Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Highlife Music Never Died ­-Toni Omeoga

Toni Omeoga
Toni Omoega, the host of Highlife Time on Peace FM Jos is an exciting man. He has an extensive knowledge of the things he cherishes and has an extraordinary ability to retain minute details with pin-point accuracy. Recently he got me excited on a Sunday afternoon while on air, when he made a reference to his meeting with Sir Warrior, the leader of the Nigerian Highlife music band, the Oriental Brothers, at Warrior’s house in Owerri Imo State. I then decided to meet with Toni. Through mobile phone communication, I was able to meet him two hours later. 
Toni welcome me to his family house in the neighborhood of Old Bukuru Park in Jos. He wore an ash-colored mini kaftan with the top ending just above the knee. He had a sprouting hair shave, tall, moderately fair and remarkably slim. His eyes peered from behind strong lenses. The layered voice appeared controlled.
Toni’s ancestral home is a place called Usukwato in Abia State in the Southeast of Nigeria. He, however, was born and raised in the tin city and grew up seeing the era of Disco, Night Clubs and break dance that added color to the culture in the city. In the end he still held on to what was truly Nigerian, Highlife Music.
 He went to St. Theresa Primary School, St.  John’s College, the University of Jos and the Institute of Journalism, all in the city of Jos.  He became popular with the launch of the FM band of Plateau Radio and Television (PRTV) Jos, when he became one of its pioneer presenters in 1988. His romance with the corporation however stretches back into the early eighties when he wrote scripts for a show that was known as the Theatre of the Air. If Nollywood were to be a drum of water, then Toni must have added a few drops. This is because he acted out some of the scripts he wrote, which were aired both on radio and television. Remember, Jos laid the foundation for Nollywood in the eighties and the first movie in Nigeria, Palaver, was short in Jos in 1904.
Until the last decade, radio air time in Nigeria has always been dominated by Western music. Hence persons presenting Highlife and Juju music were major exponents of Nigerian music before the last decade. Consequently, Toni’s status as the leading presenter of Nigerian music on air served as a bridge that linked him to Nigerian music artistes most of whom resided in the South of the country. The circumstance led him to become a music promoter not only in Jos but in the whole of central Nigeria as a whole. Thus he has been responsible for the live performances of about a score of shows in Jos that brought in artistes that included Sir Warrior, Bright Chimezie, Oliver De Coque, Maxwell Udo, Ras Kimono down to later generation of artistes that included Daddy Showcase, Tony Tetuila, Paul Play, The Remedies, Shotgun, Aladin, etcetera. Some of these shows where organized in collaboration with one of the biggest names in the industry, Edi Lawani, whom Toni considers his mentor.
The opinion of Toni regarding the status of Highlife is that it never died, contrary to what a lot of people believe. Toni says that Highlife has always been there because we cannot run away from it. This is because it is the reflection of the culture of the people and as long as the culture remains, it will always define the music. The worst that can happen is for the music to evolve to reflect the culture which is gradually evolving with modernity. The veteran presenter did not forget to mention the fact that the home of Highlife was actually in the Lagos in the Southwest of the country but moved to the East with the eruption of the war in the mid sixties. Highlife moved with the eastern population at a time when another genre of music, Juju, was on the rise to engage fellow musicians that were left behind in the West.
 The corporation that has made Toni popular, the PRTV, has been a source of pride to music fans in Jos from the seventies down to the mid nineties due to the role it played towards giving the city and the state a brilliant reputation in the eyes of visitors. At the peak of its rise, the corporation was a leading tourist attraction that even the authorities were not aware of. Eventually, the extraordinary presenters were stolen by other media organization across the country. A lot of music fans in Plateau State now believe that the corporation is a mare relic of its status at its peak in the late eighties. Toni insists that the corporation has been able to retain that reputation till today. Back then, according him, there was room for improvement despite the superlative performance. Today, it is still the same, he maintained.
Entertainment, whether it came from radio, television, the night clubs or concert halls in Jos, was meant to add value to life in the city as it is elsewhere. I asked Toni how he saw the city today compared to how it was in the past. His impression is that, when everything is taken into consideration, Jos, back in the days, was miles ahead of what it is today. You don’t know the worth of what you have until it is gone. That confidence of walking without looking over your shoulders is gone. The brotherhood is gone and the feeling of security is gone with it. You cannot move freely and cannot have the shows. The men in uniform have also compounded the situation. Whenever there is a show, they come around to use force to introduce fans and put the money into their own pockets, making the promoter to incur financial losses.
Toni who comes from a family of eight siblings, all born and raised in Jos, appears very proud of the city and has refused to leave despite bids from several radio stations across the country.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

