From the Archives: The Ambrose Ehirim Files
Reflections on Igbo Artists and Diaspora Performances
With no media coverage and a little fanfare, Oliver de Coque’s Local 250 Warehouse concert in Gardena, California, was absolutely a flop and very disappointing. The crowd, many of whom drove down from the San Fernando Valley and Inland Empire to see Coque and his brother, Eugene, were upset and felt it was all a waste of time and money. “Oh, my God, is this a fund-raising ceremony or actually a concert?” asked a curious man who came to watch Coque live in concert.
I have watched Sunny Ade perform at the Vanguard in Hollywood, the Royce Hall at UCLA, and the Coach House, San Juan Capistrano, California. I watched Lagbaja perform with passion at the House of Blues in Hollywood. I watched the legendary “Chief Priest” Fela Anikulapo Kuti in several occasions at the Greek Theater and Gibson Theater (formerly Universal Amphitheater). I also saw the South African-born legendary trumpeter Hugh Masekela twice at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles and UCLA’s Royce Hall. Masekela’s performance resonated with emotion reaching well beyond the music, just like Fela and Lagbaja.
Back in the old days, while growing up, I watched Emma China’s –led new Wings perform at Orupolo Nite Club, in Port Harcourt. I saw Bongos Ikwue perform at Lido Night Club, in Port Harcourt. I watched the promising artist Kris Okotie launch his second album at National Theater, Iganmu, Lagos. I saw Tee Mac, then resident soloist play his flute at Suru Lere Nite Club. Also, in those pretty old days, we turned classrooms into ballrooms and had a ball with DJ’s and local ensembles; Action 13, Founders15, Heads Funk, Black Children and “Stone Face” Iwuagwu. We watched Okukuseku, Apostles and One World (Otu Uwa) perform at Hotel Unicoco, Aba. And, of course, back in the day, musicians—be it rock, highlife, afro beat, afro funk, soul, juju, ikwokirikwo, roots music and folklore--performed at night clubs, bars, concert halls and auditoriums, the appropriate place for performers and players of instrument.
However, Local 250 Warehouse located at 18355 Figueroa Street in the industrial layout of Gardena, a Los Angeles suburb, was the last venue of all places I had expected to watch a concert. Never in my entire life have I seen anything like that, a warehouse with two exit doors as concert venue. On Saturday, October 1, 2005, the teamsters’ warehouse would now be home to ‘Ogene Sound’ concert, to test the staying power of Coque and his brother, the fanciful duo admired by showman Solomon Egbuho and his group of promoters in the Los Angeles area.
The ticket I had purchased three days earlier at Four Seasons African/Caribbean Market read: “Afam Kings Entertainment Group/African Lions Productions/A.P.T.N. celebrates Nigerian 45th Independence Anniversary featuring Chief (Dr.) Oliver de Coque and special guests on Saturday, October 1, 2005 from 8:00PM to 6:00AM at Local 250. Donations: $25 advance/$30 door. Donations are non-refundable.”
Are these promoters keeping up with the books? Was Coque performing for all proceeds to go to charity? Was the cover charge meant for worthy causes as the promoters claimed? Reality check, here we come.
First in the day, I was left with two of three choices, to go see South African singer Miriam “Mama Africa” Makeba’s last L.A. appearance at the West Los Angeles Church in a Musics of the World Celebration Concert, and prepare myself for a long night at Local 250, or stay at home like a normal couch potato, eat, drink with phone calls at intervals and watch mob movies all night long. Unlike Coque’s “45th Independence Anniversary” show, Makeba’s West Los Angeles Church performance attracted prominent black leaders, politicians and activists from all around the world. Representatives of music’s World Forum and various government officials, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D. Los Angeles) stopped by.
What took me to Makeba’s was the same desire that brought me to Coque’s at Local 250: Music is my passion. Born Oliver Sunday Akanite, he began his music career in the seventies when Olumo Records contracted him to do recording sessions in its studio. He had a fairly successful career considering he’s the originator of Ogene Sound, a blend of Congo drumming and “massive” guitar works. Without a doubt, Coque did more original materials in his earlier projects until his music became a money bags choice. “Identity” is still a good song. “Ugbala” and “Peoples Club” are also good songs. "Peoples Club” originally was made an Igbo traders anthem by Stephen Osita Osadebe before Coque’s flavor of a different version popped up.
But Coque I saw at Local 250 was totally different from the Coque of Identity years. His “yes” is no longer his yes. His “no,” I’m not sure. He is now full of pride, too much iyanga. He used to be “a simple man by nature.” Not anymore.
The last time I watched Coque perform was on November 18, 2000, at the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, California. Back then, he had not degenerated way low into what he is today, the fund-raising, pan handler, coupled with applauding “money bags” and societal nouveau riche who fills up his pocket with stacks of cash. At Hollywood Park Casino, the place was packed with people from all walks of life, including a variety of white folks and Latinos who came to be entertained. Hollywood Park Casino had substance with good vibes, the typical night life, and pub-crawling kind of stuff. Hollywood Park Casino is real stuff of life. The stuff of music jams and cultural arts.
The trouble with Coque’s turn-off show is that the money bags and noisy promoters of the supposedly concert caused a whole lot of distractions each time they climbed on stage to show off their sacks of money and announce Coque as a recipient of a lifetime achievement award by the organizers of the show who would go to any length in the name of money. It was a full time job for the coordinators who picked up money all night long as it dropped from Coque’s face down to the floor. Ridiculous?
