When Manu Dibango invented disco music with his phenomenal hit “Soul Makossa“, it was staggering. Besides the breakbeats, jazz and soul influences it was complete with saxophone, trumpet, drum kits, bass and lead guitars, piano/keyboards et al. that made it the big success it was within the New York music scene and later 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 faithful to the source Manu Dibango had astutely appropriated to create a new music phenomenon did not achieve either international fame or massive mainstream commercial success. It was mostly due to their tenacious fidelity to the purity of their art form. Some may classify such loyalty to traditional music as timid, unadventurous, or inaccessible 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 early 1980s, he had in one go changed the style, approach, spontaneity, and permissiveness within the Urhobo nation and the wider Wafi (Warri, Delta State) arena of music and dance. Until Okpan came along with his hits, Urhobo youths who were desperate to be “civilised” (westernised). They had resoundingly rejected the traditional music form. It was Okpan who made Urhobo music acceptable to the youths; his music found the restless youth and turned them.
What shocked most observers 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 display a preference for Okpan. It was probably the happiest music I have heard played live. It was perhaps the first peak in Okpan’s music but more was to come. It was original disco music, not a simple ascription. The music seems to have generated a virulent dance bug the was highly contagious, or it was merely scratching a dance itch people, particularly youths, did not know they had.
To explain Okpan’s disco music is a challenge, but I will try. Okpan’s music is a combination of vocal and percussive music. Okpan’s band like most Urhobo and many traditional bands along coastal West Africa include 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. It is an accurate description because of the constitution of the instrument. 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 players strive to produce vibrant polyrhythmic beats. Merging their playing into a melody but avoiding traditional timekeeping in music occurs in most songs. Intros to the songs tend to start at a slow tempo creating a space for a heartfelt spoken aphorism with a robust 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 rhythms shift to a pace-gaining steady pace.
The emotive alchemy of the disco phase is the interaction of the “lift and fall” of the percussive rhythm. 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 leading Isologu player, and Atipoyo, the principal percussionist, manipulates this musical 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 polyrhythm. 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, seen as “e don vex” [Omuohu], an expression that indicates 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. The rhythmic and melodic cycle only ends when Okpan chooses. 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 several songs in one go to the rhythm or melody mostly unaltered. His music somehow remains authentic and loyal to its traditional roots. Such is where Okpan’s exceptional talents shine through, innovating much with little. He is a freestyle 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 anyhow over here].
As is evident in Dibango’s Soul Makossa and Fela’s music, Okpan’s singing phraseology and choruses get interspersed 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, and he has an uncanny ability to pronounce common Urhobo names and nicknames and make them sound both interesting and novel. Okpan either enjoyed the names called out or made people enjoy them. 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 black mamba that drinks gin!]; the snake is scary, how about if it is drunk? 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, there were more music releases. By the late 1990s, Okpan hit another peak with Siobornuvwe. This album charted Okpan’s conversion to Christianity without any inclusion of Gospel music elements and a polemical rebuttal of his arch-rival, the prominent Urhobo musician Johnson Adjan. Siobornuvwe has Okpan written all over its style, tempo and melody and is perhaps his tamest dance album. Still, for many his most memorable, Christianity is the dominant religion of the Urhobos. The Happy New Millennium album was Okpan’s best chance for broad commercial success and reaching new audiences far and wide, and 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 albums 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, mainly Catch Your Gulder / Catch and Carry, was widely believed within the Urhobo nation to be a “marriage breaker.” Such 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 and 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. Someday his art will be appreciated and noted for what it is, disco music of another flavour. And the facility for freestyle 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.