By Franklin Ugobude
In 2017, after four years of existence, the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards (AMVCA), one of Africa’s prestigious film awards, added ‘Best Soundtrack’ to their list of award categories. Prior to this, AMVCA only acknowledged music (and sound) via a category dedicated to sound editors, who were responsible for selecting or compiling sound recordings for films. Since then, Nigerian artistes, Michael Ogunlade (The Encounter), Evelle (Tatu), Larry Gaaga and Flavour (Living in Bondage: Breaking Free) and Ghana’s Pascal Aka and Raquel (Gold Coast Lounge) have all won the award for Best Soundtrack. In the same vein, some of Nigeria’s top talents, like Reminisce and Banky W, have been nominated for the award.
The AMVCAs might be late in adding a category for movie soundtracks, but other awards such as the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) have always had a home for the music that makes films what they are. Right from its inception in 2005, AMAA has recognised the soundtrack as an essential element of a film with Osuofia in London winning the inaugural award for Best Musical Score. This category has since undergone a series of name changes including Best Soundtrack, Best Original Soundtrack, Best Music and Achievement in Soundtrack.
While this recognition implies that the music in Nollywood films is outstanding enough to receive awards, in the past, despite the fact that classic Nollywood films like Living in Bondage and Nneka the Pretty Serpent had well-known oundtracks that complemented and summarised their storylines, these soundtracks were often introduced too early into the film – creating potential spoilers. Another case in point of the spoiler soundtrack can be found in Andy Amenechi’s 2004 comedy. The Master, in which Nkem Owoh plays Dennis, a scammer who is deported to Nigeria from Europe. After being duped by fraudsters, he is recruited into their ranks and must master their craft – locally known as 419 or advance-fee fraud – in order to succeed in his new ‘profession’. Lyrics from the film’s viral soundtrack, ‘I Go Chop Your Dollar’, which was sung in Pidgin English, translate loosely as:
I have suffered, all because I have sense
Poverty is not good and that’s why I joined this business
419 is not theft, it’s just a game
Everybody plays it and if anybody falls into my trap, I will scam them.
I own the national airport
I built the national stadium
The president is my sister’s brother
You are the idiot, I am the master
White man, I will ‘eat’ your dollars.
I will take your money and disappear
Scamming is a game. I am the winner and you are the loser.
Simply hearing this song gives you a peek at the full story. You are aware that Dennis is impoverished and has suffered his entire life, and that he now has the opportunity to make a fortune – even if it is via fraud. You can also see that he is proud of his success as a fraudster and he is not ashamed to say so.
That was the situation with Nollywood music. It was either the spoiler soundtrack or the music signifying impending doom. When neither of these options was available, the film used a single hit song to break up scenes and sequences. Musicians like Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Kenny G and Enya should be swimming in royalties by now, considering how often their songs were featured in Nollywood movies.
In most cases, however, the music used in films from that era was written specifically for them by composers. A popular composer at that time was Stanley Okorie, who wrote some of the most iconic songs in Nollywood, including songs for films such as Long John and Karishika. He is also credited with writing songs like ‘Happy Mumu’, ‘National Moi Moi’, ‘I Go Chop Your Dollar’, and the grim ‘Iyeme’ from Liz Benson and Pete Edochie’s 1999 film, Chain Reaction. Up to this day, Okorie continues to publish his compositions on his YouTube channel.
There was also a time when actors lent their talents to film soundtracks: Nkem Owoh performed the popular Chop Your Dollar in Andy Amenechi’s The Master, while Kate Henshaw is also well known for singing ‘Treasure’ – from Tchidi Chikere’s 2006 film, A Million Tears – with Chris Landry, the song’s composer. Similarly, Stella Damasus wrote (and sang) ‘Love Me Quick’ for Unspoken, directed by Daniel Ademinokan. Apart from acting, several actors have also dabbled in the music industry: Mama G (Patience Ozokwor), recorded a medley of songs with Tonto Dike and Charles Awurum, which included the light-hearted manifesto, ‘National Moi Moi’; Genevieve Nnaji and Omotola Jalade Ekeinde pivoted to music after being banned from acting by marketers, while Jim Iyke and Mr Ibu (John Okafor) have both released albums to showcase their versatility. As this also phased out, Nigerian singers entered the mix. They primarily created folk tunes based on the film’s storyline, offering another means of expressing themes from the movie while engaging with audiences.
