Okpan Arhibo: A Traditional Kind of Disco Music

When Manu Dibango invented disco music with his phenomenal hit “Soul Makossa”, besides the breakbeats, jazz and soul influences complete with saxophone, trumpet, drum kits, bass and lead guitars, piano/keyboards and other western musical instruments that made it the big success it was within the New York music scene and worldwide, its central sensibility as was developed and perfected, came from somewhere. Africa. Subsequently, Fela, Osibisa, Mariam Makeba, Hugh Masekela also working within the breakbeat, soul, funk, and jazz found instant fame and recognition as innovators in the world music scene and “Afrobeat” credited to Fela soon became an international art form with a strong legitimacy of its own.

Traditional musicians like Okpan Arhibo who remain true to the source Manu Dibango had astutely appropriated to create a new music phenomenon did not achieve either international fame or massive commercial success simply due to their tenacious fidelity to the purity of their art form. Some may classify such fidelity to traditional music as timid, unadventurous, retrogressive or impervious for a creative artist. Such a conclusion is both uninformed and premature. When Okpan Arhibo came out with his seminal hit “Catch Fire Dance” by the turn of the 8th decade of the last century, he had in one go changed the style, approach, spontaneity, and permissiveness within the Urhobo nation and the wider Wafi (Warri, Delta State) arena to music and dance. We must remember till Okpan came along with his hits, Urhobo youths who were desperate to be “civilised” (westernised) had resoundingly rejected the traditional music form. It was Okpan who made Urhobo music totally acceptable to the youths; his music found the restless youth and turned them.

What shocked most was that if Okpan was playing live and you had a western disco section spinning tunes from Michael Jackson, Rick James, Dynasty, The Whispers, Diana Ross, Shalamar, and the like at that event the youth would clearly display a preference for Okpan. It was probably the happiest music I have seen played live. This was probably the first peak in Okpan’s music but more was to come. It was genuine disco music, not a nominal ascription. The music seems to have either generated a virulent dance bug the was highly contagious or it was simply scratching a dance itch people, particularly youths, did not know they had.

To explain Okpan’s disco music is a challenge but it must be attempted. Okpan music is a combination of vocal and percussive music. Okpan’s band like most Urhobo and traditional bands along coastal West Africa are constituted of a singer, a battery or more of percussion instruments and an Isologu. The percussion instruments include tom-toms [igede], graduated [agogo] gongs and shekere [akitse]. Fred Onovwerosuoke, an expert on Urhobo music, calls the Isologu, the thumb piano. This is an accurate description because of the constitution of the instrument and its sounds are produced and controlled by thumbing and fingering. Like the piano, the Isologu is also a percussion instrument.In Okpan’s band, the Isologu is used more like a bass guitar or contrabass. We all remember Fela’s quip “Second bass, jare” and we know how it sounds.

Both the percussionists and Isologu player strive to produce rich polyrythmic beats merging into a melody but avoiding traditional timekeeping in music during most songs. Intros to the songs tend to start at a slow tempo creating a space for a heartfelt spoken aphorism with a strong moral bent. Okpan is after all, as much as a spoken word artist as he is a singer. It does not take long for the Isologu and percussion players to establish a danceable rhythm but this is just the pre-disco phase. Disco starts when the rhythm is switched to a pace-gaining tight melody.

The emotive alchemy of the disco phase is the interaction of the “lift and fall” of the percussive melody. The lift produced by the Isologu with a bass guitar-like effect is the “get-up”[vrenmudia] and dance [eha] and the lifting [kparo] (of the legs to stay dancing) emphasis. Savwon [pluck (the leg from the ground)] is often the peak of the lift. However, what goes up must come down. Dancing is leg up, leg down; leg up, leg down. We jo she [let it fall, let the feet fall] is the dance step placed on the ground by the dancer. Lucky Adada, the main Isologu player, and Atipoyo, the main percussionist, manipulates this melodic alchemy very competently with moments of sublimity often experienced. Adada plays mostly changeable legato driven melodies while Atipoyo switches seamlessly between rhythm and melody notes creating a shifting polyphony. The dance “catches fire” when Adada abruptly muffles his legato notes giving Atipoyo space to shift the emphasis to call the feet of dancers down, stepping. Moments after this musical adjustment you would see some dancers go into energetic dance or even mild ecstasy. In broken English, this ecstasy is described as “e don vex” [Omuohu], an expression that indicates that the spirit of the music has taken over the dancer with vexation, sorry vengeance. Such vexations are usually short-lived though, you can only do it for so long.

