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From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own.Highlife took western instruments – the trumpets and saxophones of big jazz bands – and set them to local, offbeat rhythms.Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated.The only way goods such as bicycles and sewing machines made their way to the village was by lighters on the river from Calabar, more than 100 miles to the south.Despite the celebratory mood of the country, however, Nico’s childhood was not easy.His father died of a sudden illness, and the family he left behind – his wife, three sons and a daughter – became reliant on Nico’s mother, a peasant farmer.More exciting for Nico though, his music-loving father bought a Phillips radio.
(Even his later song “Oh Death,” with the opening line “Oh death, everybody hates you,” is impossibly cheery.) His father, from a long line of xylophone players, taught him the instrument, a handheld version with metal tines plucked by the thumbs.
On June 24, 1997, Prince Nico Mbarga was pronounced dead.