The Opera Opu Jaja – Remembering Adam Fiberesima

I spent the whole of one week trying to remember the date – at least the year – Adam Fiberesima died. I thought it would be an easy thing to do. I searched for articles on the web to no avail. Yes, there were articles on the internet mostly based on information from his biography from one of his albums and some blogs but nothing about the date he passed on or what he did towards the end. Lots of mentions on the web, but nothing more!

At the end of that week, having failed woefully at the task and blaming age for the memory loss, I decided to send text messages to his and some of my old friends and colleagues who were at Broadcasting House Ikoyi those days. ‘At least they should remember’, I said to myself. How wrong I was! I spoke on the phone with a couple of friends – ‘It was early 90s’; No – ‘it was late 80s’. A friend said Tam Fiofori would know. I couldn’t reach good old Tam.

Remembering Adam who? Yes, Dr. Adam Dagogo Fiberesima, one of the greatest Nigerian composers of all time. He was also one of those old Radio Nigeria people who raised the profile of the station and kept Nigerian music flourishing in the special idiom thought to belong to ‘yonder land’.
Regarded as one of the few gifted composers of our time, Adam Fiberesima was born in Okrika, in Rivers State in 1926; he developed his musical interest when his father gave him lessons on the piano and he proved himself by giving surprises to his father’s friends who thought there was something unusual about his musical gift.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As he grew older, he taught himself to play the trumpet, and other brass instruments and later on formed a dance band, “THE SKY ROCKETS” which was one of the most popular bands in the then Eastern Region.

When he finished at the Okrika Grammar School, he went to the United Kingdom to study Electrical Engineering which he did for four years. Even with his engineering studies, he found time to write short stories for the BBC, coupled with his piano playtime in the programme “Calling West Africa”. The urge for music, his natural calling, was too strong. At last he decided to study music and then entered Trinity College of Music in London, where he decided to study Music and Fellowship in Composition.

He eventually received his Fellowship in composition from the College and some Afro-American Musicologists are quoted to have referred to Adam Fiberesima as ‘one of the greatest African composers born at a time when the black man was taking his place in world history’. While Fiberesima was studying in London in the late 1940s and early 50s, he also played piano in Ambrose Campbell’s West African Rhythm Brothers, the band that introduced African-style dance music to the United Kingdom with tunes like Ominira, We Have It in Africa, Oba Ademola II and Lagos Mambo.

On his return to Nigeria, “Prof” as we called him then, served as Head of Music of Voice of Nigeria, the External Service of Radio Nigeria in Lagos where he took music production and presentation to a different level. He later served with the Institute of Foundation Studies of the Rivers State University of Science and Technology in Port Harcourt. The Institute recalls on its website that “the cultural activities of the Institute in the main revolve around its musical group which was steered by a renowned musicologist and Senior Research Fellow, Dr. Adam Fiberesima. The late Dr. Fiberesima with his group, in the 1980’s successfully staged an opera, Ibini Ukpabi in the University and in many cities at the instance of various clubs and State Governments”.

But Adam Fiberesima was more famous worldwide for the Opera Opu Jaja, although he had other works including the operatta Edi Ke Marina, Fantasia Origin, and musicals Buluwayo, Music for Brass Band, symphonies, Concert Overtures for orchestra and three ballads.

On the whole, he is credited with writing four Symphonies, two Concert Overtures, three Operas, many works for piano and voice, two Operattas, Choral Music and several works for Brass Band and Wood Wind.

But what is Opu Jaja all about?

Opu Jaja is an Ijaw language opera restaging the story of King Jaja of Opobo, the merchant king who confounded the British in the late 19th century with his domination of the lucrative Niger Delta palm oil market, as one writer puts it, ‘long before the Nigeria Delta became the scene of conflict over a different kind of oil’.

Opu Jaja is a three-act opera, based on the exploits and supremacy of King Jaja. The year is 1800. The King is threatened by the British Consul about trade monopoly on the Island of Opobo. He proved to the British Consul that it was wrong and refused to comply with the various trade agreements signed earlier on.

After threats of war between the Islanders and Europeans in Opobo, King Jaja decided to send a delegation to see Queen Victoria. The delegation to London met with failure, because there was nothing definite to ensure protection to the Opobo Islanders. After a long stay during which they got themselves acquainted with many English Sports like Cricket, Tennis, Golf and Billiards, they arrived home safely, received by their countrymen in 1884.

