By Uche Ohia
The sun set at dawn today, Thursday, February 16, 2017 for the Arondizuogu born traditional music prodigy, Damian Azubuike Nwankwo Okoye also known as “Ichie Mezuo” or “Alusi Makaja” but more widely known to Igbo traditional music fans across Nigeria and the masquerade loving Igbo people of South East Nigeria at home and in Diaspora as “Pericomo”.
As the news that the celebrated minstrel had joined his ancestors broke on the internet and spread around, a palpable gloom and sadness spread with it. Such was the popularity of the man that even those that did not know him but only heard his music were saddened to learn about his demise.
In his life time, Pericomo was the Don, the “father father”, the undisputed champion, the “Cultural Prime Minister” - a hugely popular maestro of traditional music in Igbo land. The pulsating rhythm of his multi-gong philosophical melodies interspersed with the intoxicating sound of the flute acted like a high potency brew that moved young men to frenetic acrobatic displays especially in his native Arondizuogu where Pericomo’s music is more like a national anthem.
Pericomo was an enigma, a living legend around whose name many myths and magical feats were spun. The story of his encounter with tax collection enforcers in the Upper Iweka area of Onitsha which was captured in the video of the song “Pericomo na anyi ajo aru” will be told from generation to generation.
With Pericoma, it was hard to seperate fact from fiction. So much was attributed to this legendary superstar that the mere mention of his name excited different emotions in different people. A Creditor claiming a relationship with Pericoma or threatening to report a debtor to him was often all that was required to secure a quickened redemption of his debt. No one was willing to dare a man reputed to be the "Lion of Africa" on account of his mythical powers real or imagined.
To Pericomo belongs the credit for promoting Ikeji Festival of Arondizuogu and for taking Igbo traditional masquerade music and turning it into the globally popular genre of music that it is today. So great has been this prodigious music-maker’s achievement that even those that do not understand the Igbo language and those that cannot comprehend the timeless Igbo philosophy embedded in his effervescent lyrics still enjoy his music. Pericomo synthesized and symbolized Igbo traditional masquerade music.
Pericomo Okoye was born in the year 1948 to the family of Mazi Nwankwo Okoye Emesuo (Ejezuo) of Ndiogbuonyeoma Ndebeuche, Arondizuogu, in Okigwe LGA, Imo State. Unable to determine his natural calling in time, this gifted traditional music guru traveled far and wide in search of his destiny. From his home village of Ndiogbuoyeoma Ndebeuche, he travelled to distant places. The story of his sojourn is told in one of his songs titled Ejezuo.
In 1976, the sojourner found his calling. He was recruited and became a key member of a group called ‘Njima’ (Arondizuogu Traditional Masquerade Group), which released a 4-track long playing record titled “EJEZUO” under the label of Janco Records in 1976. Njima was coordinated by Mazi I.E. Kanu of Ikan Power fame and had among it’s leading lights Mazi Ignatius Ohia (Ogidigba), Mazi Egbo Umeibe (Tempest) and Almos Omeokachie who invited the young Pericomo to the group where he became the lead vocalist. The story of how Pericomo’s singing talent turned an unknown young man into an overnight sensation in Njima and how it equally turned him into an object of jealousy among some of his compatriots is a story for another day.
Following a disagreement within the group that same year, Pericomo left Njima and went solo with the name “Pericomo Okoye and his Traditional Music Group, Arondizuogu”. He immediately released a six-track LP titled EKERE-MGBA under the label of Jicco Records. His star began to shine. Since then this traditional music phenomenon has released a string of record-smashing hits which catapulted him into an Igbo traditional music icon and elevated egwu nmonwu into the popular music genre that it has become in Nigeria. To all intents and purposes, Pericomo deserves the grand title of ‘Cultural Prime Minister’ of Igboland. For forty years, the annual release of his musical compositions was awaited with religious dedication by Igbo traditional music enthusiasts.
