Friday, June 27, 2008

Oliver de Coque (1947-2008)

OLIVER de Coque, the handsome, bearded man of music, who died at a private hospital in Lagos on Friday, June 20, was a leading exponent of highlife music and an accomplished artist. His death follows closely in the wake of the deaths of other notable musicians like Sonny Okosun, Sammy Needle and Steve Rhodes. Oliver de Coque whose real names are Sunday Oliver Akanita, was planning to bury his mother when he too succumbed to death.

The story of the remarkable rise to stardom of the artist reads like a fairy tale. Born into humble circumstances, Oliver was largely a self-made man. He attended primary school in his hometown of Ezinifite in Anambra State. For his secondary school education, he proceeded to the Niger Institute of Commerce, Aba, Abia State where he read English, BookKeeping and Accountancy.

He was successful in the Royal Society of Arts examination. Life was not easy for him. At weekends, he and another minstrel entertained on Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Channel 4 in Aba. He called his music Ekpili. The takings were so small that he had to sell shoes on weekdays to augment his meager earnings. The year was 1965 when Oliver was only 17 years old.

Very soon, the Nigerian civil war broke out. Oliver found himself on the Biafran side. Under wartime conditions he moved from one military formation to the other entertaining Biafran soldiers. In 1970, with the civil war over, he went back to Aba in search of a job, but there were no jobs. By chance he met one Sunny Agaga and his Lucky Star Band who recruited him and took him to Lagos. He soon got tired of the band and joined another group in Oshodi called Friendly Unity Band. As the band was neither friendly nor united, he struck out again, this time with Sule Agboola and his Moonlight Star Band.

This band was to take him to London for four months during which they played only at weekends. During weekdays Oliver did odd jobs that paid handsomely at ?80 a week. With this money in his pocket, he bought himself two guitars, two amplifiers, and a set of drums. Upon his return to Nigeria, he started his own band, the Ogene Sound Super of Africa.

An accomplished guitarist, Oliver learnt his art from a Congolese musician called Piccolo. In 1974 he released his first album called Messiah. It was moderately successful as it sold about 50,000 copies. In 1979, he hit gold and shot into the limelight with his release of People's Club Ka anyi bili be ndu (People's Club, let us enjoy ourselves). The album sold over two million copies at the time. Overnight, Oliver de Coque had become a household name in Nigeria and beyond. He went on to record hit after hit.

Some of the notable hits include Funny Funny Identity, Ugbana, (egret) Easter Special, Ana enwe obodo enwe, (not everybody can own the land), Biri ka mbiri (live and let live), Otimkpu (town crier), Uwa cholu obi umeani (the world wants peace), Olisa kanyi nayo (we pray to God), nnukwu mmanwu (big masquerade - a person of influence and power) and many others. At the time of his death, Oliver de Coque had recorded an astonishing 86 albums.

Many have wondered about the origin of the French-sounding name Oliver de Coque. To this the maestro had no answer. It was just a 'guy' name that stuck. He was a consummate musician, who set out with a message about the beauty of life. His music was for dancing and he was happiest when everyone was drawn to the podium in unrestrained ecstasy. Most of his lyrics were waxed in his native Igbo language and contained philosophic insights into the nature of society. He, like Osita Osadebe, another highlife maestro, engaged in praise singing, often eulogising the self-made millionaires who often promoted the Peoples Club.

He was a kind and generous person; his life was dominated by his music and he used his art to make many people happy; his luxuriant, bushy beard was his trademark.

In addition to his being crowned as the King of Highlife by the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, in 1994, Oliver received in the same year, an honorary doctor of letters in Music from the University of New Orleans in the United States. He was recently presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Performing Musicians and Employers Association of Nigeria (PMEAN). He also held the chieftaincy title, Ikemba of Ezinifite.

An international artiste, the man with a unique voice and magical fingers will be sorely missed by his many fans that include the high and the lowly of Nigeria and others all over the world.