July 20, 2024

Remembering the Igbo Philosopher and Musician, Celestine Ukwu


Growing up in the late 90s in the village, my exposure to music was limited to highlife and Igbo gospel songs, mainly through radio and audio cassettes. Despite not remembering much about my childhood, one song by the late Celestine Ukwu has stayed with me to this day. It’s called “Ife si na chi,” released in 1976 off his Igede album. My siblings and I would often sing along to it. The lyrics, like “Onu na ekwu na mmadu aburo chukwu. onye si na ya bu chi, ya meke na ife o jiri bulu chukwu,” always struck a chord with me.



Just like his band’s name, Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National, which he formed after the Nigerian Civil War, his songs are deep and thoughtful, just like him. He was a philosopher but didn’t get to reach his full potential before he died.


Even now, 47 years after his death, his ideas still make sense to us. His songs were about life, death, and believing in something bigger. I’d want his song ‘Osundu’ played at my funeral. It talks about how we get so caught up in enjoying life that we forget about what matters, like thinking about God and the fact that we’ll all pass away someday.

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Celestine Ukwu who is known as one of Igbo Highlife’s most outstanding philosophical composers was born in Enugu in 1940 to musician parents, tragically passed away in an auto-crash on May 7, 1977. His musical journey began at a young age, learning to read music and play the harmonium through his uncle. His grandmother was a folk musician and dancer and his father, who worked as a coal miner, was a popular local performer of igede, ikpa and ode music. His mother was the lead singer for a women’s dance troupe.


Despite initially pursuing a career in teaching, he ultimately followed his passion for music. Joining Mike Ejeagha’s Paradise Rhythm Orchestra as a vocalist and maraca player marked the beginning of his professional music career in 1962.


He later joined Mr. Picolo’s band touring the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Upon returning to Nigeria, he founded Celestine Ukwu & His Music Royals of Nigeria in 1966, which unfortunately disbanded during the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. Ukwu released the song ‘Hail Biafra’ at the outbreak of the war. Following the conflict, he formed Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National, producing successful albums like “Igede Fantasia” that achieved commercial acclaim.

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Celestine Ukwu and The Philosophers National Dance Band had talented musicians like Emma Ikediashi on lead guitar, Anthony Mogbo as a vocalist, and Harry Mosco Agada who composed “Sugar Cane Baby.” Others included Goddy Oku on lead guitar, Paul Adis, and Dennis Akwa on rhythm guitars. Didi played bass, Joe Igbokwe on sax and trombone, Roxy Edet on trumpet, and Joe Ibeto on sax. Walter Igbodo led the band and played tenor sax, while Goddy Eze handled clarinet, sax, and flute. Jacob Okii played maracas, and Blessed Bazima, Bolingo, and Black Shadow on congas. Drummers were Goddy Odinkemere and Ferdy Ohans. Together, they made great music.


Ukwu shared deep thoughts through his songs. In a research paper from 2012, Richard C. Okafor described him as “a super critic of economic inequality” whose “philosophical lyrics” have had more impact “than many homilies by ministers of God.” This “wealth of philosophy” distinguished him from “other musicians of his time and type”


Before he passed away in 1977, Ukwu made six albums: “True Philosophy,” “Tomorrow is So Uncertain,” “Ndu Ka Aku,” “Ilo Abu Chi,” “Ejim Nk’onye,” and “Igede Fantasia.” Some of his most loved songs include “Ife si na chi,” “Ejina Uwka Nya Isi,” “Ilo Oyi,” “Osundu,” and “Ije Enu.”

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In a recent interview with Vanguard Newspaper, Cynthia Chiwado Ukwu, the only child of the late Ukwu, reflected on the father she never had the chance to meet, born just seven months after his passing. She shared the challenges of not growing up under the guidance of her philosophical father, yet also highlighted the privileges and opportunities afforded to her through his name.


During the interview, Cynthia discussed the Celestine Ukwu Memorial Foundation, a platform dedicated to preserving her father’s legacy. She emphasized their upcoming memorial event on May 7, 2024, at Oakland Hotels, Ebeano Tunnel road, Ogui Enugu, marking the 47th anniversary of Celestine Ukwu’s passing. This event will serve as a time for his friends, fans, and family to come together, share memories, and honor his enduring impact.


Moreover, the occasion will serve as the official launch of the Celestine Ukwu Memorial Foundation, further solidifying his legacy. Live musical performances, featuring his surviving musical associates, will add a touch to the commemoration, celebrating the timeless melodies and contributions of this legendary figure.

Author: Onyedikachi Ogbodo

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