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.