Journalism in the service of society

The Great Highlife Series: Comfort Omoge… The Queen of Asiko

THE Nigerian music scene is now thriving with female participation including exponents of highlife,imitative pop and hip hop. But only a few were there in the beginning to provide inspiration and influence – from the folkloric, indigenous perspective and tradition:    

Hajia Lolo, a griot with a strong cultural tradition and powerful voice came along from the North. Then appeared Batile Alake from South Western Nigeria who paved the way for waka music to blossom – even though not many took advantage of her example and influence except S. Aragbada, Yewande Agbeke and quite recently, Salawa Abeni. 

Comfort Omoge who died last month (August 1999), burst on the scene at a time that Africa’s contribution to music was being recognised in the West – a time that the sounds of Africa were beginning to seep through into the mainstream of Western pop consciousness. To the best of her ability, she took advantage of this opportunity by the way she basically structured and designed her music – except that she did not live long enough to revitalise and transform the music (from the production point of view) from its traditional essence to the contemporary urban social music type – in order to take full advantage of international appeal.

Popularly  referred to as the “queen of African music” by musicians and entertainment critics, Omoge  populariscd Ashiko music of the Ikale people of Ondo State and brought it to a level where it now en­joys international recog­nition,

The rich musical culture of the Ikale people first registered an im­pression on the public through Theophilus Iwalokun, a singer, gui­tarist whose  folkloric approach to juju music has come to be identi­fied as an integral  part of the traditional music of Lagos where he grew up, lived and died. This impression be­came further stimu­lated through Crosdale  Juba, a fine trumpet player who sang with deep feeling and  emotion, but died in mysterious circumstances  at the peak of his popularity – after his debut album in 1976. His own approach though soulful and mind-blowing  in terms of singing –with a guttural voice — was in the highlife tradition. Both impressions in terms of juju and highlife laid emphasis on melodic inventiveness with Western instruments such as guitars and horns to give the music feeling. 

 But  Comfort Omoge consistently performed the music in its rootsy, downright cul­tural nature, singing in the typical African traditional style with an essentially percussive backing. Omoge’s singing usually called out for the group-vocal response of  a 15-member aggregation whose ensemble was consolidated by well-blended rhythmic patterns that took their roots directly from the  cultural heritage of Ikale  people.

 A talented and foremost female singer with several awards to her credit, her popularity should have assumed some in­ternational dimension and her music legendary posture, but lack of encouragement from record companies who were rather dissipating their energy on imitative music and foreign idioms slowed down her progress.

Specifically, Omoge pitched her tent with Decca Records which did not seem to appreciate the fact that  her type of music  needed develop­ment for wider recogni­tion. She had no proper management.Decca did not assign any producer to her music. She was left to her own designs. And because she was not widely exposed, she operated within the lim­its of her own possibili­ties.

Producer Odion Iruoje was at Decca during her recording stint with the company. Even though he did not produce her, he reminded the com­pany about her poten­tial, and helped to give her a better recording deal: “I worked with Comfort Omoge around 1979,” said Iruoje. “At the time 1 came to Decca, she was complaining about poor treatment along with the likes of Dan Satch and Sir Warrior. I helped to restore her confidence in the company. I rec­ommended that her roy­alty be increased.”  

Commenting on  the authenticity of Omoge’s  traditional  music style, Odion further said, “she  was growing up but the music did not grow with her. She was the authentic exponent of Asiko.  She had the basic rhythm of the music.”

However,  Omoge’s  music has several striking qualities to recommend it for general ac­ceptance.The singing  style which was dominated by her solo voice had become tested and found qualitatively and pleasant lo listen to. She usually did not dabble in irrelevant lines for extra flourish in the name of improvisation, She was usually thematic and kept her singing within the limits of the melodic structure. In addition, Omoge was usually ex­pressive and came out with a clarity that con­veyed easily understand­able meaning.

She operated with an accompaniment that did not in any way overstate its percussive effects with intricate rhythmic patterns. All the instruments which were local and indigenous were coordinated by a leader who used them effectively for the cohesiveness of the entire ensemble.

The last time she came up with any recording of note was in 1980 for Afrodisia, even though she had continued to par­ticipate in live shows and had received awards from her appearances. And, characteristic of all her recordings was a rich cultural value both in melodic and rhythmic terms with a voice as strong as Miriam Makeba’s. All the potentials were profusely manifested in her live as well as studio recordings  but the true dynamics of her music were faithfully captured by Afrodisia in 1980 on an album which repre­sents the typical drums and voices, the unlimited potential, and the unin­hibited craftsmanship in­herent in African music.

Titled Irore re yi ran in Ikale dialect with Omoge’s portrait con­spicuously displayed on the front cover and dressed in full traditional attire, the album remains a land­mark in her musical ca­reer. This is unlike the trend by most artists these days who merely dress in African attire without matching it with the identity of their music. In terms of cover photography, the other side features the other members of her 15- member aggregation, comprising five women and nine men who sing and drum.

Mounted on the first side are five beautiful songs opening with a traditional melody with inspiration from the scriptures and titled, Gbo ohun awon Angeli tin korin  – which means, ‘hear the voices of angels singing’ followed by words of admonition and exhortation in tunes such as Oro ana ta joso,Adelebo dakun mawobe, Gbe mi le bebe idi and Ikale lerun . The other side is totally wedded in folklore and features two songs that give Omoge ample room to illustrate her stories with idiomatic expressions and proverbs as she feels her way through numerous choruses.           ‘

Omoge tagged her music Asiko which means music of the moment — perhaps for reason of sound identity and categorisation. But the idiom is rather too prolific and fundamen­tally cultural to be pigeon-holed in such an ephem­eral manner. Omoge’s Ashiko is too deep-rooted to be contemporary; the music is too profound and remarkable to be dated. It is a celebration of African music.

The album was recorded by  award -winner LAK Adeniran, a creative engi­neer who turned out numerous successful albums for Nigerians on the Decca recording stable in the 70s and 80s. Unfortunately, Adeniran himself met his untimely death a few years ago.                  

However, Omoge left behind a musical culture that is unique. With Asiko music, she has demonstrated that African music can attract pro­found appeal without the use of Western instru­ments, a fact which is a challenge to all — whether literate or illiter­ate. Besides, her music is a challenge to the young female singers and musi­cians who generally be­lieve that the only way to survive in the industry is to play imitative foreign music. And, in particular, the illiterate female musi­cians in our villages should be inspired by Omoge’s example, so that the musicianship in them can come to the fore — for recognition.

 *Article first published Wednesday September 8, 1999, is excerpted from the book, The Great Highlife Party, by Benson Idonije; Festac Books 2016)

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