An African Anthem: Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga
The richness of African music is best exemplified by its various genres including juju, fuji, apala, Afro-beat, highlife and more lately, Afro-pop. Of course, there are also the several talents, churning out hit-songs that have served to place the continent’s music on the world cultural map.
However, one song Sweet Mother stands out conspicuously, not only for its seamless up-tempo blend of Nigerian highlife and Congolese soukous but also because it is a tribute to our mothers. Composed by Prince Nico Mbarga and performed with his band Rocafil Jazz, Sweet Mother was recorded as a single by the Rogers All Stars Recording Company in 1976, after much rejection from other companies including EMI and Phillips Records.
Sweet Mother celebrates motherly devotion, praising a mother for her struggles and sacrifices in the upbringing of her child. The over 6-minute track opens with a melodious combo of the guitar and an accompaniment of the conga drum, which lasts throughout. Rendered in ‘Nigerian Pidgin English’ to imbue a home-sprung feeling, the song’s entire message is on how important and indispensable a mother is in a child’s growth and development.
“When I dey cry, my mother go carry me; she go say ‘my pikin, wetin you dey cry yeah yeah. Stop, stop, make you no cry again ooo.’” (When I am crying, my mother would say, don’t cry; stop, stop, don’t cry again). Mbarga recalls distressed moments of his childhood when his mother would wipe away his tears. “When I wan sleep, my mother go pet me, she lie me well well for bed ooo; she cover me cloth, say make you sleep; sleep, sleep, my pikin ooo.” Deeply compassionate, she would give up her comfort to ensure he gains some sound sleep.
In the next few verses, we are reminded of the maternal and nurturing instincts of a mother. “When I dey hungry, my mother go run up and down, she dey find me something wey I go chop o”; meaning when I am hungry, my mother runs helter-skelter, seeking food for me to eat. Indeed, a mother would not eat until her child is filled. Ravaged by sickness, Mbarga recalls his several near death experiences “when I dey sick, my mother go cry, cry, cry; she go say, instead when I go die make she die; she go say, God help me, my pikin ooo”: His distressed mother would cry to God, pleading with Him to spare her son’s life and allow death to claim her in his place.
The song soon reaches a crescendo as the artiste extols his mother’s virtues, showers her with praises, and vows never to forget her sacrifices and sufferings for him. “If I no sleep, my mother no go sleep; if I no chop, my mother no go chop; she no dey tire eee, sweet mother”, translated as, If I cannot sleep, my mother will not sleep; if I have not eaten, my mother will also not eat; she is never tired. “I no go forget the suffer wey you suffer for me eee.” I will not forget all your sufferings over me.
Although Sweet Mother is an immensely popular highlife track, Prince Nico Mbarga is not a household name in Nigeria as proven by a recent survey of over 20 students in the University of Lagos. Mbarga was born to a Nigerian father and Cameroonian mother on January 1, 1950. He is from Abakaliki, Ebonyi State. At the height of its popularity, Sweet Mother gained worldwide recognition, selling over 13 million copies. Considered Africa’s anthem, when released, it was Nigeria’s most popular song and was voted Africa’s Favourite Song by BBC readers and listeners in 1997.
Prince Nico Mbarga died in a motorcycle accident on June 24, 1997. He lives on in Sweet Mother, his greatest musical success and contribution to the evolution of Nigerian music.
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