Tonye David-West, Jr., Ph.DFriday, January 31, 2003
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Political Scientist


ome of us did not have the pleasure of meeting this artiste of artistes, personally, but I have met him many times through his ever-resonating sounds of music which always spoke of his humanity and the need for everyone to aspire to greatest heights. Cardinal Erikosima Rex Jim Lawson, as he was known, was the father of highlife in Nigeria before the likes of Prince Nico of Cameroon who lived many years in Nigeria, came out with the tune of "Sweet Mother". Rex Jim Lawson, as he was popularly known, was there, already a musical icon well before some of the current crop of musicians now populating the scene was born. He was a multi-talented musician, a multi-linguist who reached millions in their own dialects with his ever-assuring tunes and lyrics. Thought, a Kalabari from Rivers, he spoke Ijaw and Nembe fluently and several Ghanaian dialects as evident in his numerous selections.

In his famous selection, "Ibinabo", [one of my favorite] which means, "Good Fortune", in Kalabari, he sang as translated from Kalabari, "we have washed away the bad things, itís the good we want nowóbring [or loosely translated, give us] children and money. In the next song following "Ibinabo", he appealed to humanity, "my brothers, all humans have their day. If itís good for you now, do not laugh at others, for no one knows what will happen tomorrow. His message could not been any more timely in a society that was increasing becoming too ethnocentric and self-centered. The import of that selection was rather evident to allóbe your brotherís keeper. Be sensitive to the deprivation of others for no condition is permanent.

One of his admirers, Dr. Wumi Akintide, a political scientist and a writer for said this about him to me two months ago.

"My other connection to Rivers State is the immortal REX JIM LAWSON, Nigeria's greatest musician in my judgmentÖ" Dr. Akintide could not have been anymore correct---immortal indeed. Though he has passed on for thirty-two years now, he still lives in the hearts of many as the darling of highlife. Rex Lawson was a true nationalist or should I say, internationalist, who for some reason has not been given his full due by humanity and recognized accordingly for his immerse contributions to the music industry, not just in Nigeria, but internationally. His admirers were and still are from all walks of life. On a trip to Senegal years ago, a French-speaking country, I could not help but hear sounds of his music coming from a shop at Dakarís International Airport. I stopped by that shop and bought a copy of the CD that was playing and helped to ! explain some of the lyrics to an inquiring mind. The title was "The Best of Rex Lawson."

Most Nigerians who are musically inclined have an 8-track, an LP, a tape or a CD of the great Rex Jim Lawson. In fact, I would be so bold to say that one's collection of music is not complete without his songs. How can it be complete? Who is that Nigerian who does not like his songs most of which have been remixed by other musicians? His appeal went far and wide, paralleling if not surpassing those of Fela, Victor Uwaifo, King Sunny Ade, Sunny Okunsun, Shina Peters, Oriental Brothers and many other musicians or musical groups who have or continue to grace the Nigerian musical stage. Even to those who were born after his death, the great one still lives and is near and dear to their hearts as his music seemingly transcends time and generation.

Rex Lawson, in his humility and humanity paid tribute to his mother in one of his songs. He said to her in Kalabari, [not direct translation] "itís unfortunate that you left when itís time to reap the fruits of your labor." He sang, "Buru biete fisakilate ena O", meaning, the food [food here means fruits of labor] is ready and itís time to eat, where are you, mother, why do you have to leave us now?

He was a humanitarian, a philanthropist and generous human being who played his part to alleviate the sufferings of his people through his community efforts and uplifted the spirits of his admirers through his lyrics. As a fellow Kalabarian, Rex Jim Lawson resolve and determination in life indicated to me that it is not the beginning that matters, but what one makes of the middle and the end. We must not forget that a very important part of Rex Lawsonís heritage was his mixed Kalahari/Igbo parentage, which, perhaps, could explain his nationalistic outlook and view of life, which was reaffirmed in many of his lyrics. He was a figure who could not be claimed by one group, but by all because he was the peoplesí artiste.

According to a discography compiled by John Beadle, et al, and published on their web site [all credits go to them for their compilation on the singer], "he was born in the town of New Kalabar in present-day Rivers State, and got his start in Port Harcourt's Starlite Melody Orchestra, led by "Lord" Eddyson". They further averred, "By 1960 he was leading his own group, the Nigeraphone Studio Orchestra of Onitsha and had played with the "big names" of Nigerian highlife - Bobby Benson, Roy Chicago, Victor Olaiya and others. With his second group, the Majors Band of Nigeria (variously called the "Mayors Band," and in later years the Rivers Men), he scored innumerable hits over the sixties and early seventies, notably "Jolly Papa," "Adure," "Ibi na Bo," and many others. Of these, the biggest was "Sawale," in pidgin English, which has become an African music standard and been re-made numerous times by various artists."

He was the author of hundreds of songs most of which are played in millions of homes every day. In traditional Kalabari today, no occasion is complete without the songs of the great musician garnishing the gathering. He was as handsome as he was gentle. He was married to the beautiful Gloria from Abonnema [also in Kalabari], a lady who until this day still sings the praises of her late husband and not so long ago did so at a tribute in his honor at the Civic Centre in Port-Harcourt along with other notable musicians all of whom paid befitting tribute to him. Rex Jim Lawson will forever live in my heart and in those of his millions of fans around the globe. Like some great musicians who were taken away in their prime, most notably, Bob Marley, he too was taken away from us at his very prime, just when the world was settling down to enjoy his musical offerings and unmatched talent. It would be thirty-two years this month since he passed away, but his music has not skipped a! beat. A true artiste who epitomized what a musician should be---humble, a humanitarian, focused, spiritual and most of all---a role model.