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Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.
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.But even in rural Ikom, all the flux of being in a British colony in Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and the trappings of modernity it entailed – had its effect.Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time).On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.The son of a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Nico Mbarga was born in nearby Abakaliki on April 8, 1950, but grew up in Ikom.
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In the 1950s it was little more than a series of administrative buildings, houses and farms clumped around Cross River, surrounded by tropical rainforest, right on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon.