Journalism in the service of society

The Great Highlife Series: Celestine Ukwu… the Philosopher

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TWO of the well-known pre-requisites for being a highlife giant in Nigeria are the musician’s active involvement in the decade of the 50’s, and perhaps the fact that he is a graduate of the Bobby Benson Orchestra. 

Celestine Ukwu was not a partaker of either of these musical experiences and yet, he has all the qualifications of a highlife giant. His name is written boldly in highlife history as an innovator who introduced a new dimension to the art form at a time that the music was on its way out for lack of creative ideas.

Some of the practitioners had been forced into retirement; others abandoned the music completely for more commercially viable and contemporarily popular forms of music like Afro rock and soul music which were in vogue at the time.

Celestine’s success story began in 1970 immediately after the Nigerian Civil War even though he had previously made his presence felt with Ije nu, a hit single on Philips Records with a rhythm section unit that was dominated by the piano in terms of chord progression and solo opportunity, a feat which it shared thematically with an alto saxophone that was brief and effective. 

Popularly called the ‘Philosopher,’ he started out as a school teacher, a gentleman with a lot of discipline. He was not one of the many musicians who fled the city of Lagos for the East during the war – for safety. He had been there on the spot, leading his normal life; and was part of the conflict from the beginning to the end. Needless to say that his music contributed valuably to the cause of the war from the initial stage. Besides, he saw human beings killed in cold blood from bullets and bomb attacks. Before his very eyes, protein deficiency, popularly known as kwashiorkor sent many children to their untimely death as they pined away slowly and died in degrees. He realised that in the midst of life, everyone was in death. All these terrible experiences influenced his approach to life and the philosophy of his music, especially in terms of creating lyrical lines.

By the time he hit Lagos in 1970, after the war, he had acquired a sizeable repertoire and even though he lacked the stagecraft to carry the audience along, he communicated effectively in terms of message; his band was disciplined and cohesive with emphasis on rhythm. Actually, he knew that the easiest way to force an audience to the dance floor is to establish creatively compelling rhythms and so, with highlife music that pulsated with abundant rhythms, he succeeded in pushing audiences into dance party frenzy. In consequence, he attracted a sizeable volume of crowds in all the club dates and even shared clientele with Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo Kuti who was on ground as the new entertainment colossus, the star of the moment.

Polygram, his record company, which felt greatly encouraged by this development, took full advantage of this innovative gesture, becoming more interested in studio recordings — which they eventually did extensively — to the detriment of sponsorship of live promotional performances. 

Celestine’s popularity was just assuming legendary proportions in the s’70s when he met his untimely death, leaving behind a legacy of recorded vintage highlife.

A highly original musician, Celestine is comparable to the late great Jim Reeves whose “This world is not my own” and other classics were seen as premonition of his death. In the same vein, Usondu and Tomorrow is uncertain pointed to Celestine Ukwu’s untimely death.

However, Celestine remains one of the greatest highlife exponents that ever lived. His formula for success was the ability to integrate the piano into highlife, blending the sound in an exotic style with heavily accented rhythms without losing the traditional flavour and rhythmic concept of the music.

Aside from the effective group – vocal approach, he adopted a simple, yet effective style of orchestration completely devoid of improvisations and embellishments, but thematic and basic in harmony, progression and solo concept.   

… The return project

His Philosophers is not necessarily Celestine’s best highlife album, but it is significant because it is a compilation of some of his greatest hits by Polygram’s one time Marketing Manager, E.A. Ndem and ace producer, Chris Ajilo, who was contracted by the company for this purpose at the time.

Celestine is backed here by the Philosophers National outfit that open the session with a heavy rhythmic beat as introduction before the entry of a beautiful group vocal approach dictated by Celestine’s lead voice.

New ereri mbot emi is in Efik with two voices singing in perfect harmony. Simple solos on trumpet and guitar help to stretch the song.

Ije nu, the very first hit is here dub-edited with its philosophical message and simple melodic structure.

The conga is given prominence in Igede 11, an entirely instrumental treatment. The music is made exciting and colourful with various musical elements including an inter play between the horns and the rhythm section, the guitar and the horns. Lastly, the tenor saxophone engages in a question – and – answer session

Usondu begins with a monologue after a brief instrumental introduction, “Let’s live together in peace,” he advises, saying, “this world is not my own.” The spirit feel of this well executed highlife performance is heightened by Etim Udo’s brilliant saxophone solos.

Money Palavar is in English, a fusion with the Congo – Zairean guitar concept.

Elege is based on a traditional rhythm, with highlife given a native blues feeling and made even more so by the sound of the clarinet. This is another instrumental highlife given an exciting treatment with various musical involvements to avoid monotony

  • First published, Wednesday, March 25, 1998

(Excerpted from the book The Great Highlife Party, by Benson Idonije Festac Books2014  to mark Idonije’s 80th birthday anniversary celebration)

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