Bongos Ikwue: Nigeria’s greatest lyricist is back!
by Uchenna Ikonne
Extensive lip service is paid to the notion of the nineteen seventies as a kind of golden age for Nigerian popular music, but in reality they exist as something of a lost age. Yes, it is widely (though vaguely) understood that the decade played host to a firmament of radiant and prolific song stars, but the actual names of most of these stars and the melodies they purveyed have been lost to the tides of cultural amnesia. And so the tragedy is that references to One World, The Elcados, Dangerous Samaila & the Space Kids, Founders 15 and Yom-Yem Kombination are greeted with blank stares from the average Nigerian, the once-wildly popular work of these former music luminaries having long since gone out of print and thus, out of mind.
However, to merely hum pop ditties like Still Searching, Sitting on the Beach, Mariama or Cock Crow at Dawn to the same aggregate of Nigerians is to induce tentative humming in stereo, likely followed by an impassioned sing-along, and finally by an inquiry as to whatever happened to the man who wrote them, Bongos Ikwue.
Bongos Ikwue disappeared from the music scene in the early eighties at the height of his popularity, but his lyrically evocative songs have continued to live on in the collective Nigerian psyche (as well as in the Nigerian market, where they have enjoyed frequent reissues over the years). Having spent the past thirty years establishing himself as a captain of industry in manufacturing and construction, Ikwue recently launched his comeback to music with a new band and a new album, Wulu Wulu.
Uchenna Ikonne (the one-man encyclopedia of Nigerian music) caught up with the reclusive tunesmith to talk about the beauty of music, the harm caused by religion, that rumor about him and a former First Lady, and to find out why Bongos says he is satisfied with life and is no longer searching.
How did you become interested in expressing yourself through music?
I was born a chronic stammerer. That runs in my family. My second daughter stutters, my last daughter stutters. My late brother was a stammerer. When I was much younger than I am now, I got into a lot of fights because of this—but I lost them all! I wasn’t too physical, so every fight I got into, I’d get beaten. So I told myself I must learn to speak instead of fight. I was a stammerer but a stammerer can always sing, you know?
I took a lot of pleasure in singing to myself. It was a way to escape, since I couldn’t get up and speak in public because people would jeer at me.
I can’t say the year I started singing, but my mother remembers that when I was a little boy I would always sit at the back of the house and sing to myself.
And then of course when I got to primary school, there were three friends of mine who used to sing with me and clown around. But it was in secondary school that I started writing my own songs and singing at house parties and dorm parties.
Where did you go to secondary school?
I went to St. Paul’s College in Zaria. It was a mission school, and that was where I was baptized with the name “Emmanuel,” but I felt insulted that some foreign religion should come and change our names. So I dropped the name Emmanuel and I became “Bongos.”
Were you born in the North?
No, I was born in Otukpo, in Benue State [in Mideastern Nigeria], and that is where I am right now as we speak. I am an Idoma by tribe, and I went to primary school here in Otukpo, and then in Jos before I attended secondary school in Zaria.
St. Paul’s College was run by the British missionaries. Our motto was Christus lapis angularis—“Christ is our cornerstone.” That was the kind of background I came out of. We were taught Bible Knowledge, blah blah blah, all of that. A lot of our teachers were English, a few Scots… And when we took exams, we had our papers marked in England, at Cambridge, and sent back, so it was almost like schooling abroad while in Nigeria. I was there from the year 1957 until 1961.
So you left high school in 1961, and that was the year that the pop and rock n’ roll music scene in Nigeria started taking off?
Oh yes. I had already been playing in secondary school. They gave me all kinds of nicknames, like “Forge” because I could make up my own songs. My other schoolmates used to sing from record songbooks that transcribed the lyrics of foreign pop songs, but I wouldn’t do that. I’d rather look at the school and write something about the school. Later when I was at university, my most popular songs were called The Meal Ticket and Katanga, which was the name of the female hostel. That song was about the fact that I thought Katanga was too far from the male hostel! [laughs]. So I was always more interested in looking around me and writing what I thought was relevant about my environment. I didn’t play guitar at that time, but I would just stand up and sing about what was going on in school.
I understand that while you were at St. Paul’s you were in a group called the Kubana Boys?
Well, the Kubana Boys was in my sixth form, which was at Okene-Provincial Secondary School. There were three of us, and we wrote songs and sang. And a very dramatic thing did happen: you know, they would come all the way from Kaduna, the Ministry of Information, to show us films about Britain and the Queen, the beefeaters and all those Movietone newsreels. But one day the students opted to listen to me sing rather than to watch the film show. They preferred that I entertain them with my songs! That was a great turning point for me. So they gave me a microphone for the first time, and I was holding what I thought was a great mic, and me and the Kubana Boys sang.
