By Henry Akubuiro
To his left sat the fresh mathematics graduate, Masthamind. To his right: the svelte zoologist turned crooner, Dallie. Like James Eze in the middle, they spotted a navy Udala Nation t-shirt and fez cap.
The moment Masthamind’s guitar twanged and the mellifluous voice of Dallie melded with that of the former and filled the silent air, the select audience of arts critics noticed a lyrical novelty and a fizzy rendering. It wasn’t your regular Nigerian Afrobeats tone with a percussive medley replete with sex slurs and vainglorious anthems. It had a sprinkling of rock and RnB, yet in a class of its own. The nodding heads and lip syncs of the audience were a telltale sign how far the Udala Nation fared on its unveiling of the DayBreak EP at Bukka Pot restaurant, Surulere, Lagos, recently.
With Day Break, James Eze has joined an elite class of innovative Nigerian poets who have released albums, the most remarkable being Akeem Lasisi and Chijioke Amu Nnadi.
Lest we forget, James Eze’s debut poetry volume, Dispossessed, won the 2021 ANA Poetry Prize. Some of the songs in the Daybreak EP came from that collection, while the rest were from a forthcoming poetry volume.
A 12-track album, Daybreak, which epitomises Eze’s trajectory as a late bloomer, contains interesting tracks, such as, “I found Love” (which can compete with any chart topping song globally), “Dance in the Sky”, “Love Song”, “He Say, She Say”, “My Truth”, “The Colour of My Skin”, etcetera.
Until March, 2022, Eze was the Chief Press Secretary to the Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano. In between his daily routine, his creative writing flourished. Before then, he was living and working in Lagos, which explained why he saw the presentation of Daybreak as a worthy homecoming. “I believe I have returned with something which will excite Nigerians,” he said.
The Udala Nation is a group of singers and writers and composers who discovered themselves in Awka. It first gave a snippet of what they were up to during the last Okigbo International Poetry Festival in Ojoto, Anambra State, in 2021. “Now, we have come full circle,” he said.
Cumulatively, Udala Nation has produced 17 songs, with three still in the works. But not all of them went into the new album. Eze’s musical experiment with poetry is a recent innovation in Nigeria, but, in the UK, there have been precedents. At the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland, sometime in 2010, Natalie Merchant and her band played tracks from her new album, Leave Your Sleep, in which she had transformed her poems into songs. The audience included those who had not read her poems before, but were excited with the songs.
Likewise, in early 2022, at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, Scotland, The Waterboys dazzled the audience with new songs derived from W. B. Yeats’ poems, which made some of those present reawakened interest in Y. B. Yeats. That’s what music does to you —that instant impression and temptation.
Eze is interested in winning new audiences for poetry. He said: “Today, we want to present our first EP, and we want to share. We are not putting out music that chimes into the music industry as we know it. The songs that we have to offer speak to poetry. As I have said elsewhere, my aim is to find new audiences for poetry, and in my last reading at Nsukka we had that broad heading: what’s the difference between a poem and a song? At that event, we tried to answer it: there’s really no difference between a song and a poem.
“What is clear for any discerning mind is that certain kinds of poetry can make a more smooth transition to the ears than typical poetry as we know it, in the sense that poetry has always been very isolationist, very eclectic, very selective of its audience. Music cuts through to reach wider ears and wider audiences.”
The song versions of his poems, hinted James, bore the stamp of a bard who didn’t want to dispense with sublimity. “In our offering today, you will hear songs that have their roots buried in poetry in the sense that language is used very poetically and you will encounter metaphors, imageries, and very intense feelings captured in a few words but they come to you in voices that are layered to tease, please and entice you which two young friends of mine have done exquisitely, excellently beyond my personal imagination, and I know that it will be beyond the anticipation of many Nigerians.
“An allusion has been made to people who do performance poetry, who do oral, folkloric kind of poetry; that’s not what we are doing here. We are here to offer music in a very different and intense package.”
While James Eze functions as the composer and spirit of Udala Nation, Masthamind (Michael Chibuike Chinedu) and Dallie (Deborah Chiamaka Nnabuife) take the vocal responsibility. Masthamind was the first to convince Eze of the possibility of recording their own songs in his house, with the new set of equipment produced by Eze, before Dallie was incorporated into the group. The trio has struck a cord since then.
Dallie admitted that working with Eze has changed her poetic orientation: “It made me encounter my poetry anew —it was an experience I did not prepare for. It now makes me write poetry that lends itself to the song form. I’m still trying to be the best of me.”
Shedding more light on how mind blowing an experience it was for her, Dallie said “before now, I was doing the normal things with music. But our boss challenged and pushed me to go outside my comfort zone. I can easily sit back and write songs with the mood or something.
“This one is different, because I have something already written down to work with. I wasn’t comfortable at first, but, at the end, I had to tap into the story first of all, and then express it. It was really adventurous, and I love every part of it. I began to see that poetry can be very deep, and you have to be part and parcel of poetry to see that you can immerse yourself into it and really enjoy it.”
It was the same learning experience for Masthamind. At first, it was quite challenging for him. He recalled how unimpressed Eze was after he had worked on his first part. Then he was taught to get immersed in the song to make it come out well.
“He had to talk to me and encouraged me to imagine myself in that kind of situation. Then I started thinking about a lot of things, and from then, I put myself into it. I can say I’ve improved in certain areas of my music career. From my experience working on this project, if you give me a few lines, I can just begin to create something out of them. I can say I’ve really enjoyed every part of this music journey,” he said.
Explaining the choice of Udala as the group’s name, Eze noted: Udala fruit in the Igbo socio-cultural setting “is a symbol of innocence, because udala trees in the traditional Igbo society used to be a place of gathering and play for children. Innocence in the sense that children would gather under the udala tree and play all kinds of games. And then they waited for the precious, ripe udala fruit to fall. When it falls, the children would race for it, and whoever was fastest would pick the udala, and, if the fellow was kind enough, he or she would share it with his or her mates.”
He, therefore, looked at his cultural setting, and part of his growth process, part of his encounter as a child. “I also know that udala fruit is very tasty,” said Eze. He added: “The sweetness of Udala also crops into the melody that you listen to, something that is pleasant and good. Our lyrics are not vulgar; there’s nothing you would encounter (in Daybreak) that will foul up your mood. We are not selling sex or pornography. We have quality messages, songs that families could listen to together and create a bond among them. So, our song is sweet.
“Udala Nation is about pleasantness, a kind of entertainment that is wholesome, that anyone who encounters our offerings will absorb in. Besides, these are not just songs as we know them, but poetry couched in songs.”
Eze and his Udala Nation respect the Davidos, Wizkid and Burna Boys of this world holding the stage right now, but he challenged Nigerians to spare some time for them: “Can you give us a bit of your time? Can you listen to us for a second and see whether you love what we have to give?”
During his stint with Fidelity Bank, Eze collaborated with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila to organise the Fidelity Creative Writers Workshop for almost a decade. “I have always felt that, if there’s any sphere of endeavour where Nigeria can stand shoulder to shoulder with people from other parts of the world, it’s in the field of the imagination, the field of literature, writing and the arts. No Nigerian can feel inferior when he or she stands with any other person in the world in the arts. I think Nigerian music is coming up but literature and the creative arts have always been there, have always stood us out,” he said.