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Where is the Igbo highlife music of the 60’s and 70’s

Where is the Igbo highlife music of the 60’s and 70’s - highlife; igbo; west africa

Igbo highlife music is the music of the Igbo people, who are indigenous to the southeastern part of Nigeria. The Igbo traditionally rely heavily on percussion instruments such as the drum and the gong, which are popular because of their innate ability to provide a diverse array of tempo, sound, and pitch. Igbo music is generally lively, upbeat, and spontaneous which creates a variety of sounds that enables the Igbo people to incorporate music into almost all facets of their daily lives. Some very popular Igbo music styles are Igbo highlifeIgbo rapOdumodu.

Igbo highlife is a contemporary musical genre which combines highlife and Igbo traditional music. It first started off in the region of Nigeria, during the 1950s. The genre is primarily guitar-based music, with rare characteristic blend of horns and vocal rhythms. Igbo highlife lyrics are sung mostly in Igbo with occasional infusion of Pidgin English . One of the popular musicians to tread the path of the music was Nico Mbarga , better known as Prince Nico Mbarga, a highlife musician, born to a Nigerian mother and a Cameroonian father in Abakaliki, Nigeria. He is renowned for his hit song “Sweet Mother”, recorded with his band Rocafil Jazz.


He played the xylophonecongadrums, and electric guitar in school bands and he made his professional debut as a member of a hotel band, the Melody Orchestra, in 1970.

Although he only recorded one significant hit, “Sweet Mother,” in 1976, which sold more than 13 million copies, in the records as one of Africa’s greatest songs. Mbarga played an important role in the evolution of African popular music. With his soulful vocals set to the light melodies of his acoustic guitar, Mbarga created a unique hybrid of Igbo and Congolese guitar playing and uplifting highlife rhythms. He formed his own group, Rocafil Jazz, to perform regularly at the Plaza Hotel in Onitsha.

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After releasing a disappointing single in 1973, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz had their first success with their second single, I No Go Marry My Papa, which became a regional hit. The band’s inability to break past their following resulted in their recording contract being dropped, a decision that proved ill-fortuned when the band signed with Rogers All Stars, a recording company based in Onitsha, and recorded “Sweet Mother”.

Sung in Pidgin English, “Sweet Mother” became one of the top sellers in the history of Nigerian music. In the six years that Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz remained with Rogers All Stars, 1975 to 1981, they recorded nine albums.


Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe,often referred to as just Osadebe, was an Igbo Nigerian highlife musician from Atani. His career spanned over 40 years and he is one of the best known of them. One of his best-known hits was the 1984 single “OsondiOwendi” (IgboOne man’s meat is another man’s poison.) which established him as a leader in the highlife genre and was one of Nigeria‘s most popular records ever. He came from a line of singers and dancers in Igboland and his music encompassed Igbo and traditional musical elements. Along with this, calypsosambabolerorumba, jazz and waltz were also present in Osadebe’s musical style. It was in his high school years in Onitsha, a major commercial city near Atani, that Osadebe grew interested in music.

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Osadebe started his career singing at nightclubs in Lagos in the southwestern region of Nigeria. He had been a part of The Empire Rhythm Orchestra, led by E. C. Arinze, in which he had learned much of his music skills.  A prolific composer, Osadebe released his first album in 1958, and went on to write over 500 songs; half of which were released commercially.


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Osadebe succeeded in breaking away from the conventional big band format established by the pioneers of the music, a format that favoured melodic progressions that were in the common meter, church hymnal tradition. He succeeded in completely transforming highlife into the call-and-response pattern of African music.

Chief Dr. Oliver Sunday Akanite, popularly referred to as Oliver De Coque, was a popular highlife musician and guitarist.He recorded more than 73 albums making him the most popular highlife king of Africa, his music band group are known as Ogene SoundsSuper of Africa, which blended modern high life and traditional Igbo music. His music paints a picture of the affluence among the Igbo of Nigeria whereby he reels out names of wealthy Igbo men and their native titles acknowledging their accomplishments pouring hair-raising encomiums on them. He started playing music at an early age with the traditional folklore Ekpili music.

Celestine Ukwu was an Igbo highlife musician best known for his hit songs “Ije Enu”, “Igede” and “Money Palava”. Described as a “prolific and outstanding composer” by music critic Benson Idonije of Radio Nigeria Two, Ukwu’s works have been featured on various world musiccompilations including The Rough Guide to Highlife and The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa.

Ukwu was born in Enugu state, Nigeria to music-oriented parents. His father was a performer of the igede, ikpa and ode genres of Igbo music while his mother was lead singer in a women’s musical group. At a young age, he began learning how to read music and play the harmonium with the help of his uncle. Upon completing his primary school education, he went to teacher training school for two years but dropped out in order to pursue music as a career. He went on to join Mike Ejeagha‘s group “Paradise Rhythm Orchestra” in 1962 as a vocalist and maraca player before he left to join Mr. Picolo’s band who were touring the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the time. He returned to Nigeria to form his own band known as Celestine Ukwu& His Music Royals of Nigeria which was later disbanded in 1967 following the outbreak of the Nigerian civil war. After the war, Ukwu formed another group, Celestine Ukwu& His Philosophers National with whom he released Igede Fantasia which did well commercially. His songs were primarily composed in Igbo language with a bit of Efik.

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Christogonus Ezebuiro Obinna , alias Dr. Sir Warrior, was the leader of the Oriental Brothers International Band which was famous in  Igbo highlife music scene for several decades. He performed primarily in Nigeria, as well as internationally in places such as London and the United States of America.

Combining Igbo vocals with deft guitar and a solid rhythm section, Warrior created a unique style of music that, for many people, is the definitive sound of highlife music. Warrior was one of the most influential musicians to come out of Igboland. He started playing the guitar in the 1960s.He always had a sense of revolution, as he created a brand of highlife that is Igbo at the core, and at the same time universal in taste. He introduced the Oyorima concept, which is an Igbo word that means a refined feeling of rhythmic movement and balance.


Though Igbo music remains very traditional, it has undergone some changes in old times. In the 60’s and 70’s a new genre of music was born called Igbo highlife. This was a fusion of traditional Igbo music and Western African highlife. It combined fast tempo Latino beats and colorful reggae, with rhythmic West African sounds. Recently, Nigerian rappers have also brought changes to the palates of the Igbo people with the infusion of hip hop, a crossover style of music that incorporates Afro-American elements and Igbo lyrics.


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