China’s Search of a Global Music Hit

Chinese Flag
After installing a DSTV decoder I was told by a friend that should my subscription expire and I cannot pay immediately, I should remember that the Chinese are very generous. The implication is that I will find Chinese channels for free until I am able to pay my subscription. That is how I came to discover Chinese Central Television, CCTV and fell in love with the English Channel. One show that I watched only two times and fell in love with is the show, Crossover.  In addition to other issues, they also discuss issues that are close to my heart and happened to be my niche, music. On crossover edition of October 30th, the host discussed “Gangnam Style craze.” Gangnam Style is a song by a Korean Pop musician by the name of PSY who shot to global fame after the song was let loose to global music fans, July 15th this year. While I watched the show, I waited for a question I knew will definitely come. The question of “why hasn’t China got such a global hit?” The same question was asked on Dialogue, another program on CCTV English.
One thing that we all know is that the soul of the world is in the West. Whatever you do must be endorsed by the West before it can be said to have truly found global success. This means that a lot of endeavors have found hidden success in the sense that they succeeded elsewhere except in the West and just passed out without the ovation. The originator may have found money or whatever he set out to find but, still, his effort was not successful by Western standard. There is a good chance such a person will, within himself, have only partial fulfillment as a result.
The question is why is it so? I think that the West has a lot of pride in their culture and values. It would not endorse anything that failed to meet its standard. The rest of the world, on the other hand, has accepted this principle of appraisal. You see this by the universal appeal of Western Culture. Bright Chimezie, a Nigerian Highlife musician sang in one of his songs that he went to a Disco party and requested for an African song. The result was that people laughed and called him Okoro Junior, another way of referring to him as uncivilized. If you want to produce a music record that will be a global hit, then you must make compromises by knocking off certain elements of your own culture and replacing them with Western equivalents. This is what PSY did. His song, Gangnam Style is a fusion of Techno, Rap, humor, exotic dance and Korean elements. The song may not have made the kind of success it made without the internet, however. For the music to be heard in the West, radio and TV presenters must agree to play it in their shows. It is the only way their fans can hear it. The internet effectively cuts out the presenters from the equation. The implication now is that a song can make it whether or not presenters give their support. Canadian Justin Bieber, for instance, was discovered not by radio play but through YouTube.
In-as- much as the West places a lot of pride in their values, the East also does. The difference however, it that Chinese culture has not travelled far and wide like Western culture. The Chinese Government knows that getting people around the world to understand their culture is a sin qua non for the overall progress of China and not just in the arts. The Chinese Government is already doing this in many ways that I have seen. Ordinary Chinese understand that their nation is growing faster than other nations in many areas but wonder why they cannot have a global hit like Gangnam Style.
Some people don’t support throwing away all of their cultural elements in desperation for success. Even PSY would not support that. It is the reason why there are still elements of his native country, Korea, in Gangnam Style. The truth is that there are Chinese pop artistes that have made moderate infusion of Western elements in their records, making hits that are better than Gangnam Style but have not found its level of success. With that kind of population, that is just possible in some corners of the vast nation.  On the other hand, there are Western hits that are better than Gangnam Style that have not received the kind of views it has enjoyed. To a large extent, the success of Gangnam Style has also been influenced by the luck factor. It was drawn to my attention because many people are talking about it. Radio stations are however not even playing it in my own corner of the world in Africa compared to many American songs that have not found the kind of hits it has enjoyed online.
Juju and Highlife genres of music originated in the Southwestern and Southeastern parts of Nigeria respectively and found popularity around the world in the seventies down to the eighties. They were conservative mixes of Western elements into Nigerian folk music of the regions they originated from. The popularity they found cannot however be compared with the popularity of today’s pop music from Nigeria as played by artistes like Tuface, D’banj, P-Square, brackets and the others. These Nigerian contemporary music acts are so popular that they collaborate with big names like Snoop Dogg, Akon, Rick Ross and many others from the US. The difference between their works and those of their grandparents that played Highlife and Juju is that, to a larger extent, they have compromised the Nigerian elements, replacing them with American equivalents. The music is done purely for economic gains and getting closer to a culture they cherish rather than for promoting domestic culture.
To a remarkable degree, I feel that politics has also played a decisive responsibility towards the making of Gangnam Style. You may not find support in the West if governments over there don’t buy your political trajectory. Endorsing you could amount to endorsing a political ideology they don’t buy. The fans in the West are, of course, allegiant to their governments who are the custodian of their values. As a result, your government must be in the good books of the West for your music to make it in the West. One way out is to sing songs of condemnation against your authorities, just like the Pussy Cats.
Fundamentally however, music should be very original and within the cultural perspective that majority of music fans can relate to. Furthermore, the music should find good publicity. With the internet, it could be said that the barrier of publicity has become easier to overcome. It means that we should be able to see more hits like Gangnam Style in the months and years to come.
Yiro Abari is the author of HOW TO BECOME A MUSIC MAESTRO

