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Celestine Ukwu

A Review of the Life and Works of Celestine Ukwu

Unveiling the Amadi Odo, Celestine Ukwu: A Review of The Life and Works of Celestine Ukwu By Richard C. Okafor, Afam Nwokike, Cosmas Eziechi, and Jonathan Egudu

Reviewer: Dr. Ojel Clara Anidi


It is my pleasure to be given the privilege and opportunity by the Abor Social Club of Nigeria and the organizing committee of the Ujaligwa Day Celebrations, Umuavulu-Abor Progressive Union, to review the work done on our brother, the music maestro, greatest of the greats, Celestine Ukwu. Would I say it is in our DNA? I mean the love of music, the love of arts and culture, portraying life, truth and beauty? Beginning from Iyime Awubu and Ojewe Ogene, it must have been that ‘jive’ that attracted them in the first place. And then we can see it in the other talented musicians of Abor and Umuavulu – examples, Ericbaz who is actually a chip of the old block, Charlybaz, of blessed memory, and the budding talents of ‘Kenechi Uwaoma’ and ‘Nationwize’ Aniagbaoso. In Abor, music, poetry and creativity abound in the various things we do – in our egwu onwa (moonlight plays), urla ekwa (funeral sleep-overs), igbu evu (folk poetry), folk dance, ekwe odo (the Odo music xylophone) and Igodo Odo festival)…all is full of theatre, performance and music. 

It is the same music that we are celebrating here. This book which I am here to review is 158 paged and entitled The Life and Works of Celestine Ukwu. It is authored by five persons: Richard Okafor, a professor of music and ethnomusicology; Afam Nwokike, a psychologist and guidance counselor; Cosmas Eziechi, a teacher, businessman and politician; and Jonathan Egudu, a lecturer and agric. economist. These scholars from different academic backgrounds, as we see, and from different towns – Okafor hails from Ogwofia Owa; Nwokike from Awha Imezi;  Eziechi from Oghe; and Egudu from Ukana – thought it wise to come together to study this mighty masquerade, the Ijele of Igboland, our greatest Amadi Odo, our own brother, Celestine Ukwu.

Remarkably, this book on Celestine Ukwu is being formally presented to the Abor people, today, 26 December 2020, 21 years after the publication of the book, and 43 long years since the tragic death of Celestine Ukwu on May 8, 1977. This celebration of Celestine Ukwu might indeed be described as a culmination of the Centenary Celebration of the Church in Abor. The Church’s Centenary Celebration, as we know, took place on the 27th -29th December 2019; that means, it remains only one day, today, to record a full year since the Church’s Centenary. Celestine Ukwu can, perhaps, be described as one of the greatest products of the Church in Abor. This illustrious son of Abor popularized and brought respect to the Abor community of Enugu State and indeed the entire Igbo nation, through his music. It would have been a grave omission had no group in Abor remembered to honour our legendary brother, the renowned musician and world class philosopher and teacher, all through the centenary year. May we, all Abor indigenes, therefore, thank the Abor Social Club of Nigeria for remembering to give this honour to our worthy brother, Celestine Ukwu. As Dent (1982) would say, “it is altogether fitting and proper that we should celebrate and remember the achievements of the past. If we do not do so, neither would the next generation remember our achievements when we are gone”.

The book covered three important aspects of Celestine Ukwu: 1. Celestine Ukwu’s family background and early career; 2. Celestine’s lyrics/ songs; and 3. Celestine Ukwu as philosopher and educator. Celestine Ukwu was born in 1940, the first of the four children of his parents, Mr. Anigbogu and Mrs. Udenwo Ukwu of Orobo village, Umuavulu Abor. Several members of his family all had musical talent. His parents and grandmother performed prominently in folk music and dances. His uncle, Vincent Ukwu, was the first organist in the then Udi Province. Celestine Ukwu started travelling and getting exposure beginning from a very young age when he went to live with his choir-master uncle. He attended several primary schools at different cities ranging from Port Harcourt, Igboriam, Onitsha, Buguma and eventually Abor, where he completed his primary education at St Peter Catholic School, Abor, in 1955. He went further to obtain the Teacher’s Grade Three Certificate from the Teacher Training College, Zaria, in 1958. After a two-year career in teaching, Celestine decided to follow his heart in the music industry. He spent several years of discipleship and tutelage with a number of professional musicians at different cities of Nigeria and the Congo, including Gentleman Mike Ejeagha, Mr. Picolo of Congo, Herbert Udemba and his African Baby Party, and Charles Jebba and The Republican Knights, before he eventually established his own band, Celestine Ukwu and His Music Royals of Nigeria, in 1962.

