Cult Classic: Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers–Ozobia Special.

Tabansi Records was founded in Nigeria in 1952, and filled a void when major labels like Decca and later, Philips closed the doors on their Nigerian operations. Chief Tabansi, who lent his name to what would become Nigeria’s most important label, recorded artists and then pressed the records at The United African Company’s pressing plant. After that, record vans promoted the latest releases in Nigerian villages. This was just the start for Tabansi Records.

In the sixties, The United African Company decided to concentrate on importing American and European music. With very little competition, Tabansi Records was able to concentrate on local  music, which The United African Company had turned its back on. This was a big mistake.

During the seventies, Tabansi Records was the most successful Nigerian label, and its founder  Chief Tabansi was one of the leading light’s of country’s thriving and vibrant music scene. He had invested in the company he had founded in, in Onitsha, Lagos, all these years ago, which had its own studios and pressing plant. The company was going from strength-to-strength.

By the eighties, Chief Tabansi was joined in the company by his son Godwin. He helped promoting and developing the artists on the Tabansi roster. This included Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers’ debut album Ozobia Special.

When Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers came to record Ozobia Special in the early eighties, Igbo highlife was still a hugely popular genre. Its roots can be traced back to the late-fifties, and Onitsha,  a city which was located on the banks of the Niger River in Nigeria’s Anambra State. That was where Igbo highlife was born.

Igbo highlife grew in popularity during the sixties,  just after Nigeria gained independence. However, all wasn’t well in Nigeria. There was poverty, wages were low  and housing was overcrowded and dangerous. This resulted in strikes and  by June 1964 the Nigerian people had enough and there was a general strike. Although this resulted in wage increases, therek was tension between the army and civilians who believed the government was corrupt.  It went to the polls at the end of 1964.

On the ‘30th’ of December 1964, there was meant to be an election in Nigeria. However, in some parts of the country the election didn’t take place until the ‘18th’ of March 1965. The Northern People’s Alliance won the election, but the result was marred by violence accusations that the result had been manipulated. Sadly, things were about to get worse for the people of Nigeria.

Ten month later  was a military coup on the ’15th’ of January 1966. Just four months later, the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom began in  May and lasted until September. By then, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Igbos and people of southern Nigerian origin had been murdered. Another million Igbos fearing for their lives fled from the Northern Region to eastern Nigeria. 

This led to the secession of the eastern Nigeria region and the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. Sadly, those that had sought sanctuary were now caught up in the Nigeria-Biafra war which began on the ‘6th’ of July 1967, and lasted until  the ’13th’ of January 1970. After a war lasting two years, six months, one week and two days there had been 100,000 military casualties, while  between 500,000 and three million Biafran civilians died of starvation and Biafra rejoined Nigeria.

During what was a bloody period in Nigerian history,  Igbo highlife’s popularity grew. It was primarily guitar-based music, which also included a combination of horns and vocal rhythms. They’re sung in a call and-response style in Igbo or pidgin English.  The music takes its 6/8 time signature from the Ogene bell that take a prominent place at the front of Igbo gatherings. It can be heard on Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers’s debut album Ozobia Special.

The six tracks that became Ozobia Special  were recorded and later mixed at Tabansi Recording Studio, Onitsha, in Nigeria. Just like all the Tabansi sessions, top musicians were used including a rhythm section of drummer and percussionist George Atomba, bassist Isidore Modjo and John Kante who adds his unmistakable soukous guitar. They were joined by pianist Sonny Enang, Highlife keyboard keyboard maestro Jake Sollo on synths, plus percussionists Chukwudi Nwafor, Friday Pozo and Candido Obajimi. The horn section featured saxophonist Ngoma and trumpeters Kofi Adjololo and Ray Stephen Oche, and adding backing vocals on Ozobia Special were Judith Ezekoka and Kenny George. They played their part in what would later be regarded as a cult classic.

When Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers released  their debut album Ozobia Special the music was joyous, uplifting with an infectious and memorable sound. Igbo highlife combines with boogie era keyboards and funk. The vocals veer between heartfelt, impassioned and soulful. There’s even a touch of gospel righteousness on Ozobia Special. Most of the time, it’s feel-good music that shows another side to highlife.  

Ozobia Special opens the album and  is special with a capital S.  No wonder given the ingredients used to make this musical feast. Part of the recipe is a circus fanfare horn chart. Add to that  boogie synths, a mesmeric guitar motif  and an impassioned vocal  sung in a call and response style. Set the musical oven at 6/8 tempo and enjoy the celebratory sound Igbo highlife in full flight. 

Like the other tracks Ofu Obi (Onye Achuna Uwa Nike) is in 6/8 time but is a shuffle, with bells, whistles and blazing horns getting the party started. A boogie era Prophet synth punctuates the arrangement while the vocal is heartfelt and soulful. It’s Igbo highlife meets boogie, and is joyous, uplifting and memorable with vocalist Nkem Njoku and keyboardist Jake Sollo playing starring roles.  

Unlike other tracks on the albumOsula Nwa Eje Ubi Eje Oba is played in 4/4 time. Straight away, where there’s an elements of drama before the arrangement reveals its secrets and heads for the dancefloor. It’s an irresistibly catchy call to dance with a timeless sound, and  is one of the album’s highlights.

It’s as if Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers are determined to grab the listener’s attention as  Ije Eluwa unfolds. Isidore Modjo lays down an uber funky bass line that bounds over John Kante’s repetitive guitar licks that eventually mesmerise. Old school synths join drums and a myriad of percussion before the vocal enters. Nkem Njoku seems to be in a hurry, his vocal is emotive and a mixture of power and passion. When all this is combined the result is a track that leaves the listener with a smile on their face. 

Akwa Obi is played at 6/8 time and marks the return of the Ogene bell. Initially, the arrangement is understated, soulful and sounds as of it’s been influenced by gospel. Then it’s all change as the rhythm section, chiming guitar, percussion and the Ogene bell combine with Nkem Njoku’s vocal. He alternates between  Igbo or pidgin English as  soulful backing vocals reply to his call . Meanwhile, Ogene drumming,  gospel tinged harmonies and braying horns are a feature of the arrangement. By the, the band and Nkem Njoku are in full flight and it’s a joy to behold on what’s the best track on Ozobia Special.

Closing Ozobia Special is Egwu Oyoliba which bursts into life as if Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers are  keen to close the album on a high.  To do that, they combine percussion and whistles  with robotic and squelchy synths. They provide the backdrop to the vocal on what’s highlife with a twist. Later, blazing horns the whistles are punctuate the arrangement on before the vocal returns and Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers succeed in leaving a lasting impression.  

For anyone with even a passing interest in African music, then Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers’ debut album Ozobia Special will be of in test to them. It’s an album of the finest Igbo highlife which is combined with elements of boogie, funk, gospel, jazz and soul.  Ozobia Special features some of Nigeria’s top musicians making music that is joyful, uplifting, catchy, soulful  and dancefloor friendly. It makes you want to smile and dance for joy even in such difficult times. 

Ozobia Special is a reminder of what’s the most important, influential and innovative Nigerian record label of the past six decades. They released so many important albums during the seventies and eighties which was golden era for Chief Tabansi’s label. This was when Tabansi Records released Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers’s oft-overlooked debut album of Igbo highlife Ozobia Special, which is a cult classic that is guaranteed to brighten up your day and will bring some sunshine into your life. 

Cult Classic: Nkem Njoku and Ozzobia Brothers–Ozobia Special.

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