In Abuja, Harcourt Whyte ‘Resurrects’!
“An Amazing Day!” I said. “Who could have believed this?” she echoed. She, Dr. Mrs Ezinwa Okoroafor is the wife of the lead promoter, of the Harcourt Whyte Foundation. We were standing against the south wall of the Ladi Kwali Hall of the Sheraton Hotel and Towers Abuja on Friday June 7 2013 as the Festival of Five Choirs marking the formal launch of the Foundation was closing the evening on a loud, rousing joyous note! “Atula Egwu” (Fear Not!) one of the most popular anthems of the 300 or so corpus of hymns, songs and anthems of the late composer was being reprised by the massed choir conducted by Professor Achinivu K. Achinivu (now of the University of Port Harcourt) and he had made the happy “mistake” of inviting the audience made up of die-hard, life-long Harcourt Whyte enthusiasts to join in! And so the hall exploded and reverberated from ceiling to floor and from end to end in an emotional nostalgic outburst of tens of voices many gesticulating, some almost in tears and others ululating as if there had been a pent-up longing for an opportunity to sing Harcourt Whyte again! Ezinwa and I were giving voice to what, as we discovered later, every other member of the Board of Trustees was thinking. It had been a good day all told, albeit a tentative one as far as our hopes for the concert were concerned. There had been no media announcement (where would the money have come from?). Everyone of us had been asked to invite as many people as we thought might be interested enough to come on a Friday evening when Abuja occasionally emptied out into the states to which many of its residents still routinely returned as often as they could afford to. The day began with the inaugural Board Meeting at which the intrepid lead promoter, Mazi Ugochukwu Okoroafor current Public Affairs Director, Central Bank of Nigeria and Ezinwa’s husband had led us through his dreams for the foundation. It was a good meeting except that in my mind at least, it was overshadowed by a fear that there could be more chiefs than Indians later in the evening when the five invited choirs could be singing to an empty hall! But I needn’t have worried; we had a full hall. But more on that later.Professor Onyi Nwankpa of the University of Port Harcourt took the chair for the meeting at the urging of everyone else after Okoroafor spoke an apology on behalf of the substantive Chair of the Board, Justice Karibi Whyte who was unable to come to Abuja and who wished us successful deliberations declaring his unalloyed support for the aims and objects of the Foundation. These aims and objects naturally derive directly from the life and work of Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, the leper boy who after losing his parents at a tender age had the, in those days extreme misfortune of being infected with the dreaded disease. Three things stand out about the man’s life. One. Even in the face of the certain ostracism from all and sundry which he faced as a leper, he had the courage nay, fearlessness to engage with both his fellow inmates, doctors and teachers to an outstanding degree. The legend is that the angels taught him music in his sleep. Even then he must have put the words and tonic sol-fa notations to paper during his waking hours unmindful of all the daunting limitations arising from the disease of leprosy and the environment. Two. Beyond courage, a person suffering from leprosy in those days and at such a young age could perhaps be excused if he went the “why me?” route and sulked and complained endlessly. Of course it would not have been right; it never is right but in that time and in that context, that would have been expected if not excused. Now think of the fact that young Ikoli not only did not complain but had the resilience under those horrendous conditions to learn to write songs and, please wait for it, not just any old kind of songs but mostly songs of praise to the Almighty! Surely there is a lesson here for the youth of today, handicapped or not. And so step by step, Okoroafor took the Board through his vision for resurrecting the Harcourt Whyte’s music for today’s audiences and inculcating the resilient Whyte spirit in the youth of today. Three. There is this “small?” question of inter-ethnic harmony. Harcourt Whyte grew up an “Easterner” but in today’s parlance his “State of Origin” would be and is Rivers State. Because he lived and was cured of his illness in the Igbo-speaking town of Uzuakoli the vast majority of his music was composed in Igbo. It didn’t matter then, it does not matter now. For thankfully none of those whom we know but shall not name now has tried to profit from that fact. Instead, the University of Port Harcourt has instituted a Chair of Music in his name and the man who “sits” on that chair today is Professor Achinivu Kanu Achinivu. His state of origin is Abia! In the course of the evening, Professor Achinivu let on that it was Harcourt Whyte who persuaded his parents to allow him to study music at university. Young Harcourt had then prophetically told Achinivu’s parents that “perhaps it would be through this young man that the world would know about me and my music”! As it turned out, Achinivu’s doctoral thesis was on Harcourt Whyte and his music! But back to the evening featuring the University of Port Harcourt Concert Chorus conducted by Prof. Onyi Nwannkpah, Ikoli Harcourt Whyte Choir, Lagos (incidentally founded by Ugochukwu Okoroafor), the Abuja Chorale Ensemble, the Achinivu Harcourt Whyte Choral Associaltion and the J. Cleff Choral of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. At first, it looked as if my fears would materialise. At six o’clock there were indeed very few invitees. But the hall quickly filled up such that by the time the guest of honour the Hon Justice Chukwudifu Oputa with Charlie Boy and his daughter in tow, it was clear that a great evening was in store for all. The speeches were few and mercifully short but very much to the point. Okorafor told the audience how it was that Harcourt MON, richly deserved this honour of a foundation to perpetuate his name, his inspiring achievements and his music; how the Foundation would join the fight against leprosy, encourage the teaching and propagation of choral music in various ways and seek to modernise and internationalise the late composer’s music. Namdi Olebara activist of many hues especially in the area of the promotion of Igbo language and culture drew applause reading his poems in honour of the composer. Justice Oputa spoke very much in the same vein, commending the effort to immortalise the composer and recommending his example to all young persons who may feel that today’s many challenges are peculiar to this generation. Charlie Boy created a buzz when he told the audience apropos of the opposition by Achinivu’s parents that every day he tells his father, “Where would I be today if I had listened to you!” Therefore to the young people he said, follow your heart! Choir after choir thrilled the audience many of whom it turned out belonged to the generation who had learned and sang Harcourt Whyte’s hymns in schools and churches when they were young. Professor Achinivu noticed this and actually encouraged it especially when to end the evening he conducted a massed choir of all five groups with the anthem “Atula Egwu”. Indeed, for a few hours Harcourt Whyte “lived again” in Abuja! Ejiofor is a member of the Board of the Harcourt Whyte Foundation.