The second aspect of the work reveals Celestine Ukwu’s songs, 39 of which are translated and analyzed in the work. Most of the songs are written and sung in Igbo, but their English translations are as well given in the work. A few of the songs are in Efik, English, and Pidgin English, all translated (where applicable) and analysed. To sample some of the songs, we can look at “E Jina Uwa Anya Isi” – Do not boast of what you have. This is a direct advice or reprimand to people, to us, not to boast over the talents or material things that God has given us – be it wealth, property, people, connections, intelligence, or good looks. People are sometimes carried away by these material things and think them the end of the world. This is foolishness, for “At the point of our exit we are not entitled to carry our wealth” (p. 9). Apart from that, Celestine advises that “tomorrow is pregnant”, “Echi di ime”. No one knows what the future has in stock for any person. Fortunes come and go at any time. “Amu na atu uri”, our people say. Therefore, the way to go, for Celestine, is ‘detachment’. Whatever you are, no matter what you have, do not be attached to mundane things which come and go.

The song, “O-Bialu-Be-Onye – A Guest”, makes this point: O-bialu-be-onye a bia gbukwa nie/ O nakoo mkpunkpu a pu n’ia (n’azu), beautifully translated as: Let not a guest bring harm to his host/ So that on his departure no haunch will grow (on his back) (pp. 10-11). This song depicts the relationship between a guest and his host, both in the physical sense and the spiritual realm. A guest should not overstay his welcome. When one finishes with one’s visit, delivers one’s message, and completes one’s job on earth, one must leave. Oge zura, I ga ana; nya bu, anyi ga na elota mgbe nile, na akwado obele obele, na eme aru ka ndi ga-ana ana. Celestine re-echoes this theme about our being guests in this world in the song “Uwa Bu Olili – Life is a Sojourn”  “Onye achona ibe ya onwu/ Onye a chona ibe ya ogbugbu….Maka n’uwa bu olili/ Onye nolisia nu O naa” (p. 42).

In the song, “Okwukwe na Nchekwube – Faith and Hope”, Celestine reminds us of the temporariness of the challenges of life, the same way as there is temporariness of life or enjoyment. “Ife nwelu mbido ga enwelili njedebe/O na-abu ife na-eme, O dika oma ebezi….” (p. 12). The message therefore is: in the face of challenges, we must always have faith and hope, and not allow ourselves to sink into despair, because every problem eases away in the course of time. Celestine gives the same encouragement in another of his songs, “Onwunwa – Temptations”: “Onwunwa bia, odika uwa a gasia…Onye chekwube Olisa, o mesia O ga adi mma” (p. 35). Celestine usually identifies a problem and offers a solution. Please let’s enjoy the poetry, the beauty, the literariness of Celestine Ukwu’s language in that song, “Okwukwe na Nchekwube – Faith and Hope”: “O na-abu ife na-eme ufodu e kolopu/ O na-abu ife dado ndi ufodu fa e kolopu” (p. 12). “ife dado” indicates the weight of a problem that can befall someone. The same beauty is seen in this imagery and metaphor: “Onye i talu busa n’obi, O talu welu bunyuo yi anya” (p. 14), as seen in the song “Mma Anyi Egbuna Anyi – May our kindness not lead us to doom” The imagery depicts some person who gave another person something dear to his heart, and that person responded by spitting right into his eyes – ingratitude. The prayer is: May the disappointment we experience when we give love to someone and gets hate in return not affect us negatively. Celestine advises that in such a situation let us not allow ourselves to return hatred for hatred. Okafor et al in their analysis opine that the noblest vengeance we can take to our enemies is to be kind to them; not injury for injury, or malice for malice. Kindness is always superior to malice.

“Mmefie a Diro Mgbaghalu a Ma Di – No offence no forgiveness” is a song which treats the issue of love. What does it cost to love? The answer is: Forgiveness at all times, and humility: “Welukene obi umeani…” (p. 17), please accommodate.… Ife m emena yi biko gbaghalu m- whatever I have done to you, please forgive (accommodate) me. Adamma, you and I shall live together. Celestine here reminds us of the Biblical injunction: husbands love your wives; wives respect, accommodate, your husbands, whatever the case. Another love song of Celestine is “Ima Echi? Do you know tomorrow?” “I mago nke Chi ga ekwu-o? /Aiyoo ebele di n’obi mu-o, Aiyo-o… (p. 27).” Here, the poet begs the lady, Ada (the lady’s name), Nke Chinyelu (Gift from God), to open her heart, to do away with anger, and to live with him: “Dozie obi gi na mu na y i ga-ebi-o Ada Nkechinyelu/ Rapu iwe maka obi mu-o na ayo m yi”. In “Uso Ndu – The sweetness of life” (p. 34), Celestine reprimands people to be wary of the niceties of life. And then we consider the song, “Okwu eji n’elo – Matters of Mutual Agreement”. “Okwu eji n’elo, na-odi ese okwu/ Okwu a kpala akpa na-eji isi ekwe ya” (p. 77). Whatever is mutually agreed upon is accepted with a nod. So, mutual discussion and agreement is very important in order to avoid misunderstanding and disagreement. In “Asili – Gossip”: “Asili eee, umu-uwa n’asili ee, Ewo n’asili erika n’uwa…” (p. 29), Celestine condemns gossip, which brings division among siblings, husband and wife, friends, relations, colleagues, communities. The message of this song, as submitted by Okafor et al, is: Do not take all you hear about someone as the fact or truth, until you hear from the person. Always confirm certain information before you start acting or reacting.

