Kabaka Opara’s contributions to Nigerian music 

By Osa Mbonu-Amadi, Arts Editor

Highlife music, for which the late Godwin Kabaka Opara is known, was first brought to Nigeria in 1950 by a Ghanian musician called Emmanuel Tettey Mensah – ET Mensah for short. 

To put the record straight, it was this same Highlife music that bequeathed the present Nigerian popular music the rhythm with which it attained global acclaim. But there is a difference between the brand of highlife music Kabaka played and that which ET Mensah brought to Nigeria.

It was not long after ET Mensah brought Highlife music into Nigeria that the genre became dominated by musicians from Eastern Nigeria: E.C Arinze, Eddy Okonta, Osita Osadebe, Rex Lawson, Stephen Amaechi, Charles Iwegbue, Iyang Henshaw, Zeal Onyia, Eric Omugha, Sammy Akpabot and many others. These highlife musicians were based in Lagos and Ibadan areas. These musicians not only dominated the highlife music, but their highlife music also dominated other genres of music such as Juju.

As the Highlife music historian, Professor Austin ‘Maro Emielu, observed, “although juju was relatively behind Highlife in terms of popularity in the early 1960s in Western Nigeria, the exit of Igbo Highlife musicians created a vacuum that Juju music occupied, thus helping Juju to flourish in the post-war period.”

According to Graham (2000), “After the civil war began in the 1960s, Igbo musicians were forced out of Lagos and returned to their homeland. The result was that highlife ceased to be a major part of mainstream Nigerian music, and was thought of as being something purely associated with the Igbos of the east…. The Igbo people live in the south-east of Nigeria, and play a wide variety of folk instruments. They are known for their ready adoption of foreign styles, and were an important part of Nigerian highlife.”

The post-Civil War period (1970-1980) witnessed the spread of the new highlife sound that had been busy cooking in the East throughout the war period. Two major styles of Igbo highlife music developed: The guitar band highlife, which the new generation identifies with, and the dance band format introduced by E.T. Mensah.

While older musicians like Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Celestine Ukwu and E.C. Arinze continued to play and develop the dance band styles often characterised by the use of woodwind musical instruments (Trumpet, Saxophones, Trombones, etc.), bands like the Oriental Brothers, Prince Nico Mbarga, Ikenga Super Stars, Oliver de Coque and Muddy Ibe championed the new guitar band style.

Highlife music became a rallying point for Igbo people and the Biafran nationality generally, according to Emielu – an object of hope, encouragement, emotional release and symbol of group identity in the face of gruesome military assault and deprivation. Although the war was on, Highlife music did not cease in the East. Thus, highlife music came to play in Biafra a similar role it had played in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence.

There were inflows of Makossa, Soukous and other guitar music styles from Cameroon, Congo and Gabon into Eastern Nigeria. These East and Central African countries were sympathetic to the cause of Biafra. Their music fused with the distinct Igbo highlife music styles, giving birth to the new sound of highlife clearly discernible in the music of the Oriental Brothers which was led by Godwin Kabaka Opara, Ikenga Super Stars of Africa, Oliver de Coque, Prince Nico Mbarga, Muddy Ibe and other post-civil war Igbo Highlife musicians.

“The nation thus witnessed a new synthesis of highlife rhythms with the Congo guitar styles of Soukous and Makossa,” Emielu wrote. “This new sound became the definitive framework of Igbo Highlife after the civil war.” The flourishing of this new highlife sound in the East attracted business men who quickly set up recording studios in the East to harvest and market the growing musical wealth of the region. The most prominent recording studio that sprang up in the East after the civil war was Rogers All Stars, which recorded and released Prince Nico Mbarga’s chart-bursting Sweet Mother in 1976.

As the war-torn Eastern Nigeria became the center of the new highlife music, many Ghanaian highlife music stars such as T.O. Jazz, Amachie, Opambo and Konandus, relocated to the Eastern Nigeria, “for wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”

The Oriental Brothers International Band, perhaps, is the greatest thing that had ever happened to Igbos musically. While Prince Nico Mbarga and his Rocafil Jazz Band were purely a hybrid of Igbo highlife styles and Cameroonian Makossa, the Oriental Brothers sprouted from Igbo soil, specifically Owerri, and then slightly borrowed some East African musical elements.

