Okpan Arhibo: A Traditional Kind of Disco Music

Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango invented disco music out of the blue with his release of the phenomenal hit single record, Soul Makossa. The year was 1972, and it was a staggering feat from an unknown personality. The listening public could hear the instant break beats and jazz funk influences in the song. And the western musical instruments; the saxophone, drums, percussions, guitars (bass, acoustic and lead), and the piano. Soul Makossa took disc jockeys, clubbers, and everyday radio listeners in large numbers. It soon became a big favourite within the New York music scene and later the globe. The song’s core sensibility, as developed and perfected, came from somewhere; Africa. Around this time, other African musicians, Fela Kuti, Osibisa, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, working within the same jazz funk paradigm, found instant fame and recognition as innovators on the world’s music scene. And Fela fashioned “Afrobeat” which soon became a distinct international music genre in its own right.

Okpan Arhibo, a traditional musician, who remained faithful to the source of music his and neither achieved mainstream international fame or massive commercial success. Okpan fashioned his music for the heartland of his music with a tenacious fidelity to the purity of his art. Critics may classify such loyalty to his traditional roots as timid, unadventurous, or stagnating for an inventive artist. Such judgement is uninformed and premature. When Okpan Arhibo released his seminal hit album, Catch Fire Dance, in the early 1980s, it was ground-breaking. He had in one go changed the style, approach, spontaneity, and permissiveness within the Urhobo nation’s arena of music and dance. Hitherto, Urhobo youths who were desperate to come across as well-westernised had opted for a resounding rejection of the traditional music forms. Okpan’s experiments with Urhobo music made it agreeable to the curious and restless youth of Urhoboland and turned them.

Shocking to most observers was wherever Okpan was playing live and if you had the usual parallel western disco section spinning tunes from Michael Jackson, Rick James, Dynasty, The Whispers, Diana Ross, Shalamar, the youth displayed a preference for Okpan. His live playing was hip, happy, and infectious. The music generated a virulent dance bug that was contagious, or a fortuitous scratching of a dance itch people, the youths in particular, were otherwise unaware. The Catch Fire Dance album was the first peak of Okpan’s music. Catch Fire Dance is original disco music, not a simple ascription.

To describe 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, includes a singer, a battery or more of percussion instruments and an isologu. The percussion instruments include igede [tom-toms], agogo [graduated gongs], and akitse [shekere]. 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. It produces sounds by thumbing and fingering. Like the piano, the isologu is also a percussion instrument. Okpan’s band uses the isologu more like a bass guitar or contrabass. We may remember Fela’s quip “Second bass, jare,” and many know how it sounds.

The substrate of the music depends on the percussionist and isologu player’s drive to produce vibrant and elastic polyrhythmic beats. They merge their individual playing into a melody, often abandoning the traditional role of timekeeping left to the percussionist. The songs open with a heartfelt spoken aphorism with a strong moral bent. Then a beat of slow tempo follows which is driven by the players into a high tempo at the song’s conclusion. Okpan is 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. The disco begins when the rhythms shift to a pace-gaining tempo. Anthony is the second singer and akitse player in Okpan’s band. He is an excellent foil to Okpan’s singing, using a haunting falsetto voice.

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 vrẹmudia [the get-up] for the eha [dance] and the kparọ [lifting] of the legs. Savwọn [the energetic plucking] of 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. Wejoshe [let it fall, let the feet fall] is the dance step placed on the ground by the dancer. Lucky Adada, the isologu player, and Atipoyo, the principal percussionist, manipulates this musical alchemy with an artistry laden with many moments of sublimity. Adada plays loose, changeable legato driven melodies which tighten up with the tempo while Atipoyo switches seamlessly between rhythm and melody notes, creating a shifting polyrhythm. The dance “catches fire” when Adada abruptly tightens his legato notes, giving Atipoyo space to shift the emphasis to call the feet of dancers down, chiwo [stepping]. Moments after this musical change, you would see some dancers go into energetic dance or even wild excitement. This excitement, termed omuohu [vexation], is a sign the spirit of the music has taken over the dancer with vexation, or vengeance. Such vexations are usually short-lived though. You can only do it for so long.

