Highlife as Language in Flavour’s “Mmege”
Highlife is arguably one of the most evolving genres on the African music performance scene. The genre continues to undergo experiments and creative twists by African musicians who drag it to the studio and often succeed in splitting it into several sub-genres. These sub-genres are split again and again until it is left to the musician/enthusiast to decipher the genre’s identity. An example is, perhaps, Ghana’s Hiplife which combines generic highlife elements with other genres and sub-genres of Hip-hop to birth the genre.
In the 1990s, Nigeria’s Bright Chimezie’s zigima sound, a Highlife sub-genre dubbed by the act himself became prominent and proceeded to become one of the definitions of the genre. While there could be other elements that define zigima sound as a highlife genre sub-genre, the role of the horn section which is a generic hallmark in the genre is retained and used beautifully. The intermittent horn sections in highlife transcend mere beauty and colour in the music. Having been effectively used by oldies like Cardinal Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu, Ali Chukwuma, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Victor Olaiya, and several others that followed to date, it underscores and institutionalizes the practice. In fact, if there is any exclusive instrumental highlife music, it is for the horn.
Considering these, it is not out of place to ask: “What is highlife without horns?” While it does appear that the horn section is the “high” in highlife, Flavour takes a different stance in a genre I would rather consider to be hiplife. Flavour’s “Mmege” is a demonstration of how the highlife genre can be effective without the prominence of intermittent horn sections. While he is definitely not the first act to downplay the role of horns; in this instance, the role, as it does appear, is assigned to his use of language.
Mmege starts with Flavour’s first verse where he eulogizes “Mmege”. “Mmege”, in the context of the song, is a metaphor for a beautiful bride. Rendered smoothly in the Igbo language; the preceding chorus latches into the Awka dialect of the language. Now, there is something musical about the dialect, perhaps it could be in the way it stylishly deviates from the Igbo izugbe (Central Igbo) which tends to be underused except for churches where the Igbo translation of the Bible is used. From another perspective, it does not deviate. It stands on its own as an authentic dialect which tends to retain its musicality even when its words are not set to music. In Flavour’s “Mmege”, “Ife di iche erike” resonates. He proceeds to provide the English translation as “The difference is clear!”
The song features Selebobo whose performance in the second verse shows his vocal range in his tactical use of a high pitch towards the end of the verse and above the chorus. Clearly, Flavour knows what works for him and he goes for it. Flavour’s third verse is not entirely different from the first. Although there is a slight change in the melody and of course, lyrics; a little more improvisation would have made the verse distinct. In the same verse, Flavour buttresses his penchant for the Awka dialect as he chants “Ive erike!” which literally translates to “Things are too many!” Here, the intermittent horn section that defines the genre is somewhat replaced with language. Following my argument that the horn is the “high” in the genre, what plays its role in this instance is Flavour’s use of language. In Flavour’s “Mmege”, language takes a definitive place in his highlife sub-genre. There is concordance in the lyrics and melody as Selebobo’s high-pitched melody precedes Flavour’s invitation where he sings “Solumu tibe” which translates to “Shout with me”. What follows from Selebobo is an apt response to Flavour’s invitation. This is art.
In the background, there are intermittent spoken words in the third verse which in consonance with the lyrics of the verse suggests that the song’s discourse schema is about a lady who is being invited to greet her guests at a wedding ceremony. For the most part, the song’s dynamics could be felt in the textural variance between the verses and the chorus which is made heavier by harmonizing voices and more instruments. Flavour’s “Mmege” surpasses his use of language. It is another exceptional addition to his “Ada-Ada” and “Golibe”.