CELESTINE UKWU & HIS PHILOSOPHERS NATIONALMost Nigerian pop stars adopt or acquire titles like King, Sir, Lord, Cardinal, etc, but the great Celestine Ukwu was happy to be a humble Professor and his band had the poetic name of the Philosophers. Ukwu began his career in the 1960s in Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region of Nigeria under Mike Ejeagha. He moved back to Onitsha where he formed the Music Royals, but the Biafran war put an end to their career in 1967. After the war he resurrected the band in the early 70s as the Philosophers National. Tragically Celestine Ukwu died in a car crash on 8 May 1977, not yet forty.
The liner notes to His Philosophies expound on his music:
"Listening to Celestine Ukwu generally and to this album in particular, he was not influenced by anybody. He evolved his own style and this is why he is an innovator and a true artist like Rex Lawson.
"His soft, gentle-paced music is totally reflective of his personality. He was soft-spoken, gentle, unassuming and highly talented.
"But perhaps what accounted mainly for his success was the fact that he was able to build the keyboards into highlife, blending and fusing them in an exotic manner with heavily accented percussion without losing the traditional flavour and rhythmic concept of the music.
"In the same vein, he introduced into highlife a great sense of group-vocal harmony singing, evident on the Efik song "Uwem Ereri Mbot' Emi" and he adopted a simple yet effective style of orchestration completely devoid of improvisations and embellishments, but thematic and basic in harmony and entire structure. 'Elege' is a fine example.
"As a composer, the late Celestine was prolific and outstanding. All his writings centred around the philosophy of life, moralising, correcting social ills and advocating for peace, unity and love -- from 'Ije Enu' his first big hit, and 'Osondu' to 'Money Palaver' and 'Elege' all of which are pregnant with meaningful messages and philosophy.
"As a singer he sang with conviction, feeling rather comfortable and at ease, at high, low and middle registers.
"Rex Jim Lawson dominated the highlife scene of the sixties. Celestine Ukwu took over and ruled the seventies."
--Benson Idonije, Radio Nigeria Two.
(His Philosophies was a compilation including three songs reissued from Ilo Abu Chi and two more from True Philosophy, his first album. However it did include part two of "Igede" and another hit in Pidgin English, "Money Palaver," about a woman who is a street walker, which was also gathered on Igede Fantasia.)
Celestine Ukwu was indeed soft-spoken and gentle and this is reflected in his music, which is softer and more laid-back than most Igbo highlife. He featured piano, vibraphone and pedal steel guitar. The vibraphone shimmers on "Ucha Chukwe Ka (God's will is supreme)" which was the B-side of his first single, a dreamy ten-minute workout replete with a lovely soprano sax solo, collected on the Tomorrow is So Uncertain LP in 1973.
His eleven-piece band truly was philosophical as their songs dealt with social evils and the need for peace.
"Igede," his smash hit from 1971, based on Igbo folklore, has all the earmarks of post-colonial Nigerian Highlife (music for those who could afford a good time): guitar, killer percussion, and an out-of-tune piano, but it has a relentless groove that sticks. While "Part One" of this classic of Nigerian danceband highlife can be found on the Flame Tree compilation, the album HIS PHILOSOPHIES features a second version of the song ("Part Two") that further deconstructs the melody. A muted trumpet with a wah-wah sound mocks the vocals as the hand-drums rattle in complex concordance. It's a sparkling, poetic track that will always conjur up the good times.
His album ILO ABU CHI from 1974 contained "Elege," "Ejina Uwa nya isi (Don't be arrogant)", "Uwem ereri mbot emi (No rest 'til Death)", "Nwa anyi egbuna anyi (We should not kill ourselves)", and "Okwukwe na nchekwube (Faith and trust)", all of which are included on the Flametree GREATEST HITS CD. "Ije enu (Life)", which leads off that compilation, is drawn from the album HIS PHILOSOPHIES, 1975, along with "Osondu (Escape from Death)." But, despite the title, this is not his greatest hits, just a slice of his great music. Missing here most notably is "Money Palaver," one of his big hits. And I have not yet discovered his earliest recording and hit "No Condition is Permanent."
Born in 1940, Celestine was educated musically by his uncle who taught him how to read music and play harmonium. His grandmother was a folk musician and dancer and his father, who worked as a coal miner, was a popular local performer of igede, ikpa and ode music. His mother was lead singer for a women's dance troupe. |
After Catholic primary school, where he excelled in drama and music, Celestine went to teacher training school for two years, dropping out in 1960 to join Mike Ejeagha's group as vocalist and maraca player. But he soon left to join a group led by Mr Picolo who were going to tour the Congo. Thus an early exposure to Congolese music had a huge impact on his own musical formation.
