Celestine Ukwu

"Ejim Nke Onye" -

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Most Nigerian pop stars adopt or acquire titles like King, Sir, Lord, Cardinal, etc, but the great Celestine Ukwu was happy to be a humble Professor and his band had the poetic name of the Philosophers. Ukwu began his career in the 1960s in Enugu, capital of the Eastern Region of Nigeria under Mike Ejeagha. He moved back to Onitsha where he formed the Music Royals, but the Biafran war put an end to their career in 1967. After the war he resurrected the band in the early 70s as the Philosophers National. Tragically Celestine Ukwu died in a car crash on 8 May 1977, not yet forty.
The liner notes to His Philosophies expound on his music:

“Listening to Celestine Ukwu generally and to this album in particular, he was not influenced by anybody. He evolved his own style and this is why he is an innovator and a true artist like Rex Lawson.

“His soft, gentle-paced music is totally reflective of his personality. He was soft-spoken, gentle, unassuming and highly talented.

“But perhaps what accounted mainly for his success was the fact that he was able to build the keyboards into highlife, blending and fusing them in an exotic manner with heavily accented percussion without losing the traditional flavour and rhythmic concept of the music.

“In the same vein, he introduced into highlife a great sense of group-vocal harmony singing, evident on the Efik song “Uwem Ereri Mbot’ Emi” and he adopted a simple yet effective style of orchestration completely devoid of improvisations and embellishments, but thematic and basic in harmony and entire structure. ‘Elege’ is a fine example.

“As a composer, the late Celestine was prolific and outstanding. All his writings centred around the philosophy of life, moralising, correcting social ills and advocating for peace, unity and love — from ‘Ije Enu’ his first big hit, and ‘Osondu’ to ‘Money Palaver’ and ‘Elege’ all of which are pregnant with meaningful messages and philosophy.

“As a singer he sang with conviction, feeling rather comfortable and at ease, at high, low and middle registers.

“Rex Jim Lawson dominated the highlife scene of the sixties. Celestine Ukwu took over and ruled the seventies.”

–Benson Idonije, Radio Nigeria Two.

(His Philosophies was a compilation including three songs reissued from Ilo Abu Chi and two more from True Philosophy, his first album. However it did include part two of “Igede” and another hit in Pidgin English, “Money Palaver,” about a woman who is a street walker, which was also gathered on Igede Fantasia.)

 

Celestine Ukwu was indeed soft-spoken and gentle and this is reflected in his music, which is softer and more laid-back than most Igbo highlife. He featured piano, vibraphone and pedal steel guitar. The vibraphone shimmers on “Ucha Chukwe Ka (God’s will is supreme)” which was the B-side of his first single, a dreamy ten-minute workout replete with a lovely soprano sax solo, collected on the Tomorrow is So Uncertain LP in 1973.
His eleven-piece band truly was philosophical as their songs dealt with social evils and the need for peace.

“Igede,” his smash hit from 1971, based on Igbo folklore, has all the earmarks of post-colonial Nigerian Highlife (music for those who could afford a good time): guitar, killer percussion, and an out-of-tune piano, but it has a relentless groove that sticks. While “Part One” of this classic of Nigerian danceband highlife can be found on the Flame Tree compilation, the album HIS PHILOSOPHIES features a second version of the song (“Part Two”) that further deconstructs the melody. A muted trumpet with a wah-wah sound mocks the vocals as the hand-drums rattle in complex concordance. It’s a sparkling, poetic track that will always conjur up the good times.

His album ILO ABU CHI from 1974 contained “Elege,” “Ejina Uwa nya isi (Don’t be arrogant)”, “Uwem ereri mbot emi (No rest ’til Death)”, “Nwa anyi egbuna anyi (We should not kill ourselves)”, and “Okwukwe na nchekwube (Faith and trust)”, all of which are included on the Flametree GREATEST HITS CD. “Ije enu (Life)”, which leads off that compilation, is drawn from the album HIS PHILOSOPHIES, 1975, along with “Osondu (Escape from Death).” But, despite the title, this is not his greatest hits, just a slice of his great music. Missing here most notably is “Money Palaver,” one of his big hits. And I have not yet discovered his earliest recording and hit “No Condition is Permanent.”

 

Born in 1940, Celestine was educated musically by his uncle who taught him how to read music and play harmonium. His grandmother was a folk musician and dancer and his father, who worked as a coal miner, was a popular local performer of igede, ikpa and ode music. His mother was lead singer for a women’s dance troupe.
After Catholic primary school, where he excelled in drama and music, Celestine went to teacher training school for two years, dropping out in 1960 to join Mike Ejeagha’s group as vocalist and maraca player. But he soon left to join a group led by Mr Picolo who were going to tour the Congo. Thus an early exposure to Congolese music had a huge impact on his own musical formation.

On his return to Nigeria he briefly joined a group called African Baby Party. Three months later he moved to Maiduguri and formed Freedom Jazz Band, but then he moved to Zaria and formed The Republic Knights with Charles Jebba.

But he moved again, to Onitsha, where he fronted the Niger City Starlighters. With this formation he made his debut recordings, and scored hits with “No Condition is Permanent,” “Artificial Beauty,” “Appolonia,” and “Ije Enu.” This latter song sold 200,000 copies in 3 months.

After nine months he decided to start anew and with the help of Matthias Okafor who owned the Frontline Hotel, Onitsha, and who rented instruments for him, Ukwu was able to start Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria in April 1962. The band was a huge success for five years. In 1967 the Biafran War broke out and the non-Biafran members of the band fled, while Ukwu recorded “Hail Biafra!” and did his bit to boost morale during the strife. In addition to singing he also played drums and vibraphone on his recordings. The band toured neighbouring countries and even went to West Germany. In 1972 students at the University of Nigeria renamed his band the Philosophers National. In 1977 at the age of 37, Ukwu died in a car wreck.

Get Celestine Ukwu Ringback Tune 

Text  6847969 to  791  for  Ejim nke onye
Text  6847991 to  791  for  Usondu
Text  6847994 to  791  for  Asili

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