16 Aug 2022

Nigeria

Deep, spiritual, mellow, soothing, highlife of the highest order.

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


Celestine Ukwu: the Nigerian philosopher-musician who left his mark on Igbo highlife · Global Voices

His prodigious talent was cut short in a car crash

Written by Nwachukwu Egbunike  |  Posted 15 June 2022  |  Global Voice Nigeria

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

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

In 1966,  Ukwu formed his first band, The Music Royals which played regularly at the Phoenix Hotel in the commercial city of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria. After the civil war in 1970, he established a new band, the Celestine Ukwu and His Philosophers National. With this band, Ukwu composed “a relaxed and sensuous form of highlife” that greatly distinguished him from other Igbo highlife musicians of his time. This style of music continued till 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. Ukwu’s band member, the guitarist Emma Ikediashi recalled in an Aug. 3, 2019 interview with Nigerian daily Vanguard that Ukwu together with a friend was driving to a social event when they “were hit by a trailer 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 done a traditional wedding but never lived fully with his new wife before his death,” Ikediashi lamented. 

Philosopher and bard

Ukwu’s musical corpus established him as a prodigiously talented and pre-eminent Igbo poet-musician, storyteller, philosophical music composer, and oral musical historian. 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 no God), “Ejim Nk'onye” (I’m not holding anyone’s [property]) and “Igede Fantasia.” He has a compilation and eleven singles to his credit, some of which are: “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi”(Do not gloat over worldly possessions), “Ilo Oyi” (The hatred of a friend), and “Ije Enu” (The walk of life). 

Nonetheless, it was “Grade by Grade” (“Igede” album), “Ego Eju Aka” (“Ndu ka Aku” album), and the single, “Ije Enu” that notably stamped Ukwu’s genius as a bard, philosopher, and an extraordinary highlife musician. 

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

[…] The human nature of the wealthy is the same with 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 wealthy/ In this world, the one that works hard becomes wealthy/ No one was created by his chi to become poor/ In this world, if you keep working on it, you will be successful/ What I have seen is that this world is for everyone/ Because we are all equal before God.

Sadly, there is a downside of this worldview, which Ukwu also denounced, the inordinate desire to make wealth, sometimes at all costs. ‘Ego Eju Aka’ (‘Money can’t fill the hand’) – in his 1974 album “Ndu ka Aku” – was a scathing criticism of the crass individualist materialism that had displaced pre-civil war communalism that previously characterized his Igbo ethnic group. 

Is there anyone born into this world that came out carrying money on his head?/ 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 it all?/ Some gloat because of the wealth they have acquired/ Who one being born into this world, was born together with wealth?/ Who was born with money?/ Money is insatiable/ 

Thirty-eight years after Ukwu’s song, the grandfather of African literature, Chinua Achebe, stated in his 2012 book, “There was a Country” that the crass materialism exhibited in “contemporary Igbo behaviour” was responsible for the “noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness” of his people. “I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and does carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness,” Achebe wrote. 

In a research paper published in 2012, professor of music 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 “wealth of philosophy” distinguished him from “other musicians of his time and type” asserts Ukwu's biographers. Through his music, he fulfilled his mission as society's prophetic moral conscience, notes ethnomusicologist Eunice Ibekwe, in a paper published in 2014. 

In “Ije Enu,” Ukwu was able to connect with the heart, shattered into smithereens and walking through a dark night. The poetics of this soulful song contrasts the medley of raw and blistering melancholic emotions with the varying vestiges of life’s light and darkness, which each human being has to confront.

The walk on earth/ Some are mourning, some are rejoicing/ The one that mourns in this world should remember that the earth [switches] changes [for each person] / The one that rejoices should remember that the world changes [for each person]/ It’s not as we envisaged our plans, does the world turns out to be/ It’s not the one who has it good today, will it will be good for tomorrow…

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


43 years after, Celestine Ukwu’s guitarist opens up on him

August 3, 2019  |  Vanguard Nigeria

…Says: The highlife maestro was set for International tour before his tragic death

Since his death in 1976 in an auto crash, the mystery behind the personality and character of one of Nigeria’s most popular highlife music singers and song writers Celestine Ukwu has remained underground and untold.


An encounter with his guitarist Emma Ikediashi, leader of popular Black Tops highlife music band puts paid to all that. Ikediashi discloses that Ukwu neither smoked cigarette or weed nor drank alcohol. He also spoke on the final days of the extremely talented artiste and more. Do enjoy this.

How and when did you meet Celestine Ukwu?

I met Celestine Ukwu in Onitsha about 1973 or there about. I had come to join the live music scene in the Niger City straight from my village of Ogwashi Ukwu. I had just dropped out of St Michael’s secondary school after my father’s death. I had started picking up the guitar. I was reading up about bands and their history. When I moved to Onitsha, I was about 23 years and joined Sunny Nwamama and his highlife music group. I started picking up rudiments of highlife guitar play really fast that in about two months, Celestine Ukwu sent for me. He said he had been hearing about me and later watched me play. When I joined him, he made me live with him and we would engage in daily private rehearsals in his apartment after breakfast.

