The Man is naked from waist up and the sheen of his sweat hangs on him like a faint hue, occasionally running down his jeans that are in turn tucked into his lime green platforms ÔÇô paratrooper style His eyes are closed and the veins on his neck flex in effort as he unleashes note after note. He is lost in a self induced trance
The place is the Ambassador Hotel in Aba, it is 1976 and the man singing is Prince Nico Mbarga. I am a but a wee lad hanging in the rafters right underneath the gaily painted blue red and yellow bulbs, and I am about to witness one of the best live shows I have ever seen - even to date.
But first of all little back ground preparation on Mbarga, not to say that it should be necessary.
Born to Cameroonian and Nigerian parents In Abakaliki, Mbarga spent his young adult life in the Cameroon sitting out the Biafran War; while honing his skills initially displayed as a young member of THE MELODY ORCHESTRA a band know for mainly doing covers on the Hotel circuit.
It would be here that he would evolve from semi timid front man, to arranger extraordinaire by blending in both Igbo and Congolese style guitar playing over uplifting high life rhythms. It would also be here that the blue print for his band ROCKAFIL JAZZ would be laid allowing them to return to Onitsha after the war, where they became the house band of the Naza Hotel.
Though their first attempt at securing a commercial hit fell short of expectations their second single "I NO GO MARRY MY PAPA" did become a regional hit making the band a favorite among the traders especially in Onitsha and Aba, that respectively boasted of West Africa's newest mega markets in both Ochanga and Ariaria. Unfortunately this following would become a defacto ball and chain for the band, causing EMI Records who wanted a broader following to drop them from their label.
It would be a delicious stroke of fortune allowing Rogers All Stars Records to enter the picture and grab the reigns of the now unsigned band. And the rest as we know is history. Their next LP which would take three years to make would catapult them to "Super Star" status coming in form of SWEET MOTHER.
Amazingly it would go on to sell an mind boggling 13 million copies, and etch itself in stone as one of the most important records in Nigeria's music history as well as one of the most successful commercial albums to come out of Africa ÔÇô period. Boasting of not one but three mega hits namely the for mentioned SWEET MOTHER , AKI SPECIAL and CHRISTIANA, it pulled of a feat that even today is rarely replicated..
And now back to the show.
The traders had waited patiently for the bands vehicles at Umungasi, and in a convoy made up of hundreds of bright new Kawasaki's, Suzuki's and VESPA's complete with fluttering yellow dusters, had escorted them through the town with horns blaring to the grounds of the Ambassador. They arrived notoriously late but then who cared? After all in those days the only thing we held on time were Soccer matches and public executions.
THE PRINCE IN BOOTS
Their sound simply put, was larger than life and they were a spectacle to behold. Complete with cheeky bottom wiggling female dancers and mimicking the "Glam Rock" apparel that was the trend with all major acts abroad - you know the outrageous clothes like "Bongo" trousers, make up, hairstyles and platform soled boots - ROCKAFIL was a band that you had to not just hear, but see as well. The show as I remember was simply flawless as the band meandered from tune to tune with the ease of a seasoned Mallam carving up a slab of Suya. Meanwhile "Prince" himself was the ultimate show man hoping from Conga to Drums and from them to the native xylophone. When he finally picked up his guitar and strummed the opening licks of SWEET MOTHER the place exploded into such a frenzy that later on people would claim they heard the sound all the way down at the Aba River.
In any case despite the fact that they band would wax six more the Albums they would never replicate SWEET MOTHER's success and in the early 80's they moved to London in an attempt to generate a "second wind". However that project would be dealt a major blow when most of the Cameroonian band members would be deported forcing ROCKAFIL into an uneasy alliance first with another London based band The IVORY COASTERS, and then finally with the Cameroonian singer LOUISIANA TILDA.
But the magic created in Africa could never be duplicated In Europe and they would soon return home. It would however also remain elusive in Nigeria and despite forming a new ROCKAFIL band Prince Mbarga would eventually venture into the Hotel management by opening first the Calabar and then of course the Sweet Mother Hotel's.
I don't know if he would die on a Kawasaki, Suzuki or VESPA. What I do know is that he did die in an accident featuring one of these mechanical chariots, ironically once ridden to pay homage to him. I also do remember it was on June the 24th 1997 and that it was on a Tuesday and that I, as more than likely that rest of Africa was inconsolable. That evening as I sipped my "White Horse" and reminisced, I could not help replaying that very day in Aba in my mind when I first saw him live and he pointed at me in the crowd and winked.
As I wished him everlasting peace I also prayed that the torch had been passed and that somewhere in the future he would return to us in some other shape or form. Because simply put, he was that good. AUTHORS CHOICE TRACK