by Dike Okoro
Ikwunga Wonodi is not a new face among Afrobeat music followers in Nigeria and elsewhere; years back while a university student, he was a member of the “What?” collective which was an underground campus hit in Nigeria. As a young medical doctor, Ikwunga was a regular opening act for Femi Kuti at the Afrika Shrine in Lagos. Since the release of his latest album Calabash Afrobeat Poems Vol.1, Ikwunga has been the center of attention among the African community in the US and Britain. I recently spoke to Ikwunga via telephone and we both decided to set a date for this interview. Prior to our chat, Ikwunga had contacted me upon learning of my editorial work on a forthcoming poetry anthology in memory of his father, Okogbule Wonodi. Fated was what the contact turned out to be, for Ikwunga was also putting together his famed father’s posthumous collection of poems due for publication next year.
Dike: You have just released Calabash Afrobeat Poems, Vol. 1. Would you mind saying a little or as much as you want to about that effort?
Ikwunga: The release of Calabash Vol.1 has been a labor of love. It has taken a major financial, emotional and psychological toll on me. The volume contains some poems written before I migrated to the U.S. in 1995. All of which have undergone significant metamorphosis over the years. I was actually preparing to release part of this collection as an LP before leaving Nigeria, but events were more than the plans of men. Arriving the U.S found me locked in the struggle to sit for the professional examinations that would allow me get into a psychiatry residency program, our family was growing, and residency and fellowship training were grueling. I however recited poems at gatherings, with friends, family and coworkers. This reaffirmed to me that Pidgin English poetry had an audience here among African immigrants and Americans alike. However, when my father passed on in 1999, I decided to finish this work. Gradually over the past 4 years I would go into a studio in Baltimore and lay down the tracks as they sounded in my head, and also the lyrics. This was done in fits and starts, one month in the studio every Wednesday, then off for a month or two to listen to the product and rethink the approach. I would eventually come up with what I wanted the final product to sound like even if I didn’t return to that particular track next time around in my studio. I had mental sound files for the tracks in addition to the demo CDs. Early last year I informed my good friend Dele Sosimi (former Fela Kuti Egypt 80 keyboardist and musical director of Femi Kuti’s Positive Force band) that I would like to complete the project with him as the producer. I sent him the recent versions of the tracks and we decided that he would book studio time in London in June this year to go in. We did. Dele virtually revised all the music to the new contemporary Afrobeat that now is part of Calabash. We were definitely working on the same page. On my part, I had to raise my delivery to meet the superior musical rendition that Dele, Justin Thurgur and Femi Elias had put together. I had to make one final addition to my delivery, a raw, yet refined and intellectual Afrobeat attitude that was neither hip-hop, nor mainstream spoken word. The rest is history.
Dike: Any favorite, if you have to pick one song from the album that is special to you?
Ikwunga: A tough question. “Go Slow” perhaps, or maybe “Di Bombs”…could be “Ikeru”.
Dike: I have listened to the album, and I must admit that I’m impressed with the fusion of Afrobeat and poetry. What made you initiate such a rare marriage?
Ikwunga: Fela created Afrobeat and defined it as a genre, a “weapon” for sociopolitical action. Calabash is in many ways a concept album; fusion of spoken word with African style call-and-answer dialogue and Western Style rhymes, and a new contemporary chilling Afrobeat. Calabash is poetry, contemporary African artistic design, and music in one.
Dike: What was the first Afrobeat track you heard?
Ikwunga: My father had one of Fela’s early EMI recordings “Fela’s London Scene”. This was still a nascent Afrobeat. However, it was a promise of things to come. Things that came. My all-time favorite is “Dog eat Dog” by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Dike: Where did you harness your spoken word skills? You can’t tell me the laboratory imparted that on you?
Ikwunga: My medical school days at the University of Port-Harcourt found me co-forming the musical group we called What? Most of our tracks merged Pidgin English with English and had a sociopolitical message. What? was unrivalled as the underground hit in the Nigerian University music scene. After What?, I continued to develop the style and performed with a group called the Kontraband in Lagos. This led to my meeting Dele Sosimi and performing at the Afrika Shrine.
Dike: Do you think that Afrobeat poetry has an educated and devoted following in Nigeria?
Ikwunga: It’s growing.
Dike: I understand you used to open shows for Femi Kuti in the past. Do you want to shed some light on how that experience has helped you to get to where you are today as a performer?
Ikwunga: Opening for Femi Kuti was a paradigm shift in the evolution of Afrobeat poetry. I enjoyed performing this new style for the core Afrobeat regulars at the Afrika Shrine. The first time I performed, they actually tried to silence me with jeers and boos. Femi and Dele informed me that this was what I should expect delivering a new style and that I should keep at it. I did and the crowd gradually accepted the style and my conceptualization of it. It was like hazing.
Dike: Calabash Afrobeat poems, Vol. I is dedicated to the memory of your father. Did it get emotional in the studio for you?
Ikwunga: In several ways it was. On the other hand, it inspired me to complete the project and present my take on Afrobeat and poetry to the world.
Dike: Your album cover is quite provocative. How did you conceive of that idea?
Ikwunga: In 1991, my good friend Chima Eze had made illustrations for each poem in the first collection that never got released before I left Nigeria for the U.S. I took these illustrations to a top-notch graphic designer in Maryland, Geoffrey Olisa, and he developed the catching and provocative mix of colors and motifs that appears on the album cover. I believe that Chima, Geoffrey and Dele captured the essence of my style and message and were able to illustrate, design and produce the music appropriate to it, respectively.
