I was born in Calabar and my first musical impression comes from there. I listen to the Efik inhabitants. and lgbo settlers there. And of course you know, in that area they play a lot of drum.
—Bayo Martins—biographical interview by Wolfgang Bender of The Music Foundation, Nigeria
That's our heritage here on Copia. Through our father, Linus Ogbuji, we're from Umunakanu, near Owerri (Igbo area). Through our mother, Margaret Ogbuji, we're from Ikot Ana (Umon area), about 50km from Calabar (Efik area) with which our family has strong ties (I, Uche, was born there). The strong ties between Calabar area peoples and Igbo peoples are just as Mr. Martins describes, and in music it's a very interesting combination, as shown by the Igbo/Efik grounding of the late Prince Nico Mbarga, one of Africa's greatest musicians (despite the tragedy of his early death). Prince Nico is best known for Sweet Mother, the biggest African hit ever, and still one of the best-known songs throughout the continent.
Mom and Dad (Mom especially) introduced us to Prince Nico's music even while we were living in the US, before returning to Nigeria, where we found ourselves amazed at the diversity of musical styles from Nigeria alone, never mind all the imports from the rest of Africa (and the inevitable pop hits from the US and Europe). Prince Nico's music is highlife, which is a Ghanaian style that merged with Zaïrean style (which informs Zap Mama) and found a very warm home in Eastern Nigerian. The predominance of that Eastern Nigerian musical tradition were very strong everywhere, despite the combination of political concerns and musical experimental that brought about a rapid growth in regional styles. It's important to note that the third point on that triangle was Lagos, which despite all its problems has always been an amazing furnace of cosmopolitan energy. This is where the Eastern musicians joined their Western colleagues in legendary jam sessions to hammer out styles that are now world famous (not always through direct appreciation of the specific musicians, but always through their influence on music worldwide).
[Becker, asking about the attendance at the launching of the Zeal Onyias Band (started by Martins and friends) at the Ambassador Hotel Yaba, Lagos]: Were they all Yoruba?
[Martins]: No, it was mixed: Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Efik, Nigerians. It was a big scene, a crosscultural gathering. Apart from the English language, popular music was another great rallying point for all Nigerians. Like we say Highlife was the melting pot of the various ethnic musics. In fact it is for me the first Nigerian culture that evolved. Before then if one was from another ethnic group it was difficult to understand or to dance or even appreciate the music of another ethnic group. But with Highlife every Nigerian could dance: Be they Yoruba, lgbo, Hausa or whatever, Highlife was one thing that crossed beyond the traditional specialized mould. It was something every Nigerian could identify with because it was 'detribalized' and de- ethnicalized. And then we did not only play Highlife, we played classical ballroom music too, waltz, tango, foxtrott, blues etc.
(Throughout the excerpts I've corrected typos that look like the result of OCR applied to scanned originals, leaving other typos as they are).
Mr. Martins describes his journey from Calabar through Lagos, Enugu (Igbo country), and then the leap to Accra and Kumasi in Ghana, and the further leap to London, and later on, to Germany. The following is from his very entertaining description of some of the hazards of the journey from Lagos to Accra.
Few months after that we had to go to Accra because Bobby had a six month contract there. From Lagos to Accra in those days unlike today was rough and we had too many bridges to cross and two or to three rivers upon which the car is ferried across. Like from Lagos to Idiroko. On getting to Togo there was a place called "Grand Popo". l am not sure if it exists anymore. l think its been swept away by the sea. There was a tug boat used to ferry the trucks and passengers from one end to the other before one could drive into Togo. And after Togo there was another crossing on the Volta-River before getting to Accra where we disembark and get into the pontoon to be ferried across. Sometimes, we slept in the middle of nowhere in the bush. Nothing around us but us. The car parked, we made camp fire besides the car and everyone climbs to the top to sleep. That was on our own risk. It was fun and we enjoyed doing it.
This is a good example of Martins' plain and matter-of-fact style. He writes mostly about the '50s, which is a time when West Africa was vastly different in so many ways. He doesn't shrink from the awful memories as well as the precious ones (his story about cleaning up overflowed sewage is sickening in an understated way). By the time I returned to Nigeria in 1980, things had changed greatly, some for better, some for worse (mostly for the better in that case). By the time I left Nigeria again eight years later things had changed greatly again, some for better, some for worse (mostly for the worse that time). The stories of all these changes are important for us to keep, especially from the personal viewpoint of sharp observers such as Martins. He talks about playing for some of the names whom all Nigerians will recognize as having been crucial players in these changes.
This was the period that the modern elites those who were to become permanent secretaries, solicitors general, prime ministers and presidents were returning home from Britain and the United States, and congregated in Lagos. The night-club, apart from the billiard tables and tennis courts, was a social outlet where they freely integrated and interacted with others. Dancing was a favourite past time of most them. And what marvellous dancers most of them were! l still remember a few like Bayo Braithwaite (the insurance and assurance magnet), Sunny Adewale (Chief, lawyer)'the boy is good', T.OJ:). Benson (Chief, lawyer, former federal minister of information in the first Republic), Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe ( first President of independent Nigeria), Fani Kayode (Chief, lawyer former deputy premier of the now defunct Western Region), Freddy Benson ( 'Baba Kayode', an automobile engineer of Benson Transport Service ), Bode Thomas (Chief, lawyer and nationalist). Shola Macauley (business man) amd Tommy Rose (our taylor) among others. Chief Awolowo was the one man who hardly danced and betrayed emotions at such gatherings he attended in which l played with a band. l used to wonder often about that. So l was pleasantly surprised when he formed a band in 1979 for the Unity Party of Nigeria. However for the smart ones in the band to meet and talk with these eminent and distinguished men was a great privilege. Therefore the night- club for us was a great institution of learning and of assimilation: Ideas and knowledge floated freely from both black and white audiences.
It's fun to get the occasional etymology lesson
[B]: What about other expressions for prostitutes like waka-waka baby and ashewo?
[M]: Yes, waka waka baby like Rex Lawson termed it. Ashewo is the Yoruba word for prostitute. Waka waka is Pidgin English or coloquial for a women that goes from one setting to the other. She was a walk-about woman, thats what waka waka means in short.
[B]: And that expression in Yoruba could have other meanings or is it a traditional expression? Or is it a common place in Yoruba?
[M]: Well, ashewo itself means exchanger of money.
[B]: [It] doesn't mean more than that?
[M]: No, it implies that you exchange money for your body.
Straight rolled into a street sociology lesson
[B]: What women were these usually? What training did those women have? Where did they come from? From the city, from the country?
[M]: They belonged to various categories. Most of them had been married some time in their village to men they did not like or something like that. Some just wanted to experience life in the city and to get away from the villages. Others simply wanted good time. There were some fresh from the schools who didnt actually know what to do but throbbed with the music, the modern music and they loved it. They liked the socialization in the club. Then there were educated women who were ambitious and seeking opportunity to further enhance their lives. So it was a mixture of all these interests and backgrounds that one sees in the night-clubs. Not all of the women that one saw in the night club were dedicated prostitutes. Some were there just for the fun of it and satisfaction.
[B]: That reminds me of the argument that Highlife provided liberty or that kind of feeling to men and women in a way. Not to say that these women were prostitutes. Some of these were women breaking away from their traditional bondage and tyranny?
If you find these excerpts interesting, do read the entire interview. It's long, but very entertaining. Since the interviewer is German, Martins takes care to explain a lot of the phenomena that may be hard for a non-Nigerian to understand.