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My Biafran Story

My Biafran Story .org website is a collection of eye witness accounts of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.


mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Frank Onyezili


SHOWDOWN AT LIDO by Frank Onyezili 

The famed Garden City, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, was reverberating with news of the arrival of the new kids on the block. The Fractions a pop music group comprising Travis Oli on vocals and guitar, Mike Obanye on drums, Jake Sollo on bass and Frank Zilli on rhythm guitar, had hit town parading Ify Jerry, their new lead guitarist, and were literally setting it alight with their funky sound, music that was refreshingly new in those climes in those days. However, their arrival signaled intensification of rivalry between the group and the Hykkers, the landlords at Lido nightclub, situated on a street next to Hotel Emilia where the Fractions were based.

It was 1968 and the civil war between Nigeria’s Federal troops and the secessionist Biafran forces was at its peak. There was not the entertainment of Premiership or La Liga football, no Diamond league and no Hussain Bolt. Just war, and music, to which everyone, soldier and civilian alike, flocked. For the better part of three years the combatants were locked in a war of attrition, in which no quarters were given nor prisoners taken, a war that by conservative estimates cost more than two million lives, mostly of women and children. First Nsukka, then Enugu had fallen to Federal troops who were facing serious challenges of their own as the Biafrans overran the Midwest as far as Benin and were threatening Ore, right in the heartland of Nigeria’s western region. But there in Port Harcourt it was still music, sweet soulful music, opium for the rich and poor alike in the Biafran enclave in a time of war.

The Lido was a shrine of sorts to night-clubbers in Port Harcourt who gather there like ants to sugar, to listen, more listen than dance, to the music dished out by the Hykkers, a five-member pop music group led by ever-immaculately-dressed Bob Miga on rhythm guitar and with frontman Pat Finn on vocals. The Lido itself was an eye-catcher fashioned in the finest traditions of Las Vegas, with cool shaded lighting embellished with custom-built music acoustics. Every Saturday night was Lido nighta in Port Harcourt and security details needed to be deployed around the perimeters of the usually jam-packed venue. 

The Hykkers were masters of their art and were superbly organized by Eddie Roberts, a wily professional image-maker, spin doctor and thoroughbred dealer who had negotiated a lucrative long-term contract for the Hykkers at the Lido. He did not have to say that he saw the Fractions as interlopers in his own backyard, intruders that needed to the uprooted and disposed of. For years, in Port Harcourt, the Hykkers had held sway, becoming a bit complacent, and the coming of the Fractions represented both a wake-up call as well as a serious, even existential, threat to the Hykkers. And Eddie Roberts was determined to “drown” the Fractions.

Had the Fractions remained in Enugu, from where they started out in Biafra, the showdown at Lido would probably have been averted and the Hykkers would have continued to rule the roost. But the Coal City had been overrun and the fleeing Fractions landed in Port Harcourt impromptu. Upon arrival, Frank Zilli, him of the Beatles hairdo, had visited the home of his childhood friend and primary schoolmate, Bob Miga, who barely concealed his indignation at the Fractions’ invasion of their territory. The rest of the Hykkers more openly cold-shouldered me as well as the other Fractions, flaring the flames that literally stuffed out any chance of the two groups accommodating each other and making music peacefully.

Much of the rivalry had to do with the demography of the fan-bases of the two groups. While fans of the Hykkers were generally older folks, the Fractions and their rancorous music appealed more to the youth, soldier and civilian alike, a new wave of music lovers who filled up every inch of space especially at the Fractions Sunday ‘jumps’. While the Hykkers’ music was mostly laid back, sedentary, the Fractions’ were the exact opposite, vivacious, unrelenting, as they dazzled with stage acts which Travis Oli, the acclaimed king of the smooch, smartly choreographed. The fans of each group loved their own to the core, almost to the point of fanaticism, even long after the music had stopped.

