In March 1936, Stephen Osita Osadebe was born in Atani, of the Ibo tribe, in Eastern Nigeria. The Ibo possess a vibrant cultural heritage often expressed in dances and songs about life and its complexities. This vibrancy is greatly captured in Osadebe’s music. He comes from a line of native singers and dancers.
Mentored by trumpeter Zeal Onyia, Osadebe soon worked his way through a circuit of night clubs and dance halls in Lagos, South Western tip of Nigeria, far away from his home. His musical gift had blossomed in high school, in Onitsha Nigeria’s commercial city, near Atani.
In 1958, his first record was released to much acclaim and acceptance. It contained two songs, one of which was “Adamma”, a tribute to a beautiful lady.
Since then, he has written over 500 songs, more than half of which have been released and circulated world-wide. Today, he enjoys the prime prestige of the doyen of highlife music in Africa. In some circles, he is even considered a cultural icon.
Highlife music was introduced in Nigeria with uncertain prospects in the late thirties. Its roots lie in Ghana (then the Gold Coast) and to a lesser extent in Sierra Leone which were the two leading nations in the West African sub-region at that time. Colonialism was loosing its ebb as the new local elite gained more overseas exposure and training. Highlife was the music that this new elite retired to after the office hours.
There has always existed a robust co-dependency between the musical tastes of Africans and the modern cultural expressions of Europe and America. The colonial and post-colonial ties have always remained there. Much advancement in modern technology has greatly enhanced this.
Osadebe’s musical growth drew from calypso, samba, bolero, rumba, jazz, waltz, all of which are the core formative elements of highlife music in its rustic form. As a part of the post-colonial renaissance that flourished around the era of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding president, highlife music had its leading exponent in E. T. Mensah, who single-handedly established it a viable art form in West Africa.
It has always retained an easy flowing, swaying, ballroom format. The presence of horns and saxes has been consistent in highlife, as much as its celebratory ebb.
As a good student of musical expression, Osadebe did not initially give himself much room for much experimentation with Highlife’s form. The Empire Rhythm Ochestra, led by E. C. Arinze provided room for Osadebe to learn. Nobody suspected that the little skinny young man was later to embody the accumulation of the pioneering efforts of Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu, Eddie Okonta, Victor Olaiya, Fred Coker, and Victor Uwaifo and several others.
Having become established, Osadebe took his music to another level in two major ways. The first was in incorporating satiric social commentary in his compositions. He was not as ribald and confrontational as Fela Kuti, nor was he as overtly benign as Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey. He often appeared to target personal foes, a factor that later hindered his lyrical purity. The second was in extending the duration of each song to accommodate the dance floor jolly mood of his audience.
The outbreak of hostilities between Nigeria and one of her regions (the later self-named Biafra) led to an enormous loss of the prominence that highlife enjoyed in Nigeria, especially Lagos. The mass exodus of the Easterners to Biafra left a huge gap that was soon filled by juju music, and later Afrobeat. After the war, things were never the same ever again. By the early Seventies, Lagos had made room for numerous music forms especially for James Brown. Nigerian music had been altered and deeply enlarged forever.
Osadebe, kept his live performance schedule active both during and after the war, in-spite of all the hardship of those years. By the mid Seventies his career had reached its zenith.<