Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, 71; a gi­ant of African high­life mu­sic

Los Angeles Times - - Obituaries - By Jo­ce­lyn Y. Ste­wart

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, a ti­tan of the African pop­u­lar mu­sic known as high­life whose 1984 “Osondi Owendi” was the big­gest-sell­ing record in the his­tory of his na­tive Nige­ria, has died. He was 71.

Osadebe died May 11 of lung fail­ure at St. Mary’s Hospi­tal in Water­bury, Conn.

“In Nige­ria he’s loved not only by one eth­nic group but by all the eth­nic groups,” said Nnamdi Moweta, Osadebe’s man­ager and the host of Ra­dio Afrod­i­cia on KPFK-FM (90.7) in L.A. “When you live in a coun­try like Nige­ria . . . peo­ple go through a lot to sur­vive, and we look for av­enues to soothe this daily pain that we go through. His mu­sic played a very im­por­tant role.”

In the United States, the names of Nige­rian per­form­ers King Sunny Ade and Fela Aniku­lapo Kuti are bet­ter known. But in Nige­ria, Osadebe had a long his­tory of hit records. Fans there re­ferred to him as the “Doc­tor of Hy­per­ten­sion,” a ref­er­ence to the heal­ing power of his mu­sic.

That joy­ous, cel­e­bra­tory mu­sic is high­life, the junc­ture where high-so­ci­ety bands and tra­di­tional African rhythms and id­ioms meet. Though Osadebe did not cre­ate high­life — it was born in Ghana — he did rein­vent it by adding the sounds of merengue and rumba, said Moweta, who co­pro­duced four of Osadebe’s al­bums.

In 2001, Vil­lage Voice writer Milo Miles com­pared Nige­rian high­life mu­sic to the “firein-re­straint” sound of the ac­claimed Cuban group Buena Vista So­cial Club, and Osadebe to its late vo­cal­ist, Ibrahim Fer­rer.

“Par­tic­u­larly on Amer­ica,’ Osadebe’s ‘Kedu voice rus­tles with the parch­ment charm beloved in Ibrahim Fer­rer,” Miles wrote.

Osadebe wrote more than 500 songs and prided him­self on be­ing a com­poser of mu­sic and lyrics. “My own be­lief is that if you can­not com­pose your song, you are not worth be­ing a mu­si­cian,” he said in a 2004 in­ter­view with the Daily Sun, a Nige­rian tabloid.

Born in 1936, Osadebe was a cho­ris­ter in his church as a boy, played in the school band and was in­ter­ested in classical mu­sic.

“The man who mainly in­spired me into singing was the late [Nat King] Cole, an Amer­i­can,” Osadebe said in the Daily Sun ar­ti­cle. “He sang in English, Span­ish and other lan­guages. I loved his mu­sic.”

Through­out his decades­long ca­reer, Osadebe recorded in English, pid­gin English and Ibo, the lan­guage of his eth­nic group. He found na­tional suc­cess in 1958 with his record­ing “Adamma,” a trib­ute to a beau­ti­ful wo­man.

Af­ter the Bi­afra war of the late 1960s, which left ten­sions along eth­nic lines, the ca­reers of many artists suf­fered.

“He man­aged to come back af­ter the civil war when there was a rift in the coun­try . . . when re­ally no one else did,” said Andrew Frankel, who pro­duced three of Osadebe’s al­bums. “The po­etry of his mu­sic and the philo­sophic way he speaks about life . . . re­ally set him apart.”

Osadebe and his band twice toured the United States, hop­ing to ex­pose more of the world to his mu­sic. “Kedu Amer­ica,” a 1996 hit, in English means “How are you, Amer­ica?” Osadebe is sur­vived by five wives and sev­eral chil­dren, many of whom live in the U.S.

His goal was to see not only his own mu­sic reach a wider au­di­ence, but that of his com­pa­tri­ots as well.

“A coun­try with­out mu­sic is a dead na­tion,” Osadebe said in the Sun ar­ti­cle. “Nige­rian mu­si­cians are great peo­ple, and mu­si­cally Nige­ria is great. The un­for­tu­nate thing is that we are not ac­corded the recog­ni­tion due to us.” jo­ce­lyn.ste­wart @la­times.com

Ade James

The mu­si­cian, shown at a 1996 con­cert at the Los An­ge­les Air­port Hil­ton,

rein­vented high­life by adding the sounds of merengue and rumba.

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