By Sylvester Asoya
Thirteen years after his death, the shadow of king of highlife, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, still looms large in Atani, Anambra State and beyond
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe still inspires a feeling of great admiration and love in Atani, his home town in Anambra State. In fact, Osadebe is still loved and missed by many who benefitted from his kindness; that is why his generosity still echoes through the entire community. Nothing less than fond memories fit the larger-than-life image of this highlife maestro from an appreciative people who remember him every day. As the Ezeafulukwe of Atani, a lot rested on Osadebe’s shoulders during his earthly journey. To fully appreciate the significance of the musician’s traditional title and the expectations that came with his identity, it is important to state that the literal translation of Ezeafulukwe, an Igbo word, is a king seen and believed. And three words defined this archetypal and admirable highlife king who was seen and believed by all. The words, fidelity, compassion and confidence were part of the essential Osadebe. So, in Atani, most people believe that Osadebe was admired and greatly loved because he was faithful and generous to many, particularly the people of his community. Surprisingly, Osadebe the Ezeafulukwe, continues to live his traditional title and the good associated with it, even in death in Atani.
Madam Amechi is Osadebe’s last and youngest wife. She says that her husband was exemplary in many ways. She also insists that he was extraordinarily generous. For her, Osadebe’s charity was without borders. He was openhanded not only to his community but to other people he came in contact with him at Onitsha, Lagos and other parts of the world where he visited, lived or performed as an artiste. So, it was not surprising that Atani stood still at his death on 11 May, 2007. Amechi reveals that at Osadebe’s demise, she thought the end had come for her and the multitude that depended on her husband for survival.
“My husband was a special creature. He was loving and compassionate. He built houses for many struggling young men and funded dozens of marriages without blinking an eye. It is also a well known fact that his gate was open 24 hours of the day. And he never discriminated against anyone on the basis of belief, sex, age, tribe or culture. That was why he ate from the same plate with the people who visited him from time to time. In this town today, no one talks bad about him because of his legacies, that was the reason Atani almost came to a halt on the day he died”, she reveals.
Another enthusiastic praise by one of his daughters is also enlightening. Ndidiamaka Osadebe speaks glowingly about her father and his other side as a great supporter of farmers in a community well known for farming, fishing and commerce. “My father was very friendly and kind-hearted, and he liked helping out during the planting season. I remember seeing farmers here from different communities who came to collect money for seed yams. He really loved to assist people. If there is one major thing that I miss, it is his generosity. He was also playful. Even in his old age, he used to play with all his children, he never discriminated. And regularly, he took us out on sight-seeing. Honestly, we miss him greatly”, she says.
However, one man followed this highlife icon’s career and life very closely. He is Chief Emeka Ossai, a photographer, community leader and Osadebe’s kinsman. Ossai who also hails from Umuekeke, Osadebe’s quarters in Atani, is an authoritative source on the music maestro and his extraordinary life. He discusses with ease, the young Osadebe: the independent-minded and self-willed teenager who was determined to live his passion. So, he became a musician against the will of his disciplinarian father who had opposed his career choice.
Ossai also talks about Osadebe’s kindness, his love for poor people, his belief in culture and tradition, his hot-temper and good nature, his costume, his abilities on stage, his perfect vocal tone, his mission to Russia, his brother Patrick, his children and wives: Olayinka, Ngozi, Nkiru and Amechi.
According to Ossai, “when Osadebe returned from Russia, he lived and performed in Lagos for sometime before returning to Onitsha. At Onitsha, he played at Central Hotel, Ozomagala Street but resided at Cole Street. We miss him a lot because he brought smiles to many faces. He was very accommodating, friendly, brotherly and fatherly. He was also a helper; whoever had any problem at that time easily reached out to him”, he reveals.
Outside Atani, there are also those with unforgettable memories. Charles Okogene, a veteran entertainment journalist recalls how Osadebe’s fame spread like wildfire shortly after the release of Osondi Owendi. “Osondi Owendi was a monster hit. It gave the highlife musician a very good mileage. The song which was produced by Chris Ajilo, a gifted producer, took the music industry by storm. I remember that at some point, Osadebe used to play at Ajegunle, Lagos but we never met until our encounter at the poolside of Lagos Airport Hotel where he electrified the audience. It was a massive crowd. Apparently, his promoters underestimated his popularity and ability to attract a huge crowd in Lagos. Normally, such a show should have held at a stadium, not a poolside. However, Osadebe was a great musician. He inspired so many musicians, including Ikenga Super Stars of Africa that released their album under Rogers All Stars label. Today, Osadebe’s songs are still inspiring a new generation of highlife musicians in Nigeria and other parts of our sub region. He will never be forgotten”, he says.
For four decades, Osadebe the philosopher and one of the gods of highlife genre thrilled music lovers across the world. His brand of music, rooted in African philosophy, truth, wisdom, realities, relationships, culture and values, continues to make impact. And his works are not only deep and reflective; they also teach enduring lessons on life and living. Certainly, he was a man of the world known for his broadmindedness and detribalized nature (his first wife, Olayinka is Yoruba and he had many friends and associates outside his region). He will also be in many people’s memory for his influence on the music scene, his travels, his courage, education and exposure which are all interesting chapters of a great life that touched lives. These and more are testimonials of a good and worthy life of a highly gifted musician. Yet, there are little or no monuments and memorials in his name.
This is Amechi’s main grouse with the powers that be and the industry her late husband represented and served for decades. “I am not happy that since he passed on, no government, group or individual remembers him. Every October, we hear about Felabration in Lagos and how the Fela Anikulapo family is supported yearly by government and corporate bodies to keep alive, the memories of Fela, the great musician. My husband was great and I think he also deserves to be remembered. But I thank God for his life despite all odds. I know that he is fine wherever he is”, she reveals.
Osadebe’s major works include Kedu America, Ife Chukwu Kanma, Nwanem Ebezina, Onu Kwulu Njo, Onye Achonam, Yoba Chukwu and Makojo. Others are Agabalu Aka Nazo Ani, Ome Ife Jide Ofo, Onu Kwube, Atamuna, Ana Masi Ife Uwa, Gwam Okwu, Oyolima and more.
Atani, headquarters of Ogbaru Local Government Area in Anambra State is indeed a home of musicians. According to Ossai, there are over a dozen active highlife artistes today in Atani who are following in Osadebe’s footsteps. Ali Chukwuma, the famous highlife musician who died many years ago was also raised in Atani. Chijioke Mbanefo is another wave-making highlife musician in Atani. Mbanefo praises Osadebe anytime an opportunity presents itself because he believes strongly that he would not have ventured into music much less of succeeding without Osadebe’s influence. And a visitor to his compound in Atani is welcomed by Osadebe’s giant statue as a mark of honour. There are also Obiajulu Odili who sings and dances like Osadebe; Onyeze Amobi who incidentally is a nephew of Osadebe and other musicians who are keeping the highlife fire burning in Atani.
Unsurprisingly, this brand of music Osadebe pioneered still plays loud and clear in Atani, the home of melody. In fact, on this reporter’s way to Atani via Onitsha, Osadebe’s songs blared from loudspeakers from Uga Junction in Onitsha through Odekpe, Iyi Owa, Okoti, Okpotunor, Ohita and other adjoining communities.
But beyond Osadebe’s enduring legacy as a talented musician, one thing is certain and that is the fact that his community will never forget him for his generosity, faithfulness and love. And for an attentive visitor, the signs of gratitude are written everywhere.
Sylvester Asoya, journalist who once worked with TheNEWS, first published this article in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.