Dike: How would you differentiate your spoken word style with what obtains in America and elsewhere today as rap/hip hop? Do you see any similarities?
Ikwunga: There are as many similarities as there are differences. Afrobeat poetry is more on the mellow side, is in Pidgin English and ideally requires the full compliment of an Afrobeat band, dancers and background vocalists to be whole.
Dike: What would you consider your most challenging obstacle since you embraced the microphone to get your message across?
Ikwunga: An African artist in a global music market is an artist with limited options, and seriously constrained opportunities. This unfortunately, is the same for most World music genres within this dominant culture. A significant proportion of these artists are pressured to move their music along hip-hop lines with the dream of mainstreaming. A sad state of affairs. Good a thing that there are stations like Radio Afrodicia that is hosted by DJ Nnamdi. Radio Afrodicia, which is part of KPFK Public Radio, showcases African and African-influenced music. DJ Nnamdi and his crew are doing an excellent job introducing African and African-influenced music into the LA area and beyond.
Dike: Calabash Afrobeat poems promises a lot more than what you have put together. I enjoyed it, especially the song “I don love”, which echoes high school love memories. Did you write that song while in high school?
Ikwunga: I wrote it while in medical school with high school memories in mind.
Dike: Are you working on another album?
Ikwunga: Not yet. Still need to work on promoting Vol.1 and getting some reviews and sales. KAOS FM’s Spin the Globe Radio (a reputable World Music program) listed Calabash on number 2 of their new world entries this November. This is very encouraging. There is a remix of Calabash Vol.1 in the making.
Dike: I read an article recently from NigeriaNewsOnline about your performance at Fela’s birthday celebration in Brixton, London. Do you want to say a little on that performance/experience?
Ikwunga: I performed “I don love” and “Di Bombs” and they were well received by the audience who were encountering this new form of spoken word/Afrobeat fusion for the first time. I opened the second segment of the musical show, and the audience made such a strong request for an encore, that I was invited on stage again to close out the night with “I don love”. Some photos of the night’s performance can be seen in the gallery section of my website.
Dike: Your style of music evokes influences of the West African Griot tradition and the South African Imbongi praise poetry. Do you see any traces of these traditions in your style, or do you have other influences?
Ikwunga: Dike, this is a very good question. In the mid to late 80s when I started developing a beat-poetry style with Pidgin English, several poets had influenced me. Poets like Okogbule Wonodi, Christopher Okigbo, O’Kot p’Bitek, to mention a few. I was also influenced by the dub-poets Linton Kwesi Johnson (LKJ) and Mutabaruka as well as the beat-poetry of Gil Scott Heron. Upon thinking of how best to further translate our African praise poetry tradition such as the Griot, Imbongi, and Yoruba, I pulled on another influence, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Afrobeat. I believe my style is still in evolution. Calabash Vol.2 will be quite different from Vol.1.
Dike: Your song “I don love” was recently included in a selection of best Afrobeat songs produced by Dele Sosimi. The album includes songs by Manu Dibango, Salif Keita, Femi Kuti, Fela Kuti, James Brown et al…
Ikwunga: I would never have dreamed of that for this independently funded debut project of mine. Many thanks go to Dele Sosimi, my friends Brian and Hephzibah Kaplan who introduced us to Simon Marks of Family Recordings, and the productive collaboration between Dele, myself, Justin Thurgur and Femi Elias.
Dike: Your diction, rhyme structure and lyrics fascinate me. Any early influence from your father or other poets? You know the spoken word has a historical side for us, right?
Ikwunga: Yes, my father Okogbule Wonodi and many other fine African writers, Okigbo, Peters, Okara, p’Bitek, Brutus, lo Liyong, Wangosa, Mapanje, Vasta, and many, many more, including the poetry that is the every day struggle in the developing world.
Dike: Now to the question I have been waiting to ask. You are a physician, academic,husband and father. How do you balance the responsibilities that follow these roles to keep up with your recording dream?
Ikwunga: Tough one Dike. I work very hard to be “good enough” in these roles. I am fortunate to have a supportive wife and family. My wife Adora, who was my classmate in medical school in Nigeria has always supported my musical hobby, and today she continues to do so, and the kids too. As an academic and physician, I do what many family men and women do, work as hard as possible and make sure that there is protected family time.
Dike: It has been quite a great experience talking to you. When do you expect to drop Calabash Afrobeat poems Vol. II? And where and when can music lovers and fans buy copies?
Ikwunga: The pleasure has been mine Dike. Vol. II will be hitting the stores soon and will be more provocative than Vol.I , both in content and in the further refinement of the style. Like I had mentioned earlier though, a dance remix of Vol.1 is in the offing. For now Calabash Vol.1 can be found in stores courtesy of Sterns Music. Online purchase can be made from my website www.rebisihut.com, or fromwww.cdbaby.com, www.afrodicia.com, www.calbashmusic.com and www.amazon.com. Feedback from listeners and collectors of Afrobeat poetry are welcome. I would like to say a big thanks to DJ Nnamdi of Radio Afrodicia Los Angeles for his work supporting African and African-influenced music and his co-management of Calabash Vol.1 with Ogugua Iwelu of African Shrine Management.
Dike Okoro is the author of Weeping Shadows (2000), a collection of poems and the editor of a collection of new and selected poems of Mazisi Kunene. Okoro’s poems have also appeared in various South African literary journals, including Kotaz, Echoes, and Linet.