By Sylvester Asoya
Sonny Okosuns was indeed a soldier: tough and independent-minded. He was also stubborn, reflective, strategic, courageous and rebellious. But he was remarkably creative, visionary and compassionate. Charles, Sonny Okosuns’ younger brother and longest associate and manager for over 35 years, brings a rare insight to the extraordinary life of his elder brother whom he describes as an exemplary musician, composer, producer, mentor, band leader, activist and lover of humanity.
According to Charles Okosun, Sonny was representative of nearly everything good: from his music and relationships to his skills and nature as a very considerate human being, he was just a model. “If I was a woman and we were not related, I would have married Sonny because of the relationship we had. It was more than a sibling connection and friendship. We actually started from childhood and grew up like any other struggling poor family with many children in a single apartment in Enugu. My father worked with the railway while my mother sold Akara and firewood to augment our living”.
It was from this humble beginning and setting that the music icon and revolutionary artiste emerged. But from the outset, Duke, Sonny’s father who recently turned 110, had great plans for his restless and willful son who showed aptitude and industry very early in life. After his primary education in Enugu, Okosuns’ father desperately wanted his son to acquire the good secondary education associated with St. Patrick’s College, Asaba, then in Mid-Western Nigeria. For many young people of that generation, St. Patrick’s College was the place to be; it was indeed the school because of the influence of the highly effective Catholic Reverend Fathers and Brothers known for excellence in learning, character and good breeding.
Sonny Okosuns eventually set out for Asaba for the historic common entrance examination that would lead to that sought after and superb secondary school experience at St. Patrick’s. But the young man lost his bearing along the way. Half way into the journey, he derailed at Onitsha Bridge Head where he met casual workers, young boys like him, who cajoled him to join them and make some quick cash. He obliged and that ended his father’s dream of a great educational experience for a son who was actually promising. As they say, the rest is now history.
Finally when he returned to Enugu after his misadventure with the usual unbelievable wild tales and childish pranks of young people, his more experienced father knew time was up. So, he quickly approached an auto mechanic where Sonny became an apprentice as a way out of the challenges and uncertainties that stared the family in the face.
But despite his derailment, Sonny was actually destined to be great. “From our early beginning, I knew Sonny was predestined to be successful and famous. He was very rascally but also independent minded and focused. I was the only one who knew everything about him but I also kept all the secrets away from our distressed parents who desperately wanted to know his every move”, Charles says.
After all is said and done, Sonny eventually formed a band known then as Postman, one of the first pop groups in the defunct Eastern Nigeria and an interesting musical journey began. Almost immediately, he became a star. His popularity soared when he started performing at Ukonu’s Club in Enugu, a move that sealed his fate as an up-and-coming artiste to watch. He played the guitar, keyboard and other instruments. Then the Civil War came at a time he was starting to find his rhythm. During the war years, he continued to play at different locations until Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, his personal friend and leader of the secessionist Biafra advised him to return to the Mid-West, his region, because eyes were already on him.
At the end of the war, Okosuns worked with the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA as set designer and also took part in the first Village Headmaster television series. From there, he was poached by Sir Victor Uwaifo and made a second guitarist after Uwaifo. Sonny eventually formed Paperback Limited and a great and unstoppable music career began in earnest.
Even with his fame, Sonny was a great fan and follower of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, the Beatles and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. Before he passed away, he also played host to great musicians and important personalities like Oliver Thambo, Rita Marley, Peter Tosh and others.
Unlike Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and other more fortunate artistes, nothing much has been done to document Sonny Okosuns and his amazing life as a musician, band leader, composer, activist, pan-Africanist and evangelist. Though his younger brother, Charles and a few music reporters are conscious of documenting this great life, they are constrained by finance. A book is already in the offing but Charles says support has remained a major obstacle on the way of the writers and publishers. However, he is optimistic that well meaning Nigerians will intervene in the not too distant future.
Nevertheless, Okosuns greatness and achievements are not in doubt. He was indeed, a great musician and leader of the highly successful Ozzidi Band. Even though the word Ozzidi was derived from a well known Ijaw River god, Okusuns connection and attachment to Ozzidi revolved around his universal message and belief that he represented a new age. And for many decades, he stayed with his message of liberation, re-birth, understanding and cooperation, pan-Africanism and freedom. He was without doubt, a huge frame of contemporary Nigerian music and his influence and message stretched beyond Nigeria and the African continent. He was also a major voice in the struggle for liberty across Southern Africa and adjoining countries. In many ways, Papa’s Land, No More War and Fire in Soweto, definitive albums, set the stage for freedom and they continue to be relevant even in this age. For instance, Fire in Soweto was released in 1976 to commemorate the Soweto massacre. And Okosuns involvement in the Apartheid struggle is a pointer to his personal sacrifice and commitment to Africa’s fight for liberty, independence and unity.
To him, family was also important. For many decades, his band revolved around family and trusted friends. Mother and Child for instance, extols the virtues of mothers and shows how far they can actually go, even at personal discomfort and harm, to protect their children. In Zigahozi, another masterpiece, he invokes the spirits of Africa’s founding fathers and uses them to intervene and as a source of contact to mediate in the continent’s never-ending woes.
This thread continues in Which Way Nigeria, a work of genius that still resonates because Nigeria unfortunately, is still in search of direction as a country. One other significant thing about the Ozzidi exponent is his vision, and even his worst critics give him credit for seeing and living ahead of his time. His songs of liberation and social protest eventually led to the freedom and independence of some African countries who will forever remember him for his courageous intervention through music and dance.
At his twilight, Okosuns branched into gospel songs and ministration. Naturally, he also made a great success and impact with works like Songs of Praise, Tire Ni Oluwa, Revival and others.
Surely, Okosuns will be remembered for his timeless songs, his courage, steadfastness, detribalized nature, an impressive music career and a great life of impact.
-This article by Sylvester Asoya, journalist (who once worked with TheNEWS) and public affairs analyst, was first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.