War ensued after their arrival, because King Jaja made sure his son and the chiefs landed on Opobo soil before waging war against the British. A skirmish took place but King Jaja was not satisfied with the attitude of the British Consul who pretended to be friendly. At last the British Consul tricked him to a private dinner on board the British Ship and there held him captive. He was later sent on exile to St. Vincent in the West Indies.

One of the performers in Adam Fiberesima’s Opu Jaja was Martha Ulaeto, prominent Nigerian crooner in the 80s whose career was the better for her appearance in the opera. Remember her in her 9-track Album, Love Me Now in 1981?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serious music composers like Adam Fiberesima are difficult to come by these days. When I first listened to the overture in Opu Jaja, my arms came up with goose pimples – you can’t just but wonder how a Nigerian could come up with something as fine and unique as that. Yet, he remains almost unsung in his fatherland.

Dr. Adam Fiberesima gave me the audio LP version of Opu Jaja in the mid-80s but there would have been no way to play it now, even if my son had not played ping pong with and broken it to bits, since he did not know what a vinyl LP was and the treasure hidden in that particular one! Prof could be seen those days sharing banter in the Broadcasting House corridors with his old friends and colleagues like Zeal Onyia and Sam Akpabot. Slight man with a big heart and friendly mien he was!

Next time you hear the London Symphonia with the chorus of the English Chorale singing any selection in Ijaw language from the Opera Opu Jaja, check for those goose pimples on your arms. Let me know how it felt.

 

Image credit:   books.openedition.org
africlassical, Decca

 

4 Comments on “The Opera Opu Jaja – Remembering Adam Fiberesima”

  1. A beautiful piece on a
    legend and genius.

    My interest in the great composer was piqued some years ago when I’d stumbled, midway, on one of the compositions, written and performed by the music maestro. Moments earlier, I’d been surfing channels on my short wave radio, trying for a station with some cool and soothing music to ease my nerves and probably help with my shitty mood at that point in time. My search reflexively ended the moment the sweet tunes of the composition hit my ears (gosh! why can’t I remember the particular composition).

    I ended up spending the next handful of minutes, listening to the synopsis on the life and times of the great man and quite naturally, I gravitated, virtually, towards him. He took my breath away.

    Your brilliant piece helps to keep him immortalised in our hearts – where it matters.

  2. How do we lay hands on all those works these days? It pains me that a good number of Nigerian musicians especially art musicians now do not know what a typical African Opera
    would be like.

    I personally do not know because I’ve not really seen any. I may have participated in some opera production in school here in Nigeria but all came from read up experiences. I just hear or read about them.

    I would really appreciate if someone can point hand to a direction to recovering these African classical works and making them available for posterity.

    In the meantime, I’ll continue to search. God bless the efforts of all these great men.

  3. Thanks Epa Ogie Eboigbe for this fantastic piece about about this musical maestro!

    My dad, Dr. S.B.S. Afiesimama was a huge fan of his. I remember him playing Opu Jaja when I was a young child in the late 70s and early 80s. The LP pictured above is an exact replica of my dad’s; I hope his is still intact as I live thousands of miles away from my village – which happens to be the same as Prof’s.

    I’ve walked past his ‘humble’ abode a few times whilst holidaying in Ogoloma, Okrika Island and wished I had met this great man! There are so many people and events we come across in life and take for granted only to appreciate these when they’re no more.

    We need to, as Africans, imbibe the habit of record-keeping – pardon the pun. We should appreciate our collective history and not succumb to the shiny-object-syndrome and throw-away culture prevalent in our society today. I’m surprised and saddened that there’s no substantive article or book about him on the internet. At least, the Adam Fiberesima School of Music (AFSM) at the University of Port Harcourt pays homage to this maestro.

    He – and those of his ilk – will be sorely missed!

  4. It was indeed my search for the Opera Opu Jaja that brought me to this web page.
    It is unfortunate that the works of a great Nigerian composer like this have not been preserved.
    I had the rare opportunity of listening to the Opera several years back, and I have been searching for it.
    If there is any way of getting his works, it will be well worth it.

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