Saturday, May 25, 2024
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Harrisburg, PA, USA

t was early 1968. The Nigerian civil war was raging! I did not know who he was until I listened to his choral group – the St Mary’s choir, Uruagu Nnewi, render several melodious numbers in the main bowl of the then St Mary’s church. He was the choir master, he was the music conductor, he was the pianist. He was stylish in his displays, fleet-footedly roving and prancing magnificently from his spot in front of the choir to the piano. He had a unique and stylish choir conducting movements, moving his hands, arms and at times seemingly trying to elongate his gait so that those standing at the back of the choral formation would be seeing him without obstruction. I was about 8 years of age but was always mesmerized. At the time and as a little boy, I did not quite have a deep sense of music appreciation. But I fell in love with the awe-inspiring displays of Sam Ojukwu as the choir master and my love for music, which waxes strong till this day, began to take shape.

At home, sometimes, in a small building inside our compound we called Ozobi, while singing St Mary’s choir songs, I would stand in front of an imaginary choir, as a conductor, trying to imitate the moves of a man that had become my music idol.

Time passed and the war raged on. Then the opportunity came. I was given the opportunity, along with some other kids, to become part of child dancers to a French song that Sam Ojukwu had taught the St Mary’s Choir. It was called “L’amour est aveugle”. It means-“Love is Blind”. My childhood friend, Ubaka, who was Sam Ojukwu’s nephew and his niece, Ida Ojukwu, Nnamdi Unigwe, Humphrey Enuma, Chiemeka Ileka, my cousins Charles and Obiageli Edozien, were all part of the child dancing troupe.

We went with the St Mary’s choir everywhere they were to perform, including perform for Biafra wounded soldiers. The song was always the grand finale after the choir had rendered all their songs, usually to the delight of the audience. Sam Ojukwu would usually stand in front of the choir and announce, “the next and final music performance is: “L’amour est aveugle”. I will be honest, since I did not know a word of French then, it always sounded to me like he said, “Lamo a dey guanzo”. We would file into the center of the stage and he would give the note on the piano. The St Mary’s choir would begin the song, swaying from side to side and we would start dancing in rhythmic and pantomimic fashion as taught. It was always a delight to the audience.

Sam composed, taught the choir and they sang various songs of comfort and morale boost to Biafra and Biafrans during the war.

At the end of the war, he went back to the school where he was teaching before the war started. But he still found time to periodically come back to St Mary’s choir to teach and conduct. He had a deputy choir master - Raymond Chukwuma.

In 1971 or there about, Archbishop C.J. Patterson, who was the English Bishop on the Niger in 1945 and who established the famous All Saints Cathedral Onitsha in 1949, visited St Mary’s Church. It was a big deal in all of the Anglican diocese in and around Onitsha! Many important church dignitaries attended the church service that was held in the missionary’s honor. That was the year I was confirmed to receive holy Communion.

For weeks, before the event, the St Mary’s choir practiced a song that was composed by Sam Ojukwu in the archbishop’s honor. I remember the song like yesterday, but what I could not understand then was why the song was composed in Igbo language since the archbishop was an English man. But as usual, during the church ceremony, when the song was rendered by the choir with Sam Ojukwu as composer and conductor, the church erupted in applause and appreciation.

Sam Ojukwu’s influence was not just around St Mary’s Church Nnewi. He later became a music and French professor in Alvan Ikoku College of Education Owerri. Here, he turned so many people from students to music experts. He composed hundreds of songs and sometimes just gave away the song to churches, schools all over Nigeria to use as they saw fit. His name is imprinted onto so many songs all over Nigeria as composer.

A notable event took place at the government house in Owerri when Governor Sam Mbakwe was at the helm in Imo State, (1979 to 1983). Sam Ojukwu and his choral group presented a song he composed to the dignitaries in attendance. The governor was so enamored by the classic performance that there and then, he promoted him by moving him from his salary grade to a higher salary grade in school.

In my book Surviving in Biafra, there are multiple chapters where Sam Ojukwu, as the choir master of St Mary’s church, featured. In 2005 or there about, during a visit to Nigeria, along with my younger brother, Nnamdi, I took a hard back copy of my book, autographed it to Professor Sam Ojukwu. I was going to hand off the book to him after church service at St Marys. But my younger brother, Nnamdi, rightly pointed out that it was not something to be done in secret. He took to the microphone in full view of the congregation, and with the book in hand, called up and handed the book to Sam Ojukwu. My brother emphasized that he featured in many chapters of the book and was my music idol. He was very grateful.

When my mother passed away and during her burial service, the music impresario led his choral group and again rendered a melodious tune he composed in my mother’s honor. He capped it with a soul-melting rendition of Hallelujah chorus.

Music is a universal language. It is hard to run into someone who does not love one type of music or another. Professor Sam Ojukwu stammered a little bit but did not let it stop him. He used his music to speak to the heart, the soul and the mind of anyone within and outside his sphere of influence. In Biafra, he used it to comfort our souls and cheer us all up as starvation, privation and disease decimated the population. After the war, he continued to use music to delight many and impart his music expertise to many. He was my music mentor, but he did not know it until told.

He has run his race. He has done well.

Sir, may your soul rest in peace. You have done well. You should be celebrated for your legacy will live for long. Good Night Professor, Sir Samuel Ojukwu.