Currently, Nollywood has advanced to a point where music enhances rather than detracts from the story. You can tell that consideration is being given to the quality of the music, as well as how well it complements the scene that it accompanies. Music in Nollywood now establishes the gravity of a situation or conveys the character’s feelings. This is illustrated in the opening scene of Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, which features a small child singing an ominous traditional Igbo song. This is a crucial plot point, and it may even be seen as a homage to the original film. Throughout the film, there are several examples of music linking with situations and properly accessorizing. There’s Olamide’s ‘Wo’ and Larry Gaaga and Phyno’s original song ‘Tene’ all echoing distinct messages and showcasing Nnamdi Okeke, the film’s primary character, in a range of emotions.
Another example is Jadesola Osiberu’s Isoken, which follows an unmarried Isoken as she decides who she wants to spend her life with. The film begins with a wedding ceremony for Isoken’s sister, set to Flavour’s ‘Golibe’, which was and still is a wedding anthem in Nigeria’s South. The movie also features songs from legendary artists such as Victor Uwaifo and Ebenezer Obey as well as newbies like Falz, Simi, and Falana. The music is used in such a way that it enhances the emotional resonance of each scene and leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
While some film studios have chosen to rely heavily on pre-existing music, others have created a fine balance by also including original music in their productions. Charles Okpalaeke’s Play Studios, for example, has entrusted Larry Gaaga with the creation of original music for each film they have produced since their 2019 remake of Living in Bondage.
In a similar manner, some films have also revived old hits and songs that were either forgotten or received less frequent airplay. For instance, Yinka Ayefele’s ‘Eyin Temi Bawo Ni O’ has found popularity at weddings since it featured in The Wedding Party, as an accompaniment to Sola Sobowale’s entrance at her daughter’s wedding. Using music this way not only revitalizes the artist’s work and introduces it to a new generation, but also creates a greater emotional (and probably nostalgic) connection between the viewer and what’s happening on screen.
Following the seamless integration of mainstream music into Nollywood films, it can be argued that the industry is making more imaginative use of music, especially in establishing meaningful connections beyond Nollywood. Musicians now see Nollywood as a suitable outlet for their creations, while production companies have also begun to use soundtracks as marketing tools. In some cases, films like those mentioned above have been able to attract and engage viewers through different media formats and platforms, a step in the right direction for Nollywood in terms of expanding its reach.
For example, Living in Bondage: Breaking Free, used songs from the original soundtrack – such as ‘Tene’ (originally performed by Flavour and Larry Gaaga) and ‘In My Head’ (performed by Larry Gaaga and Patoranking) – to promote the film. This strategy capitalised on the artists’ popularity as well as their ability to make these tracks local hits prior to the film’s release. Davido, who appears on the soundtrack album’s first tune, ‘Work: Living in Bondage’ is a wonderful illustration of this. The music star had tweeted a link to the record in October 2019 (less than two weeks before the film’s November 8th release), encouraging his fans to see the film in theatres. By doing this, the filmmakers reaped the benefits in spades: not only did the film have the biggest opening weekend for a Nollywood film in 2019, but it also had the highest opening for a non-comedy film.
Strides like this demonstrate that music in Nollywood is evolving and this is helping the industry gain more attention. Music plays a significant role in a production, and fans can relive a film’s magic by listening to specially curated albums and playlists: a handful of tunes from Nneka The Pretty Serpent, Rattlesnake, and Living in Bondage: Breaking Free are available on streaming sites, which have proven to be effective marketing tools for films that take advantage of such platforms.
As with foreign musicals, some Nollywood films like Hoodrush, Lara and the Beat, and Ayamma have attempted to tell stories through song, although there may be room for improvement in terms of songwriting, lip-syncing, autotune, etc. Who knows, maybe someday a Nollywood song can match (and surpass) the huge success of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno’ (from Disney’s Encanto) or ‘My Heart Will Go On’, Celine Dion’s iconic track for Titanic, which currently enjoys over 385 million listens on Spotify alone. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Franklin Ugobude is a culture writer and an avid reader who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. He works in marketing during the day and spends time discussing film and theatre at other times. He has attended critic workshops in Ouagadougou and Lagos in the past and sat on the FACC Jury at the renowned Carthage Film Festival. His writings appear on various online and print platforms such as Okay Africa, Awotele, Guardian Nigeria and BellaNaija to mention a few.