Medical Ethnomusicology: The Nigeria-Biafra Experience

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The roles that music and sound play in different cultures vary according to the impact they create within given circumstances or experiences. Medical ethnomusicology therefore strives to study both the prophylactic and therapeutic characteristics of music and sound in relation to certain medical conditions from the perspectives of different ethnic and cultural orientations.

To fully understand the concept of medical ethnomusicology, one must appreciate the fact that music, as a popular aspect of culture, carries therapeutic powers that help in the management of certain medical conditions. The healing power of music and sound has been recorded in history and remains very relevant in modern times. In Greek mythology, Apollo, the god of the sun, was reputed with musical and healing powers, just like the progenitor of the medical profession, Hippocrates, who was known to have played music for his patients, in order to speed up their healing processes.

In Indian and ancient Egypt cultures, music was widely used in temples for healing and exorcism, whereby evil spirits and bad energies were removed from afflicted human souls. The Bori Cult culture in northern Nigeria also used music as a medium of healing and adorcism, through which humans or communities possessed by evil spirits were freed and healed of the harmful effects of the negative energies deposited in them by those evil spirits.

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During and after the Nigerian civil war, music played a very significant role in healing those who were emotionally and mentally aggrieved, due to the loss of loved ones or property. Many Biafran soldiers who were almost giving up on the war were spurred into more heroic action of protecting their motherland by the lyrics of the Biafran anthem. Even the weaklings among them summoned courage and dared to face the the Nigerian Army, with all its backers. The fear of death was therefore dwarfed by the confidence-boosting lyrics of that anthem:

 

Land of the rising sun, we love and cherish,

Beloved homeland of our brave heroes;

We must defend our lives or we shall perish.

We shall protect our hearts from all our foes;

But if the price is death for all we hold dear,

Then let us die without a shred of fear.

 

Unfortunately, due to its logistical deficiency and the starvation occasioned by the Nigerian government’s blockade that forbade food and medical supplies into its territory, hundreds of thousands of Igbos, including infants and children, died of starvation, making the war look like a one-sided affair as Nigerian troops kept having a field day. By the time the war was officially pronounced ended on 15 January 1970, no lesser than five hundred thousand to three million Igbos had died.

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After the war, Gowon’s policy of Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation brought about a new lease of life for Igbos but their economic status had been greatly affected. Those who were millionaires and those who were struggling financially all ended up with the paltry twenty pounds that was given as part of their economic rehabilitation. During this time, many Igbos were heart-broken, depressed, and relied on music for healing. At this time, the high life music genre was making serious waves in the eastern part of Nigeria.

The emotional healing of Igbos was expedited by the soothing musical deliveries of musicians like Celestine Ukwu (Ije Enu, 1971), Gentleman Mike Ejeagha (Akuko Na Egwu Vol. 4, 1972), Oriental Brothers (Uwa Atuolamujo/Ihe Chinyere, 1973) and Osita Osadebe (Onu Kwube, 1975), amongst many others. It remains a study in resilience and sheer industry how an ethnic group which had its sons and daughters killed in their thousands during the war was able to overcome the psychological trauma of that despicable episode and move on to become one of the richest in Africa and beyond.

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Music definitely played a major role in shaping the Igbo post-war resolve to become the best they can be, irrespective of the humongous losses they incurred during the war. The spirit of industry, against all odds, was well captured in the song Oriental Special by the Oriental Brothers:

Obiara uwa bia ile anya anya

Onye biara n’uwa obiara ile anya anya

Owu ihe onye mere n’uwa k’oji ala mmo

Ihe onye ruta n’uwa ka chi ji aku ya ugwo

The simple interpretation of the song is “Does any man come to the world for just sightseeing? It is a man’s labour that qualifies him for God’s reward.” So, rather than continue to brood over their losses during the war, Igbos resolved to put that episode behind them by reconstructing their history as a wealthy, determined and industrious ethnic group that has produced some of the most influential citizens of the world.

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