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Created in the Image of God

Just like many other processes, music evolution has its merits and shortcomings. When music evolves, it moves away from its past, from stagnation and boredom. This is the good side of music evolution. Sometimes however, music could be too hasty in moving ahead such that the fans continue to look backwards with longing.

Roots and Culture reggae, as played by Bob Marley and the other countrymen of his time, is one genre of music that was hastily thrown into the archives. That was a mistake that is currently vindicated by the continued embrace of the genre by later generation of music fans. Roots and culture has today found itself in the category of music that is referred to as classical.

The prominence of Roots and Culture over its current derivatives can be seen in the distinction it gave the small and otherwise inconspicuous Caribbean Island nation of Jamaica where it originated and travelled out to remote corners of our planet, conquering it in the process. The grandeur of this style of music also made people like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Eric Donaldson, Jimmy Cliff and the others who played it, demigods. Persons who play whatever is today an offspring of Reggae in Jamaica cannot boast of the reverence with which makers of Roots and Culture were held.

People who favor the bearing Reggae Music has taken today argue that the protest and confrontational temperament of Roots and Culture is old-fashioned and should not have a place in our contemporary planet. What is obvious however is that it has remained a genre of music that later generations of music fans have continued to go head-over-heels in love with the moment they discover it.

I know a man who, between the seventies and eighties, stayed in New York, the Mecca of showbiz of our planet. While in New York, he was at different times able to watch the shows of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Eric Donaldson. At the time that each of these reggae acts came to town, it was “like,” according to him, “God was in town.” This statement to me was a simile taken too far until i listen to “Rastafari Is” and a version of “Equal Rights” all by Peter Tosh. In these songs, there is something in his voice that seems to suggest that the messages were handed down from heaven. There is also the vocal awesomeness of Eric Donaldson and Bob Marley’s peculiar creativeness and his character of a rude boy and pastor in one. I am now able to see through the eyes of the former New Yorker.

Gen 1:27: God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Reggae Misunderstood

Reggae Symbol
It is ironic that an avid reggae fan as me does not attend Marley Day celebration in my city, every year it comes round. My reason is the fear of the expected disorderliness at such a show as many misunderstand Reggae. One is sure that at such venues, people with the impression that reggae is an excuse for lunacy will dance uncontrollably until they bump into you from right, left and center thereby causing a fight. Prevention is better than cure. I think about that and stay at home.
Reggae is misunderstood by a diverse social spectrum. During one of the Marley Day anniversaries, the family of the late Reggae King invited different artist from around the world. Each of the invited artists performed a chosen song of the Bob Marley. I watched how American singer and song writer, Chrissie Hynde make a cartoon of her frail-looking body by insisting on dancing reggae-wise. I also always observe how youths in my neighborhood with Reggae music ambition crash out for misunderstanding Reggae by talking like drunks in their music projects. To the potential fan, this is irresponsible and unacceptable.
Sister Chrissie Hynde, to me, justs bordered herself as the place of reggae is never a place of captivity. Rather, it is a place of freedom, which happens to be one of the fundamental philosophies of reggae music.
The great men of Reggae music demonstrated this liberty in the splendor of their works. Bob Marley often demonstrated his regality and his amazing personality that personifies a pastor and the Rude Boy in one. There was Peter Tosh with that thing in his voice that leaves you acknowledging that, truly, he is a messenger from Jah. One cannot fail to perceive Mutabaruka’s chastisement of men who refuse to belief in the equality of man. Don Carlos is always emphasizing the reality of Zion and what one must do to ensure he gets there. Then there is the cool Max Romeo and his blissful controversies and the Burning Spear reminding all black people of their African ancestry regardless of where they may be.
Reggae acknowledges that uniqueness is intrinsic and that it is that very resource that has sustained the culture itself. It believes in the emancipation of oneself from mental slavery thereby allowing your inherent identity to show and make the world a better place. So when next one attends a Bob Marley memorial, he should remember to be himself thereby allowing others to opportunity to have the best of fun.