The moment of truth came when a little bit past midnight, Coque introduced his eight-piece warehouse band with his brother on guitar while his Diaspora road manager Christian Emedom took the microphone as background vocal. Typical of Coque mix and fund-raising ceremonies, Los Angeles-based attorney Jude Akubuilo set the night rolling when he brought his wife along with him to the stage and turned a night I had anticipated to watch a live concert into spraying money-in-your face, hi fives and name-calling jamboree.
No wonder Coque has been labeled a money-chasing musician instead of doing what he does best. Play his guitar. And no wonder the audience reacted angrily when all they heard Coque’s eight-piece warehouse band utter was a rendition of “Akubuilo,” Akubuilo,” Akubuilo,” Akubuilo,” “Akubuilo,” “Akubuilo,” on and on to open up the act. For more than twenty-five minutes, it was Coque and his band’s rendition of “Akubuilo,” “Akubuilo,” over and over again while the money man himself, Akubuilo, kept spraying money on Coque's face, non-stop. Money flowed from all angles of the stage to launch Coque’s fund-raising drive. And the mood in the crowd was obvious; Coque “screwed up” the show and had disappointed everybody. Many displayed their feelings of regret each time Coque praises a spraying money-in-your face title holder, the “Ogbuefis,” the “Onyilimbas,” the ‘Okezes” and things like that.
“Is this what we came here to see this evening,” Emma Obodo asked during the intermission before Coque continued the spraying money-in-your face event. “It’s not worth it, I should have stayed home. This is outrageous.” Even Altadena, California Councilman, Bill Nwoye whom I had an extensive chat with, was disappointed from what he saw that night. Nwoye has not been out to any Igbo gathering in a while, and could not believe what he saw from the greedy, scandalous vendors who hijacked prices of food and alcohol at the makeshift stalls that hanged around the corners of the warehouse. There were also a group of bootleggers who made brisk business selling pirated CDs and DVDs. It was a concert-turned swap meet. No wonder our local performers live and die in penury as a result of record piracy by counterfeiters and street peddlers.
If you had just arrived, you haven’t seen anything yet. Next was Eddie Iheanacho who came on stage with bundles of a dollar bills. He began his spraying money-in-your face without much ado. Coque gave it to him anyway, in “Onyilimba Orlu” rendition that lasted for more than thirty minutes. There was “Quality,” the lady who had no problems telling the audience she was single and available. She sprayed money, sprayed money, danced and danced while Coque rendered “Quality,” “Quality,” on and on until her wallet ran dry. Enter Jude Uwaezuoke of all people. He joined the chorus as if he had just won the lottery. More single ladies and single mothers popped up on stage to point out the coast’s clear.
Rewind back five years when Coque performed at Hollywood Park Casino. The venue alone had the crowd jumping and stomping on their feet, and I remember Coque pulled out all the tricks out of his hat for the show—all the things that make live performances worth attending, playing many tunes and handling his guitar the way musicians do.
At Local 250, Coque was a bad rap. I paid attention to make out what he was saying in his lyrics. He sounded like he forgot the words in the verse, and kept playing and improvising lyrics about being rich and generous like the “Onyilimbas,” Qualitys,” “Onyeolilis,” and “Okeosisis” did, spraying money as a symbol of societal nouveau riche. Coque’s rendering of “king of kings,” and “alpha and omega” was exactly what his Diaspora road managers and promoters wanted as spraying money-in-your face continued apace. That’s why, if you check world music/African section of a major record store, Coque’s songs and projects are no where to be found.
I made some trips to Amoeba Music on Cahuenga and Sunset Blvd., the biggest record-selling franchise to check out Coque’s works. There, I asked one of the store attendants where to pick up Oliver de Coque’s CDs. “Oliver who?” he asked. “Do you mean Oliver N’Goma or Oliver Mtukudzi?”
“Oliver de Coque,” I said.
“Well, if you check world/African section and you don’t find it, you know we don’t have it,” he said. For sure, N’Goma and Mtukudzi are well known. Their CDs can be found everywhere.
Meanwhile, the many times that I have visited Amoeba, I took the time to walk the isles of African and world sections at this amazing record store. Uncountable CDs and DVDs of Fela, including the Chief Priest’s “1969 L.A. Session” was there. Plenty of Masekela, Sunny Ade, Osibisa, Makeba, Victor Uwaifor, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, Manu DiBango, Celestine Ukwu and lots more graced the shelves. Surprisingly, Lijadu Sisters, BLO, Ofo & The Black Company, Dick Khoza, Ray Stephen Oche and his Matumbo, Assagai, Black Truth Rhythm Band, Matata, etc., lay the shelves in a series of compilations. Coque’s CD or in a compilation could not be found. Nada! “Never heard of him,” one patron said. Besides, the CDs at Amoeba were much, much cheaper than what the bootleggers and street peddlers sold at Local 250 Warehouse.
So why should the underground ‘Ogene Sound’ maker be making headlines in the entertainment world when one cannot find any of his CDs at major record stores? Why are his promoters and entertainment projects not making any breakthrough and have Coque perform at sold-out concerts like Masekela and the rest always do? Or, would it be lack of exposure, bad promotions and poor showmanship? You bet!
By 2:45 AM and after two and half hours of spraying money-in-your face convention, three quarter of a frustrated crowd have left the warehouse. “We came here to watch a live concert, not this nonsense,” exclaimed a woman who left with her group of female friends, cursing out the show promoters who brought Coque to Los Angeles.
I don’t mean to criticize Coque for a song he didn’t write. I think I like “Identity,” and he should have kept up that way. Nothing can be compared to real music and original materials like Perry Como, Ozoemena nwa Nsugbe and Eddie Okonta.
This article was published on October 11, 2005 in the weekly issue of BNW Magazine