If you know him you probably would had heard his name on the top of your list of favourite people. Like millions of his fans around the world, I could be considered highly partial on the subject of Bongos Ikwue both as an entertainer and a man. The tall, slim Idoma man who has been making musical history from when he left his university studies for music career is an icon in the industry.
His first hit was in 1978 when “Still Searching” back in the days was a song in everyone’s mouth. From that moment, he has moved up the ladder of popularity not only as a singer of soul-funk-highlife music but as a lyricist. A song by Bongos Ikwue is more than just a collection of words and music, it is a memorable experience.
For an entertainer with no beginner’s luck and he showed real staying power. Looking back from where Bongos began to where he is today, he has truly paid his dues, pouring out his tremendous potential, to achieve such a remarkable feat in the entertainment industry in Nigeria. Bongos the man is not unlike Bongos Ikwue the entertainer. He is friendly, easy to take, sincere and above all a gentleman.
rowing up in Zaria in the early 70s under the care of an elder brother who was then working with the defunct National Electricity Power Authority (NEPA), the social life in Zaria packed with fun was quite interesting as a result of the various institutions of learning in the town. Students and workers of different cultural backgrounds converged in Zaria and in one way or the other socialised and created a bond of friendship. Zaria as a centre of learning was a melting pot of social life. With several boutiques spread across the length and breadth of the town the most popular one was “Harmony Fancy Store” located at No. I Main Street, adjacent to the rail – way station, it was only the “Big Boys and Girls” of that time that shopped there. While the most popular nightclub at that time was “Kodiyano Night Club”. Most of the musicians that came to Zaria performed there with the exception of Fela who performed at Rex – Cinema and Sunny Ade who performed at Railway Club.
However, the all night affairs of Bongos Ikwue in both Kaduna and Zaria brought out the awareness about the musician known as Bongos having watched him performed several times with his acoustic guitar on Radio Television Kaduna (RTK) Saturday’s Programme “In the Mood”. And as his fan, I followed his musical progress listening to every album released of his, from his first album “You can’t hurry the sunrise” (1973) to his subsequent albums; No more Water in the Well (1974), Otachikpokpo (1975), Tell My Girl (1976), Lagos (1977).
Before then, in June of that year Bongos and his band members had entered studio and waxed an album titled, “Still Searching” on EMI (Nig) label. At that time reggae music had made road into the Nigerian music scene and had virtually taken over the airwaves. Starting with the music of Toot and the Maytals “Reggae Got Soul” (1972), Jimmy Cliff “Vietnam”(1972) and House of Exile (1974); the high sales of House of Exile album in Nigeria among other considerations brought about Jimmy Cliff tour of Nigeria in April 1974. He performed in three towns; Aba, Lagos, where the defunct Nigerian Afro- Rock Band “BLO” (Berkley Jones, Layiwola Akin and Mike Odumoso) shared stage with him and in Jos, Bongos Ikwue and late Satch Ayo shared stage with him at Plateau Hotel. It was at that show that Satch Ayo the bandleader of Sahara – All-Stars Band slumped on stage and died on his way to the hospital.
From 1976, more of reggae music continued to dominate the Nigerian music wave. Bob Marley Rastaman Vibration (1976), U – Roy Natty Rebel (1976), Observers Jah – I (1978), Peter Tosh Equal Right (1978), Dillinger CB 200 (1978) and host of others.
‘Still Searching’ was recorded in reggae version. On drums were late Mike Umoh, bass guitar John Ajiboye, lead guitar Kayode Dosumu, keyboards late Papa Doe, tenor saxophone Chike Ekwue, trumpet Big John, synthesizer, organ, and piano, Tunji Olugbesan and Ayo Adeyemi.
The bass line, played by Ajiboye interlocked perfectly well with Umoh’s drumming and created that rhythm that blended so well with Chike Ekwue solo saxophone with Ayo solo intro on the keyboard that remains in the public’s memory. ‘Still Searching’ was a smash success, the song stands alone with good basic melody and a minimum of gimmicks and instrumental trickery.
With the release of the ‘Still Searching’ album, the song ‘Still Searching’ became an instant hit, within three weeks the album had sold more than 100, 000 copies. With branches all over the country, EMI Nigeria was able to promote and market the ‘Still Searching’ album.
Bongos achieved the greatest sales in one year (1978) with over a million disc of the album ‘Still Searching’ sold; he was then 36 years old. Bongos; himself had this to say about the song, “You know, some songs that become hits, you can ask a lot of artistes, they have always wondered why. At the time of writing, if you ask me to pick all the songs, I probably would have picked that song as number five out of seven or eight songs. But, it became the number one. Everybody is always searching. I think at that time I was a very young man and I wasn’t married. So … What else could I be searching for? But every artiste… we have our own favourite songs. And some of my favourite songs are the ones that nobody listened to or didn’t care to buy. But I guess that’s the way of the world. The songs that you expect to be the biggest hits are the ones that nobody buys, and then the ones you don’t expect anybody to care about become the hits…. It’s interesting, but that’s life!”
With the smash hit of the ‘Still Searching’ album EMI Nigeria organised and sponsored Bongos and the Groovies on a musical tour of Nigeria. At the end of the musical tour EMI gave Bongos Ford Granada 1.7 models as a present for a successful album sale.
Arise upon the scene a talent so unique and unusual that grew and matured to its full height. Rise to the zenith like a shooting star that was absolutely predictable and foreseeable.
Bongos’ remained so firm through his active years on the pop scene. You could point to 1974, which produced unmistakable signs of promise in ‘No more water in the well’’; 1975 the year of ‘Otachikpokpo’ the soulful songs of Idoma heritage; 1977 the year of question and assessment of society in the album ‘Lagos’ and 1978, the year of the memorable ‘Still Searching’ Looking back over the list of achievements you realize that the 1970s to early part of 1980s were eventful for Bongos and the Groovies. With strings of hit songs that rock the Nigerian music airwaves Bongos reaped a fortunate through his creative artistic work and wits on a long and difficult journey from Upu village in Otukpo in Benue State having paid his dues.
Meeting him in his country home in Otukpo when he celebrated his 75th, birthday on June 6, 2017, he said, “There is a whole lot of work I am trying to do but I don’t like pre-empting myself. I like to do before I tell the people. I would like to sing moralistic songs which are going to be my own way of preaching. I am going to be using the blues medium to, instead of the blues country style to do the job.If you hear what we are doing now, “Bye-bye Lagos”, “Love of my life”,“Christopher and Mustapha”, “Wake-up” “Nigeria has come to stay”“Your God is my God” “Bartholomew”. All these are serious work I am doing now slightly upgraded from what I had previously done. It is much, much mature sound…..”
With the future great for Bongos and lots of honour guards; Bongos is ushered in a new era in which he charts the course with the confidence of someone who knows that he’s still appreciated and relevant. His career always receives special consideration from the media because he is such a unique personality in the Nigerian entertainment scene.
Bongos Ikwue as a singer, songwriter, acoustic guitarist, musician, father, husband and symbol was active in an exceptional time and continue to be because he made them exceptional. With courage and heart Bongos quit his University studies in 1967 for a music career. It was an audacious thing for Bongos to have done, but it was the defining moment for him and Bongos never regretted his decision.
Married to a very religious and pious woman that can be best described as a definition of wife, Mama Josephine says of her husband, “He (Bongos) is just a gifted human being in all that he does, even in the decision he take.”
Incidentally, as his all – time best-selling album “Still Searching” clocked 40 years in June, 2018, and he celebrated his 76 birthday on June 6.
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