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Pericomo Okoye: When a big masquerade exits the stage

Pericomo had always been an object of awe. There are many stories out there telling of his legendary mystical powers. For instance, there are tales about his escapades during the annual Ikeji Festival of his native Arondizuogu in Ideato North Local Government Area of Imo State. There are stories of how he would open the ground in broad daylight and plant a banana sucker and watch it grow there and then, mature, bear fruit that would ripen instantly, and he would dare anyone with a strong heart to pluck the fruit and eat.
But perhaps the most popular tale of his demonstration of his magical powers is that of his encounter with illegal tax collectors at Upper-Iweka in Onitsha, Anambra State. There are many versions of the tale but I will recall the most popular, which, by the way, was brought to public notice by another Igbo musician Anaede Unu in the track “Pericoma na-anyi ajo aro”.
According to the story, Pericomo was on his way to Onitsha when he was waylaid by the unscrupulous elements (agberos) at the then notorious Upper Iweka. These illegal tax collectors, not knowing who he was, demanded for his tax receipts, but he ignored them. One of them lifted him up, placed him on his shoulders and made to carry him to their kangaroo office. On the way, he suddenly became too heavy such that the guy who carried him wanted to put him down, but he could not. For several hours they begged him to come down but he refused, until certain rituals were made to appease him. That incident was said to have put an end to the menace of illegal tax collectors at Upper Iweka.
But Pericomo was much more than just a man with magical powers. He was a great cultural ambassador, a walking library of Igbo history, an embodiment and reservoir of Igbo language, culture and tradition. His songs, laced with staunch Igbo proverbs, were full of native wisdom.
He used his songs, which were deeply philosophical and spiritual, to promote age-old Igbo traditional and cultural values of respect for elders, hard work, hospitality, sanctity of life, honesty, transparency, etc.
Some scholars describe Pericomo’s music, which used a fusion of flutes, drums and ogene to produce a special melodious sound, as “oral rendition of rarefied Igbo history”. Much like Mike Ejeagha, who is renowned for his “akuko-negwu” (narrative music), Pericomo told several didactic stories through his songs.
Growing up in Imo State, South-east Nigeria in the 1980s, I had the privilege of listening to some of the popular traditional songs from the great masquerade-musician, Ichie Mezuo Pericomo Okoye, Arusi Makaja 1 of Igboland, known by many as Pericoma. While I may not easily recall the titles of the tracks, I can recall some key words in some of his songs. They include “Omenana na-ese okwu”, “Izu ka mma na nne ji”, “I ga-atakwute ya aja”, “E ji m ogu na ofo”, etc. You would often hear his golden voice bellowing from afar whenever his songs were being played.
Pericomo was unapologetically a traditionalist who held on tenaciously to the ways of his forefathers. But though a core traditionalist, he acknowledged the existence of the Supreme God. In one of his popular songs, he invoked “Chineke nke usuu ndi agha, Alpha na Omega ndi m ji anya isi, ha bu ato n’ime otu nke di ngozi” (God of hosts, Alpha and Omega in whom I make a boast, the three-in-one God).
And even though he possessed mystical powers, he was said never to have used them for harmful purposes. He was known to have abhorred evil and promoted the sanctity of human life. He preached and lived a life of purity, peaceful coexistence, and love for humanity.
Pericomo had over 200 songs and was instrumental to the global fame that the yearly cultural Ikeji Arondizuogu achieved, according to Emmanuel Onwubiko, an Arondizuogu indigene and head, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), in an article “Pericoma Okoye: When an ancestor travels”.
“For me, I believe firmly that this musician whilst alive represented the clearest evidence of a living ancestor because of the fact that he epitomized the best of the culture and tradition of the people of Arondizuogu and indeed Igbo nation,” Onwubiko wrote.
“Ichie Mezuo as he was usually called used the instrumentality of music to drum up support for an ethically responsible society and it remains a delight to listen to his songs because of the inherently deep spiritual inspirations and meanings that they contain,” he wrote.
Later in life, Pericomo ventured briefly into Nollywood when he featured in the film “Lion of Africa” alongside Pete Edochie and others.
In recognition of his contribution to the growth and preservation of Igbo language and culture, on July 10, 2010 when I was coordinator of Mbari Literary Society in Owerri, the society used the occasion of the public presentation and launch of “Aja Mbari”, its maiden anthology of poems, to confer Distinguished Achievement Award on the famous traditional music maker Pericomo. He had given his word that he would be there in person to receive the award, but we got a last-minute word that he wouldn’t be able to make it. Some of our members later took the plaque to him in his home. The society also honoured Chief Dr. Nnamdi Olebara and Otu Suwakwa Igbo founded by Prof Pita Ejiofo, a former vice chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University Awka, for their contribution to the promotion of Igbo language and culture.
Pericomo was also a subject of many research projects. In “‘A Na-Enwe Obodo Enwe?’ A Socio-Theological Reflection on a Track in Oliver De Coque’s Album”, published in Ministerium, A Journal of Contextual Theology vol. 2 no. 1 (2016), Lawrence N. Nwankwo of the Department of Religion and Society, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, Igbariam Campus, Anambra State, writes, “Chief Oliver de Coque and Chief Pericomo Okoye are two contrasting figures that have contributed to the praise-song musical genre among the Igbo. Both men stand for different values and ideals. Pericomo Okoye is staunchly traditional and promotes the fabled mystical powers of the Arondizuogu masquerade cult. This commitment shapes the values praised in his music and the criteria for selecting the people to be projected as ideals for the society. Because of his commitment to the Igbo tradition, Pericomo Okoye showers praises on herbalists and those deemed capable of making contact with and manipulating the world of the spirits. With Oliver de Coque one finds another set of commitment and ideals.”

It was sad to learn of the demise of Pericomo on Thursday, February 16, 2017 at the age of 81. He was said to have died in a hospital in Okigwe, Imo State, after a brief illness. But legends never truly die. So Pericomo lives.

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Life is a ladder. Every new person we meet is a rung, upper or lower, a step upward or downward…

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