We lived on one of the flats at the expansive Agbakoba family compound in Onitsha. I was the youngest and smallest member of his band which was made up of many Cameroonians and Congolese. He must have felt that he could make the best out of me by keeping me closer. I also made the most of that period.  I was part of his tracks Omeife jideofo and Imago nke chi ga ekwu etc. We regularly played at Phoenix Hotel, Onitsha.

Before then…..

I can say that playing the guitar and indeed talents for music is hereditary for me. My father had brought home a guitar from his times during World War 11. He said he learnt to play in India during that war. But he warned me never to get close to the guitar not to talk of touching it. But I would steal it and play away without his knowledge. That was how I learnt to play the guitar.

Where were you when Celestine died?

Celestine Ukwu had left home in company of a friend of his named Nwobodo who just bought a new car. I suppose it was a social outing. They were hit by a trailer somewhere around Ogidi and they both died on the spot. It was a sad day for all. He had already processed travel papers to travel abroad for a big show. I was already hoping that I would make the trip with him but he died. He must have been aged between 34 and 36 years I guess as he started music early. Again he had done a traditional wedding but never lived fully with his new wife before his death. I am happy to note that his daughter born after his death is now a lawyer.

You also played with Osadebe?

I first spent a year with Celestine and later joined Osadebe who was then playing at Central Hotel Onitsha in 1974. I returned to Celestine Ukwu again sooner than I expected later that same year. I remained with Celestine Ukwu until his death in 1976.

Could you compare the two musicians as their close associate?

They were both in a class of their own. Osadebe was older than Celestine. Leave everything philosophical to Celestine (his band was the Philosophers National) while Osadebe may be melancholic and hedonistic and may sing about anything that came to his mind. Osadebe could easily create a scene anywhere but never Celestine who was a gentleman to the core and avoided anything that could attract attention to himself. Note that he never smoked or drank alcohol. But women flocked around. He spoke perfect central Igbo as well as his native Abor, Udi Enugu dialect.

I believe that in the heat of the competition that later engulfed the highlife music scene between top musicians later, Celestine would have found away to shy away from it.

Then the Philosophical National band he left behind also died….?

We tried to be together but since the driving force of the group had died nothing happened much after. We recorded as Celestine Ukwu memorial but…

I traveled to Enugu to join the then famous EC Arinze whose band was one of the biggest in eastern Nigeria. This was after the Celestine Ukwu memorial band died. With EC Arinze, we had a big contract at Premier Garden of Presidential Hotel Enugu which ran for years.

Every weekend was hot that the hotel became a place to be for all lovers of good music.

After the many years contract with EC Arinze ended, I started thinking of setting up a studio and forming a band of my own. That was when I started acquiring equipment and other musical instruments. I acquired a Sharp double cassette recorder to start recording and producing other artistes That was when I produced Nelly Uchendu album Ezigbo dim. Her sister Biddy Uchendu also started work with me and we released Onye bu nwannem.

Could you trace the origin of your unadulterated highlife music band .How did the name Black Tops come about?

It was my elder sister who worked with the federal ministry of Trades and Commerce that helped me register the band many years ago.  I reasoned that I needed a registered outfit if I must function officially and reached out to her. I had given her Black Toppers Band but she forgot the piece of paper where I wrote it and registered Black Tops. I also gathered some of the musicians I had played with and we formed a quartet. The original Black Tops were Christian Akalonu alias Brusher on drums, Alex Ejemike on bass, Joseph Okeke alias Samanque on vocals and my humble self on Guitar and vocals. Our first contract was when the Premier Garden of the Hotel Presidential Enugu was revived by Silk Ugwu. After some time, some people were not happy with the success and killed his contract and killed the show. But my production studio continued running producing several artistes.

Do you think that experience with Celestine Ukwu has helped you in any way?

Yes. I learnt plenty from Celestine. He never joked with rehearsals. He always regarded himself as the least in the band. That’s what I also did. There was also frustrating moments when I felt like quitting and disbanding the band but held on. Later, Brusher and Alex left to start something on their own. Then my sons who were born in the studio had become graduates and eagerly joined me. We have performance contracts which we execute every Sunday. But they also do their individual musical things. One of them Fireboy is set to unleash himself with hiplife music soon.

How did you get the children to tow same lane with you?

I just see us as a family tree from my father to my children. I did not influence any of my children to join me in music. All of them are boys, no girl. I had wished for a girl for my last child but God gave his choice again. However I gave them the latitude to do whatever they wished. They literally grew up in the studio so toyed with any instruments of their choice as kids.

Again, my wife, their mum was taking them to the choir so they had all round music background despite that they are all graduates in other courses. When the other musicians had gone, we had no choice than to continue with our lives. So Black Tops is today a family band rendering unadulterated highlife music. We have several albums to our credit with the boys plotting their own solo career.


Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National ‎– Tomorrow Is So Uncertain

Label: Philips ‎– 6361 048 (PL)
Format: Digital, Vinyl, LP, Album
Country: Nigeria
Released: 1973
Style: African, Highlife

1. Tomorrow Is So Uncertain 10:20
2. Ndu Bulu Ililo 10:16
3. Uche Chukwu Ka 10:22
4. Man Proposes And God Disposes 8:01

Notes
Written by Celestine Ukwu
Highlife styles named Igede and Ekete sung in Ibo and English according to label information.