©Fred Onovwerosuoke, March 2000. All rights reserved.
THE SACRED MUSIC OF HARCOURT-WHYTE

CD Cover

n 1905, a child was born to Munabo and Odibo at Abonnema-Degema, a riverine town in the Niger-Delta region of Nigeria. His given name was Ikoli, but later he came to be known as Harcourt-Whyte. His exact birthday is uncertain, because in those days it was not common practice to record the birth of a child. His people, the Kalabaris, were primarily fishermen and traders, and Ikoli as a child was trained in these vocations. Harcourt-Whyte, however, at a young age expressed a deep desire to be a minister of God’s message.

The CD begins with a processional song titled, Chebe Mo Nna, the text of which translates: Guide me, O Lord, Guide your child. In good times and bad times, Protect your child. The devil is like a roaring lion, in anger; roaming around, looking for whom to devour. Guide me, O Lord. Rulers of this world - the powerful, the rich and those who profess knowledge - Flaunt themselves before the poor and lowly. Guide me, O Lord. Please accept my spirit; let me follow your path Let me hide under your wings, where peace and joy reign. Guide me, O Lord. Chebe Mo Nna is repeated in Track 2, after the first narrative, and reprised as a recessional song at the end of the CD.

Onyinye Chuku, Track 3, means God’s gift. Harcourt-Whyte writes: Lift up your eyes, look below and look all around you - see all the creatures God has made; Rain & sunshine, stars & the moon; The herbs and the flowers in the plains; All of God’s creatures - including animals and birds - are gifts from God. Everything on earth, big and small; both bad & good, all receive God’s blessings.

Track 4, Okwu Nkasi Obi, means words of comfort. Here, Harcourt-Whyte shares some of his favorite passages from the New Testament: Come to me all that are heavy laden, tired, or that suffer. Come, and you shall find rest for your souls; God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that everyone who trusts in Him may have everlasting life; In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I’d have told you. I go to prepare a place for you… Love one another, No greater love than a man lay down his life for his friends. Written in September of 1954, the song was Harcourt-Whyte’s response to a moment of deep sorrow, and it is said that he was always rejuvenated by reciting favorite Bible passages.

Traces of the leprosy disease were first noticed in 1918, and the symptoms aggravated within a year. Harcourt-Whyte was only 14. In those days, having the disease was considered a direct curse by God. Lepers were expelled from society, and most took their own lives. Harcourt-Whyte was said to have spent all his time searching for God’s purpose. The truths he had learned from the Bible now became his solace. Ihe Ndia Di Njo, Track 5, means these things are bad. Harcourt-Whyte here touches on something we all wrestle with daily: our conscience. The Good Spirit says something’s not good, but the Evil Spirit says it’s good; Listen to your good conscience, do the right thing.

Although suicide was common among lepers in those days, Harcourt-Whyte did not consider it a solution to his predicament. His faith in God deepened, giving him assurance - assurance that was best expressed in the song, Tikuenu Jehova, meaning, Praise Jehovah (Track 6). He writes: My brothers, please praise Jehovah; My sisters, please praise Jehovah. In time of peace or war; in time of joy or sorrow; in time of plenty or want; in life or in death - Praise God. 1919, his father died - his mother had passed earlier in 1916 - and Harcourt-Whyte became an orphan, a young child bogged by the predicament of leprosy. For the next five years, he struggled with the illness, while other members of his family helped search for a cure without luck. Meanwhile, his health deteriorated, and became a concern for many. Encouraged by his cousin, he checked into the newly opened ward for leprosy patients at the Port-Harcourt General Hospital. Eventually, he relocated to the Leprosy Hospital at Uzuakoli, and it was here he made home for most of his life. In the song Nw’ Oge Nta (Track 7), he penned these immortal words: The trials of this world, the sorrows of this world; Even the joys of this world, and the wealth of this world: They are temporal - in a little while, everything passes.

