The Ultimate Dr. Sir Warrior
December 10, 2009 4:37 PM   Subscribe

Forty years ago, just after the Biafran War, Nigeria was home to a cultural boom that paralleled its skyrocketing oil revenues. These heady days not only produced afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, but also, in the genre of music called highlife, created a star known as the Ultimate Dr. Sir Warrior (born Christogonus Ezebuiro Obinna) a member of the nebulous Oriental Brothers International Band. Listen to the music of Dr. Sir Warrior and the Oriental Brothers International Band.

Warrior's popularity rose as the boom ended and Nigeria's troubles increased, inspiring devotion which hasn't faded:
once I was in Ghana and in the cab I boarded I was surprised that the music of my favourite musician, Warrior was playing, so surprisingly I inquired on the cab driver, a Ghanaian if he understood the language of the lyrics, the driver who never stopped moving his head for once in response to music said no but he was told that the man is advocating for peace and orderliness to return to the world. The man looked at me again and inquired from me on the availability of the Great Sir Warrior; my response as I danced to the music of warrior was that he had died long ago.

The Ghanaian looked at me with a grief and surprise and asked me when, as I drew closer to my point of destination, I began to imagine just how I could miss hearing the music of Warrior with which I had been thrilled, but I had no option than to set-down, so I did, leaving the rest of the passengers to continue to derive pleasure from warrior’s fine tune.
Sir Warrior was a musical prodigy, who started at age 11 in an ensemble of Ese singers who accompanied traditional Igbo drum music.

Highlife, the genre he's most associated with, developed in Ghana in the late 1940s, in the years leading up to its independence in 1957. It derives its name from the nightclubs that originally catered to the European upper class but that were beginning, with the end of colonialism, to cater to an African clientele.
'We urgently wanted an indigenous rhythm to replace the fading foreign music of waltz, rumba, etc,' [\[Ghanaian highlife pioneer E. T.] Mensah told the writer and highlife archivist, John Collins.* 'We evolved a music relying on basic African rhythms. A criss-cross African cultural sound, so to speak. No one can really lay claim to its creation. It had always been there, entrenched in West African culture.'
Though it started in Ghana, highlife spread across West Africa through the fifties and sixties. Dr. Sir Warrior's brand of highlife took the guitar-driven music and combined it with traditional Igbo proverbs, making it a distinctly Igbo form.
posted by ocherdraco (15 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I know of highlife through its representation on the Backyardigans' Mission to Mars episode.

I have no idea whether it's an accurate representation or not; they're great with music though, and it's a particularly gorgeous melody, at the beginning of the episode.

At some point pretty much all my knowledge of the world will just be whatever comes out of Backyardigans episodes and Metafilter.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:47 PM on December 10, 2009

I thought I heard a Highlife comp some time in the vaguely recent past, but I can't remember the title for the life of me. Searching around, I came across this thread full of suggestions for more Highlife, including Awesome Tapes from Africa (prev).
posted by filthy light thief at 4:54 PM on December 10, 2009

Gotta love the modesty displayed by some folks, eh? I'm talking about the humble descriptions you come across on Wiki pages for folks like Dr. Sir Warrior:

"His style remains an epitome of defined music with meaning, direction, and purpose."

"His witty words often spiced with Igbo proverbs were appreciated by all so much that he came to be called the Ultimate Star of Music."

Yeah. That kind of over-the-top promospeak is actually very typical of the Nigerian music biz, and I have to say I actually find it kind of charming. It's as big and brash and full-on as Sir Warrior's or Sunny Ade's big, wide, toothy, beaming smile.

Great post, ocherdraco!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:11 PM on December 10, 2009

For those who like early 70s Nigerian music I can't recommend the Nigeria Special series of CDs highly enough.
posted by escabeche at 5:37 PM on December 10, 2009

Oops, missed the link: Nigeria Special.
posted by escabeche at 5:37 PM on December 10, 2009

Hey thanks for the heads up on that Nigeria Special series, escabeche. The Nigeria 70 box set is quite good, for those who might not know about that one.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:55 PM on December 10, 2009

Seconding Nigeria 70!
posted by escabeche at 5:57 PM on December 10, 2009

A bit of a side note, but for those who sleep-walked through it or something, like me: Biafra and the Nigerian-Biafran War.

Short version: Biafra broke away from Nigeria in July 1967, fought for independence for two and half years, and surrendered in January 1970. 3-4 million dead, mostly due to starvation (economic blockade was a primary military tactic) and resulting disease.
posted by flug at 6:16 PM on December 10, 2009

posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:12 PM on December 10, 2009

^Note: Nigeria 70 is the band of Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti (1938-1997), the subject of a current Broadway musical and an anticipated feature film.

That Nigeria 70 set looks interesting, but this is a better collection, containing more of his work from the early '70's. These collections are a good place to start, but there are plenty of smaller lps like Roforofo Fight and Kalakuta Show that ought to be heard in their entirety.
posted by vhsiv at 9:18 PM on December 10, 2009

That Nigeria 70 set looks interesting, but this is a better collection, containing more of his work from the early '70's.

Um, to me the Nigeria 70 set is interesting in large part because it doesn't feature Fela, who is certainly not under-represented, recording-wise, elsewhere. The Nigeria 70 set is really interesting precisely because it features any number of other artists from that time who are not named Fela. You would appear to be educating us here, vhsiv, about this fellow named Fela (with your this link to a slew of his records available through Amazon) but you might keep in mind that in the world at large he is most certainly the best-known musician Nigeria has ever produced. In fact, that Africa has ever produced. We know who Fela is, my brother. You feel me?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:48 AM on December 11, 2009

Also, vhsiv, let me call your attention to my Fela post from last year, which linked to a fabulous documentary on the mighty Mr. Kuti, from 1982. Unfortunately, as is the way with YouTube, the clips have been pulled... But it's highly recommended viewing for you, if you haven't already seen it, if you want to get ahold of it sometime.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:57 AM on December 11, 2009

Somewhat related: Pharoah Sanders heard the Igbo & Highlife in the late 60s early 70s and as he finished up his Impulse years, he included compositions highly influenced by West African beats and melodies. Wisdom Through Music, Love is in Us All, and Elevation contain greater and lesser degrees, but all have some hip-shakin' groove-makin' worth a listen.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:02 PM on December 11, 2009

Oh! and great post, Ocherdraco.
posted by beelzbubba at 2:03 PM on December 11, 2009

Great post, and thank you! I wish WFMU still had that Radio Freetown show as a going concern :(
posted by jtron at 6:54 PM on December 11, 2009

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