Four names: Zoro, Phyno, Flavour, KCee. Four installations on YouTube: Ogene, Achikolo, Gbo Gan Gbom, Ijele. These songs have garnered a mere 10 million views over the years, nondescript numbers in a country where top singles are hitting the stratosphere, with Fall, On the Low, Way Maker, and Pana racing towards the 200 million mark. A little over five years ago when ‘Ogene’ by Zoro featuring Flavour premiered, digital streaming platforms were nascent entrants into the space within which Nigerians interacted with their music. Still, these songs and artists provide a glimpse, a narrow opening, into the ancient spiritual and musical world of ogene.
The music of KCee, Flavour, Phyno, and Zoro deal with contemporary socio-political issues peculiar to modern urban life — police brutality, quest for quick wealth, lavish lifestyles, political oppression — but the sound transports you through generations to a period in history when entertainment and festivities of a certain scale were limited to the village square, with the attendant bonhomie and spirit of communality. The element responsible for this is ogene music, sometimes with a blend of the more modern genre of highlife.
Young artistes of Igbo origin are going back to this ancient traditional sound and creatively infusing it into the composition of contemporary mainstream genres of pop and hip hop, thereby keeping the music of ogene culturally relevant among their generation and more accessible to a wider audience, traversing geographical, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. Some notable artistes for whom ogene has been most influential in their work include rappers such as Phyno, Zoro, Illbliss, Uzikwendu, Tidinz, and singers Flavour, Kcee, Humblesmith, and most recently, the very talented Umu Obiligbo.
Ogene is a popular form of traditional Igbo music, named after the instrument central to the music’s composition — a large double bell made of iron, hollow inside, and struck with a wooden stick to regulate its sound. The metallic vibrations that this concussion idiophone emits is what the entirety of its eponymous music is built around — the sonic nucleus that the other musical elements in an ogene ensemble orbit and take their cue from — creating sound waves moving in a centrifugal direction, from the ogene bell’s core, and guided by its firm, authoritative beat, towards the auditory field of the audience, in an experience that straddles the scientific and the spiritual.
The auxiliary instruments led in concert by ogene’s guiding hand include the oja, also known as the ‘talking flute’ (because of the cryptic messages its notes are believed to carry). It is made of wood and is one of the most common wind instruments in Igbo music. It creates strains of high-pitched wails, sailing over other sounds in an ethereal way that often seems like a call to ancestral spirits. There’s the percussive pair of ekwe and udu, even though it is the slit drum, ekwe, that is more commonly used in ogene music, while the udu, a vessel drum in the form of a jug, is favoured for ceremonial purposes, and in some cases only played by women. Percussion is a subdued element in ogene, hence neither the ekwe nor udu play a major role in the composition of the music.
The ngedegwu, a xylophone made from banana-tree resonators laid with wooden planks, and the ubo aka, a small hand-held piano plucked with the thumb, popular with itinerant minstrels in pre-colonial times — making it one of the oldest musical instruments in Igboland — sometimes feature in ogene performances depending on the preference or size of the band playing.
In a typical musical movement of ogene, these instrumental accompaniments recede for the lead instrument, ogene, to go off on a solo break which oscillates between sharp bursts of rapid beats and a staccato rhythm that rises and falls sporadically. After a while, the other instruments join in, poco a poco, at a point of culmination, where a uniformity in the sound is attained as the instruments raise the music to its crescendo. This pattern is repeated with almost metronomic precision throughout the performance, in between the call-and-response routine of the lead singer (usually the ogene player) and the members of the band.
Ogene has enjoyed widespread appeal through different generations in the South-east of Nigeria, partly because of its multi-functionality. It is adaptable for various purposes and can be made to fit any occasion — from social events (for singing the praises of members of high society in upscale social clubs and lavish parties), to religious ceremonies (popular in the Catholic Church, among neo-Pentecostal churches, and during traditional religious rites), to native festivities (prominent in masquerade festivals and the very popular New Yam Festival), and in sporting competitions (especially in football, where it is used by supporters of local football clubs to cheer during matches or to celebrate victories).
Ogene’s exuberant rhythm accompanies youth activities, from the initiation of boys into manhood or young men into secret societies, and in the subculture of ‘gyration’ among members of the Kegite’s Club, a palm-wine drinking club for young people. Whether ogene is functioning in an unctuous capacity as paean or in the more devotional form of Christian choruses, it retains the beauty of the essence of its core sound.
Contemporary artistes continue to drive the evolution of ogene sound. Credit must be given to the duo of Umu Obiligbo, who in more recent times, can be said to have contributed the most to the mainstreaming of ogene music and the increase in its widespread sonic and visual appeal nationally, especially in contemporary pop circles.
The Obliligbo brothers, Okpuozor and Akunwafor, come from a line of eminent Igbo musicians. Their grandfather, Ezigbo Obiligbo, was a renowned Egwu Ekpili musician who was one of the foremost players of the ubo aka, the thumb piano made popular by the likes of Ozoemena Nsugbe and the transvestite Area Scatter. He was also one of the first few Igbo musicians to become a recording artiste (others such as the very popular Morocco Maduka, known as the Eze Egwu Ekpili, followed in his footsteps to become commercially successful Ekpili musicians). Ezigbo’s son, Ajana Obiligbo, was also a musician, part of the highlife wave that swept through parts of the country in the sixties and seventies, and was one of the lesser-known artistes of the vibrant Igbo highlife scene led by musicians such as Chief Stephen Osadebe, Dr. Sir Warrior and the Oriental Brothers, and Bright Chimezie.
In following the musical path of these illustrious forebears, these ‘children of Obiligbo’ (as their name translates) realised that they have large shoes to fill and have taken off on the right foot, establishing themselves as musicians to be reckoned with in the major leagues, while winning the hearts of listeners far and wide. Naming themselves Umu Obiligbo was not for a mere need for a stage name with a culturally aesthetic appeal, but arose from a full awareness of the rich musical pedigree they come from. They acknowledge the burden of responsibility of identifying with an esteemed name, not only in a patrilineal sense, but more importantly, creatively.
This sense of responsibility shows in their recent album, Signature (Ife Chukwu Kwulu): a mastery of the fine blend of highlife and ogene for which the legendary Oliver de Coque was famous. Signature, the follow up to Umu Obiligbo’s 2014 album, Udo Ga Adi, is the most popular of their works and the one responsible for the fame they’re enjoying presently, which has also extended to the growing interest in ogene being witnessed in other parts of the country.
People curious enough about this sound are searching out more ogene musicians, leading to the likes of Ejyke Nwamba and Janka Armani, who have over the years garnered huge, almost cult-like following worldwide, in some of the most far-flung places on the globe where you’ll find Nigerians, mainly because of the availability of the videos of their performances on the internet, which has made their music accessible and given them more visibility, even though they don’t enjoy as much mainstream pop acceptance as Umu Obiligbo, since they don’t do the kind of collaborations with Afrobeats and hip-hop artistes the Obiligbo brothers have been doing.
Collaborations with big artistes such as Zoro, Phyno, Flavour, Jaywon, Larry Gaaga, Davido, and producers Fiokee and Bube, shot Umu Obliligbo into the limelight, but they are not letting themselves be swayed by the lights, the fame, or the acclaim. They embody a profound understanding of their role in driving a cultural renaissance in an epoch when many age-long traditions are under the threat of erosion by popular and conventional Western practices undergirded by technological advancements that are shrinking the world into a single, cosmopolitan community within which many cultures are losing their distinct identities. Igbo artistes possess enough acuity to be fully aware of the role of music in cultural preservation, and by keeping ogene alive, are mainstreaming it to a global audience.