be good for tomorrow…

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

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist featuring other Nigerian Igbo highlife songs here. For more on African music, check out our special coverage, A Journey into African Music.

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

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