TRIBUTE TO NICO MBARGA OF SWEET MOTHER
ONE of the biggest hits to come from Africa in years is Sweet Mother created by Prince Nico Mbarga and his Rocafil Jazz. A regional hit and one of the last gasps of Nigerian highlife, it came in 1976 when big band highlife had already given way to guitar highlife developed out of local blues and palm wine styles.
Actually, as the big band era gradually came to an end with the Rambles Dance Band of Ghana fronted by Jerry Hansen being its last torch beaker, the Nigeria bands which came to light were the Ikenga Super Stars, The Oriental Brothers, The PeaCocks, The Imo Brothers International, The African System Orchestra. But when Prince Nico Mbarnga added his voice with the seminal hit whose rhythms were more agitated than typical highlife, he popularized and established the orchestral configuration modeled on Congo-Zairean formations of three guitars, bass and drums with the element of Makosa creeping in from Cameroon where in fact Nico's paternal side belongs.
As is usual with popular hits, Nico found it difficult convincing the multinational recording companies of the 70s -- EMI, Decca and Philips to sign him on and sponsor the project. He went round all of them and was told that the music was faceless and lacking in any substance that would recommend it for popular acceptance. It was Rodgers, a private label owner in far away Onitsha who finally reluctantly accepted to record Nico.
And even when it was released, the record did not enjoy promotional push on radio and the publication imprint. It was popular in local disco joints where it compelled almost everybody to the dance floor when it was played. It was one of these scenarios that convinced me that it was a hit.
I then went out to buy a copy which I played regularly as presenter and producer on the then Radio Nigeria 2. Letters kept pouring in, asking for the label and number for it to be purchased. It began to attract almost half of all the request cards in request programes. That was the beginning of Sweet Mother's popularity.
All the songs in the album, All stars ASALPS6 are equally brilliant but the overwhelming popularity of Sweet Mother which incidentally is the title theme has not allowed for the appreciation of such hits as Aki Special, Christiana, and Wayo In law which were also composed and vocally projected by Nico Mbarga himself.
Highlife was already on the decline and in fact the younger audience considered highlife absolute at the time of release, but Nico who played Congolese style guitar and sang in pidgin English was keen on revitalizing highlife for mass appeal.
He was also bent on creating a pan-African identity for his music which he called panko. "It is not entirely highlife." he once said, "but it's a blend of some Zaire, Cameroon, Nigerian background which means I am trying to introduce African culture into it." Continuing, he said, "For instance I cannot come and play reggae or pop which is not our line, not our tradition."
Nico grew up in Cross River State of Nigeria and straddled the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. His father was a cameroonian, and during the Nigerian civil war, the entire family fled back to Western Cameroon. There, Nico continued his musical career with the group, Melody Orchestra where in fact, he put the final polish to his musicianship.
He had already started playing xylophone and conga at school. Calabar is noted for nurturing and grooming most of Nigerians great instrumentalists in their early formative years. But the Melody Orchestra afforded him the opportunity to play the kit drums, bass and guitar which eventually became his customary instrument.
In 1972, after the Nigerian Civil War, Nico was back to the country, playing at Plaza Hotel in Onitsha. The following year, he released his first hit single; and then in 1976, the turning point came with Sweet Mother, the smash success which provided the momentum to see him through to the eighties.
In 1983 however, Nico became one of the first musicians to introduce African music to a new generation of European listeners. Ambrose Campbell and his West African Rhythm Brothers had previously popularised highlife in Britain through developing multi-cultural fusions with musicians from various parts of the world. This was in the 50s, but the generation of 70s found something new in Sweet Mother which emphasized the connection between his lively pop style and the traditional roots. "In Nigeria as well as the rest of Africa we have a lot of tradition," he once said, "In 500,000 years to come, our culture will remain the same and it needs to be cultivated. We need to activate our natural resources musically. There is so much."
Claiming to have been cheated in business matters with regards to payment of royalties from a seminal hit whose proceeds were not in anyway commensurate with the volume of records sold, Nico decided to set-up his own record label. He never came close to the success of Sweet Mother and out of frustration, he lapsed into semi-retirement as the proprietor of two hotels, one of which he named Sweet Mother - until his death.