Surreptitiously, three events, all unrelated, combined to make a Hykkers/Fractions showdown inevitable: First, using his connection to the Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, Tony Amadi, a seasoned and respected journalist in his own right and the savvy, innovative and enterprising manager of the Fractions had the group accredited as the “Biafran Armed Forces Entertainment Group”, a status that came with handy fringe benefits such as chauffer-driven transportation, immunity from molestation from soldiers and easy access to highly-placed government officials. Second, Pal Akalonu, a famous veteran broadcaster and musician had taken to a strong liking of the Fractions and was openly marketing them in Port Harcourt and Aba, a noisy populous city near the Hykkers stronghold. And, thirdly, Mr Ukonnu, a TV producer of note in both Nigeria and Biafra had just invited and recorded the Fractions in Aba for TV viewers across Biafra, a first in those days, broadening the Fractions’ fan-base considerably and incurring even more loathing by fans of the Hykkers. There had to be a decider to the question on everyone’s lips: Who was the greater, the Fractions or the Hykkers? And there would be no neutrals.

And what a showdown it was. The Fractions conceded home advantage to the Hykkers by agreeing to play at Lido, for the first time. Also the Lido acoustics better suited the tenor-toned ambience of the Hykkers’ musical renditions. But the Fractions were quietly confident that when the chips were down they would deliver both good music and catchy stagecraft, better than whatever the Hykkers could offer. They were sure that when it mattered, their twin advantages, in stagecraft and raunchy soulful sound, would prevail.

The ground rules were simple: beginning with the home group, each group would render two numbers, there would be a second round, again of two numbers each, to be followed by a finale in which each group would play its last number. The body language of the audience would be the judge and jury.

So, up first, came the Hykkers with Pat Finn belting out “Please Please Please” the James Brown 1956 rhythm and blues classic. The older folks in the jam-packed auditorium crooned while the youth listened with bemusement. It was not a dance tune and received only generous applause all round. Pat Finn’s next number was “Walking the dog”, Rufus Thomas’ 1965 hit, which drew a sizeable number of dancers mostly their own fans. The Fractions opened with Arthur Conley’s 1967 single, “Sweet Soul Music”, which had Travis Oli taunting and teasing his audience with the refrain question ”… do you like good music?”, to which the youths, who were already familiar with the song, responded loftily “Yeah yeah”. But, more than that, the youths surged to the dance floor as Travis worked them into a frenzy, twisting and turning, weaving the cords of his microphone round his wrists before detaching it from its stand and walking right up to the center of the dance floor, still asking *do you like good music?”. The atmosphere was electric and, suddenly, there was no holding back. The Fractions without a pause went into their second number, “Hold on I’m coming”, recorded by Sam and Dave in 1966 under the Stax label, with Ify Jerry’s funky lead guitar wailing another infectious refrain. Lido erupted and this time, it was youths and older folks alike wriggling to Travis’ sandpaper-like vocals, as sweat poured from his face and eager female fans obliged with their handkerchiefs.

In the second round, the Hykkers opened with “Baby I love you” the 1963 mega hit by the Ronettes. Here was Pat Finn doing what he does best, crooning teasingly with the backing duo of Bob and Eddy in harmonious encores of the title line “Baby I love you”. This time the older folks stepped on to the dance floor, rocking gently within tight grips. Not to be outdone, Pat Finn, without a pause, went into James Brown’s “Papas got a brand new bag” which also got youths joining in on the dance floor, leaving no room for tight grips.

For their second round the Fractions rendered “Knock on Wood”, an Otis Redding 1967 hit which again the Fractions had popularized at almost every household level in Biafra and which received tremendous ovation once the audience recognized its opening riffs. With a stylish change of pace, orchestrated by the canny Mike on drums, the Fractions delved into their own original song, “Do the Smooch”, performed as only Travis could and drawing virtually every one to the dance floor as Travis led the tutorials on those new dance steps of his, dance steps that have now outlived him.

At “Do the Smooch”, Lido lit up as never before. Never before had a musical group mesmerized its audience so completely. Biafran currency notes flew from all corners of the auditorium, aimed at Travis’ sweaty face and Travis, oblivious to it all, continued to thrill even the most ardent of the Hykkers fans.

