For creating Sweet Mother, one of Africa’s greatest and most popular songs, Prince Nico Mbarga remains etched in our minds
By Sylvester Asoya
In Nigeria and other parts of Africa, Sweet Mother is regarded by many people as Africa’s sacred song. But there are also others who see this outstanding musical composition as the continent’s ultimate hymn of praise and reverence.
After all, everyone loves his or her mother but this notable work by Prince Nico Mbarga is defining. It is definitely more than homage to mothers and the familiar and incredible motherly love every child sees and feels.
Without any doubt, Sweet Mother remains a continental anthem that brings men and women, boys and girls, children, the youth and even the elderly, together for many reasons but particularly for pleasure, entertainment and general well-being.
Therefore it is not surprising that this 1976 all-time hit that celebrates motherhood, remains one of the world’s biggest-selling singles in music history.
But this original piece of music by a remarkable African composer has other attractions too. However, its major strength is in its timelessness. It is one song anyone can relate with and listen to over and over again without any sense of boredom or monotony. That is why it has remained continually relevant over the years.
For those who may not know, Sweet Mother is one of Africa’s best and most popular songs. In December 2004, readers and listeners of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC overwhelmingly voted Sweet Mother, Africa’s Favourite Song. This highly relatable and ground-breaking work by Mbarga took the first position after a thorough selection process from a shortlist of 10 equally great works by eminent music composers.
It will be unfair however, to ascribe overnight success to this winning entry from Nigeria. The fact that the entry’s success did not come as a surprise to many, particularly the common people on the streets of Africa, re-enforces the credibility of this all-time hit. Even in this age and time, Sweet Mother still resonates. The work possesses all the qualities of a superb work and a possible winner of any evaluation process anywhere and anytime. Apart from existing within the highly popular highlife genre, Sweet Mother is also rhythmic with meaningful lyrics. Moreover, it is topical, melodic, original, alluring and relevant, with a wonderful and seductive intro. That is why this piece of music will live forever.
Joseph Warungu, the man who supervised the BBC verdict that gave Sweet Mother victory, provides some insights. “It’s not just about the lyrics. There is something about the singing guitar that gets you. Again, it is the guitar in this song that drives you mad”, he says.
Mbarga was without doubt, a prominent African highlife musician who was affected by many influences, including the Congolese popular music techniques.
But Sweet Mother is also a product of courage, resilience and consistency. Before it was finally released in December 1976 by Rogers All Stars, a recording company based in Onitsha, this work that eventually became Africa’s most popular, suffered rejection and dishonor in the hands of Nigeria’s leading recording companies. In fact, one of those companies turned down Sweet Mother on account of its “childish appeal”. No doubt, the work’s profundity, simplicity and Pidgin English rendition obviously beclouded the scornful ‘wise men’ who clearly did not see any value beyond Mbarga’s language and honesty.
Ladi Ayodeji is a veteran entertainment writer and a former newspaper editor. In a chat with alice, he reveals his last but memorable encounter with Mbarga which was exactly a week before his tragic death. According to him, Mbarga was his good friend. A week before he passed away, he visited Lagos and called on him to meet him somewhere. After lunch with the highlife musician, he travelled back to Calabar, his Cross River State base, promising to return to Lagos for another meeting with Ayodeji. From their discussion that fateful day, it was obvious that Mbarga was consciously trying to stage a come-back after a lull to an industry he loved so much. So, Ayodeji waited anxiously for his return journey but he never made it back to Lagos. A week after that eventful visit, he was shocked to hear about his death. From their conversation that day and as part of his plan to re-invent himself and his career, Ayodeji also learnt that he had been granted a US visa to travel to America on a tour. In fact, he was actually looking forward to the trip overseas on the day he died.
According to a source, Mbarga was moving around, trying to collect some essentials for the trip when death came. On that day, there was traffic at the peak of one of those grinding fuel scarcities in Nigeria. He alighted from his Mercedes Benz car and decided to take a motorcycle to beat the traffic and increase his speed. But it turned out to be his last ride as he was knocked down on the bike by another vehicle.
Ayodeji remembers Mbarga for his wit, professionalism, good nature, vivacity and colour. “Prince was a lively, charming guy whose musical talent was awesome. He was highly professional and disciplined as a musician. He was a complete gentleman who loved his craft, and was highly committed to high standards”, he says.
In Calabar where he lived, worked and eventually died and Ikom, also in Cross River State, where his Sweet Mother Hotel is located, Mbarga is still revered.
The creator of Sweet Mother was born in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital in 1950 to a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother. Mbarga, the inimitable singer, record producer, band leader and composer led his band, Rocafil to Africa’s Music Hall of Fame with Sweet Mother. He will be remembered forever.
-Sylvester Asoya, journalist, wrote this article, first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.