Celestine Ukwu’s songs are full of lessons, each one of them. Like all great artists, Celestine Ukwu portrays the truths about life – truth about human beings – what makes us cry, laugh, gnash our teeth, kill each other, or love each other. Celestine in most of his songs preaches detachment, balance, justice, integrity, contentment, faith and hope. Again, one can easily see the influence of the city of Onitsha, where Celestine settled in his hay days, in the Igbo dialect used for his songs.

Lastly, this book discusses Celestine Ukwu as a philosopher and an educationist. Philosophy, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica, as cited by Okafor et al in the work, is, among other things, an examination of the values of truth, goodness, and beauty; an effort to codify the rules of human thought in order to promote rationality and the extension of clear thinking (p. 94). Philosophy is derived from the two words ‘philia’ and ‘sophia’ which mean ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’; that is ‘the love of wisdom’, or knowledge about human beings and the universe. Okafor et al identify Celestine as having a wealth of philosophy rarely seen in other musicians of his time and type; hence the necessity for them to explicate his rich philosophical talents as made manifest in his works. Truth, honesty, integrity, justice, kindness, love, trust and hope, for Okafor et al, are values which Celestine constantly harps in his music. Celestine also reminds his listeners that human beings are death-bound, ultimately, and should never lose sight of that. This book also portrays Celestine as an educator, a crusader, and a priest. Reading through the book, particularly, Chapter Two which exposed the very words of Celestine’s songs (39 lyrics) can be compared to reading through the Bible (particularly, the Book of Wisdom), or any Holy book. To tell the truth, between the time of my opening this work on Celestine Ukwu and the time of my reading the last chapter, I had become a different person, much richer in wisdom and knowledge. This book on Celestine Ukwu can really be described as a curriculum for happy living on earth. Like good school teachers that the writers are, apart from writing out Celestine’s songs, they have spent a considerable length of time opening up the hidden truths in these songs – the curriculum of life, as given by the expert, the curriculum designer. Celestine himself was only a Grade 3 Teacher in terms of formal training, yet even the very Doctors of Philosophy would need to humbly bend down to draw from his well of knowledge.

In all, Celestine Ukwu lived a worthwhile life. This means that he lived to the fullness of his potentials, his talents, and his capabilities. A worthwhile life is not determined by the length of years one spent here on earth, nor does it mean a life devoid of challenges, hardships or sorrows. As Maya Angelou, the great poet, often said, “We may encounter many defeats, but we should never be defeated”. And, sometimes, one needs to encounter some difficulties, some real hard stuff, in order to come out good. Being old or living to a very old age is not an indication of maturity or success. Growth and maturity is gained by paying one’s dues to the earth – what it costs one to love and lose; to dare and fail and even to succeed – taking responsibility for the time we take up and the space we occupy (Maya Angelou). Some people only grow older with no corresponding maturity. So we are happy that our brother Celestine Ukwu, though we may think he died young, actually lived to full maturity. We are grateful to God for Celestine’s life, the talents he was given and the opportunities he had to display these talents, and I dare say, to the fullest, before his demise. Of course, as an Amadi Odo, Celestine Ukwu shall never die. He lives on in his music, his philosophies, his teachings, and all the things that remind us of him, including his daughter, family and even in his statue and this very book being launched today in our community.

One of the most touching, emotional, things about the book, The Life and Works of Celestine Ukwu, is its Dedication. The authors of the book dedicated the book to all “Abor people of Udi Local Government Area of Enugu State, in cherished memory of their great son, musician and philosopher, Celestine Ukwu”, emphasis mine. This Dedication reveals the extent of Celestine Ukwu’s influence and legacy, outside our community, so much so that people hold Abor people in great esteem, for having brought forth this world-class musician, philosopher, preacher and teacher of all times. A prophet, they say, is not recognized in his hometown. That means the extent of influence of this prophet is not fully appreciated, not really known, among his people. This book on Celestine Ukwu written by people not from Abor has really unveiled this great gem of ours, one of the greatest of our Amadi Odos, the Ijele of Igboland! What a pride! Indeed, being kin to Celestine Ukwu should put more strength to our backbones, more lighting to our spirits, and more spring to our legs! And to our Abor musicians and up and coming stars, including Ericbaz Mbaeze, Kenechi Uwaoma, and Nationwize Aniagbaoso, march on and do not fear, for you have giants to stand on their shoulders. You can comfortably stand on the shoulders of your fore-runner, Celestine Ukwu.

I recommend this book to every Abor person and indeed to every person who wants to acquire wisdom on how to leave a quality life.

Thank you for listening.

This Post Has 12 Comments

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    I think this is a real great blog article. Thanks Again. Maria Kang

  2. Thank you ever so for you blog article. Really thank you! Want more. Michael Stojanovic

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  5. Katherine Zavartkay

    thank you so much for this review! i have only recently learned of Celestine Ukwu, heard his music — such a phenomenal human being, artist, educator — so now i am attempting to find a copy of this book — somewhat difficult, as i am in the U.S.! but i am determined 🙂 thanks again! — Katherine Zavartkay

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