For their finale the Hykkers, perhaps realizing that the show was not going their way, opted for an upbeat dance tune, “Hang on Sloopy” penned by the McCoys in 1965. The audience responded with a few getting on to the dance floor. But the atmosphere was tense, subdued, as if in anticipation of what the Fractions were coming up with next. And when they came up, the Fractions did not disappoint. Astonishingly and with telling effect the Fractions rendered their own version of *Papa’s got a brand new bag”, which the Hykkers had offered earlier. First it was Jerry’s merry twang of his lead guitar followed by Jake Solos thundering bass lines and Mike’s crisp drumming, anchored by Frank Zili’s steady rhythm chords, before Travis bellowed a mind-blowing rendition of the same song Pat Finn had sung earlier. The difference was clear. While the Hykkers had lumbered and laboured through the number, the Fractions free-wheeled, weaving through the gears with minimum fuss, and with stagecraft to match James Brown’s. 

The audience responded in cash and kind, plastering Travis’ face with Biafran notes of all denominations and occupying every inch of space on the dance floor. Then enthralled fans, from both camps, surged on to the stage, urging Travis and the other Fractions on. But Lido had seen and heard enough. The lights went off momentarily, a warning that the show had ended. The crowd turned round and headed for the exits, into the street and into the night, the names of every Fraction on every lip, young and old. The showdown was over, the judge and jury had turned in an unmistakeable verdict with their feet, hands and wallets, and the Fractions were the uncrowned masters of pop music in Biafra.          

--- Frank Onyezili 

(Cover photo shows The Fractions in session.)









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Music in a time of war - 2

mybiafranstory.org Photo Credit - Internet

Members of my family were saying, “Come back. Come back,” so I asked them, “What am I going to be doing in Biafra? Fighting?” After a lot of pressure, I decided to go back but I knew I had to earn money. So I left for Biafra with a group of musicians. There was Travis Oli – the Singer, Mike Obanye – the Drummer, Frank Onyezili - the Rhythm Guitarist, Terry Eze - the Assistant Manager, Sonny Okosuns, and myself. Sonny Okosuns was the only non-Igbo among us but he was not afraid because he was born in Enugu and could speak Igbo. We were arrested at Onitsha Bridge because they said we were spies. Sonny Okosuns was sent back while the rest of us were taken to the police station at Ridge Way, Enugu. I had some contacts at Enugu so I started to press buttons. I sent a note to Chuddy Soky, the Commander of the Biafran Air Force, telling him of our plight. He drove to the police station and asked them to release us, which they did.

When we left the station, we met a young man called Ikenna Odogbo, a Disc Jockey and show host in Radio Biafra. He took us to live with him, and from there the musicians started their rehearsals while I went into the field to look for business.

I knew we couldn’t do anything without equipment so I went with a letter to the Director-General of the Biafran Civil Defense. I was about nineteen years old but I was talking with a lot of confidence. After reading it he looked at me and said, “We are fighting a war and you are talking about music. Will you get out of this place?” I was not deterred so I headed straight to Ojukwu’s office. I had met him when he was the Military Administrator of East Central State. That was when Chubby Chekker, the American musician who invented the Twist, was touring the East. I was part of that tour, which was sponsored by Coca Cola, and we had paid Ojukwu a courtesy visit.

When I arrived, he was in a meeting. I spent five hours waiting for him because I was convinced I had a good product. When I eventually entered his office he remembered me and I gave him the letter I had written to the Biafran Civil Defense. After reading it he said in his very calm manner, “And what did he tell you?” I said, “He drove me out of his office. He said I was crazy to be talking about music when there’s a war.” Immediately, Ojukwu dialed his phone and asked the person on the other side to come to the office. Then he said to me, “Please sit down.” When the Director-General came in and saw me he almost collapsed. Ojukwu gave him my letter and asked him to read. He was shaking as he was reading it. When he finished, Ojukwu said to him, “Now, take this young man. Anything he asks for, do it.” I asked for a bus and a Peugeot wagon to move our men and equipment, and I had two drivers assigned to me.

