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By the time the All Igbo Music Awards (a.k.a. Ekwe Awards) eventually manages to pull through on December 26th of this year, it would have become clearer how difficult it is to organise an event that celebrates Igbo arts and culture. That difficulty would further accentuate the point being made in certain quarters that the Igbo of South-eastern Nigeria, a people blessed with rich tradition and cultural heritage, do not appreciate what they have.

Barely a few years ago, based on its assessment of the state of the Igbo language, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) had projected that the language would go extinct by 2025. This was against the backdrop that the language is hardly spoken by its owners, the Igbo, who prefer to bring up their children using English language. That was a wake-up call, and to ensure that this projection does not come true, there have been efforts in many circles to preserve and promote Igbo language. These include ‘Otu Suwakwa Igbo’, founded by Pita Ejiofo, former vice chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka; The Odenigbo Lecture Series, instituted by Anthony J. V. Obinna, Catholic Archbishop of Owerri, among others. Ekwe Awards, if it succeeds, would join that group as it hopes to become an effective means of encouraging the Igbo people to hold on to their cultural heritage, of which language is an important part.

But it has been a long, tortuous road – from the conception, in 2009, of the idea that has eventually morphed into Ekwe Awards. That was when Ugo Stevenson, the initiator of the awards, first thought of how to celebrate the best of Igbo music. That thought birthed what he tagged BOMA (Bongo Music Award) 2010.

“I discovered that Ndigbo don’t really appreciate what they have. I am sorry to say it, but we wait too long for others to remind us that look, this is good. A case study is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It took us 50 years to start talking about Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when many countries of the world had translated the book in their own languages. As I speak, I am not even sure whether the book has been translated into Igbo language. So, I told myself that we don’t have to wait for another 50 years before we can begin to talk about a brand that is now competing favourably with reggae, which we say is from Jamaica, pop, which we say is an American thing, and rock, which we say is from Europe,” Stevenson, who was honoured in 2008 as the Best Highlife Artiste in the Nigeria Music Awards (NMA), told me in an interview in Owerri, the Imo State capital, in 2010 at the peak of preparations for BOMA.

“We have Bongo music today, and it has gained wide acceptance all over the world, then we should go ahead and celebrate it. So, Bongo Music Award is instituted for the future. If we can say that Bob Marley is the king of reggae and Michael Jackson king of pop, then we should be able to give the world a king of Bongo music,” he added.

Speaking then, Stevenson also said BOMA was a platform which he considered as a necessary tool to encourage and celebrate Igbo musicians. “Bongo music has been on for the past 60 to 70 years, but nobody had thought of giving it a brand. People just play it, make some money, and that is the end. They are not noted, mentioned or credited in any Nigerian music event. There is no Bongo category in any national music event in this country,” he said.

Although Bongo was a traditional music of Owerri people, he said it had metamorphosed into a cultural music of Ndigbo and Africans, adding: “Culture is dynamic, and so Bongo music has moved up and is now a contemporary brand from Owerri people to Ndigbo, and from Ndigbo to Africa, and to the world in general.”

But BOMA’s path was fraught with financial bottlenecks, even though Stevenson at a point sounded very optimistic. “This is an institution we are trying to build, and in the next 10-15 years, it will keep going and this industry will be the better for it. I can assure you that after BOMA in a few weeks time, possibly the Best Artiste of the Year will become the ambassador of our corporate sponsor, and I tell you it is the biggest thing that has ever happened here,” he had told me then.

That, however, was never to be. The response remained poor, even from Bongo artistes themselves. Apart from Owerri-based media organisations like Imo Broadcasting Corporation (IBC), Heartland FM, Newspoint Newspaper, and a few others who came in as media partners, nothing really came the way of BOMA in terms of sponsorship, whether from wealthy Igbo individuals or corporate organisations.

Then came Ekwe Awards, which, Stevenson says, is to reward musicians who project Igbo language through their music. Ekwe, he tells me, is a signature instrument for all Igbo music, which is why it is chosen as the name for the award. Emphasising that the Igbo man does not document his culture, does not appreciate what he has, leading to loss of some Igbo music forms that are being dumped by the practitioners, he says: “We are here to celebrate these music forms and musicians.” He further says the mere mention of these artistes and their music for the award has given new life to the music, adding: “They are happy being celebrated.”

Indeed, many stakeholders and culture enthusiasts have said an event like Ekwe Awards – where musicians who have taken the pain to sing in Igbo language will be rewarded – is long overdue. They agree that such an event is essential in sustaining and promoting Igbo language, arts and culture. Ekwe Awards, both a novel and noble idea, they say, is therefore highly welcome and commendable.

“If the Ekwe Awards holds, South-east governors and culture-conscious Igbo people would have set a pace in the promotion of Igbo language, arts and culture in all Igbo communities. But if the event fails to hold, history will equally record all lovers of Igbo music and culture as those who failed to take advantage of an opportunity to save the Igbo language,” writes Emma Iheaka, an Owerri-based journalist.

But as with BOMA, so has it been with Ekwe Awards. The response has not been very good. The greatest challenge has also been sponsorship. But Stevenson has remained undaunted, and his perspicacity seems to be paying off gradually. Fortunately, he tells me, there have been a number of plaque endorsements for the awards by some personalities in Ebonyi State, including Elizabeth Oshianu, Bena Nwuzor, Anthony Ibeogu, Franca Chinyere Okpo, Sylvester Ogbaga, Igwe Nwagu (a senator), Omo Christopher Isu, and a few others. MTN Nigeria too, he adds, has identified with the award, hoping other corporate sponsors will key into the project.

Already, the award committee has released the list of nominees for the awards, which holds in Owerri. Among the categories include: Best Abigbo Artiste, Best Bongo Artiste, Best Ekpili Artiste, Best Odomodu Artiste, Best Nkwanwite Artiste, Best Ogene Artiste, Best Eri Obo Artiste, Best Oyolima Artiste, Best Udubunch Artiste, Best Igbo Highlife Artiste, and Best Igbo Christian Music Artiste, Best Igbo Lyrics on Scroll, Best Igbo Music Producer, and Best Igbo Music Marketer.

Also to be awarded is the Igbo Artiste of the Year. Ejike Mbaka (Rev. Fr.), Morocco Maduka, Chima Eke and Chijioke Mbanefo are nominees in this category. Post-humus Award in Igbo Music will go to late Stephen Osita Osadebe and Emily Amaechi, while Lifetime Achievement Award in Igbo Music will also go to Nze Dan Orji (Peacock International Band) and Mike Ejeagha.

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