February 8, 2008 / 1:27 PM / in 10 years

Nigerians pay tribute to legend of highlife music

ATANI, Nigeria (Reuters) - Thousands of Nigerians gathered on Friday for the village funeral of Osita Osadebe, a legend of highlife music which fuses West African and Western styles, who sold millions of records during a career that spanned decades.

Osadebe died in the United States in May 2007 at the age of 71, but the community in his native village of Atani in southeastern Nigeria waited until the next dry season to hold a huge outdoor funeral that drew fans and friends of every age.

The Osadebe family compound was freshly painted and festooned with colorful ribbons, while in a nearby field giant loudspeakers blared some of the band leader’s most famous hits. Many mourners also played his music on their own small stereos.

“Osita is a crowd puller anytime, any day, even in death,” said Jordan Okafo, a gospel singer in his 40s.

“We will remain grateful to him for re-inventing highlife and leaving us over 1,000 music pieces to enjoy,” he added, shouting to be heard above the din.

Highlife music, a fusion of West African styles and Western influences including jazz, originated in Ghana and spread like wildfire in the wider region. In Nigeria it reached the peak of its popularity in Lagos in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Osadebe, a member of the Ibo ethnic group rooted in southeastern Nigeria, headed for Lagos in the southwest as a young man to try his luck in the numerous clubs where crowds gathered nightly to dance to highlife music.

A songwriter and singer, he had his first notable success in 1958 with the song “Adamma,” in praise of a beautiful woman, but it was the 1964 hit “One Pound No Balance” that propelled him to lasting fame.

“Osadebe succeeded in ‘Africanizing’ highlife, removing it from its seeming popular music and jazz structure to the call-and-response pattern of African music,” wrote music critic Benson Idonije in Friday’s Guardian newspaper.

The heyday of highlife music in Nigeria ended when civil war broke out in 1967 because many highlife musicians were Ibos who left Lagos to return to the southeast, which was trying to break away from Nigeria under the name of Biafra.

The Biafran secession failed and in 1970 the war ended, but highlife was never quite as popular afterwards. The 1970s saw the rise of the hugely successful Afrobeat style, spearheaded by political and social critic Fela Kuti.

But Osadebe remained faithful to highlife, resisting new influences from Congo and Cameroon to evolve his particular Nigerian style, and against the odds he continued to gain in popularity with hits like “Biafran Bullets.”

His 1984 album “Osondi Owendi” was his highest-selling and was cited by obituarists as a seminal album of the decade.

As is common in Nigeria, Osadebe was a polygamist with five wives and many children.

Writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Mary Gabriel

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