Ogene (the metal gong) has been associated with the Igbo masquerade cult since the time of our ancestors. Its history, as far as is known in south-eastern Nigeria, can be traced to Achi in Enugu State and Awka in Anambra State.
While it is often a cause of heated debate, it is not clear if lyrically Ogene Mkpokija, an Anambra sound, preceded Ogene Okponma, its Enugu variant, although it is incontestable that the latter city has nurtured it the most, integrating the sound into both urban and rural Enugu culture.
As an instrument, ogene is forged by blacksmiths who can still be found in Awka. It is the most important of an array of Igbo musical instruments including the ekwe, igba, oja, udu and ichaka. Besides the town-crier’s use of the instrument, it is needed at cultural events, not to mention rituals.
To play ogene music, only two instruments are vital: the lead ogene itself and the oja (flute). These days, however, the music has evolved so much that it is normal to find an ensemble of all the instruments listed above. Even so, ogene music is nothing without the message it transmits.
The message, amplified by the often husky voice of a male lead singer clutching an ogene, tells all kinds of mundane stories about life – from the personal to the sexual to the communal – by deploying a densely metaphoric and idiomatic language.
Dictating both the tempo and rhythm of the sound, the lead calls and backups respond in ways that engage an audience in conversation, so that if he decides to sing your praise, you are almost compelled to nod, dance or part with some cash.
This is the nature of the sound that went commercial in the early 1970s seizing the heart of Coal City. This is a form of music made popular by artisans and roughnecks.
It is said that in Enugu, the sound was first carried from Coal Camp by a group called 007, which was made up of the young residents of the neighbourhood. It then spread to areas like Obiagu, Ogui, Asata and Uwani.
Pushed further by groups such as Emesibe, Ogui boys and Coal City boys in the 1980s, the sound caught the attention of Chief Mike Ajaegbo, owner of the then popular Minaj Broadcasting International.
Ajaegbo promoted the sound by organising an annual ogene music competition in Obosi, Anambra State, in the 1990s. It was at an edition of this competition that Shidordo, perhaps the most versatile ogene musician, was discovered.
Having profited from Ajaegbo’s platform, Shidodo took ogene to Germany in the 2000s, thereby becoming ogene’s biggest exponent. In one song he narrates an experience at an embassy in Germany where he had to sample the ogene sound. Ogene music birthed other prodigies in the 1990s, notably Igbo Ja, Ausuma Malaika, and Kalu Uma, who took the sound beyond Enugu. Unfortunately, for the most part these artists have to depend on a burial, traditional wedding or chieftaincy ceremony.
To enjoy ogene, one doesn’t only listen to the music; you watch a performance, as the sound lends itself to drama and robust dance. A typical ogene performance is atilogwu without calisthenics.
And today, in a little diluted form, it has passed into mainstream Nigerian music – thanks to songs like Zoro’s ‘Ogene’, ‘Achikolo’ and Flavour’s ‘Gbo Gan Gbom’. And, truth be told, the sound has paid its dues with sweat, grime and blood. It belongs mostly to the age-grade of those who lead masquerades, and as anyone familiar with the sound will readily tell you, ogene is music that thrives on brawls.