From 1976, Pericomo fought an unrelenting battle (with music as his weapon) to promote Ikeji Festival and to ensure that Igbo tradition and culture were not overwhelmed by rabid Eurocentrism and westernization threatening to subsume the best of Igbo cultural heritage. Through his music, Pericomo provided a bulwark and a formidable fortification for strident promotion of Igbo traditions and for effective cultural advocacy against the rampage of religious fundamentalism and overzealous Pentecostalism. In a sense, he launched the equivalent of a cultural evangelism which has continued to thrive by the day.
For 40 solid years (1976 – 2016), Pericomo released annually, a salvo of sonorous songs which add up to a monumental barrage of Igbo traditional music. No other musician of the Igbo traditional music genre has exhibited such enormous productivity and consistency. After Ekeremgba Pericomo released the popular Isi na Udo Ga Adi? This was followed by Isi na udo gadi Vol. 2 (1980) which was followed by Ejezuo Volume 2 (1981). As his music continued to break cultural boundaries and garner interest among all Igbo groups, he launched an unrelenting bombardment of the airwaves with Oderigwugwu by Title (1986), Irigorogwo (1987), Uto Nti (1988), Anulika - Oforndu Special (1989), Ogba Aghara (1990), Aja Egbu Edi (1991), and Ogbalu Uwa Ghali (1992), High Tension (1998)’ etc. Between 2000 and 2015, he released another volley of 16 albums including Onye Napuru Ibe Ya (2010), Igbudu Ogwe (2014) and Ihe Ebuka (2015). A comprehensive compilation of Pericomo’s albums and songs would reveal that he was a creative bundle of ingenuity.
When Pericomo sings and calls upon one of his adroit flutists like Nwankwo Ija or Akwarawhonge to add the searing sound of the flute to the sonorous combination of traditional musical accoutrements, no one stays still. The rhythm is intoxicating - to put it mildly. Therein lies the magic of Pericomo. Aside from music, Pericomo made star appearances in several videos centered around his music or around his pet interest of Igbo tradition and mythology.
Pericomo received countless accolades. He also received a few awards - the ones that he reluctantly accepted. At the Arondizuogu Day celebration held on December 27, 2008 when I was the President-General, Arondizuogu community under the auspices of the Arondizuogu Patriotic Union (APU) decorated Pericomo as an ICON OF CULTURE - the first of it’s kind in the community. The award plaque was presented to the music idol by the then Chairman of Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Maurice Iwu who was a Special Guest at the occasion. It was a well-deserved honour to a man who had carved a niche for himself, a man who had taken Arondizuogu heritage – in a positive and negative sense - to an unprecedented height in the public domain through his music. In a negative sense because his constant references to herbalists and oracles in Igbo land tended to brand Arondizuogu as a community at home with idols and shrines which is not the case in reality.
More than any other musician of Igbo extraction, Pericomo helped to keep the fire of Igbo tradition and culture burning. He kept the flag of Igbo Heritage flying by single-minded dedication to his craft, the tenacity of his convictions and the consistency of his music. For 40 years, this indefatigable musical idol and traditionalist not only held back the onslaught of cultural iconoclasts lined up against Igbo language, culture and tradition, he forcefully pushed back the frontiers of ignorance and stigmatization which has been the bane of Igbo culture and heritage.
For four decades, this gifted singer entertained traditional masquerade music lovers in Igboland, across Nigeria and in Diaspora with an endless medley of sonorous songs garnished with a rich repertoire of proverbs, idioms and anecdotes typical of the Arondizuogu people of his ancestral home and characteristic of the Igbo ethnic group of South East Nigeria among whom, as Chinua Achebe wrote, proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten. In those 40 years, this talented artiste has released 40 extraordinary albums which stand as eternal testimony of his prowess but whatever has a beginning must have an end.
For Pericomo, the sun may have set but the robust legacy of Igbo cultural advocacy and philosophy which he left behind will surely outlive him and his voice will continue to be heard even more loudly through his music for generations to come. For Arondizuogu, the foundation of whose cultural hegemony and rising profile as the citadel of culture and tourism Pericomo laid for forty years with his irresistible voice and incomparable music, the sun is just about to rise.