On his return to Nigeria he briefly joined a group called African Baby Party. Three months later he moved to Maiduguri and formed Freedom Jazz Band, but then he moved to Zaria and formed The Republic Knights with Charles Jebba.
But he moved again, to Onitsha, where he fronted the Niger City Starlighters. With this formation he made his debut recordings, and scored hits with "No Condition is Permanent," "Artificial Beauty," "Appolonia," and "Ije Enu." This latter song sold 200,000 copies in 3 months.
After nine months he decided to start anew and with the help of Matthias Okafor who owned the Frontline Hotel, Onitsha, and who rented instruments for him, Ukwu was able to start Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria in April 1962. The band was a huge success for five years. In 1967 the Biafran War broke out and the non-Biafran members of the band fled, while Ukwu recorded "Hail Biafra!" and did his bit to boost morale during the strife. In addition to singing he also played drums and vibraphone on his recordings. The band toured neighbouring countries and even went to West Germany. In 1972 students at the University of Nigeria renamed his band the Philosophers National. In 1977 at the age of 37, Ukwu died in a car wreck.
The band members sometimes wore a uniform: a striped shirt with dark trousers, while Ukwu generally wore a dark suit over a white polo neck shirt.
From the biography The Life & Work of Celestine Ukwu, by R. Okafor, A. Nwokike, C. Eziechi & J. Egudu (Enugu & Lagos: New Generation Books, 1999) I have gleaned the following names, and song title translations. A photo on p. 113 shows Ukwu singing with Joe Ugokwe (i.e. Igbokwe?) from Abagana playing saxophone (now with Stephen Osita Osadebe), and Dennis Akwa, an Efik vocalist.
The Philosophers National Dance Band
Emma Ikediashi was lead guitarist
After Ukwu's death they continued for two years as the Celestine Ukwu Memorial Dance band, led by vocalist "Buzuzu" Mogbo.
"Artificial Beauty" (Pidgin English) by Celestine Ukwu & the Niger City Starlighters. Philips 38 3025 PF
"Ije Enu" (Ibo: Igede) b/w "Uche chukwu ka (God's blessing is supreme)" (Ibo: Pachanga) by Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria. Philips 38 3250 PF
"Uso Ndu" by Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria. Philips Phono 3846172 PF
"Asili" by Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria. Nigerphone NXF 372
"Okwu eji n'elo (Matters of mutual agreement)" (Ibo: Egwu obi) b/w "Akwa a na-ebelu ego" (Ibo: Highlife) by Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria. Nigerphone NXF 388
"Hail Biafra!" by Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria. Onitsha: Nigerphone NXF 388 / NXF411 (Ashe) Guitarist: Harry Mosco Agada
"A Nation is Born" (1968?) Biafra Association in the Americas, First Independence Anniversary Special XB-339
"Ilo Abu Chi" [Philips 6043 251 PF 1971 -- album reissue?]
"Igede" Philips PF 384 617 1970
"Adam" b/w "Uwem ereri mbot emi" (written by Ukwa & Dennis Akwa) Philips 6259 172 PE 1972
"Ejina uwa nya isi" b/w "Ilo abu chi" Philips 6259 139 PE 1972
"Okwukwe na nchekwube (Faith & hope)" b/w "Mma anyi egbuna anyi (May our kindness not lead us to doom)" Philips-West African-Records 6259 173 1972
"Onwunwa (Temptation)" b/w "Ife si na chi (Destiny)" Philips-West African-Records PF 384 618
"Elege" b/w "Wishes" Philips 6043 250 PF 1974(?) (B-side uncollected)
"Obialu be onye abiagbunia (A guest must depart)" b/w "Mmefie Adiro Mgbayalu Ama Di"
[TRUE PHILOSOPHY] (Lagos: Philips Nigeria 6361 009 PL) 1971
[titled on disc but not on sleeve]
A1. Igede pt I
TOMORROW IS SO UNCERTAIN (Philips Nigeria 6361 048 PL) 1973
A1. Tomorrow is So Uncertain
ILO ABU CHI (Philips Nigeria 6361 058 PL) 1974
2. Ejina uwa nya isi (Do not boast of what you have)
3. Obialu be onye abiagbunia (A Guest must depart)
4. Okwukwe na nchekwube (Faith & hope)
B1. Mma anyi egbuna anyi (May our kindness not lead us to doom)
2. Mmefie a diro mgbayalu a ma di (No offence, no forgiveness)
3. Uwem ereri mbot emi (Life in this world)
4. Ilo abu chi (The enemy is not God) -- this song first recorded in 1971, rerecorded in 1974 for this album
(Also issued on cassette); A4 & B1 released as a 45rpm in 1972
NDU KA AKA (Philips Nigeria 6361 075 PL) 1974
A1. Ndu ka Aku (Life is greater than wealth)
EJI M NK'ONYE (Philips Nigeria 6361 111 PL) 1975
A1. E jim nke onye (Whose share have I taken?)
