Journalism in the service of society

The Great Highlife series: Oliver de Coque… The grassroots highlifer

IF Oliver De Coque is enjoying popularity of widespread nature today, it is perhaps partly due to the massive exposure he received in recent times –from the popular Golden Tones concerts. 

This affirms the essence of live performance, its ability to develop an artiste, its role in bringing the performing artiste to the limelight. But Oliver has always been there, making some appreciably remarkable impact.

Along with Stephen Osita Osadebe, he has reduced highlife to a monotonous routine, a mere social music type which generates mass appeal at grassroots level.

This approach just keeps a repetitive rhythmic pattern going, with singers running social commentaries, usually of the praise – singing type.

Poplar though this trend is, it has achieved little or nothing in terms of evolution and dynamic progression. Musically, it has taken the development of the music backwards – far beyond the emotive ‘palm wine’ of the early formative years of the ‘20s where pioneering highlife legends sounded deeply evocative in terms of melodic exploration, vocal expression even as they were blues – based in guitar- picking and percussive in their rhythmic approach. The music had a definite format in terms of structure.

 However, Oliver took off in 1976 with a guitar-dominated approach deeply influenced by the soul –lifting beat of the Congo – Zairean sound. Oliver’s influences apparently were the likes of Franco Luambo Makiadi of O.K. Jazz, Rochereau, Zaiko, Kale and the entire guitar – picking sorcerers of the rumba region of Central Africa.

These were the traits that manifested themselves in such early recorded materials as I salute Africa done in 1979 to add his own voice to the Ikwokhilikwo movement triggered by Ikenga Super Stars as a post Nigerian Civil War offering – a fusion of the exotic sound of Congo Zaire with the traditional rhythms of the Igbo people. His absolute dedication to People’s Club gave the record a big boost in terms of commercial success and brought him into prominence, giving him the same rating with The Ikenga Superstars and Prince Nico Mbarga-led Rocafil Jazz, which were already firmly established in terms of popularity and acceptance in this new sound genre.

Previously in 1978, Oliver recorded a colourful album with such original compositions as Ife Chi Kwulu Geme,, Onye Zogbulu Nwambe, Baby Don’t cry, and Go call the police. It did not make any noticeable impact but in 1980, he consolidated himself on the scene after the success of his 1979 outing with another praise-singing offering which he dedicated to Omeokachi Social Club of Nigeria – with Ugbala, Kuwa Kilibe, Ukadinobi  and Ife chi nye lonye as supportive items.

Oliver apparently reached the peak of his performing career in 1982 with the release of Funny Identity, a big hit which remained on the then Nigerian Social Music Top 10 chart of Radio Nigeria 2 for several months running.

Funny Identity as a musical performance marked the beginning of a new sound identity for Oliver, whose imitative Congo-Zairean style now changed to a brand of highlife targeted at the grassroots audience.

Limited though the music was in terms of progression, it was full of meaning and the message was quite appealing, a quality which has continued to characterise all his songs, bearing him out as a prolific lyricist who makes sure that his lines are logical and  sensible.

As evidenced by the Golden Tones concerts, Oliver remains a master of stagecraft, always busy in terms of movement, with the aura of flamboyance around him – a delight to watch as a post-civil war attribute to highlife.

BORN at Nnewi in Anambra State, his real name is Oliver Sunday Akanife. He exhibited the potentials for musical skills early in his life in his home town. But it was in Lagos that he put his talents to test in the ‘70s when juju music had completely taken over from highlife. 

He began his career as a sideman in a juju music outfit led by Sunny Agaga, a singer-guitarist. He later teamed up with Jacob Oluwole who was more popular; and it was the star qualities he exhibited in this band that encouraged him to venture out on his own in 1976.

Oliver has a good sense of musicianship, especially in the area of songwriting and presentation, but his musicianship over the years was dimmed by praise singing, a phenomenon which runs counter to the whole essence of creativity. Understandably, his intent over the years was the search for commercial success rather than greatness in his chosen profession.

THE successful musician has his eyes always on the hit parade charts as his focus. To achieve this objective, he gives studio recording full potential; he spends most of the time looking for the right session men, doing elaborate overdubs and taking full advantage of technology – to give his music appeal.

In Oliver’s case, his compositions are aimed at popular social clubs and rich names in society who can pay for the popularity they enjoy from the promotional implications of praise-singing.

On the other hand, the great musician needs the big money alright, but this is not his first consideration. Creativity and artistic excellence are his main pre-occupations and so he strives to remain on top by improving his skills and developing himself musically all the time. In the studio, he lays down his music naturally, without unnecessary embellishments. He has no time to waste as he has to think of new ideas, new perspectives, new ways of expressing himself’

In the final analysis, the successful musician has a limited span of life. He is a here-today gone-tomorrow kind of artiste while the great musician lives and dies for his music which remains relevant  not only while he lives but also after his death.

HOWEVER, Oliver, who is the subject matter, is making a valid contribution to the trend of Nigerian popular music. But if he is the foremost highlife exponent on the scene as many people say, then the music has been relegated from its lofty height – its international outlook and character – to a localised social music type whose possibilities for development are in doubt. The art form has been reduced to the level of juju music

Oliver is free to give expression to the dictates of his musical inspiration – as an artiste; and he has quite a large following. But if this is the direction in which highlife must go, then the future of the music is bleak. How I wish he was doing it right. With his formidable stage presence, he is in a good position to promote highlife to the new generation.  

  • First published Wednesday August 19, 1998
  • (Excerpted from the book The Great Highlife Party, by Benson Idonije;  Festac Books; 2014  to mark Idonije’s 80th birthday anniversary celebration)
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