The rich cultural heritage of the Igbo people is beautifully expressed through their traditional music. Igbo cultural songs are a significant part of their identity, telling stories of history, love, and spirituality. In this article, we’ll take you on a melodious journey through the best 10 Igbo cultural songs both classic and contemporary, each carrying a unique narrative that resonates with the heart and soul of the Igbo community.
Igbo Music Traditions
Before we dive into the world of Igbo cultural songs, let’s take a moment to understand the significance and traditions surrounding their music.
The Importance of Music in Igbo Culture
Music holds a special place in Igbo culture, serving as a means of communication, celebration, and storytelling. It is deeply intertwined with their daily lives, rituals, and festivities.
Instruments of Igbo Music
To create their soulful melodies, Igbo musicians employ a variety of traditional instruments, including the Oja flute, Ekwe drum, and Ichaka. These instruments add depth and authenticity to their music.
The Top 10 Igbo Songs
This is divided into two sections: ‘classical’ highlife and contemporary highlife and Afrobeats.
It always starts with Celestine Ukwu. He popularized the genre in the 70s, and his songs, which incorporate a bit of funk, are noted for their philosophical element and for speaking universal truths. Here are some personal favourites:
- ‘Ije enu’ (loosely: struggles of life) — whose lyrics I talk about in my answer to Which song has the coolest or most interesting/thought-provoking lyrics in history?
- ‘Onye akwana uwa’ (one should not mourn for the world)
- ‘Onwunwa’ (temptation)
- ‘Ilo abu chi’ (one’s enemy is not one’s god)
Ukwu’s songs are evergreen. They offer a mixture of comfort and nostalgia, and they evoke pensiveness. I recommend reading this wonderfully written bio-/discography.
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe
Osadebe’s art was legendary. I would venture to say that he is the most gifted Igbo highlife musician to ever live, for not only did he show unparalleled genius in his music (sound engineering/integration), he also had a raspy voice that’s reminiscent of an elderly grandfather whose every word is infused with love and wisdom as he rocks you, tender and naïve, in his arms.
- His most popular song, ‘Osondi owendi’, features some great guitar riffs and solos. Here he is in a rare live performance, in the early 80s:
- Similarly, his ‘Nwanne m ebezina’, while also being one of the most difficult songs to sing (because of Osadebe’s style of concurrently talking and singing and making his voice descend at the end of a verse in such a way that much of what he says then is lost to the beat sequence—if that’s the term for it), has what is quite possibly the most memorable guitar solo in highlife history.
- ‘Ije awele’ is another song of his I’m quite fond of, particularly for its more mature mood and weightier lyrics. Again, the instrumental solo is lovely.
I must admit that Dan Orji is one of my later discoveries; I knew his somewhat funky ‘Eddie Quansa’ since I was a kid because it was the soundtrack of a Nigerian sitcom that was popular in the late 80s/early 90s, called ‘New Masquerade’, but I had no idea who the singer was until a few years ago.
He was a member of the Peacocks International Guitar Band, where he was lead vocalist. Some of the band’s songs that I like:
- ‘Nkwo Orji’
- ‘Kinkana Special’
- ‘Sambola mama’
- ‘Eddie Quansa’
(Here I interject to say that I would have included the singer Sunny Bobo somewhere on this list, but seeing as he plagiarised the first two songs above in his Old Skool album [which I thoroughly enjoyed growing up, but whose memory is now ruined for me], I’m passing him over.)
Chief Oliver De Coque
In some circles, Chief Oliver De Coque is considered to be the greatest highlife musician. Obviously, I disagree—simply on the basis that, although his name hangs somewhere on the walls of my childhood memories and was (and still is) uttered with the utmost reverence, I always felt he sang to the generation after which I was born.
Regardless, I quite like ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Olisa ka anyi na-ayo’. The philosophical leaning of ‘Uwa bu aja’ appeals to me (although there is a certain cover of the song I prefer, which I can’t seem to find anywhere).
