Today, Nigerian music dominates Africa and is making inroads elsewhere on the planet. Our artists’ songs are topping international charts. And they are bagging the world’s biggest awards.
The past decade has been filled with so much success that it’s easy to forget the simple beginnings of this industry; the days of highlife bands, vinyl tapes, and the earliest flickers of the Afro-pop genre that’s now sweeping whole continents.
The business of music in Nigeria had its pioneers. Among the better-known figures in this class was C.T. Onyekwelu, who established one of the country’s earliest recording companies. The firm, Niger Records, wasn’t just a local content distributing giant. It rivaled– and beat –some of its contemporaries in Europe.
That was how successful Onyekwelu’s business became.
But this part came later in his long-winded life and was one of his many entrepreneurial pursuits. His story is one of trying out in various commercial turfs; of failing on some and winning on others; and finally building on the patch that now defines his legacy.
Christopher Tagbo Onyekwelu was born in 1898 in Nawfia, a town about 9 km West of Awka. After completing his primary education, he took up teaching and became a catechist at Enugwu Ukwu, remaining within the area of what is now Anambra State.
Between 1921 and 1924, he worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation, applied to be a policeman, and farmed a bit. In 1924, he joined the palm produce trade in Onitsha and sold palm kernels to the Niger Company.
Two years later, Onyekwelu began importing rice from Asia (rice wasn’t being grown in South Eastern Nigeria at the time). Things went well until foreign companies became interested in the market. After being forced out of the trade, he turned to import spare parts for sewing machines and bicycles. Again, foreign interests forayed into this segment and muscled out local players in this sector– including Onyekwelu’s budding business
His involvement with the music industry started about this time, albeit via an indirect route. It was a gramophone importation enterprise which he set up in 1929. The risk of losing out to expatriate concerns was lower here because they couldn’t tell what records the locals would like.
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Later, he organized a group of musicians from the South East and had their songs recorded in Lagos. Their tapes were made in Europe, shipped back to Nigeria, and distributed to local stores. But this aspect of his business was halted by the Second World War, and a failure by his partners to abide by the terms of their contract.
The next decade was blighted by failed attempts to launch a record production outfit. Finally, in 1961, he received capital from Phillips to start Niger Records. Equity was shared between both parties. The company employed over a hundred Nigerians and two foreign staff.
Soon, it was producing records and selling across West Africa and Europe. Nigerphone, also owned by Onyekwelu, was responsible for distributing in the South East. Other partners supplied to the South Western and Northern parts of the country.
At its height, Niger Records raked in over ₤100,000 annually.
The age of gramophones and tape reels has since passed. Sadly, Niger Records, along with many of its contemporary performing art-related concerns, has faded into oblivion.
But that company lit the torch for industrial level record production in Nigeria and passed it on to later generations of entertainment business executives. It’s thanks to pioneers like Onyekwelu that we have a multi-billion naira music industry to speak of today.