From Okene, I went to Ahmadu Bello University to study Electrical Engineering but at the end of my second year, I left. I didn’t graduate. I was permanently rebellious! But while I was there, I formed the Unibello Brothers band.
Were you still just a singer at this time, or had you started playing the guitar?
Yeah, I played the guitar in university if you want to call what I did “playing.” I played the guitar. I didn’t play good guitar. Even today, I don’t play good guitar. I don’t have that talent, but I learned enough chords to be able to write my songs. But at university I played guitar and sang.
So where did you go when you left school?
When I left school, I found myself in a band in Kaduna called Bongos & the Rooftoppers because we played on the rooftop of the Hamdala Hotel.
What happened was that some British man saw me perform on television, RKTV in Kaduna; his name was Peter Stratton. He called the TV station and made contact with me. He said, “Bongos, I wish I could manage you, but I don’t have the time, I don’t have the money. But I can do something for you.” So he would gather his wife’s friends every Saturday and cook for them, and I would sing for them for one hour. That helped me a lot, because I got tired of singing the same songs, so I had to constantly come up with new ones to keep them entertained. I wrote a lot of songs during that period, and I dedicated the song Mariama to him and his wife. That was a song that was in the style of Harry Belafonte.
Didn’t you do a stint with the pop group The Reasons while you were in Kaduna?
The Reasons? Oh, no, no, no! In Kaduna in my time—those were wonderful happy times, with beautiful competition, you know—there were about seven different bands in Kaduna and the Reasons were the band set up by the air force. There were the Reasons, Bongos & the Rooftoppers, Pat Natson & the Expensives, Dangerous Samaila and his group, and a few others. We were all very friendly and competitive.
A lot of people today would probably be surprised to find out that there was such a vibrant pop scene in the North considering that nowadays, Northern Nigerian is most often associated with extreme Islamic conservatism.
A lot of people don’t know anything about the North. In fact, they don’t even know Nigeria. The North was a wonderful, peaceful country where Muslims and Christians coexisted. The nightclubs overflowed every night in Kaduna and we didn’t know anything about separate groups called “Muslims” or “Christians.” Like I said, there were seven or eight active bands in town.
Chubby Checker came to play in Kaduna in those years. James Brown came to play. I remember standing right next to him and something happened and it was like, James Brown was in tears. His wife was a half-caste and one of the boys walked up to him and—I remember this clearly—the boy walks up to him and says, “Soul Brother Number One, how come your wife is white?” And James Brown was in tears, he said “No, she ain’t white! She ain’t white! SHE AIN’T WHITE!” [laughs]. But what did we know in those days? Any half-caste was white to us! And the boys were so disappointed; they expected his wife to be black because he sang “I’m Black and Proud.” [laughs]
So you were with the Rooftoppers… Was this group made up of the same personnel who ended up in the Groovies?
No, the Rooftoppers was very different from the Groovies. The Groovies was when I moved to Lagos.
“Together We’ll Groove the World”
Why did you go to Lagos if Kaduna was booming?
I get tired of things very quickly. I think I became too popular in Kaduna, so the town became small. I asked myself, “Is there any more to do in this town?” I decided to try something else. I decided to quit music and to seek employment. So I went to try to get a regular job with Nigerian Breweries in Kaduna. Now here’s what happened: I attended the interview, I think there was a panel of about five people — two expatriates and three Nigerians. They asked me the question: “Why would you want to work for Nigerian Breweries?” Here was my answer: “The only reason I would like to work for Nigerian Breweries is because I think you have a lot of money to pay me? But the moment that I think you can’t pay me all that money anymore, I’ll be the first one to leave.” [laughs]
I was just saying that because I didn’t really care about the job. But then they actually gave me the job! The moment I got that offer letter, I decided to pack my bags and get out of Kaduna because I knew then that I never wanted a regular job.
I moved to Jos, and I found myself broke after just two weeks! So I moved to Lagos where I had a very hard time starting all over. It was there that I met my wife, but it was a hard time. No money… no recognition.
Were you still playing music at this time?
Oh yeah! That’s all I’ve ever done. In Lagos, at that time, I was playing at the Peacock nightclub at the Eko Le Meridien Hotel, and also at the Federal Palace Hotel. I became the resident band at both of those places.
It was around this time that Ginger Baker, the drummer from the English rock group Cream, built a recording studio in Lagos and began to work with local musicians there. I believe you were actually the first artist signed to his Associated Recording Company. How did you end up connecting with him?
Okay, I don’t know what happened! I heard he was in town and… That was in the seventies, right?
Yeah, this must have been 1972 or 73.
Yes, I did my first recording at Ginger Baker’s studio, the ARC Studio in Ikeja. That was called You Can’t Hurry the Sunrise. Either I had heard about him or he had heard about me… I don’t know what happened. Lagos was not very big at that time. [laughs] We young people were moving all over the place, and we met him and his engineer. They liked what they heard from me and decided to record me. That was how it started.
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