With the death last week of Mrs Christiana Essien-Igbokwe, the Nigerian entertainment world lost a first class performer and arguably one of the most accomplished artistes of her generation. She was also a role model who achieved professional success at a relatively young age yet lived a scandal-free life as a devoted wife and mother.
Fame, it can be said, found Essien-Igbokwe early in life. Having lost her mother at the age of 12, a family friend who became her guardian encouraged and subsequently nurtured her interest in singing. That was to thrust her on the path of a musical career as she became a regular feature on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Channel 6, Aba musical and entertainment programmes like Ukonu’s Club and Now Sound. When the then running popular sit-com, The Masquerade, was shopping for a suitable actress for the role of the wife of a make-believe garrulous Yoruba man, she effortlessly stepped into the part.
With that, Essien-Igbokwe became better known by her screen name, Apena, the cantankerous wife of Jegede Sokoya (real name, Claude Eke). She retained the role even when The Masquerade morphed into The New Masquerade in the 1980s. But her talent was to shine brighter in music where she became a trailblazer.
At age 16 in 1976, Essien-Igbokwe released her first album, Freedom. Other albums – Patience and Time Waits for No One – would follow two years later. Then came One Understanding in 1979, the year she tied the nuptials with Mr Edwin Igbokwe, then General Manager at Punch newspaper, and became Christiana Essien-Igbokwe.
Her better known albums, Give Me a Chance and Ever Liked My Person hit the airwaves in 1980 and 1981. The latter was released under the London-based label EMI International Records and was adjudged her best LP till date.
Essien-Igbokwe’s most acclaimed songs were ironically neither in her native Ibibio nor in her husband’s Igbo language. Arguably, her most celebrated song was in Yoruba and was titled “Seun Rere”. The song, with others in the Hausa and Igbo, made her the quintessential pan-Nigerian singer. She, however, never forgot her roots as her song in Ibibio, titled “Akwa-Ibom Mmi” (My Akwa-Ibom), virtually became the anthem of her home state, Akwa Ibom (carved out of the old Cross Rivers state), the creation of which she played a very prominent role in 1987.
Essien-Igbokwe also played critical roles in the politics of her chosen profession. Her renown in the local music scene had indeed put her in good stead to vie for the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (PMAN) presidency, which she won and became the body’s first female president. Through her obvious talent and diligence, Essien-Igbokwe earned herself many laurels some of which were: International Special Achievement Award Mexico (1983), Africa Music Mother Award (1984), World Song Festival Award, Association of Theatre Arts Practitioners Lagos (1996) and in 2002, she bagged the National Honours Award of the Member of the Federal Republic (MFR). She also unofficially became acknowledged as Nigeria’s Lady of Songs.
Incidentally, for this incredibly talented actress, besides featuring in two early Nollywood movies Flesh and Blood and Sacred of Womanhood, nothing much was heard of her acting career as her music blossomed. She, however, remained a role model for many actresses nonetheless. But away from the limelight, she ran a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), called Essential Child Care Foundation, involved in child welfare needs and rights and participated in two concerts in 2009. The first was to Inspire Africa Benefit Concert in January while the other was the MTN Musical Festival, a musical show of old and new-breed musicians. Essien-Igbokwe, who would have turned 51 on November 11, is survived by her husband, Edwin and children, one of whom is also a musician.
She may not have lived a long life, the glowing tributes that trailed last week’s announcement of her death attest to her achievements as encomiums came from eminent Nigerians, including President Goodluck Jonathan. The outpouring of grief is indeed a testimony to the fact that the late Essien-Igbokwe not only sang her pan-Nigerianess but also lived it. Adieu, the irrepressible Nigerian Lady of Songs.