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E.C. Arinze… exit of grandmaster of highlife

By Benson Idonije
15 April 2015   |   6:00 am
The demise two weeks of Ogbueshi Eleazar Chukwuwetalu Arinze (known simply as E.C. Arinze) is significant in many respects. His exit even at the ripe age of 85 is a milestone in the history of highlife in West Africa; it is also a land-mark in the entire firmament of dance band music in Nigeria. One…
Arinze

Arinze

The demise two weeks of Ogbueshi Eleazar Chukwuwetalu Arinze (known simply as E.C. Arinze) is significant in many respects. His exit even at the ripe age of 85 is a milestone in the history of highlife in West Africa; it is also a land-mark in the entire firmament of dance band music in Nigeria. One of the oldest surviving veterans of highlife music in West Africa, he died on Thursday March 26, 2015 after a brief illness – at his Ugamuma village, Obosi in Idemili local government area of Anambra state. He is survived by his wife, Adamma and six children.

It is regrettable that on account of an obvious generation differential, Arinze’s death has not attracted today’s media attention for him to enjoy the profound acclaim and recognition he rightly deserves.To be sure, Arinze was one of the pioneering professional musicians in Nigeria, leading one of the exquisitely explosive outfits in the country, later performing at the famous kakadu, a night club he turned into a magic spot, a historical phenomenon and a reference point. A contemporary of Victor Olaiya, Chris Ajilo, Tunde Amuwo and even Bobby Benson, Arinze can best be described as the grandmaster of highlife, a technician of the trumpet, a great bandleader and a colossus of Nigerian popular music.He reached the peak of his musical career in Lagos in1966 before he was forced by the civil war to relocate to the East.

At the time of this forced movement, he was leading one of the most formidable outfits in Lagos and attracting an enlightened audience to Kakadu, a hotel in Yaba area of the city. Arinze was a pioneering member of the famous Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) Dance Orchestra, where he assumed the lead trumpet role because he could read and play ‘sheet’ music. A large orchestra which also included saxophonist Chris Ajilo, trumpet player Michael Falana among many others, it was directed at different times by the late Fela Sowande and Steve Rhodes.

A great band leader, Arinze was responsible for nurturing some of the musicians who have become very successful today, among them, Victor Uwaifo, Peter King and the late Etim Udo. He also had, as sideman, Exy Ohunta who sang and composed the popular highlife song, Sisi Eko in 1962.

Arinze played fine trumpet in the style of Eddy Calvert; and was also versed in the execution of dance music of the ball room type associated in those days with the likes of Victor Sylvester and Joe Loss of Britain. This was in addition to the excellent performance of highlife in the typical Nigerian approach and style.

His highlife compositions though not too many, were steeped in folklore and social commentary – with melodic logic as mainstay: Arinze is famous for the composition and performance of Time For Highlife and Nike Nike, a Nigerian highlife classic which the Nigerian police band has since adopted as one of its indigenous marching songs – for its authenticity and cultural significance .

Arinze was loved by all his sidemen and musical associates. He was gentle, humane, cheerful, kind and humble. Little wonder he gave his sidemen the opportunity to develop themselves by allowing them to try their hands at writing songs and getting them performed by the band. This was how Victor Uwaifo who had great potentials developed until he formed his own musical outfit, The Melody Maestros, in 1965.It was one of the strategies he used to make Kakadu one of the hottest night spots in Lagos, attracting to the club all classes of people – who were treated to a variety of music. Asked how he discovered Victor Uwaifo when I had an encounter with him in 2000, he said:

“I picked Victor Uwaifo from school. The press was making jest of me then –“E.C., you’ve got a school boy to play!” Then he was putting on white shirt and shorts – St Gregory’s uniform. Because of that, I took him to Bhojson’s Stores then at Ebute Metta and bought him a pair of trousers; a long sleeve shirt and a tie – because my boys were wearing ties, long sleeve shirts and black trousers. I made him to look like the others.” Continuing, he said, “The boy was wonderful. I knew he would make it that was why I picked him and encouraged him. You can see how much he has achieved today as a musician. I have not achieved as much as he has done in music. He is greatly talented.” The last time Arinze performed in Lagos was the year 2000 – on the bill of World Music Day – at the French Cultural Center, Ikoyi.

Arinze who started playing music as a teacher, came to Lagos in 1952 and began his career from Empire Hotel situated at the time at Idioro. The band was owned by the owner of the hotel, Chief Kanu; and was named Empire Roving Orchestra. He was there from 1952 till 1959 when he left to form his own band.

Like most musicians of that period, Arinze moved round many clubs before finally settling into the residency of Kakadu under a contractual arrangement: “Before I formed my band, I had played at White Horse Hotel, Olorunsogo, Mushin before somebody bought it from Chagoury family. They owned White Horse Hotel – a very big compound. So, I used to play there, but they were not serious. I then got a contract with former Arms Hotel. One John Harold used to own the place, but later, somebody bought it from him. I played there and continued to play for European clubs – Apapa Club, former Ikeja Arms Club. There, I had the opportunity to meet the demands of my fans.

“Later, I played at Lido Bar, beside Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s family house at 14A, Agege Motor Road. This was between 1959 and 1960 when I left for Kakadu, popularly known as the Magic Spot. I was there until the Nigerian Civil war intervened in 1966.” Arinze, whose trumpet was still hot and brimming with exuberance, did not retire from music upon leaving Lagos for Enugu, his home base – at the beginning of hostilities. He kept playing as long as the opportunity offered itself:”I performed at the Presidential Hotel for fifteen years until they ran down the place. I stopped playing there in 1989, a long time ago.”
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Perhaps his formula for success was his versatility – the fact that he could play a variety of music. Said he, “I played all kinds of music – quite a variety. I was not inclined to highlife alone. I loved to play some difficult numbers – classics such as Peanut Vendor and Hoagy Car Michael’s Star dust among others.

Arinze also attributed his success to his preference for the performance of Nigerian music which foreign audiences want to hear:“When I was a teacher, I used to go to dances. I remember a European friend telling me, ‘I want highlife and if we don’t get highlife, let’s play box music’. This opened my eyes to authenticity. They want our music because they don’t have it. When you give somebody what he doesn’t have he appreciates it more. And you can’t even do it better if you are imitating his own kind of music.”

By his death, Nigeria has lost the grand master of highlife, a colossus of dance band music.