Adada returns to his loose legato style when vexations decline, shifting emphasis back to the lift. The rhythmic and melodic cycles of the band only end when Okpan chooses. This rhythmic and melodic polyphony is the unspoken poetry of Okpan’s music. The spoken poetry is in Okpan’s eclectic singing and spoken word derived from many sources. His voice bears much more machismo than perfection. He sings his songs according to traditional expectations, not a classical tenor or alto; Okpan is not a man of pretension. Notable is Okpan’s use of a varied mix of sources to achieve both entertainment and innovation with his music. Contemporary issues, moral tales, outright vulgarity, ancient songs and parables, meaningless lyrics and influences from other musicians. He can often sing several songs in one go to an unaltered rhythm or melody. His music remains authentic and loyal to its traditional roots. Such is where Okpan’s exceptional talents shine through, innovating much with little. The next step of his music is unpredictable.

He is a freestyle dancer. We can hear him during his songs saying into the mic, “Gbenughe obo Okpan muẹgbe obonẹ” [Come and see how Okpan is dancing reckless over here].

As is explicit in Dibango’s Soul Makossa [mamase mamasa mamakusa] and Fela’s music [kedikeke], Okpan’s singing phraseology and choruses get interspersed with onomatopoeic effects. Okpan often uses such splashes to ease the lift for the dance. “Agba Agba Agba Agba Agba!”, “Yagha Yagha iyogho, Yagha Yagha iyogho,”, and so on have a big lift effect. Okpan is 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 enjoys the names called out or makes people enjoy them. An important expectation of Okpan’s music is the names of persons he will call out. Immac Malli, Last Mugu, So Good, Uncle Baba, Afrogus, Orhurhu Standard, Sakpakpobi, Ighẹrẹka, Ikpurin and other are the unusual nicknames Okpan uses in his songs. But the most extraordinary is Ọrọdekọ r’odogogoro [The black mamba that drinks gin!]; the snake is a frightening creature. What if it was 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 the release of the album, Siobọnuvwe. This album charted Okpan’s conversion to Christianity with no inclusion of Gospel music elements and a polemical rebuttal of his arch-rival, the prominent Urhobo musician Johnson Adjan. Siobọnuvwe has Okpan etched all over it.  It is his tamest dance album and, for many people, his most memorable. Christianity is the dominant religion among Urhobos. The Happy New Millennium album was Okpan’s best chance for vast commercial success and reaching new audiences far and wide, and I guess the marketing was not as adventurous as the music. Okpan 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.

The man’s music is not without scandal. In the early 1980s, rumours that Okpan’s Catch Fire Dance, within the Urhobo nation was a “marriage breaker,” abounded. The claim is false. Many saw the reckless spending of the Shehu Shagari government and the National Party of Nigeria, and lavish celebrations were frequent in the land. At these celebrations, the spraying of money was unprecedented and the spraying politicians were courting endless numbers of women at these events. The motto for adultery then was euphemistic, “I want to live life”. They placed the usual shame associated with adultery in society in the dustbin of culture. Okpan’s association with that scandal was he played most big celebrations in Urhoboland. The scandal was not his. 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.

Okpan, the self-styled “King of Urhobo Disco” and Avwebọ r’Ine [Bride of Songs], has been a phenomenal contributor to dance music boasting a prodigious track-record of accomplishment. Someday his art will receive the sterling appreciation it deserves and curated as such. Yes, disco music of another flavour. Ẹmọmẹ gbebojevwe [My children, dance any way you will] is the message in his music; Kings are figurative fathers. It is this message Okpan disseminates to listeners with energy and subtlety, and music never gets more accessible for revellers and dancers.

Grimot Nane

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