‘Bayelsans like enjoyment’ is the first thing you will hear when a person quizzically asks about the reason for the extra display of lifestyle that a man from down south possesses, a statement usually employed to casually affirm to the inner and deeper human insatiable cravings of the Bayelsa man/woman.
It is a statement that has been echoed by Bayelsans themselves and oozing of pride and acceptance to this fate and lifestyle. It is either, booze, food and women for a Bayelsa man or woman, and they show this off by flaunting one or more of this. It is a question for the Bayelsa man, between liquor and women, which comes first, even though sometimes both can be seen going hand in hand.
The traditional Bayelsa man regards that enjoyment or relaxation complete when he is in the midst of his brothers, with the melodious Owigiri tunes playing, accompanied by a drink in hand. The case is the same in other climes, and is not necessarily a Bayelsa thing. What is peculiarly Bayelsan however, is how they choose to party, what they choose to party about and the features of such party.
The indigenous Ijaw music is traditional highlife music in Izon language voiced by musicians spanning over 80 years in practice. The likes of King Robert Ebizimor, Pereama Freetown and Barrister Smooth who mentored and raised music protégés that are doing well stringing their instruments and voicing words that form philosophy for the people of the region. It is through these musicians whose music, without which a traditional gathering – traditional marriage, burial or just an elegant soiree in Bayelsa and her sister states is incomplete, that a social climax is reached.
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This traditional music can be seen in other parts of the country and states because the Ijaw people have travelled far bringing with them their impeccable traditional lifestyle and music. And this isn’t a feat that was just accomplished in the turn of the 21st century; it was a journey that started from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Owigiri music has spanned several years, and has been handed down from the older generation to a younger generation of musicians, most of which credit original influences to their music to Ghanaian strings and Nigerian influences in the West and South East. In fact some of these Ijaw music maestros were at one time members of bands led by the most celebrated Highlife musicians in the West, they later went on to lead successful musical careers of their own. Yet, they do not share the same veneration like their counterparts in the West and East like Ebenezer Obey, King Sunny Ade and Oliver De Coque.
In Rivers State, musicians like Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson with an alto voice stringed the trumpet and the alto saxophone to produce songs that not just captured the times but shaped the highlife sound that existed then. Rex Lawson was a multi-talented musician who could sing in Efik, Kalabari, Izon, Igbo, pidgin and some Ghanaian languages.
Even though most of these musicians were part of a band at one time or the other and had successful solo careers, it was clear that these bands were the launch board of most of their careers, like the professional ‘Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt’, that started from Rex Lawson’s backup group called the ‘Rivers Men’.
In Bayelsa, one cannot start the list without mentioning King Robert Ebizimor’s music. King Robert Ebizimor, the Angalabiri born is a guitarist, vocalist, and performer whose revolutionary voice sunk into the hearts of many, home and abroad. Starting off in the 70’s, playing at local pubs and traditional gatherings, his sound became one of the most respected sounds to come out of the South South. He even went further to form a band called the Robert Ebizimor and the Izon brothers dance band from which he groomed the next generation of Ijaw highlife musicians.
Drawing influences from Osondu, S.K Karebo, Rex Jim Lawson, Professor Belemu and others, Robert Ebizimor grew into a household name in the South South, through his music. With an original sound, his brand of highlife music had an infusion of juju, afrobeat, reggae, fuji and makosa.
Pereama Freetown, like King Robert Ebizimor rose from a band, playing the bass guitar instrument, and vocalizing philosophies on love, sex and everyday happenings, which garnered attention. Pereama was discovered as a result and was drafted into King Robert Ebizimor’s band in 1985. He went ahead to play and sing on the band with King Robert Ebizimor, playing at traditional Ijaw gatherings. With an opportunity to learn from Robert Ebizimor, he grew into an Ijaw highlife music maestro himself and went solo in 1994.
Barrister Smooth, a native of Burutu Local Government Area in Delta State is a traditional highlife vocalist and performer whose music has transcended time and has shaped the Ijaw highlife genre. Singing in Izon and English, Barrister Smooth popularized a sonorous sound that has made the traditional gathering utterly incomplete without. Smooth points his influences to highlife musicians like Oliver de Coque and others. Smooth has himself influenced a younger generation of Ijaw highlife musicians, through which not just Bayelsans but all Ijaw people in Rivers, Delta, Ondo and other parts of the world enjoy.
These sounds shaped social life and added flavor to gatherings, it was incomplete if not served alongside the Owigiri dance – a rhythmical movement of the waist to the melody of sound – the one collective feature of the Ijaw highlife, anywhere in the world.