“Osondi Owendi. What is cherished by some is despised by others. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Different strokes for different folks. To each their own. Osondi owendi.
It’s a conventional aphorism in the Igbo language but if you utter the word “osondi owendi” in Nigeria today, the first thing that comes to anybody’s mind is the cucumber-cool highlife music maestro Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe and his legendary album that takes its name from the adage. Released in 1984, Osondi Owendi was instantly received as Osadebe’s magnum opus, the crowning event of an exalted career stretching back to the early years of highlife’s emergence as Nigeria’s predominant popular music.
Stephen Osadebe first appeared on the music scene in 1958 as a spry, twenty-two year-old vocalist in the Empire Rhythm Skies Orchestra, directed by bandleader Steven Amechi. With his dapper suits, urbane Nat King Cole-influenced vocal stylings and jaunty, uptempo, calypso-scented dance tunes, he personified the frisky spirit and anxious aspirations of a young, educated generation that had come of age in the wake of the Second World War, in a Nigeria that was rapidly shaking off British colonization and marching towards an independent future. 1959 would be the year that he truly made his mark in the business with his debut solo single “Lagos Life Na So So Enjoyment.” A giddy exhortation of the music, sex, fun and freedom availed by life in the big city, the song became a sensation and an anthem, and Stephen Osadebe became the leader of his own popular dance band, the Nigerian Sound Makers.
Osadebe would ride this wave of acclaim through most of the nineteen sixties, but a change in direction would be called for at the dawn of the seventies. As Nigeria emerged from a devastating civil war, so did a new generation of youth inspired by rock and funk, confrontational sounds reflective of a more violent, less idealistic era. All of the sudden, the idioms of the post-WWII dance orchestras that nurtured Osadebe’s cohort seemed quaint, the stuff of nostalgia. Osadebe needed to evolve to respond to the new tumultuous, turned-up times.
His response? He cooled it down.
Abetted by a new crop of fire-blooded young players, Osadebe slowed his music to a mellow, meditative tempo, brought forward the lumbering, Afro Cuban-accented bass and percussion, from the rockers he borrowed searing lead lines on the electric guitar. Over this musical bedrock, doesn’t so much as sing as he dreamily muses, coos, sighs aphorisms, words of wisdom and inspiration. “When one listens to my music, all I say appears meaningful,” Osadebe explained his lyrical approach, “at times they are in the form of proverbs which provoke much thought afterwards.” The result is a blend that is both rollicking and soothingly languid. Osadebe christened the style Oyolima—a tranquil, otherworldly state of total relaxation and pleasure. Osondi Owendi represents oyolima at its finest, and possibly Nigerian highlife in epitome.
Osondi owendi. What is cherished by some is despised by others. In some way, the album’s title constitutes a paradox. Because Osondi Owendi is a record that it’s almost impossible to imagine being despised by anybody."