By Ochuko Tonukari
I grew up at a time when significant aspects of Urhobo culture were at the brink of extinction. Even so, there was a burning desire in me to find out about Urhobo worldview on certain issues which have become victim of western imperialism. There and then, I became preoccupied with listening to people who were regarded as cognoscenti of Urhobo history and culture. Many a time I would ask series of questions and wonder about some aspects of Urhobo religion which usually have mysterious undertones.
In those days, there were three distinct trees that the Urhobo considered to be the most sacred in the forest simply because of the deities that reside therein. These trees were aghanokpe, okpagha and akpobrisi. Back then there were a lot of debates about these trees and their respective deities that I was at a loss as to which to accept or reject. Every now and then, elder Ovedje, our most acclaimed moonlight folklorist would, in the course of storytelling, point out that in Urhobo pantheon, aghanokpe, okpagha and akpobrisi were the actual habitation of Urhobo major deities with other minor trees like ogriki, owangha, eke, oghighe, uhovwe, opuopuo, uno, and akoro sandwiched in between.
It was while listening to the music of Chief Omokomoko Osokpa, alias Omokobluff that I knew I had reached epiphany. Chief Omokomoko not only gave me enlightenment and insight into my hitherto seemingly unending questions about Urhobo religious dynamics, he didactically opened my young, craving mind to the assemblage of proverbs, ideals, folklores, morals and mysteries that abound in Urhobo culture. I was to see this famous musician of Urhobo stock for the first time in 1990 at a well-attended burial ceremony of a prominent Kokori chief. It was there I had the grand opportunity of watching him live as he dished out songs after songs in a quintessential Urhobo style. His accent was a blend of Orogun, Ughelli and Agbarho dialects. It was alleged that this was a decision he took in the later years of his musical career in order to be able to affect a wider Urhobo audience and it paid off. Throughout the burial ceremony, Chief Omokomoko Osokpa was the cynosure of all eyes. His lyrical vigor, epigrammatic sayings and vocal nuance touched the souls of his numerous listeners. He sang about the mysteries of life and death, about family values as of old, about the challenges of poverty, about Urhobo unity, about outstanding Urhobo pioneers and heroes like Mowoe, Salubi, Erukeme, Shakarho, Mariere, Okpodu and Ikutegbe as well as the bastardization of Urhobo culture by outside forces.
One of the surprises that greeted me was to discover that the man behind this great musical performance could hardly see. This disability notwithstanding, Chief Omokomoko, like Stevie Wonder, played instruments and rendered his music with great expertise and dexterity. The synchronization of his voice with his instruments in a cultural sense is a quality uncommon with most Urhobo modern musicians. This is why, methinks, a somewhat great volumes for the teaching of Urhobo poetry could be extracted from the works of some remarkable Urhobo music maestros like Chief Omokomoko Osokpa, Chief Johnson Adjan, Chief Ogute Otan, Chief Eghweyanudje Otubure, Chief Okpa Arhibo and the likes.
Chief Omokomoko celebrated his 68th years on stage somewhere in 2001 just after suffering from a stroke. On his sick bed, he enjoined his younger colleagues to sing songs that would teach the society to exhibit good morals; he advised them to dwell on more engaging issues of morality in their songs.
Up till early 2004 before he was bedridden, the musician was still actively involved in music with his 10-member band. He fell sick immediately he returned from the burial ceremony of Late Chief Eko Ovbije where he played all night long. Chief Omokomoko was so sad that of all his 68 years of playing music, his only opportunity for an overseas tour came when he took ill. When one Samson Akporugo (a showbiz promoter) came from London to take him for a tour, he met him ill.
