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In a modest bungalow there I met Esame, his widow, and Ojong, his best friend, on a warm evening on the cusp of the wet season.
On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.
“Sweet Mother,” his 1976 one-hit wonder, had sold at least thirteen million copies across the African continent – more than The Beatles’ bestseller “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But no global media outlet thought to cover the life and death of the artist behind Africa’s most popular song.
Today, the only internet accounts of his life reach around four paragraphs and bookend Mbarga’s career with two big political events of the time: the Biafran War in 1967 that saw him, at 17, flee across the border to Cameroon, where he mastered the guitar; and the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983, with his band’s Cameroonian members among the two million West Africans forced to leave the country.
For if anything was to capture the mood of the new country emerging in Nigeria’s faraway and growing cities, it was the highlife music he could now hear from home.
But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark.Ojong remembers early mornings with young Nico on the river, fishing for tilapia and catfish, and days spent in the shade of the forests, setting traps for birds.Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated.There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too.From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own.
Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time).