Lady of Songs, Essien-Igbokwe in eyes of the critic
THE example of Christy Essien Igbokwe sufficiently explains the enormity of a confused musical identity and the lack of definite sense of direction in which the foreign influence takes precedence. But ironically she created one of the biggest, most remarkable post civil war highlife hits for which she should be remembered- an evergreen called Seun Rere.
Even though the backing session was smooth and lacking in the percussive dynamics and palm wine guitar progressions that characterised the highlife of that era, it was seen as an innovation, a modern interpretation that needed to be fully exploited by a producer with foresight and the flair for the profession. But from the way it faded out of the scene without a follow-up, it was clear that it came by accident and without any serious conviction.
And yet, it was capable of assuming the popularity index of Sweet Mother which came for Prince Nico Mbarga of Rocafil Jazz in 1976. In his own case, he was down to earth. He proved sufficiently that he was part of the whole cultural expression and dynamics that characterised the hit song. Rather than follow up, Essien and her producer were more interested in foreign pop idioms, which the singer imitated to a fault. She was not well directed by whoever was the producer despite the potentials that Seun Rere as a hit demonstrated for a profitable and productive sense of direction.
Part of these potentials were demonstrated by the song's placing on the then Top Ten chart organised at the time by Radio Nigeria 2, situated in the 80s at 45, Martins Street, Lagos. It hit the number one slot on release and went to number 2 the next month-a good movement for a nice record in the midst of the stiff competition that prevailed at the time. The artiste and her producer wished it remained at the number one slot forever as if they were capable of controlling the mood of the record-buying public.
It would have been understandable if the interest of the artiste in this bid was for Seun Rere as highlife that demonstrated all the good elements of a good song. They should perhaps have been justified if they themselves believed in the melodic inventiveness that Seun Rere paraded. Their wishes would perhaps have been reasonable if this reaction was because of the wonderful lyrical lines and message that Seun Rere as a song paraded. But sad to relate, their preference was for Ever Liked My Person, an imitative pop song that merely distorted the image of the singer.
Her interest in foreign pop music was later further demonstrated by a backing outfit called "Soul Train" established as a permanent session unit. Given the abundant talent that the session men possessed; and the financial capability of Essien to maintain and sustain a band at the time that even the biggest hit makers of that period such as Chris Okotie and Felix Lebarty relied on session men and solo acts, she should have made it. But because of the ill-advised sense of direction, their energies were misplaced. They should have done better, playing Nigerian and African music. Essien's name would have been down in Nigerian music history today, the way the late Nelly Uchendu and Comfort Omoge wrote theirs boldly on it.
Essien had every reason to get to the top. She had acting as an added qualification to boost her career in music. She was very well liked by television viewers of the Masquerade, which took the air as a net work programme on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). She was loved by all on this programme because she was down to earth. She was herself, communicating in Yoruba and Pidgin English. She also interpreted scripts that portrayed local situations that identified with our cultural expression. But in music she was groomed to sound like Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, two top female stars who have since paid their dues on the American pop scene.
What Essien's producer failed to realise was that these two musicians made it on their own musical turf and culture which they found easy to give full expression to. Ross emerged from the Supremes, the group, to go solo. Like Aretha Franklin and Natale Cole, these two stars have continued to mature in their chosen musical careers from the Motown sound and Country music to jazz.
However, Essien has had several albums to her credit with a recording career that began from Anodisc with Paul Akalonu as producer in the Eastern part of Nigeria. She recorded for Decca as well as skylark, the recording stable established by Chief Aboderin's Punch Newspapers in those days. But perhaps her greatest achievement is the creation of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) which is traceable to her and her husband.
She was in the premises of EMI Records at Oregun when the Diamond 3, a highlife group from Ghana narrated their encounter with The Ghana Musicians Union to ace producer Odion Iraoje and the authorities of the company.
The Diamond 3 got stranded in Ghana when they visited their country to collect materials for their second album, having previously released a successful one which was recorded in Lagos, Nigeria, big EMI Records. They were stranded because they could not find money to travel back to Lagos. But they were bailed out of this situation by joining the union in Accra which eventually paid them a huge sum of money as mechanical rights from the sales of their records. This was the story that spurred Christy Essien and her husband to form PMAN.
Even though reduced to a mere "association" because it was not allowed to exist as a union unless it was affiliated to an existing union of Radio and Television Workers (RATAWU), it has served some useful purpose, depending on the leadership.