When the news of his death reached me around February 24th 2005, I could not help wondering and bemoaning the loss of this great man who impacted this world with his lyrical prodigy. I attended his burial ceremony which took place on March 26, 2005 at his hometown of Obodete-Orogun in Ughelli North Local government area of Delta State. What really saddened my heart was to discover that Chief Omokomoko Osokpa, the man who propagated Urhobo traditions and culture with his music right from the days of primitive musical instrument like the akise, ama, igede, isorogu, oche, and agogo; the man who redefined and promoted the veritable aspects of Urhobo culture for more than six decades was not given a deserving burial. But then kudos must be given to Omokobluff’s younger colleagues in the Urhobo music industry who took turn in echoing melodious tributary songs to late Chief Omokomoko Osokpa for his pioneering effort and roles in the transformation of Urhobo modern music. Indeed, these aforementioned musicians and some other prominent Urhobo sons and daughters in other walks of life must be acknowledged for contributing their quota in ensuring that the fine legacies left behind by this worthy Urhobo musician is not left uncelebrated.
Frankly, those who attended the burial ceremony of Chief Omokomoko Osokpa will attest to the fact that the turnout was no doubt, in sharp contrast with the man’s immense fame and popularity. One wonders whether it was the real Omokobluff that was being buried or another lesser artiste. The incidence did not tell well of Urhobo as a people.
Here was a man who lived his life for us and helped in promoting our culture. Unlike many other Urhobo musicians after him, Omokomoko’s life was marked by simplicity and patriotism. He built his mission and vision around his people, the Urhobo. He taught and advised us on how to coexist peacefully with our neighbour. Chief Omokomoko’s life bore true testaments to what he sang and taught through his music. Indeed, he was the Urhobo musical equivalent of Oliver De Coque, Osita Osadebe, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Shina Peters, Ebenezer Obey, Bob Marley, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Damaraya Jos. It was when I was wondering whether something can be done posthumously to honour Chief Omokomoko Osokpa that I learnt, with great delight, that Urhobo Historical Society, under the cerebral and able leadership of Professor Peter Ekeh, have initiated a kind of service award for pioneering and patriotic Urhobos, both retrospective and current, and that of musicology was given to the duo of late Chief Omokomoko Osokpa and Ogute Otan, two Urhobo musicians of legendary proportions, who promoted Urhobo culture through music and dance. This is good enough.
Born in March 23, 1920, Chief Omokomoko Osokpa began playing music in 1933. It was the age of the gramophone. At first, he played music initially with a man called Kaigha in Orogun town, whom he considered to be a very talented musician in those days. Omokomoko believed God gave him the gift of singing as he did not learn the act from anybody. When he started music, people called him various names and some felt he was a street urchin. It must be said here that this was how musicians were referred to in those days. But he was not deterred as his musicianship later took him all over the country where he met notable musicians like I.K. Dairo in Ijebu Ijesha, Joseph Osamorin, Isaac Blaq, Victor Olaiya, among others.
It was alleged that things where very difficult for Omokomoko when he started his musical career. He was like the proverbial prophet who had no honour in his country. He started playing music with bottle and later, gong. Things were really difficult then to the extent that, when Omokomoko and his crew were in the studio to do a recording, there was just one microphone
available for him and his chorus singers. He was almost frustrated as there was no other way. What can he do? As a blind man, music seemed the only way especially since he had the talent; if he didn’t choose music then, would he have tapped rubber, hunted animals or farmed?
Throughout his almost seven decades of playing music, Omokomoko did so many albums which he even lost count of. It was said that Chief Omokomoko got the inspiration to sing almost daily. It was also said that the recording, OGS Records, which he later floated in Sapele contributed greatly to his prolific genius, as anytime he got an inspiration for a particular song or songs that could make up a full album, he promptly rushed to the waiting hands of his engineers and they worked it out in his studio. When the company folded up in 1987, Omokomoko began to sell his patents and decided to ask for a substantial amount of money before recording an album as he did not want to go chasing pirates or troubling any record company for royalties. As an old man, this arrangement saved him a lot of trouble.
