Intervention has done several stories on Bongos Ikwue, the Nigerian engineering student who turned musician and made a success of it between the late 1960s and his late 70s today. In October 2016, it was on “Wulu, Wulu, and the Idoma Iconography in Bongos Ikwue’s Music”. In 2017 alone, there were two outings on the legendary artist. One was titled “Bongos Ikwue @ 75:, Indeed, the Artist as the Unacknowledged Legislator of the world”, followed by “Who is Bongos Ikwue: A Daughter’s Reflections”.
As he adds another year today, the key question that must be posed is how far his theological prism which manifests in the logic of ‘what goes up must come down’ is applicable to Nigeria. This is more so that he argues that Nigeria has come to stay and there is nothing more to add. Nearly nobody doubts today that the stage has been set in which just about anything can happen to Nigeria, beyond the imagination of the key actors on the scene – the Nigerian government, the armed forces, the incipient ethnic armies, the statesmen and women, the traditional authority, the business community, the domain of ideas, the local and foreign shadow parties fuelling and refueling anarchy and, of course, the media hailing one faction or the other.
But Bongos is so well advanced in age that he must be obliged to relax. He has paid his dues. If a huge and sophisticated country such as Nigeria cannot reconcile itself, so be it.
Instead, what is attempted here is a reproduction of one of the several pieces on him previously. That is the one considered most comprehensive in a philosophical sense. Here it goes!
Wulu, Wulu & Idoma Iconography in Bongos Ikwue’s Music
Bongos Ikwue is about complexity, about fluidity and about the impossibility or uselessness of classification. You cannot be charged for calling him a musician because he makes music and music with message for that matter. You cannot be wrong in calling him an artist because he is, indeed, an artist in whatever sense of the word. You are on track for calling him a philosopher because that is what he revels in. It is just as well to call him a businessman because he does business in his own way. But he himself would not accept any such neat classification because he rejects a unified view of knowledge. Instead, he believes it is academics that compartmentalised knowledge into the departments in which they exist today.
Bongos Ikwue is a beehive of ideas; from African to Greek philosophy; from essential conviction in science to ‘dissidence’ in arts. How he weaves these together without mixing them up is what makes him Bongos Ikwue. Or what makes it difficult to neatly classify him. He has many ideas that are crazy by the ordinary standard of measurement. These ideas flowed most powerfully at the age 25 -27 when he scripted most of his memorable musical outings. They underpinned the question he threw at his British professor in an Electrical Engineering undergraduate class at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria that showed to everyone that he belonged more in the rather anti-foundationalist world of artistic imagination than the foundationalism upon which science and engineering have been built. Then, while his mates were in the laboratory, he would be with his guitar. Some people would call it his restlessness. It is still there but age and time influences all packages. It runs through in his music, particularly for those who look into the deeper meaning and implications of what he says there; to managing business relations and to his approach to life generally.
The only exception might be politics to the extent that politics is still not his arena in a formal sense even though he is a voice for unity at every level. In his last outing, “Wulu, Wulu”, Nigerians would find two tracks most appealing with particular reference to inter-faith harmony. That would be the track “Mustapha and Christopha”. Of course, his article of faith or referent on Nigeria is the extant track “Nigeria Has Come to Stay” with its closure “There is nothing more to say”. It reeks of the typical Middle – Belt mentality: we are in the middle, we have nowhere to go and Nigeria it has to be”. But Wulu, Wulu where he has remixed the tracks is not as popular as his hit numbers such as Still Searching, Cockcrow at Dawn, ‘Amen’, Man and Man, Larai and so on.
Wulu, Wulu follows existing titles rendered in Idoma such as Ella Kunaga, Otachikpokpo, Ihotu, Apoo, Eche Unne; Agbambo and Ouno. Each and every of these is an Africanist re-imagination of the Idoma world as it was several decades ago but in a way that speaks to today. They are all, therefore, great offering in Idoma iconography in Bongos’ music in relation to the challenge of music as a critique (not criticism) of society. Wulu, Wulu is just a track in this ‘new’ release which is a remix of some old outings. In itself, it is a narrative of the consequences of foolishness, haste, bullishness, lack of caution – you get burnt. But, fire or being burnt in Wulu, Wulu is not necessary in the sense of the live fire we encounter but the pains of every act of foolishness, of failure to heed caution. The slight puzzle in Wulu, Wulu is who the foolishness refers to. It cannot but be the social collectivity which could be Idoma, Nigeria, the black man and so on.
In other words, Wulu, Wulu has its own complexity in much the same way that all his songs rooted in Idoma cultural canvass do. It is the element that sends the average Idoma listener to think far afield: what are we here for? Why do things happen the way they do? What counts most in life and why? Take the summoning that Ella Kunaga is all about. Ella Kunaga is the track he sang on the death of mad man who walked the streets of Otukpo in those days. So, how does a mad man merit a communal summoning to mourn him, a summoning which confers a heroic status? The only explanation for that is in Bongos’ belief that the tag of madness the society placed on the mad man is society’s own opinion and the reality of the madman is a creation of the discourse called madness. In other words, the issue is not whether there is something called madness or not but the sense of that reality that we have.
Considering that Ella Kunaga was issued in the early 1970s, many years before French Philosopher Michel Foucault disentangled himself from Marxism to expound the same arguments and given Foucault’s towering stature in the world today, hasn’t the world been harbouring/hiding another Foucault in Otukpo? Of course, knowledge is not racial but humanity is not a plastic category without coordinates. This is more so when the cursor is moved around.
Take his number, Ihotu and the metaphor of Okpomaju. Ask any youngster of Idoma identity in the age of the CNN what he knows about Okpomaju, s/he would be lost. Okpomaju refers to nowhere but the metaphor indicating the farthest end of the world, the journey to which can only be contemplated in the cause of love, desire or great fondness. In Ihotu, Ikwue compares the power of desire, love or fondness to the power of a bicycle in a rural universe where people trekked to everywhere on foot and the bicycle was the coming of the ultimate means of transport. When you have a bicycle in that circumstance, nothing else stops you from embarking on a journey to Okpomaju or Idalogo, which were the communal metaphor for the farthest end of the world. When there is a powerful emotion as love, what might one not do, including going as far as Okpamaju, braving the darkest night, the heaviest rainfall or the harshest sunshine? The message: Who says love is a class or an urban affair? Rather, it is human and it is as powerfully felt by human beings in rural areas as it is in urban, rich and poor, Christians and Muslims, blacks and white, men and women, young and old. How beautiful life would be if everyone were guaranteed the right to express love. Of course, this is sadly not so. Many are denied.
As in “Wulu, Wulu” or Ella Kunaga message wise, so also in Ouno, the track which celebrates a young, pretty girl who died of cobra bite. But it is not the cobra bite that is at issue. Rather, it is the circumstance of the snake bite: Ouno being sent to a bush burning expedition by the mother. The paradox here is tragedy coming from child labour which is, however, the mode by which the pre-literate milieu achieves knowledge transmission from the extant to in coming generation. The encoding of one culturally sensitive message or the other in each track sang in Idoma is such that, except Joe Akatu, the legend himself in Idoma iconography, Bongos Ikwue is the next most complete reservoir of such. In his own case, he has a mastery of both the Western and African philosophical roots from which each derives meaning. To this extent and in the context of letting the Other speak in the Nigerian family, doesn’t it make eminent sense to say that, in Bongos Ikwue, the good lord has compensated the Idoma for their lack of the advantage of number?