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Church music in Nigeria: The journey so far (3) sacred music during and after the Nigeria-Biafra War


Circumstances and events of life determine and influence the flow of musical items, choices and renditions in the Church and related settings. The Nigeria-Biafra war (1967-1970) created opportunities for churches and other religious organisations to introduce diverse ways of worshipping God, which were indigenous to the people. With ascendancy of Charismatic and Pentecostalism in Nigerian churches, styles and performance practices of music changed. The wind of change blew across all denominations and people became drawn much closer to God to heal and to save them from the vagaries and perils of the war. The calls for God’s intervention intensified. More than ever, people were drawn and committed to God through sacred songs and prayers. Churches and individuals raised the bar on spirituality through music, harvesting the common dictum that he who sings spiritual songs prays twice. ‘Loud music’ was not in practice for fear of the ‘enemy’ and air raids, as they were common and incessant, especially in the Biafran territory.

Passages of the Scriptures bordering on refuge and salvation, including physical deliverance and preservation, were often cited and intoned. For instance, The Acts of the Apostles 2:21 states that, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Yasha, the Hebrew verb for salvation, which implies help, save, or deliver, was referenced in the context of delivering someone from danger (Exodus 2:17), danger of defeat (Judges 12:2), obligations to save from mistreatment (Deuteronomy 22:27; 28:29, 2 Samuel 14:4), and as prayer of petitions in the context of war and judicial matters (Psalm 3:7; 20:9; 72:4; 86:2). Indeed, one of the moving and authoritative passages is Psalm 46: God the Refuge of His People and Conqueror of the Nations. The opening verse states, “God is our refuge and strength, A very present help in trouble.” The hymns “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Oh God, Our help in ages past” were commonly, faithfully and prayerfully sung. These were like regular menus on the lips of people, who had found themselves in the theatre of war, indiscriminate killings, genocidal trails, poor health conditions and starvation.

Art music compositions during the war were fashioned primarily after peace. For instance, Ayo Bankole’s Adura Fun Alafia (Prayer for peace) encapsulates prayers for peace and safety in its text for those at the war front. Similarly, Onyee Nwankpa’s Nye Ayi Udo Gi (Grant us Thy Peace, Oh Lord) makes a plea for peace and reconciliation among the people. Ikoli Harcourt Whyte’s music majorly became a source of worship and praise, and a source of consolation, hope and trust in God for a miracle to bring the loss of innocent lives to an end. The belief in the Supremacy of God was, therefore, the guiding light upon which the people’s hope and spirituality were anchored. Anthems of Harcourt Whyte were germane and typical in x-raying the state of man and vicissitude of life, providing succour even at war times. The indigenous style of music making and the poetic use of indigenous languages, folk-like melodies, antiphonal patterns of Nigerian musical paradigms, especially on the Biafran side, reflected the ethos and pathos of the Nigerian culture. In addition to Hymns from the Methodist Hymn Book, Ancient and Modern, Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Hymnal, Sacred Songs and Solos, and some others (some of them translated into the local languages) sung in the churches and other religious settings, anthems by Harcourt Whyte and other indigenous Nigerian music composers were put to use. Some of Harcourt Whyte’s sacred music included Chebe m Nna, Otuto Nke Chukwu, Atul’egwu, Tule N’obi Gi, Kpee Ekpere Mgbedum, and Bianu Ndi Enyim Nile. No doubt, local artistes and composers, such as Sam Ojukwu, Felix Nwuba, Nwokolobia Agu and David Okongwu emerged to provide the desired music both for worship and other art music (secular) as a medium for solidarity and “wind the war propaganda.” The emotional expressions in these works were transformative in consonance with the people’s petition and in tandem with the war situation.
Prof. Onyee N. Nwankpa, Ph.D. (Calgary, Canada),
Professor of Music Composition and Conducting,
University of Port Harcourt.

In this article:
Nigeria-Biafra War
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