Living the Highlife

G. Pascal Zachary

Isaac Babel’s mugshot from Stalin’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, where he was executed in 1940.
To watch U2 singer Bono traveling around Africa, relentlessly advocating for debt relief alongside the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, is to be reminded of the old connection between rock stars and African humanitarian causes. Bono may be imbued with an Irish compassion, but he is only the latest rocker to trumpet the cause of the African poor and afflicted. I was a grade-school boy when the Beatles took America by storm in the ’60s, and I will never forget my first images of Africa, which I associated with one Beatle in particular.

The pictures showed gaunt, starving babies from a place called Biafra, which George Harrison had taken a liking to. Biafra was created when a tribe called the Ibo, prominent around the Niger River Delta, seceded in 1967 from the West African nation of Nigeria. The Nigerian army, after initial setbacks, laid siege to the Ibo who, in their desperation, appealed to the rest of the world for help. (This had the perverse effect of prolonging the war—it lasted more than two years—and adding immensely to the causalities.) The plight of Biafrans captured Harrison’s conscience and gave birth to a new pattern in pop culture: the singer who cared about the Fate of the Earth and then held a benefit concert to prove it.

Harrison’s concert brought great attention to the cause of the Ibo, giving birth to another iron law of pop culture: The defining images of the South, or of Africa at least, are often constructed by the singers and poets of the North … and then fed back to the South. The frantic race by rockers to find their own causes among the wretched of the earth almost obscures the fact that the poor of the developing world have their own singers and songs.

The Ibo, for instance, are famously cultivated. Their members include Chinua Achebe, author of Africa’s most literary novel in English, Things Fall Apart, a haunting depiction of the collision between Ibo traditions and European imperialism. Notable for lacking a monarchy, the Ibo instead invested ultimate power in the political structures within each village, giving rise to a form of politics that anticipated the “town hall” democracy of New England. Participation extended to Ibo women, who became a formidable force in public life.

The British, used to getting their way with colonial Africans, were repeatedly stung by loud, angry and even violent protests against their policies by Ibo women. “When the character of the riots themselves is reviewed,” one British observer wrote, “the overwhelming impression is of the vigor and solidarity of the women.” In recent years, militant Ibo activists, in the face of growing tensions within an unmanageable Nigeria, have called for greater autonomy and even revived the secessionist dream.


The Ibo, who number upward of 20 million today, have made their mark on music as well as literature. The Biafrans knew little of the Beatles, but they embraced a swinging bandleader named Stephen Osita Osadebe. Singing in the Ibo language, with a sprinkling of pidgin English, Osadebe began recording in 1958 and cemented his popularity by remaining in Iboland during the war. The ’70s saw a transformation of Nigerian music as horn-driven dance tunes—better known as highlife—gave way to a funky sound influenced by soul singer James Brown. Fela Kuti was the embodiment of Nigerian funk.

While Fela and the “juju” musician Sunny Ade, a member of the Yoruba people, dominated the music exported from Nigeria to America, within the country Osadebe thrived. He carried on a tradition of highlife associated with the great Nigerian trumpeter Rex Lawson. Osadebe retained a strong brass element in his bands, even when acoustic sounds went out of fashion. He remains partial to trumpet solos of the same sort that Duke Ellington used to give his band a wistful color.

In 1984, as Ade and Fela were giving Nigerian music a ribald and confrontational image around the world, Osadebe retained his folksy roots, releasing his most successful album, Osondi Owendi (“sweetness and bitterness”). A social critic whose language is more polite than Fela’s, Osadebe sings of the joys and disappointments of ordinary life, poking fun at pretension and celebrating the importance of perseverance.

At nearly the age of 60, in 1995 Osadebe made his first tour of the United States and recorded what counts as among the finest West African albums available, Kedu America. Recorded in Seattle under the supervision of Andrew Frankel and Osadebe’s Nigerian-born but L.A.-based manager Nnamdi Moweta, Kedu contains new recordings of some of Osadebe’s classic songs. The music is thrilling throughout. The session opens with the entire band engaged in raucous chatter—and then bursting into a blistering guitar line. Somebody mutters, “this is very nice music,” and the guitar trades parts with stuttering drums until the horns enter. By the time Osadebe joins with his groaning, bluesy voice— reminiscent of John Lee Hooker in its gruffness—the band has turned every soulful phrase in the Ibo songbook.


While a critical triumph, Kedu failed to gain Osadebe anything like the stature achieved by Sunny Ade. But among Ibo living in America—there are large numbers in places like Houston, Los Angeles and Oakland—he is exalted. When he tours these cities, as he did last fall, he plays only private clubs, gatherings of Ibo faithful who come to hear a dose of their homeland. An Ibo group in Houston, say, rents a hall for him to perform in. Only Ibo show up, because the performance goes completely unpublicized.

In these performances, Osadebe always sings what the Ibo call “praise songs,” where he improvises lyrics about the people in attendance. The connection between West African singers and their audiences has always been intimate, with the dividing line between stage and seat blurry at best. In response to the success of these invitation-only concerts in U.S. cities, Osadebe last fall released Club America (for which I wrote the liner notes). While recorded in a Seattle studio, the album has the feel of a night in an Ibo social club, where people who spend their days trying to fit into America unwind with their own kind.

Club America lacks the raw energy of Kedu but is more typical of the lilting, swaying dance music that Ibos, young and old, find infectious. A third album, Sound Time, also released last year, contains 70 minutes of songs first released by Osadebe on cassette tapes between 1970 and 1985. This music, previously only available in Nigeria, conjures up the moments of relief and even ecstasy in the post-Biafra years. The civil war had been the first indication that post-colonial civil wars would be barbaric (the debasement of the war—and all wars—was captured by Ken Saro-Wiwa in his 1985 novel Sozaboy). In the aftermath, a grittier yet still joyous strain of highlife emerged, with Osadebe as a leading exponent.

Osadebe’s popularity is immense in Iboland: He is Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan rolled into one. In the United States, he is lionized in Ibo social clubs, where I was fortunate enough to see him perform last October. Except for my guests and me, the crowd in Oakland’s California Ballroom was all Ibo. At the age of 67, Osadebe showed no signs of tiring, even when the band kept on past 2 a.m.

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G. Pascal Zachary is the author of the memoir Married to Africa: A Love Story and The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy. From 1989 to 2001, he was a senior writer for the Wall Street Journal. Zachary has contributed articles to In These Times for more than 20 years and edits the blog Africa Works, about the political economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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