Adada would have to return to his legato play again when vexations have started to decline or the song has mutated into another direction, shifting the emphasis back to the lift. This rhythmic and melodic polyphony is the unspoken poetry in Okpan’s music. The spoken poetry is in Okpan’s song and spoken word. Okpan’s singing is eclectic deriving from many sources and the direction of his music is typically unpredictable. His voice bears much more machismo than perfection. He sings his song like a man rather than like a tenor or alto, Okpan is not a man of pretension. Okpan would use a varied mix of contemporary issues, moral tales, outright vulgarity, ancient songs and parables, meaningless lyrics and influences from other musicians to achieve both entertainment and innovation with his music. Okpan can often sing a number of song in one go the rhythm of percussion mostly unaltered. His music somehow remains authentic and loyal to traditional music. This where Okpan’s exceptional talents shines through, innovating much with little. He is a free-style dancer himself and can be heard during his songs saying into the mic, “gbe nughe obo Okpan muegbe obone” [come and see how Okpan is dancing anyhowly over here].

Like is evident in Dibango’s Soul Makossa and in Fela’s music, Okpan’s singing phraseology and choruses are often interjected with onomatopoeia or normal lyrics that have an onomatopoeic effect. Okpan often uses such phraseology as a facilitator of lift for dance. “Agba Agba Agba Agba Agba!”, “Yagha Yagha iyogho, Yagha yagha iyogho”, et al have a big lift effect. Anthony, the lead chorister, second singer and akitse player in Okpan’s band, is an excellent foil to Okpan’s singing using mainly a haunting falsetto voice. Okpan is also a master of onomatophilia, he has an uncanny ability to pronounce everyday Urhobo names and nicknames and make them sound both interesting and novel. He either enjoyed the names he was calling out or made people enjoy them. In fact, an important expectation of Okpan’s music was what names he would call out. Imac Malli, Last Mugu, So Good, Uncle Baba, Afrogus, Orhurhu Standard, Sakpakpobi, Ighereka and so many others are all unusual nicknames found in Okpan’s songs but perhaps the most extraordinary is Orodekor rodogogoro [The snake that drinks gin!]. It was not till I got into the music of Okpan did I realise name-mentioning could be a fine art too.

Besides the Catch Fire Dance of the early 1980s. By the late 1990s, Okpan hit another peak with Siobornuvwe, an album that charted Okpan’s conversion to Christianity without any inclusion of Gospel music elements and a polemical rebuttal of his arch-rival, the musician Johnson Adjan. Siobornuvwe has Okpan written all over its style, tempo and melody and is perhaps his tamest dance album but for many his most memorable. The Happy New Millennium album was Okpan’s best chance for broad commercial success and reaching new audiences far and wide, I guess the marketing was not as adventurous as the music. Okpan coincidentally hit another peak with Urhobo Makossa album introducing elements of Makossa into his music and showcasing it with Makossa dance choreography. These are my favourite peaks of Okpan’s music but there are some others.

Okpan’s music is not without scandal. In the early 1980s, Okpan’s Catch Fire Dance, particularly Catch Your Gulder / Catch and Carry, was largely believed within the Urhobo nation to be a “marriage breaker.” This is a false claim. The reckless spending of the Shehu Shagari government and the National Party of Nigeria had begun then and lavish celebrations were a constant. At these celebrations, money was sprayed in ways never seen before and the spraying politicians were courting endless numbers of concubines and girlfriends, most of them meeting at these events. The usual shame associated with adultery in society had faded away completely. The motto for adultery at the time was the euphemism “I want to live life”. Okpan’s is associated with that scandal because he was so in-demand as a musician he played at most of those big celebrations in Urhoboland. The scandal was certainly not his, potentially flirtatious freestyle dancing (Catch Your Gulder) was his innovation. Okpan has engaged in many very public and notable quarrels with rival musicians such as Johnson Adjan through their music.

All in all, Okpan the self-styled King of Urhobo Disco and the Bride of Songs [Avwebor r’Ine], has been a phenomenal creator and innovator of dance music and someday his art will be appreciated and noted for what it is, disco music of another flavour and the facility for free-style dancing, Omo me gbe bo jevwe [My child dance any way you like]; all Kings are fathers. That is Okpan’s subtle message to all and music never gets more accessible to dance.

Grimot Nane

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