Married to 13 wives, Chief Omokomoko strongly believed that as an only child, polygamy was the best way of overcoming the inability of his parents by having plenty of wives and children. But that was not to be as it became obviously clear that he could not have a child of his own, despite his harem of wives. This inability, beyond his blind state, perturbed him all through his life. It was alleged that this was the main reason why all his wives, with the exception of Mrs. Rebecca Omokomoko from Agbor, who happened to be one of his favourite dancers, had to leave him. She got married to Chief Omokomoko Osokpa in 1974, and since then, she stood by him irrespective of her childless marriage. She also doubled as Omkomoko’s accountant. Rebecca took her time to attend to Chief Omokomoko’s welfare when he was sick and she believed they would continue their musical performance together when he fully recovers.
Chief Omokomoko was a somewhat rich man in his life time. He built a house and had three cars, although he had none at the time of his demise. He was said to be a raggedy poor man before his death. He spent almost all his financial resources on treatment all to no avail.
Indeed, music gave Chief Omokomoko Osokpa untold popularity and wealth. Until his passing away, he was a patron of the Performing Musicians Employers Association of Nigeria (PMEAN) and the Chairman of Urhobo Musicians Union. He was so popular among the Yoruba in those days that anytime an Urhobo musician visits Yoruba land, he was called Omokomoko.
Even till today, Omokomoko’s music is a good listen, but each song gives you the feeling that you have heard it before. With the intent of showcasing the wealth of talent available in his stable, Omokomoko had throughout his musical career compiled a diverse collection that is well put together and cut across different genres, giving his music greater appeal. Everything he sang about is of great cultural significance to the Urhobos especially those of the years gone by. The beat, lyrics, passion and power in his voice are memorable. Indeed, Omokomoko Osokpa was a great musical sensation who carried his audience into a world of originality, rare notes, jokes and laughter. It was alleged that in those days, Urhobo cultural enthusiasts usually flocked to any occasion where Omokomoko was billed to sing as they were sure to be treated to Omokobluff’s theatrics and off-the-cuff songs.
Even as a child, I was intrigued by Omokomoko Osokpa, his music and his personality. I thought he was talented and intelligent. He had depth, he was natural and I thought more importantly, that he had potential. Chief Omokomoko had a unique sound and a distinct presence. This was why his audience was captivated as he delivered songs after songs with the mastery of a veteran. He produced more vocal sounds than he did lyrics. The more curious his sounds, the more spellbound his audience. His music was art.
Up till this moment, I have not stopped enjoying the music of Chief Omokomoko Osokpa as it draws me closer to the wellspring of my root and enables me to reflect solemnly on the richness and diversity of Urhobo culture. This gives me joy unspeakable. I must confess I have a sentimental attachment to the music of Omokomoko due to their pristine nature, but sometimes I find it extremely hard to pull out my creative imagination to express it. Permit me to dwell on one of his songs in this treatise. It went thus:
“Ohwo ko ye ne je ko’ hwo
Ohwo ko ye ne je ko’ ohwo
Okpe irhe ode ro e vu r’ ogo
Oko wo me vwo re ebe vwi yo
Ohwo ko ye ne je k’ ohwo”.
In this short but witty song which I loved so much, Omokomoko tells us the significance of having a big man (which he symbolically called a big tree in the forest) in a family. He believed that if a big man is present in any family, such a family should do all within their power to protect him but in the song, he figuratively put it as clearing or weeding the grass around him. In his view, people respect and regard you because of this person (big man) they see in your family. In short, he believed they run as a result of this “big tree”. This song is heavily packed with a lot of meanings that will make more sense to those who understand the nitty-gritty of Urhobo language, but trying to translate or transliterate it does not seem to bring out its full impact.
