In a small Nigerian border town called Ikom (back then a British colony) in the 1950s birthed Nico Mbarga whose timeless song, Sweet Mother, can’t be missed.
Nico’s village, Ikom, back then was more of an isolated area and he spends most of his days on the Cross River fishing for tilapia, followed by setting bird traps in the shade of nearby forests – a momentary reprieve from the boiling West African sun.
His daily routine is usually with his best friend, Ojong, sharing banters or he goes fishing on the river bank. In his company during his quiet moment is a second hand Phillips branded radio he got from his father which turned out to change his life forever.
Nico’s addiction to the radio was Hilife music – West Africa’s jazz fusion that was popular then and Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver” his favourite.
Soon enough, Nico was not just listening to this, he was playing it, too.
He glues together a few dried out plantain skins and pieces of bark and before he knows it, he’s got himself a homemade xylophone.
“It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong claimed.
As fate would then have it, Nico lost his beloved father after a short illness and his mother left to fend for the four other children all by herself.
Not quite long again, while almost 17, the Nigerian Civil War (or Biafran War) broke out and the survival begun with relocation to parts of Cameroon.
With a xylophone and a dream, Nico finds himself in Mamfe, Cameroon – close to the border of his now war torn homeland long lost.
It’s there he meets Lucy and soon, they’ll share a modern-day, West-African-Romeo-&-Juliet sort of tale – a tale not even Shakespeare could scribe.
The relationship initially was not approved by Lucy’s mother but they sailed through and in 1970, the war has ended and Nico and Lucy – without a penny to their names, or passports – traverse “the bush way” to make it back to Nigeria, settling in Onitsha, a trading down on the Niger River.
So the post-war euphoria amongst Onitsha residents and newfound petrol in the country has the economy spurring and the young couple started to bloom.
Due to his undying passion for music, Nico packed his xylophone, knocked on doors moving from one cvllage to the village asking bar owners if he can play sets there for a small wage.
A few oblige and although they don’t pay well – love didn’t wane because he was getting good at what he does.
Nico and his new group, “Rocafil Jazz” play the Sunday night gig every week at Onitsha’s Plaza Hotel and by 1973, he was signed by record company EMI, where he released his new highlife -inspired single: “I No Go Marry My Pap a”
The song is about a woman who disagrees with her parents about the choice of her husband but marries him anyway.
From there, Nico’s got some swagger. He’s building his brand and records another track in 1974 called “Sweet Mother.” The song starts, seemingly, from a memory:
“Sweet Mother, I no go forget you, for dey suffer wey you suffer for me…”
“When I dey hungry my mother go run up and down /
she dey find me something when I go chop oh! /
Sweet Mother a-aah /
Sweet Mother oh-e-oh!”
An EMI executive named Odion Iruoje was the first to hear it and can’t believe his ears. “It was the magic,” he said as soon as he listened. So, “Sweet Mother” goes unproduced.
Instead of being another hit single like “I No Go Marry My Papa”, “Sweet Mother” is played in front of small crowds throughout Nigeria.
Until, of course, a Rogers All Stars, heard it. It’s unclear if All Stars was in the crowd on a quiet night at the Plaza Hotel scouting talent or enjoying an evening on the town, but as soon as he heard Nico belt out “Sweet Mother,” All Stars reminisced:
“I could see he was a star .”
For months, Nico’s entire Rocafil group – rehearsed the song at the crack of dawn, putting Nico up front and ater months of practice, the final version is released in 1976 from a Lagos studio.
And in a postwar Nigeria, where it’s everything but consensus when it comes to politics, one thing is for sure: EVERYONE…and I mean EVERYONE… loves the hell out of “Sweet Mother.”
“It was like a national anthem,” Jean Duclair, the Rocafil guitarist said.
Now, Rocafil Jazz isn’t just playing in bars, they’re in Ghana, Togo, Kenya and Nico is a star.
And each time he yells “Sweet mother, I no go forget you” to sold out crowds, it’s his mother on his mind. Because without her, Nico knows he has none of this. None of it at all.
After a frustrating tour in London, followed by plans to play in Japan, Rocafil folds. Then re-formed, changes members and re-formed a second time only to be broken up and never come back together again.
In Rocafil’s prime – and the years thereafter – “Sweet Mother” would go on to sell more than 13 million copies. That’s 17th ALL TIME and 10th since 1976.
Today, Duclair – the lead guitarist of the 17th best selling song ever! – can’t raise a dime for new projects.
“You can see,” he tells Sami Kent who recently visited him in his rundown Onitsha office “You can see how poor we are.”
As for Nico, he returned to Ikom in the late 1980s, he played his air guitar, beats on an invisible xylophone, and sings a highlife he himself reinvented at dinners home with his family, yearning for his heyday long past.
Nico never came out with a hit like “Sweet Mother” again and slowly disappeared into anonymity in his quiet hometown of Ikom but in 1997, Nico – and the Rocafil boys – get the chance of a lifetime to get the band back together and play a 50-state tour in the US.
He hopped in his car to collect his visa required for travel to the US and on the way there, his car ran out of petrol so he came down an okada but an accident sent Nico flying.
He hits his head badly and he died two weeks later in the hospital; never able to play “Sweet Mother” one last time or even say goodbye.
When Nico’s mother – now elderly – heard the news, she falls in shock and would never get back up, either. She died shortly after.