That was how The Fractions became the Biafra Armed Forces Entertainment Group. We were moving from camp to camp and even played three times for Ojukwu in his bunker at Umuahia. They knew that music is a vital tool in any military operation so whenever the soldiers were going to war, we would play our best music and they would become charged up. But in a few hours some would be dead. The government was not paying us but they gave us a lot of support, food items, cigarettes and whatever we wanted.

We were also playing at International Club Enugu where we were charging a gate fee. We were copying the American soul sounds such as Wilson Picket, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. The turn-out was always huge because there was no other entertainment during the war - no Television, no football, no games, no cinemas.

We introduced pop music to the east and it was really big. We also started the Sunday Jump and people were coming even in the midst of hostilities.

I also had a column in the Biafran Outlook, a government paper. The editor, Gab Idigo, knew I was writing in Lagos so gave me a column where I was writing about The Fractions and music generally.

We played throughout 1967, 1968 and 1969. Owerri was our base when it was not occupied by the Nigerian forces. We played our last formal gig at Nkwerre just after Christmas 1969. After the show a few of us remained in the hotel. It was called Central Hotel. Around 4 a.m. some Biafran soldiers stormed the hotel in a truck, arrested us and took us to Bishop Shanahan School Orlu. They shaved our hair and that same morning they took us to a garrison to start military training. We had been conscripted and I thought the end had come.

The next day, we started hearing the sounds of shelling so I knew I had to do something. I headed towards the gate where I saw a bucket lying on the ground. I picked it up as if I was going to fetch water. It was a well-fortified gate but nobody questioned me because they must have thought I was fetching the water for an officer. Once I got outside, I ran into the bush and right there I saw Frank Zili. He had left the camp without telling me. We meandered our way out of the forest and got to a safe place.

I returned to Lagos just before the war ended and it was by God’s plan. I was returning to Owerri with a member of the group when we met a Nigerian soldier at Mbieri. He had dug himself into a trench and could have killed us. His gun was pointed at us so we raised our hands. When he came out of the trench I saw from his facial marks that he was Yoruba. Immediately, Yoruba started pouring from my mouth. He relaxed and lowered his gun. After we became acquainted, he offered us cigarettes. Later, he made Garri and we ate it with canned Egusi soup. The Nigerian soldiers used to carry a lot of supplies in their kit but the Biafran soldiers didn’t have anything. After entertaining us he said, “Look, I cannot leave two of you on your own,” so we trekked from Mbieri to Owerri prison where he handed us over to his superiors. We told them we were members of The Fractions Pop Group and they said, “Okay, you have to play for us not just for Ojukwu’s army.” They gave us a jeep to pick our equipment at Anara. From there we turned back to Owerri and continued to Port Harcourt.

We arrived Port Harcourt around 6.00 am and drove to the headquarters of the marine commandos headed by Obasanjo. He was already in the field doing drills with the soldiers. Then, I saw Roy Chicago, the musician, coming towards me. He said, “Tony, what are you doing here?” He turned to Obasanjo. “Olu, ore mi niyen o. Mo mgbe wan lo si Eko – this is my friend. I’m taking him to Lagos.” Roy had come to entertain Nigerian troops and was heading to the airport to be flown to Lagos that morning. That was how I came back to Lagos.

I slept in Roy’s house that night. If I remember clearly, the address was No 9 Bishop Crowther Street, Surulere. In the morning, as I was taking a walk around the area, a Volkswagen pulled up beside me and I heard a voice shouting, “Driver, stop, stop, stop!” It was Eddy Adenirokun. We just grabbed each other in an embrace. He said, “How did you get here? I thought you were in Biafra.” I was looking so haggard but I followed him to Daily Times office on Lagos Island. Sam Amuka was there, producing the Sunday Times for the next day. He’s such a funny guy and he said, “So you just came from Biafra? Okay, go and write about your experiences.” Immediately, I went off to type my story. My picture was splashed on the front page and I was paid three shillings, my first income after Biafra.

---  Chief Tony Amadi  




























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