It would be recalled that Chief Omokomoko Osokpa started singing at a time when Urhobo disunity had reached a crescendo. So, it was incumbent upon him at the time to use his great musical prowess in preaching the all-important gospel of unity to the Urhobos. This is one factor that could be seen in his earlier songs. Also, some of his earlier works reflect the joys and sorrows that characterized his growing up years while his originality is traceable to the combination, an almost five-hundred-old knowledge of Urhobo culture. His music inspired by his personal sentiments, is a pleasant fusion of both the traditional and modern, both blending harmoniously. His awareness of Urhobo religion is apparent in his signature, immaculate usage of certain words that have deep Urhobo undertones. This unique musical perspective of Omokomoko embodied Urhobo cultural worldview in its diversity. The emergence of Go-Slow Arhavwore of Oria-Abraka with the introduction of drums brought a new angle to the Urhobo musical art of the time but this did not changed the people’s admiration for Chief Omokomoko’s music despite his use of cruder instruments. And then in the mid 1950s and 1960s came other talented, vibrant Urhobo musicians from different quarters. At first, it was one Fob from Abraka clan, Urhuoka to be precise. He was so very popular but one thing led to the other and he soon fell into oblivion. Then, somewhere in 1958, came Chief Solomon Okome from Oko-Edafe and Okpara Waterside. His music was more or less satirical. But after sometime, he soon went in the way of the rest. In the early 1960s-1966 came Chief Peter Ayandju from Agbarha-Otor, Chief Aghate from Ovu, Chief Ogbuzor from Ughelli, Chief Daniel America Janerhe from Odovie, Chief Omoyibo from Ugono-Orogun, Chief Ogute Otan and Chief Ogbiniki both from Ughievwen, and Chief Daniel Orieoghenemwoma a.k.a Sally Young from Oria -Abraka. They were all very popular in their own way.
Ogute Otan was from Orhuwhorun and so sang with Udu with a slight shade or tinge of Ughievwen. Indeed, he had a golden, melodious voice, but his music revolved around udje style and was limited to Udu and Ughievwen dialectical background and so could not really impact much on the entire Urhobo nation. Sally Young seemed to realize this as his music combined pidgin, Abraka and Agbon dialects, which gave him so much popularity among Urhobo elite. His No. 80 New Road Sapele residence where he once ran a hotel called Hotel De Sally in the 80s was an unforgettable experience for those who lived in Sapele in those days. It was common then to hear passengers telling transporters to stop them at Sally Young’s place. As a tenant, he held so much sway that people referred to the place with his name. Sally Young was the founder of the famous Lion Dance Band that used to entertain VIPs in big occasions in those days. Music once took Sally Young to Mississippi in the US and Tokyo, Japan.
In the early parts of the 70s, came a crop of younger musicians with rare talents. At first, it was Ewheyanudje Otubure from Orhoakpor. His music was greatly received as they flow from a well-spring of balanced dialectical standpoint. But his phase was rather short as he died suddenly. Then Johnson Adjan, who had his roots from Ofuoma in Ughelli North and Orhoakpor in Ethiope East, began to take the centre stage. He was said to have taken after Chief Omokomoko Osopka and believed by many to be the most gifted musician ever to come from Urhoboland. His songs were quite poetic and lyrical. Before long, he took the title Ogbu ine, which in Urhobo, is simply the equivalent of a professor of music. He was the first Urhobo traditional musician to perform in United Kingdom.
Then, there is Okpa Arhibo. He is of Agbarho/Kokori extraction. He had since turned into a musical colossus of no mean status. Like Johnson Adjan, Okpa Arhibo had also performed in the UK. In fact, he was quick to sing about it in one of its album titled: “I have gone; I have come; I give thanks to God.” Chief Okpa Arhibo sang about how he not only visited London, but Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Tottenham etc.
Since the early 90s and late 90s, Chief (Dr.) Special Ofua, the first Urhobo Orator, and Chief (Prof.) Raphael Okejevwa, a.k.a Achonacho, who are no doubt the most celebrated Urhobo orators, have also joined the Urhobo musical bid as they sang and expressed Urhobo age-long wisdom in their works. All these are practical testimonies to the fact that Urhobo modern traditional music that was pioneered by Chief Omokomoko Osokpa had indeed come of age. With the emergence of other younger, artistic, gifted musicians like Chief (Admiral) Barrister Orhire Okoro, Original Benco, Lucky Okwe and Nathaniel Oruma, it is clear that Urhobo traditional music is going places. But even in the midst of all these, the Urhobos cannot forget the legend of Omokomoko Osokpa who began the journey in the first place. May his soul rest in peace.