Prince Emeka Morocco Maduka
One of the greatest musical instruments is the human voice—Morocco Maduka knew this, and he exploited his voice to the fullest extent. He died in October 2020 at age 73, but even then his characteristic tenor, which usually evokes deep feelings of sadness and pain (mostly because he sounded like he was weeping), did not change.
His beats are noted for their simplicity, which he more than made up with his vocal skills and lyrics, such as in ‘Asili’, released in 1998:
- ‘Ochuba aku’
- ‘Ife oma’
Contemporary Highlife and Afrobeats
As far as I know, female highlife singers are a fairly recent development, some of whom came with the possibility (and realisation) of a successful fusion of highlife with the more westernised Afrobeats. So I had a bit of trouble deciding where to classify:
Onyeka Onwenu, whose ‘Ekwe’ and the gospel ‘Bia nulu’ are Igbo songs with a slight contemporary edge (and her versatility ensures her music is enjoyed by a variety of listeners); and
Bright Chimezie, whose music, called Zigima Sound, is known for its upbeat, dance-oriented style that’s not quite highlife or traditional. These definitions don’t matter here, because Bright Chimezie gets you on your feet, no matter your mood. ‘Ife oma si gi n’obi’, ‘Ube nwanne’, and ‘Oji mu eme onu’ are songs of his that I like.
Honourable mention: Christy Essien-Igbokwe, who was Ibibio but sang in Igbo and several other languages, including Yoruba. ‘Ka anyi gba(wa) egwu’ and ‘Teta nu n’ula’ are popular.
Contemporary Igbo music has donned a robe of multiple labels. Here are some popular artistes I really like:
Phyno’s genius lies not only in his beat production but also in his delivery: an extremely satisfying blend of highlife rap and Afrobeats. He was greatly influenced by Osadebe and Oliver De Coque; his ‘Fada Fada’ borrows from De Coque’s ‘Father Father’, and I find very subtle similarities between his ‘E Sure for Me’ and De Coque’s ‘Nwanne di na mba’. Other songs I’d recommend:
- ‘Ghost Mode’ ft. Olamide
Along with Phyno, Flavour is the most popular contemporary Igbo musician. Flavour’s music is generally slow-paced and tinged with tradition and sentiment, while Phyno’s is gritty and ‘street’. For example, Flavour’s ‘Ada Ada’ literally drips with tradition.
- ‘To Be a Man’
- ‘Awele’ ft. Umu Obiligbo
Highlife never really went away, and these brothers prove it. Their songs show the uncanny insight of the ‘men of old’, with deep, raspy voices to match their ancient souls. I love ‘Egwu ndi nne’ and ‘Uba si na chi’ from their debut album, Ife Di Mma.
- Bosalin – ‘Container’
- Desperate Chicks – ‘Mu na gi’
- Mr Raw – ‘Obodo’
- Ababa Nna – ‘Ego akokwala m’
- Chimuanya – ‘Ayakata bongo’.
Igbo cultural songs are not just melodies; they are a bridge to the soul of the Igbo people. Each song carries a piece of their history, emotions, and traditions. As you delve into the world of these 10 remarkable songs, you embark on a musical journey through the heart of Igbo culture.
What is the significance of Igbo cultural songs?
Igbo cultural songs are deeply significant, as they convey the history, emotions, and traditions of the Igbo people. They serve as a means of storytelling and cultural preservation.
What instruments are commonly used in Igbo music?
Igbo music relies on traditional instruments such as the Oja flute, Ekwe drum, and Ichaka to create its distinctive sound.
Are Igbo cultural songs still relevant today?
Yes, Igbo cultural songs remain relevant as they are an integral part of Igbo identity and continue to be celebrated at various cultural events and festivals.
Can non-Igbo people appreciate and enjoy Igbo cultural songs?
Absolutely! Igbo cultural songs are known for their captivating melodies and universal themes, making them accessible and enjoyable for people of all backgrounds.
Where can I listen to these Igbo cultural songs?
You can find these songs on various music streaming platforms, or you can attend Igbo cultural events and festivals to experience them live.