The Passing of a Highlife Giant, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe

Nigeria – The Family of Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Officer of The Niger, Ezeafulukwe of Atani, announced the passing of the renowned Highlife musician. He died May 11,2007.
In March 1936, Osadebe was born in Atani, of the Igbo ethnic group, in Eastern Nigeria. The Igbo possess a vibrant cultural heritage often expressed in dances and songs about life and its complexities. This vibrancy is greatly captured in Osadebe’s music. He comes from a line of native singers and dancers.Mentored by trumpeter Zeal Onyia, Osadebe soon worked his way through a circuit of night clubs and dance halls in Lagos, South Western tip of Nigeria, far away from his home. His musical gift had blossomed in high school, in Onitsha Nigeria’s commercial city, near Atani.

In 1958, his first record was released to much acclaim and acceptance. It contained two songs, one of which was "Adamma", a tribute to a beautiful lady.

He wrote over 500 songs, more than half of which have been released and circulated world-wide.

Osadebe’s musical growth drew from calypso, samba, bolero, rumba, jazz, waltz, all of which are the core formative elements of highlife music in its rustic form.

As a good student of musical expression, Osadebe did not initially give himself much room for much experimentation with Highlife’s form. The Empire Rhythm Ochestra, led by E. C. Arinze provided room for Osadebe to learn. Nobody suspected that the little skinny young man was later to embody the accumulation of the pioneering efforts of Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu, Eddie Okonta, Victor Olaiya, Fred Coker, and Victor Uwaifo and several others.

Having become established, Osadebe took his music to another level in two major ways. The first was in incorporating satiric social commentary in his compositions. He was not as ribald and confrontational as Fela Kuti , nor was he as overtly benign as Sunny Ade  and Ebenezer Obey. He often appeared to target personal foes, a factor that later hindered his lyrical purity. The second was in extending the duration of each song to accommodate the dance floor jolly mood of his audience.

The outbreak of hostilities between Nigeria and one of her regions (the later self-named Biafra) led to an enormous loss of the prominence that highlife enjoyed in Nigeria, especially Lagos. The mass exodus of the Easterners to Biafra left a huge gap that was soon filled by juju music, and later Afrobeat. After the war, things were never the same ever again. By the early 1970s, Lagos had made room for numerous music forms especially for James Brown. Nigerian music had been altered and deeply enlarged forever.

Osadebe, kept his live performance schedule active both during and after the war, in-spite of all the hardship of those years. By the mid Seventies his career had reached its zenith. Osadebe ’75 gave him great success. Several hits followed in rapid succession like Biafran Bullets. This continued as the Nigerian economy swam in its much wasted oil boom. He also survived several band split-ups. One positive result of this shaky period that he went through was that Nigerian music welcomed several voices that found expressions thereby enriching the highlife genre. On the other hand, a negative bias crept into his artistry, which became increasingly compromised.

In 1984, Osadebe struck gold with "Osondi Owendi." His profile had been established as the leading highlife musician. His bold innovative experiments paid off admirably. "Makojo," which appears in this collection was, a celebrated hit from the eighties.

Through the years, his music has evolved a particular flow that features jazzy horns and strong guitar strokes atop bold native instrumentation. His voice, which is his major instrument, has maintained an incredible consistency through the years. He does as much singing as narrating in some of his songs. 

Another feature of his musical evolution is the heroic praise he gave to social clubs and his rich patrons. This is a carry over from traditional African music, which celebrates the war and economic exploits of the local warriors and farmers. Again, this trait has threatened the more philosophical lyricism of his music as an art form. It is always argued that music is a mirror of the society. Palace patronage often presents the danger of over reaching itself, by going into hyperbole.

When Osadebe turned 50 in 1986, he consciously began to make room for his son Obiora, by lightening his touring schedule. Several children from his wives had also began to demand more fatherly guidance. His record releases however did not diminish in any way. And age added more glow to his golden career. One of his internationally celebrated releases of recent is "Kedu America".

Few of his CDs were released in North America. Xenophile released Kedu America in 1996. Several remastered songs came out under the title Sound Time, on Indigedisc in 2001.

Edited biography courtesy of Indigedisc and