Harcourt-Whyte once said: "…Leprosy isolated me into a place where I could see no other books to read than the Bible and religious books. I read and read, and they transformed me. Instead of seeing God as cruel to me, I saw Him as a loving Friend. Instead of feeling bitter that all was lost, I discovered that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God…." In Obu Chuku, Tracks 8 and 9, he asks some hard questions, and provides simple answers: Who created the heavens and the earth? It is God. He created them and blessed them… Who is as powerful as this God, or Who created this God? That’s quite a question, - a nagging question for all humanity! Do you have an answer in your heart?… Listen to your heart, you will hear a soft voice within you, saying: All glory and honor to God, who created all.

Harcourt-Whyte’s songs were particularly inspirational to the Ibos during the Biafran War of 1967-1970. Earlier in 1942, he had written the song, Atulegwu (Track 10), where he philosophized: In the storms of life - in flood or drought - fear not; Death may be near, things may be scarce; The devil will confuse you; tribulations will come; your friends may scandalize you. Fear not, because the God you serve is an almighty God. He will hold you up.

Harcourt-Whyte was never afraid. A deep understanding of God’s true nature was evident in everything he did. He once said, "… man is too precious to God to be forgotten or forsaken by Him… Man should always praise God through word and deed…" He, himself, dedicated his entire life to serving God. In 1946, as traces of the disease began to diminish he wrote the song, Otuto Nke Chuku, meaning Praise belong to God (Tracks 11, 12). He writes: Son of man, what can you say for all the blessings of God? All the time, I will Praise God and glorify His name, for delivering me from death and suffering. What will you give Him for saving you from death, protecting you, and for good health? What will you give to God? He created the world in His mystic power - all in heaven and earth he has given as a gift to humanity; What will you give Him in return. God gave his Son’s life; He overcame death in three days that we might assume His nature; What will you give Him in return… I will Praise God, give him thanks with all my heart. All the time, I will Praise God and glorify His name for delivering me from death and suffering.

In 1949 he was cured of the disease that had claimed 34 years of his life. He dedicated the rest of his life writing music, and working to raise awareness of better health care for leprosy patients. Harcourt-Whyte always encouraged his friends to pray without ceasing. In Track 13, he writes: Pray in the morning, afternoon, evening, and always; At work or play, in merriment or relaxation; In trouble, tribulation, anxiety, confusion or doubt - Pray always. For prayer is the key, your messenger, and your weapon to overcome the devil. Lord, teach us to pray; when to pray, what to say; show us the benefit of prayer. For a world where the devil is conquered is like heaven.

A E Na O (pronounced ah-ay-nah-oh) was recorded live at the St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, and Christ Church Cathedral, in St. Louis.  The CD features 14 tracks of soul-inspiring music, interspersed with the moving story of an exemplary life of one who dedicated his entire life to serving God and humanity. The soothing harmonies, the calming tones of wooden gongs and earthen pots, and the healing message all make this CD a must for every listener. In over 200 songs and anthems, Ikoli Harcourt-Whyte (1905-1977) proved himself a master in the art of integrating European-influenced harmonic structure with powerful African rhythms. Half his life was characterized by an upheaval struggle with a debilitating illness and a tenacious reliance on an all-benevolent God - emotions that were aptly reflected in the deep philosophies expounded by his lyrics. Harcourt-Whyte’s life has become a beacon to many people of struggle. He wrote in Igbo, a Nigerian language that presents more than its share of difficulty, but which also, like South Africa’s Zulu, portends the percussive elements that naturally dictate the intoxicating rhythms characteristical to many African choral music. According to Dr. Samuel Nwaobasi, a native Igbo speaker, and a volunteer language coach for the St. Louis African Chorus, "The most striking aspect of this CD is that ALL the performers are Americans!… They have dedicated to Igbo the same fervor accorded to European languages - like German, Italian, French, Spanish, and so forth - in classical music… I’m absolutely certain that every Ibo native will be heartened by the highly professional results achieved by the St. Louis African Chorus."

Notes by Fred Onovwerosuoke, with bibliographical excerpts from a 23-year research conducted in Nigeria by Hazel Mae Rotimi, and from the book, Ikoli Harcourt Whyte: The Man and his Music -Vol.1 by Achinivu Kanu Achinivu.

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