Dan Satch Emeka Opara, lead guitarist (and bass player of the band until 1977 when Aloy Anyanwu came to the band and took over the bass), claims he is the founder of the Oriental Brothers International Band. But this information appears inaccurate. Kabaka’s eldest son, Jaymaxwell Paul Kabaka Jr Opara, told Vanguard, based on what his father told him, that Kabaka founded the Oriental Brothers International Band.

Kabaka Jr, who is also a guitarist, questioned the plausibility of the story that a lead and bass guitarist founded a band while another guitarist member of the band led it.

“Kabaka is a simple, talented and intelligent man that did not like troubles,” Jaymaxwell said. “He is from Umuawara Umuoye Imerienwe in Ngor-Okpala, Imo State. He is the second son in a family of many children. He attended Baptist Primary School, Imerienwe.

“Kabaka played the trumpet as a primary school pupil. After his primary education he want to Onitsha for his secondary school. He also attended a commercial secondary school in Enugu where he started his music career.

“In the early seventies, after the civil war he went to Lagos where he played with a musical group owned by Mr. Ikediala. From there, at Easygoing Hotel, he formed and led the Oriental Brothers International Band in the early twenties and released many albums before forming another band, Kabaka International Guiter Band, and another one called Imo City Band. He is survived by his children.”

Jaymaxwell Paul also told Vanguard that Derda Promotions recently signed a 3-year record deal with Kabaka. He had only released one album, “Abialam”, before he passed on last week Thursday, March 21, 2024. Jaymaxwell said he diligently served his father and his father blessed him. So, he has taken the musical baton from his father.   

Whatever may be the case, there is no controversy that the original members of the youthful highlife band were five in number – Godwin “Kabaka” Opara, leader of the band, and rhythm guitarist; Christogonus Ezebuiro “Dr. Sir Warrior” Obinna, mesmerising vocalist, later to be known as Ultimate Dr. Sir Warrior from 1993-1996; and Ferdinand “Dan Satch” Emeka Opara. The five were later joined by Livinus Akwịla Alaribe, conga and maraca player; Fred “Ichita” Ahumaraeze, drummer; and Tony Awoma.

The Oriental Brothers released their debut album, “Uwa Atualamujo/Ihe Chinyere”, in 1973 on Decca West Africa Studio label. In 1974, the band released a 6-tracker album out of which “Ihe Oma” became an instant hit and launched the Oriental Brothers into stardom. From “Ihe Oma”, it was from glory to glory until at some point, Kabaka, the leader, left to form his own band, Kabaka International Guitar Band.

Ichita and Aquila also left to form their own band, the Great Oriental Brothers International Band which was said to be a massive flop (see discog.com). Similarly, Aloy Anyanwu left too to form the State Brothers International, and finally Warrior left and formed Dr. Sir Warrior and His Oriental Brothers International Band. 

 Dr. Sir Warrior, whose golden voice had largely given the Oriental Brothers its unique identity, became the most successful of all the splintered groups. He churned out hits upon hits, including the sensational “Nwanne Awughi Enyi.”

The music of the Oriental Brothers International stirred something significant deep down the hearts of Igbos who referred to the songs as “egwu e ji eru uwa” (music that comforts the people in their life of tribulation), for after the sufferings and narrow escapes during the war, Igbo men, women, boys and girls, and even children, had to work extra hard to be alive. The songs of the Oriental Brothers have also been described as the “Crying melodies of Eastern Nigeria.”

Emielu used one phrase and one sentence that are synonyms – “…which has persisted till date” and “this trend has continued into the present” – to delineate the contribution the Igbo brand of highlife music made to contemporary Nigerian popular music, and also to show that what we know today as the sound of Nigerian popular music is largely a continuation of that fusion of Igbo highlife music, Makossa and Soukous from East Africa.

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