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The Unforgotten Legacy of Prince Nico Mbarga: The Man Behind ‘Sweet Mother’

By Ozii Baba Anieto

In the shadows of musical history lies the extraordinary tale of Prince Nico Mbarga, a young boy who carved a living through his melodies every Sunday night at Onitsha Plaza Hotel. Despite the absence of streets or buildings bearing his name and his omission from Nigeria’s legendary lists, Nico Mbarga etched his name in the global record books in 1998, joining the ranks of the world’s most sold singles with his iconic track ‘Sweet Mother,’ boasting over 13 million copies sold.

Born to a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother from Mbembe in Cross Rivers State, Nico’s early life in Ikom, Cross River State, was marked by the tragedy of losing his father. His mother, a resilient peasant farmer, became the family’s sole provider, steering Nico onto a path where his love for highlife music blossomed.

As Nigeria plunged into the Biafran War in 1970, Nico found refuge in Cameroon, meeting Lucy, his future wife, in the poverty-stricken town of Mamfe. After the war’s conclusion, the couple, penniless and without passports, navigated the challenging journey back to Nigeria, settling in the bustling town of Onitsha.

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In the thriving atmosphere of Onitsha, Nico’s fortunes changed. Establishing the Rocafil Jazz band and signing with EMI, Nico’s musical journey gained momentum. Despite setbacks with EMI, Nico’s dedication to his autobiographical ode, ‘Sweet Mother,’ remained unwavering. A chance encounter with Romanus Okonkwo of Rogers All Star led to the song’s production and release, transforming it into a Nigerian anthem that resonated across borders.

The success of ‘Sweet Mother’ propelled Nico and Rocafil Jazz to international heights, touring Ghana, Togo, Kenya, and even London. However, the rapid fame and fortune proved tumultuous for the band, resulting in its eventual dissolution. Nevertheless, ‘Sweet Mother’ continued its legacy, outselling chart-toppers like “Macarena” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

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Yet, tragedy struck on Nico’s journey back to Ikom, as a car breakdown and a fateful accident claimed his life. Two weeks later, he passed away, leaving behind an unfulfilled desire to play ‘Sweet Mother’ one last time. The news of Nico’s demise brought profound sorrow to his elderly mother in Ikom, who, unable to recover from the shock, passed away shortly after.

In the echoes of this poignant story, one can only imagine that, just as Nico would have wished, his mother had ‘Sweet Mother’ playing on that secondhand Phillips radio beside her on her deathbed—listening to her son’s voice singing, “Sweet mother, I no go forget you… Sweet mother, I no go forget you.”

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