Celestine Ukwu: the Nigerian philosopher-musician who left his mark on Igbo highlife

His prodigious talent was cut short in a car crash

Originally published on Global Voices

A screenshot of Celestine Ukwu’s 1975 “Igede Fantasia” album cover.

Read the first part of this series on the pioneers of Igbo highlife music here. The second part on how Igbo highlife music provided hope after a devastating civil war can be found here.

Celestine Ukwu (1940–1977), born in Enugu in southeastern Nigeria, is known as one of Igbo highlife’s most outstanding philosophical composers. His music first gained prominence around the end of the civil war in 1970 and remains popular today.

His musical heritage armed him with a fundamental grasp of the knowledge, reality, and wisdom deeply rooted in his Igbo identity. Ukwu’s mother was a singer, and his father performed Igbo traditional music, while his grandmother was a folk musician and dancer. 

In 1966,  Ukwu formed his first band, The Music Royals which played regularly at the Phoenix Hotel in the commercial city of Onitsha in southeastern Nigeria. After the civil war in 1970, he established a new band, the Celestine Ukwu and His Philosophers National. With this band, Ukwu composed “a relaxed and sensuous form of highlife” that greatly distinguished him from other Igbo highlife musicians of his time. This style of music continued till his abrupt death in a car accident in 1977. 

His death was tragic because it prematurely destroyed an artist's cultural potential before it had a chance to fully blossom. Ukwu’s band member, the guitarist Emma Ikediashi recalled in an Aug. 3, 2019 interview with Nigerian daily Vanguard that Ukwu together with a friend was driving to a social event when they “were hit by a trailer somewhere around Ogidi and they both died on the spot.” What made the death more painful was that Ukwu “had already processed travel papers” for a big musical show abroad. “He had done a traditional wedding but never lived fully with his new wife before his death,” Ikediashi lamented. 

Philosopher and bard

Celestine Ukwu's “Ilo Abu Chi” cover album

Ukwu’s musical corpus established him as a prodigiously talented and pre-eminent Igbo poet-musician, storyteller, philosophical music composer, and oral musical historian. Between 1971 and 1976, he released six albums –True Philosophy,” “Tomorrow is so Uncertain,” “Ndu Ka Aku” (Life is greater than wealth), “Ilo Abu Chi” (Enmity is no God), “Ejim Nk'onye” (I’m not holding anyone’s [property]) and “Igede Fantasia.” He has a compilation and eleven singles to his credit, some of which are: “Ejina Uwa Nya Isi”(Do not gloat over worldly possessions), “Ilo Oyi” (The hatred of a friend), and “Ije Enu” (The walk of life). 

Nonetheless, it was “Grade by Grade” (“Igede” album), “Ego Eju Aka” (“Ndu ka Aku” album), and the single, “Ije Enu” that notably stamped Ukwu’s genius as a bard, philosopher, and an extraordinary highlife musician. 

In “Grade by Grade,” part of the 1975 album “Igede Fantasia,” Ukwu praises the Igbo’s egalitarian spirit that promotes industry and detests the determinism of a premeditated destiny. He emphasized that no one was destined to be poor or rich. Therefore, it was through providence and hard work, that Igbo people have made their way up the ladder of fame or wealth. 

[…] Ka ogalanye si di, ka nwa ogbenye si di/ Maka na anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu/ Onwero kwanu onye chi kelu ka so ya nolu na uwa/ Maka na anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu/ Onwero kwanu onye chi kelu ka so ya bulu kwanu ogalanya/ Uwa bu onye lusia olu ike, obulunu ogalanya/ Onwero ka onye chi kelu ka obulu nwa ogbenye nu/ Uwa bu onye jisike, odili ya mma/ Ife m fulu na uwa bu na uwa bu nke onye buna aaa/ Maka anyi ncha bu ofu n’iru Chukwu.

[…] The human nature of the wealthy is the same with that of the poor/ Because we are all equal before God/ No one was created by his chi [personal god] to be alone in this world/ Because we are all equal before God/ No one was created by his chi to be wealthy/ In this world, the one that works hard becomes wealthy/ No one was created by his chi to become poor/ In this world, if you keep working on it, you will be successful/ What I have seen is that this world is for everyone/ Because we are all equal before God.

Sadly, there is a downside of this worldview, which Ukwu also denounced, the inordinate desire to make wealth, sometimes at all costs. ‘Ego Eju Aka’ (‘Money can’t fill the hand’) – in his 1974 album “Ndu ka Aku” – was a scathing criticism of the crass individualist materialism that had displaced pre-civil war communalism that previously characterized his Igbo ethnic group. 

O nwelu onye amulu na uwa, obulu aku n’isi wee puta?/ Amudulu onye na ego n’uwa?/ Ego eju aka, aku eju afo/ Uwa ezu oke ooo/ ona zulu nuu onye?/ Ufodu bu faa kpachasia aku nke uwa, faa na-agala/ onwelu onye amulu n’uwa, ewe muo aku nke uwa?/ A mulu onye na ego?/ Ego eju afoo/ 

Is there anyone born into this world that came out carrying money on his head?/ Who was born with wealth in this world?/ Money is insatiable, wealth is insatiable [literally translates as money does not fill the stomach/ wealth does not fill the stomach]/ Who has it all?/ Some gloat because of the wealth they have acquired/ Who one being born into this world, was born together with wealth?/ Who was born with money?/ Money is insatiable/ 

Thirty-eight years after Ukwu’s song, the grandfather of African literature, Chinua Achebe, stated in his 2012 book, “There was a Country” that the crass materialism exhibited in “contemporary Igbo behaviour” was responsible for the “noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness” of his people. “I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and does carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness,” Achebe wrote. 

In a research paper published in 2012, professor of music Richard C. Okafor described Ukwu as “a super critic of economic inequality” whose “philosophical lyrics” have had more impact “than many homilies by ministers of God.” This “wealth of philosophy” distinguished him from “other musicians of his time and type” asserts Ukwu's biographers. Through his music, he fulfilled his mission as society's prophetic moral conscience, notes ethnomusicologist Eunice Ibekwe, in a paper published in 2014. 

In “Ije Enu,” Ukwu was able to connect with the heart, shattered into smithereens and walking through a dark night. The poetics of this soulful song contrasts the medley of raw and blistering melancholic emotions with the varying vestiges of life’s light and darkness, which each human being has to confront.

Ije enu/ Ndi na-akwa na-akwa, ndi na-awuli na-awuli [two times]/ Onye na-akwa nu uwa, ya malu na uwa na-eruyari/ Onye na-awuli na uwa, ya lote na enu na-eruyali/ Oburo ka anyi si loo, ka ife uwa si adi/ Oburo onye odili mma tata, ka oga adili mma echi… 

The walk on earth/ Some are mourning, some are rejoicing/ The one that mourns in this world should remember that the earth [switches] changes [for each person] / The one that rejoices should remember that the world changes [for each person]/ It’s not as we envisaged our plans, does the world turns out to be/ It’s not the one who has it good today, will it will be good for tomorrow…

Decades after his death, Celestine Ukwu's philosophical lyrics and harmonious combination of instruments still resonate with listeners today.

Find Global Voice’s Spotify playlist highlighting other Nigerian Igbo highlife songs here. For more information about African music, see our special coverage, A Journey into African Music.

Here's a playlist of Celestine Ukwu's Igbo highlife music: 

Written by Nwachukwu Egbunike

Celestine Ukwu: the Nigerian philosopher-musician who left his mark on Igbo highlife