Uwa Mgbede: An Exploration of Traditional Musical Instruments

Gerald Eze and the Ichoku Band Deliver an Electric Performance with Igbo Instruments in Uwa Mgbede

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera

Every Sunday, Gerald Eze, gathers people of all ages numbering from dozens to a hundred, and regales them with his band playing new fusions of Igbo cultural music. The venue is a compound called Testimony Place in Awka, the capital of Anambra State. There he teaches music at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University.

However, the music which Eze makes every Sunday is mostly with indigenous instruments like the Ọja, Ụbakala, wooden gong— in fusion with modern instruments such as the guitar, the trumpet and the piano. With these instruments, he has caused both old and new sounds to emanate, with great innovation and invention.

Music every Sunday at Testimony Place seems to have its own peculiarity, according to what Sunday of the month it is. There are generally, three events held every month at Testimony place: a book club, a cinema and music session, and pop out events. And in each of these events, music is integrated, reflecting each event. Every second Sunday, Eze stages a special music event—a concert of Igbo classical music which he calls “Egwu ọnwa.” In this event, the music played are folk music which were derived from Indigenous Igbo folktales.

Eze is very intentional about his preoccupation with Igbo classical music and what he has set out to do. In the past decades, there has been this outcry of decline in cultures whose people suffered the fate of colonialism. In the case of the Igbo language, a study was once published which predicted that the language will be stunted by 2050. There is also a general consensus that recent generations of Igbo people are losing touch with their culture compared to older generations. So there is a call to reintroduce language into the arts and in the school, to “preserve” the culture and prevent it from dying. But for Eze, it goes beyond preserving the culture. Much like a physician who is not just content to keep his patient alive, but wants to see the patient flourish as well. Eze’s prime interest, beyond just preserving the culture, is showing the innovations which Igbo music and its classical instruments are capable of.

Gerald in another performance.

It is for this reason that he soon became disatisfied with the “Egwu onwa” description, a reference to the moonlight games of old, in favour of Uwa Mgbede, referring to life in the evening, when people begin to wind down.

Shortly after, the idea of replacing the name, Egwu onwa with Ụwa Mgbede, (evening life) struck Gerald and he almost went hysterical with excitement. And so he planned towards it with a group of young people under his tutelage, the Ichoku ensemble. Many of them being his student in the university, they gathered frequently in Gerald’s house and rehearsed for the events and mastered how to combine sounds from the Oja, Ubo aka, guitar, trumpet, wooden gong, in new ways. And on the 8th August, at Testimony place, the Uwa Mgbede concert was to hold. Scheduled to begin by 3pm, the timing of the event was intercepted by a downpour which lasted a little over an hour. But after the rain, the guests began to arrive and soon the venue was filled up and the music began. 

Gerald and the Ichoku ensemble began the event with a sample of the Uwa Mgbede song, originally sung by Igbo folklore legend, Gentleman, Mike Ejeagha. He led the performance by playing the oja while the Ichoku ensemble behind him supported the music with trumpets, Ubo aka, piano, drum set etc. 

Band members in action.

The band did an instrumental of Uwa Mgbede which is a song originally composed by Mike Ejeagha. Later in the performance of Uwa Mgbede, Gerald blended the opening speech with the music to describe the very essence of the evening. Odi Gboo (original composition by Gerald Eze arranged to evoke the need for some aspects of the traditional life of the Igbo in the modern day experience of life). He also played a South African tune, “Pata Pata” with Oja with the accompaniment of the Ubo, Ngedelegwu (xylophone), guitar, trumpet, and the drums. 

They also performed traditional Ikpem tunes from the Amiyi sub-culture area. Mgbala (an advice given to a woman to avoid being generous outside her home while maltreating her husband at home. The song points out that the husband is the pillar (mgbala) to the homestead and if he is gone, people will invade the home as they please.

They also performed a song called, “Nwa Ojinanne,” a satire about a woman who has stolen lots of items from different persons. It was one of the songs with which Igbo people decry evil by arousing shame in the thief in the absence of the prison system we have today.

Afterwards, a group of teenage sisters, Oluoma (Lead voice/Ubo aka), Ifunanya (Oja/Keyboard) and Nwabuogo (Voice/Ekpili). (nee Odimegwu) who Gerald had tutored performed. The eldest of the sisters, Oluoma Odimegwu once won a scholarship from playing the Ubo aka in a country where scholarships are almost no longer existent. Years ago, her father recognized her penchant for music and sought for her, a music teacher in Gerald Eze to teach her and her sisters to play the piano. Gerald taught her not just how to play the piano, but to play the Ubo aka and the Oja. Oluoma soon began to play her musical instrument in school, especially the Ubo aka. And each time she played this almost forgotten Igbo musical instrument, her peers and teachers were always impressed. Shortly, they began to indicate interest in music. They played the Oja, Ubo aka and the wooden gong. For many people in the audience, it was the first time in their lives of seeing a female player of the Oja. Afterwards, they performed “Omalugo” “Udara Asaa.”

Afterwards, the Ama Ijele theatre came on stage where they performed a movie about love and social consciousness which brought back memories of the #EndSARS protests which shook the whole country last year. The movie titled, “The Troubled Mind” was performed by Chima Egwuonwu, Paschal-Zion Akaenyi and Silver Momah. Their style of acting was very spectacular and their entrance into the stage was unexpected as the drama broke out from an initial music performance by two of the acts who through music were professing love to each other. And suddenly, another act breaks into the scene and the music stops and the audience realizes that the intruder was the man who was in love with the woman first before the protests where some people were killed and his friend, thinking he had died, took his woman. The scorned man returns to kill his friend who he believes betrayed him. But on stage, in a dramatic performance of rage and catharsis, he discovers that far from betraying him, his friend only lost contact with him and thought he had died. The drama portrayed the vicissitudes of life and how one can sink into despair if he fails to let things be and embrace joy amidst life’s challenges. The drama enthroned the theme, Uwa Mgbede ka mma, thus revealing that one should take life easy and learn to relax

Gerald Eze and the Ichoku ensemble came back on stage and they closed the event by playing a host of the songs earlier played. Then he ventured into replicating the sounds of some of the recent songs in the Nigerian mainstream industry. This final performance had the audience dancing and singing along, in what gave rise to an electric participation

The final performance embodies the creative prowess of the Igbo indigenous instruments. By showing that the oja can play other forms of music asides Igbo music, and that the combination of the oja and Ubo aka, backed by the trumpet, guitar and piano can produce popular pop sounds, he emphasizes the relevance of these instruments. “In our schools,” Gerald often says, “they often teach people how to use foreign instruments to create indigenous sounds first. But I think it should be the other way round. We should learn how to create indigenous sounds with our own instruments first, and then create foreign sounds with indigenous instruments before moving to foreign instruments.”

Gerald’s philosophy is that Igbo folk music should be elevated to its deserved echelon of classical music, rather than “traditional music” which it is derisively called. And so every music concert he organizes and every Igbo song is aimed at promoting the Igbo tradition through music; as part of an arts movement, the sound from his music is geared towards bringing about an artistic revolution through sound. This describes Gerald Eze’s mission which fosters the music he plays every Sunday at testimony place.

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera is a writer, editor and freelance journalist. You can reach him at Chukwuderamichael@gmail.com.