Nigerian highlife music scene gets a makeover by two brother duos

Umu Obiligbo refreshed the past and the Cavemen modernized it

Originally published on Global Voices

Live music show called Afropolitan vibes at Freedom Park, Lagos, Nigeria. Image by Kaustavp, via Wikimedia Commons, May 16, 2014 (CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Two different bands, each made up by two brothers, are keeping highlife music alive in Nigeria. Although Umu Obiligbo and the Cavemen have separate styles, these two bands are already building on the pioneering efforts of Flavour and Phyno, by adapting their music to suit the tastes of Nigerians in the 21st century.

Umu Obiligbo: the old is still relevant 

Album cover of “I Pray” by Umu Obiligbo

The Obiligbo brothers, Chukwuebuka Akunwafor and Ifeanyichukwu Okpuozor, popularly known as Umu Obiligbo, are Igbo highlife musicians from Anambra who came into the limelight in 2014. Although Phyno had blended highlife and hip-hop so seamlessly, Umu Obiligbo maintained the original Igbo highlife style in their art. 

Their uniqueness comes from not following the modern trend of merging highlife with pop as Phyno does. Rather, their songs accentuate popular street wisdom. Umu Obiligbo sing highlife in its original Igbo style. By involving popular artists, they have made highlife appeal to many people. They have featured Afropop musicians like Davido in some of their songs, such as “Doubting Thomas.” This song mirrors the ostentatious display of wealth in nightclubs, driven by a desire to impress others.

Oga doubting Thomas/ (E ye weh weh weh)/ We je kwo onye nganga/ (Swo)/ Brother e kwe nu go na o na eme/ Swo swo/ Ah eh/ Oga doubting Thomas, Oga doubting Thomas eoo/(Weh weh weh)/We je kwo onye njanja/ (Swo)/ Brother e kwe nu go na o na eme/ Swo swo/ Udu egbe ndi nso/ Ah eh/ Nwanne ogini na eme/ Ogini na eme, Ogini na  eme/ Ugo chalacha nweme chu chu/ Person wey dey buy drink/ E no dey too dance for club eh/ But the ones wey no get money/ O gbafa e tin mkpu…

Oga doubting Thomas/ going to the proud man/ Brother has seen that it can happen/ the sound of the guns of the spirit/ my brother what is happening/ The healthy eagle makes chu chu (sound of the eagle)/ the person that buys the drink in the club/ does not dance much in the club/ but the broke guys make so much noise

The Cavemen, modernizing the past for the present

The Cavemen’s “Love and Highlife” Album Cover

The Cavemen, which consists of siblings Benjamin James and Kingsley Okorie, are the torchbearers of contemporary highlife music. Their first album “Roots” was launched in 2020. 

Unlike Flavour, Phyno, and Umu Obiligbo, the Cavemen have limited exposure to the Igbo cultural elements. In fact, they do not speak Igbo fluently since they grew up in Lagos in southwestern Nigeria. This gave them a certain kind of exploratory originality towards highlife, such that their style of music sounds very modern, a form of highlife that explores contemporary themes. 

They call their style of music highlife fusion. “Our goal is to be the bridge between the past, the present, and the future. So, how do we do that? We maintain the sound but we add up new contemporary tweaks that were not there then,” Okorie explained in an interview with The DJ Booth, a musical online news portal. Hence, this means diluting the melodies to be more “sensitive to the youths of today…as well as capturing subject matters” that were not popularly reflected in the highlife of the ‘70s and ‘80s. They also mention that they are trying to get to the soul of highlife. 

Their simple rhythm and beats with the drum and bass guitar make them very modern while also giving them an easy manner. One of the songs “Runaway Lady,” a song about the emotional unavailability of a lady, has a contemporary theme. 

Runaway lady/ My special lady/ You just dey run away/ My pretty lady)/ Runaway/ You dey run dey run baby/ She get shakara eh/ I never see this kind lady/ She wanna dance/ She dey dance lady dance/ She wanna move/ She wan use me catch cruise/ Talk the talk eh/ She dey talk she never do eh/ My lady/ Ị na enyem’ nsogbu eh/ My lady/ My lady/ Ị na enyem’ nsogbu eh/ My lady/ Runaway Lady/ My lady/ Runaway Lady/ Ogini?

Runaway lady/ My special lady/ You are running away, baby/ My pretty lady/ Runaway/ You are running away, baby/ She is showing off/ I have not seen this type of lady/ She wanna dance/ She dey dance lady dance/ She wanna move/ She is deceiving me/ Talk the talk eh/ She talks and never acts eh/ My lady/ She gives me trouble eh/ My lady/ My lady/ She troubles me eh/ My lady/ Runaway Lady/ My lady/ Runaway Lady/(what is it?)

Other songs like “Akaraka” (“Destiny”), “Oge” (“Time”), and “Osondu” (‘Survival Race’) explore deep questions of human existence. Other songs like “Ifeoma,” “Fall,”Anita,” and “New Pammy” are love and romance-themed songs that resonate deeply with young people. 

Flavour brought highlife back to nightclubs and Phyno blended highlife with hip-hop. On the other hand, Umu Obiligbo maintained the original Igbo highlife style, and the Cavemen brought a certain originality while bringing it up to date in such a way that the themes resonate with young people. Put together, the approach of these young Nigerians has radically transformed the genre, propelling a new and hopeful era for Igbo highlife music. 

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 contemporary Igbo highlife music:

Written by Chikwado Edeh

Nigerian highlife music scene gets a makeover by two brother duos