Jubal Kanayo celebrates the voice from the ‘60s, Bongos Ikwue

“You can even hear the sounds from the cock crow at dawn…” Many who remember the soap ‘Cock Crow at Dawn’ (my uncles talk about ‘cokoro adol’ till this day) know the theme song.

If you have heard that song, ‘What’s gonna be’s gonna be’, ‘Still searching’ or ‘Otachikpokpo’, then you have heard the voice of Bongo Ikwue.

Ikwue first struck strong chords in 1962, while at Okene Comprehensive Secondary School. Unable to contain the songs in his head anymore, he teamed up with two other lads to form the group called Cubana Boys.

When he headed off to the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria to study business administration, he went with his dream and, while there, he created his own band, the UniBello Brothers. It was a more robust group, with lecturers as members. A chemistry lecturer, Harmony, taught him some Irish songs.

In 1967, he found the limelight when he founded and led the Groovies’ Band, singing ballads and wowing audiences through the ‘80s, thanks to hits like ‘Living in Lagos’, ‘Maryama’, ‘Still searching’, ‘Eche une’, ‘Whats gonna be’, amongst others.

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At the peak of his career, he wrote the sound-track to the hugely successful drama ‘Cock crow at dawn’. He veered away from music briefly, but re-launched his career with a new album in 2008 and an award-winning movie- ‘Inale’, starring Hollywood’s Hakeem Kae-Kazeem.

Just in case you are wondering what is so special about Ikwue’s music, you need to him to listen to the calm, soulful, folksy voice as it fills you room and ears. His songs, to say the least are proof of a man at ease.

Besides coming from a generation where a live band was indicative of a business-minded group or soloist, one thing which drew many to Ikwue’s music was his dedication to his music, the high quality of the albums he churned out, his refusal to imitate any artist (even though the western influence in songs of his day were obvious, he had no particular genre and everyone loved his songs, from up north to down south and the Middle Belt of his time), as well as the cool, calm and elegant. As someone attuned to music notes, it is heart-warming to hear every note, crisp, clear and harmonious, backed up his finely honed, baritone voice.

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Ikwue did not rush to churn out albums and, again, just like most music in his day, they had no need for profanity. This conscientiousness is what ensured his songs were always a hit.

Bongos never failed to thrill his audience when he performed live. The man always had enormous stage presence and an uncanny ability to connect with his crowds no matter where he performed. And it seemed people could not get over the thrill of seeing this larger than life artiste appear on stage dressed in down to earth jeans, a nice, simple shirt and practical trainers, with his guitar slung across his shoulders and his crowning glory back in the day – his ‘afro’.

But as to the rumour that he took a break, the legend would not have that. In Soni Oti’s ‘Highlife Music in West Africa: Down Memory Lane’, he said: “…indeed, there was a publication which said ‘Bongos takes a break’. I never did.”

Ikwue’s most memorable album is ‘Lagos’ because of the message it carries with it. “It has many songs that carry direction and purpose; songs that talk about the undertone of religious differences which go on around the world, songs about pick-pockets and songs like ‘Man and Man’ which talk about the Nigerian Civil War”.

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Ikwue’s calmness is the first noticeable thing about him. But he does not take this complement calmly. There is a different inspiration for the calmness all his songs are known for; Ella, a mentally challenged person in his home-town.

“He is calm and paradoxically saner than most other human beings and was the subject of a song dedicated to him. He played with all sorts of children. Every kid was made to laugh as a result of his activities. Ella, a ‘mad man’ succeeded in bringing life and colour to Oturkpo Town, otherwise it would have been dull,” he recalled.

The one they called ‘Forger’ in secondary school for writing his own songs has come full circle and we celebrate the Nigerian and Idoma legend for singing to us through the years. Happy 78th birthday, Bongos.

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