IGEDE FANTASIA (Philips [Nigeria] PolyGram Records [PL] 6361 159) 1976
A1. Jisie Ike (Keep on trying)
CUMB ASSEMBLE (Celestine Ukwu Memorial Band) - Tribute to Celestine Ukwu (RAS 1978)
A1. Tribute to Celestine Ukwu
HIS PHILOSOPHIES (PolyGram POLP093) 1975*
A1. Obialu be onye Abiagbunia [reissue from Ilo Abu Chi]
* cover signed by Ghariokwu Lemi 28-8-83 on reissue; despite the 1975 date this appears to be a 1983 compilation. The only track on here not duplicated elsewhere is a variant take of the classic "Igede."
GREATEST HITS (Flame Tree African Classics FLTRCD532)
(1: Premier Records 1973 LP; 2: Timbuktu Records London, 1997 LP)
1. Ije Enu
-- tracks from True philosophy and Ilo abu chi
Celestine Ukwu & his Philosophers National: The Best Collection Vol. 1 (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] PMCD 011) 2001
Igede Pt. 1
-- reissue of True philosophy
Celestine Ukwu: Best Collection Vol. 2 (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] PMCD) 2001?
1. Grade By Grade 11:09
-- reissue of Igede Fantasia with the title track & one other from Eji M Nk'onye
Celestine Ukwu: Best Collection Vol. 3 (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] PMCD 017) 2002
Ndu Ka Aku 5'33
-- reissue of Ndu Ka Aku with last 2 added tracks from Eji M Nk'onye
Celestine Ukwu & his Philosophers National: Best Collection Vol. 4 (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] KMCD 018) 2004
-- reissue of Ilo Abu Chi minus two tracks
Celestine Ukwu & his Philosophers National: Ejim Nke Onye (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] KMCD 060) n.d.
Ejim Nke Onye
Celestine Ukwu leads off the Rough Guide to Highlife, compiled by Graeme Ewens, with "Igede Pt 1". This was released in 2003. In 2006 Martin Sinnock included him on the Rough Guide to West African Gold, where he is represented with "Ife si na chi," also taken from the IGEDE album.
"Igede" seems to be very popular with compilers, it also appears on the following comps. Originally it is the name of a traditional dance popular among people of the old Udi Province, made up of Nkanu, Udi and Ezeagu. It is a song of celebration for wealthy folks, as Ukwu himself says, in "Ome Ife Jide Ofo, part 1" (1976):
"Igede is our traditional music,
AFRICAN MUSIC (Vertigo [i.e. Phonogram Holland] 814 480-1) 1983
-- One of the strongest compilations of Nigerian music ever issued.
Various Artists: High Life Kings Vol. 1 (CD; Premier Music [Lagos] KMCD 01) 2002?
Osondi Owendi (Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe)
Various Artists: The Kings of Highlife (CD; Wrasse Records, UK WRASS 097) 2003?
Guitar Boy (Sir Victor Uwaifo)
Makojo (Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe)
Joromi (Sir Victor Uwaifo)
Omo Pupa (Dr. Victor Olaiya)
Osondi Owendi (Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe)
Anate (Sir Rex Jim Lawson)
Okwudili (Paulson Kalu)
Sanmari Adugbo (Wura Fadaka)
Esonta (Chief Inyang Henshaw)
Ikpechakwa A-Akem Kpee (Gentle Man Ejeagha)
Igede (Celestine Ukwu)
Bere Bote (Sir Rex Jim Lawson)
Usondu (Celestine Ukwu)
So Fun Mi (Dr. Victor Olaiya)
--An abbreviated version of the 2-volume Premier Records set High Life Kings (above). Then "Okwukwe Na N'chekwube" became the pick to click on two subsequent comps:
Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife Afro Sounds (Soundway 2007)
HighLife Time 2 (VampiSoul 2011)
||Further Reading: THE LIFE AND WORKS OF CELESTINE UKWU|
By Richard Okafor et al. New Generation Books, 1999. ISBN: 978 2900 39 7
Contains all song lyrics and English translations
Send additions/corrections to "contact [at] muzikifan [dot] com"
Thanks to Zim Bida & my New York posse, Gilbert & Dr Chris
Last Update: 15 August 2021, courtesy of Yoshiki Fukasawa