In one of my last posts, I acknowledged that a lot of the Nigerian pop of my youth probably does not travel well (particularly for those who did not experience it at the time of its release). The artist who came into my mind as the absolute epitome of this phenomenon was Onyeka Onwenu--which is a bit ironic given that if there's one Nigerian musician who was pretty much designed to cross over, it was Onyeka. She had clout back in the day--she was recording albums in London in the late 80s when nobody else was still doing that; she was inking international deals; she could be seen in magazines hobnobbing with The Eurhythmics, Rita Marley and Don Cornelius; she was viewed as one of the nation's cultural and artistic ambassadors.
Despite all this, as the interest in Nigerian pop music of the 1970s and 80s grows, a sister can't get no kind of love. I know avid collectors who boast an impressive knowledge of Nigerian music, and yet they have never heard of Onyeka. On the rare occasion that Onyeka's albums pop up in the record market, you can't give them away. (I once saw an eBay seller offering lots of 4 Onyeka records for $9.99 and they still went unsold!)
Quite understandable, though. The fact is, for the most part, Onyeka Onwenu's music does not offer any of the qualities that a lot of people look for in Nigerian or African pop music: It largely is neither rootsy nor "cultural," neither funky nor boogied-out, not "hot" or sexy, not even quirky or awkward enough to qualify as an oddball curiosity. Even when she performs folk songs, the glossy, somewhat frigid production and the overly mannered and tasteful arrangements render them--like a good deal of her repertoire--anodyne MOR schlock.
Still, Nigerians love her, myself included.
I remember when she first came on the scene in 1981: I saw her on TV performing the Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back," looking very self-possessed and chic and modern with that low-cut hair and whatnot... The girl had some serious spunk. She was a part of that new generation of female singers that included Dora Ifudu, Martha Ulaeto and Oby Onyioha (with whom Onyeka Onwenu was sometimes confused because of the analogous alliteration of their appellations; while they soon they soon distinguished themselves apart, when singer Oby Nwankwo came on the scene a few years later, Ms. Onyioha was again dealing with the mistaken identity blues!). Onyeka managed to outlast them all, though, and established herself as THE First Lady of Nigerian Music (more so than even Nigeria's Lady of Songs™, Christy Essien-Igbokwe).
I'm going to steal from my man Ike Chime a Radio Nigeria interview he conducted with Ms. Onwenu circa 1986, in which she discusses, among other things, how she got into the music biz through a meeting with Sonny Okosuns (who produced her debut). You can listen to it HERE.
And from that first album, I think my favorite song was her version of Okosuns' hit "Help":
Onyeka Onwenu - "Help"
By the way, I only recently learned (thanks to reader Da Hurricane Man) about this song's legacy of controversy.
While Okosuns had enjoyed moderate popularity in the 1960s and early 70s with the beat groups The Postmen and Paperback Limited, he only achieved major success with the 1974 release of the Odion Iruoje-produced Ozziddizm LP. Unlike the "copyright" material that Okosuns had previously trafficked in, the album featured a new style--deep, Monomono-style afro-rock and lyrics drawn from Bini folklore and delivered in a declamatory style, as found on songs such as "O'Jesu" and "Adesua."
But stylistically, one song on the album stood out from all the others: the gently melodic, earnestly articulated quasi-reggae groover "Help"
Sonny Okosuns - "Help"
and this turned out to be the one song that really broke Okosuns, that truly endeared him to the fans and generated a store of goodwill amongst audiences that he is still riding today.
Unfortunately, soon after the song became a success, allegations surfaced that Okosuns had actually stolen the song from another singer, and those allegations have never fully gone away. A lot of people are inclined to believe that Okosuns did in fact steal "Help" since it sounds so different from the rest of the album and just about everything else he recorded afterwards. Personally, I'm torn because while it differs from the standard Sonny Okosuns sound, it's not that dissimilar to some of the other more lyrical material he would later write for Onyeka and Yvonne Maha.
Renowned Nigerian music historian Benson Idonije addressed the controversy last year in a feature in the Guardian newspaper that included some recollections from Iruoje:
At the time he got to sign on to EMI in the early 70s, according to Iruoje, Okosuns was copying "all these European pop. But I thought I had to do something more authentic. He could not sing well in English.Now when I first read this piece, I'll admit that Iruoje's account made little sense to me: Okosuns couldn't write lyrics in English and so he needed someone to translate "Help" for him? But if he originally wrote the song in his native Ishan language, why would he call on Igbos like Dan Ian of Wrinkars Experience and Perry Ernest to translate it?
"I advised Okosuns to go to his village for some folklores and he eventually came up with 'O Jesu' which was a success." The implication was that Okosuns was more at home with his native songs than European idioms which were obviously problematic for him to sing. Okosuns and his producer both settled for this direction, a format which instructed that his songs should be selected from folklores from the village.
However, Okosuns' next composition was not in anyway different, it turned out to be another one in the conventional pop direction; and was titled 'Help': "When he came up with 'Help,' I found that he still didn't do justice to it in terms of the translation that we agreed upon. I then told him he could not sing it even though it was a good song. I preferred Danny Anyiam [sic] of 'Fuel for Love' fame who had already proved himself a good singer with the Wrinkers [sic] Experience group." Continuing, Odion further explained: "Okosun did not like the choice of Dan Anyiam for fear that he would claim ownership of the song. But he settled for a friend of his called Perry Ernest who was coming from Ivory Coast at the time." According to him, "Perry Ernest arrived on the day of the recording, and, despite the fact that he rehearsed the song right there in the studio, he was able to give it good vocal delivery, with back up vocals by Dan Anyiam. 'Help' was not only a hit, it also turned out to be the song that made Okosuns."
However, the fears that Okosuns entertained in the case of Dan Anyiam became justified with Perry Ernest whom he thought he trusted. Perry eventually claimed the ownership of the song. The information was given wide publicity by the press, but it was Odion who later came to Okosuns' rescue, to refute it.
At that point Okosuns seriously learnt to sing in English and the immediate result was 'Rain' which was also an instant hit. After that came 'Papa's Land' with melodic structure based on the folklore of Ishan people. And it was at this point that the name of the band became Ozzidi [sic] and the concept, Ozzidism [sic].
But in the time that it took me to copy and paste the text right now, I looked at it again and I realized that what Iruoje actually says is that Okosuns had a hard time singing in English and he needed another singer to translate--or rather, interpret--the song vocally. Therefore, Perry Ernest performed the lead vocals on the tune.
(This actually makes sense to me, as I never thought the voice on "Help" sounded anything like the Sonny Okosuns I knew, but I chalked it up to him being considerably younger and greener at the time.)
After the controversy, Perry embarked upon a relatively obscure solo career with his band, Afro Vibrations. I'm told that he still performs today and he still plays "Help."
I know I have at least one of his records in the crates... I'll fish it out later and compare the voices.
(Deinma, I know I still owe you some Sunny Okosuns music, by the way... I've been trying to put together a big tribute post to him, especially since he's been in poor health lately.)