Exploring “Ojapiano” & The Evolution of Nigeria’s Most Spiritual Flute

The potentials of culture is again shaping online conversations

In the past two years, no genre has impacted Nigerian Pop as much as Amapiano. Extending the decades-long relationship between South Africa and the West African country, this time around, collaborations aren’t the sole catalyst, rather Nigerians are creating the music themselves. The unique flavours that have cemented themselves in our sonic tapestry was blended into that rich world of log drums, often to masterful effect.

Week after week, Amapiano’s strengthens its grasp on artists and consequently the music we hear. For a genre that’s soundtracked the motions of unbridled joy and poured out skin-filled dance floors and other communal spaces, it was a paradox of popular expectations when people began demanding more. We grooved to the better Amapiano songs, but with each whine, it seemed we craved something new.

Nigerian Pop is enjoying its most novel moment in a while. Pushing sonic boundaries is expected of certain artists, but there’s no limitation across the current contemporary soundscape. Even non-singing talents like hype men and producers contribute in no small way to the litany of music-driven public moments we share. Right now, the biggest and fastest-growing song in the country was created by an artist far removed from his prime, whose contributions to early 2010’s Nigerian pop is rather understated, and his consistent punches at the today’s scene has gone largely unnoticed.

“Ojapiano,” which was released by KCee, is that song. First gaining traction on TikTok, the sound has been used by over 30,000 users and has penetrated several facets of popular culture. From “Buga” to “Calm Down”, the biggest songs have shown a penchant for purposeful minimalism, paring down excess elements in favour of the song’s unique tune or progression. The KCee song has that flair for measurement, thanks to its producer Jaysynths. Rolling log drums are the dominant feature, blended into the easy-going vocals of Kcee, while that flute—yes, the Oja—bends from the corners of the much busier percussions, exuding grace and muscularity in its movement. 

The track seems inescapable right now. It’s cool enough for a night with corporate executives at Victoria Island, gritty enough to elicit whines at the back corner of mainland hotels, clean enough for a toddler’s birthday party. DJs love it, Gen-Zers and millennials love it, casual listeners of music, too. Undoubtedly one of the biggest success stories of the year and primed to become one of the most transcendental songs as well, it continues a rich form of culturally-impactful records KCee has scored in recent years.

Two years ago, “Cultural Praise” attained similar levels of ubiquity. Timing its release to coincide with the ‘ember’ months—starting from September to the last day of December—the effusive praise contained in its charged rhythms appealed to a wide range of Nigerians. A national myth is the lurking danger of these months, their doses of pleasure always harbouring the risk of pain. Death, loss, tribulations; no one wants these, and so we give thanks.

Understanding the Nigerian psyche on this level has long benefited KCee. “Limpopo,” after all, had that bemusing but implicitly revealing chorus, carried on the gesture of hand movements which became its dance. The police-civilian dynamic was explored on “Pull Over,” featuring Wizkid whose youngster edge provided further gravitas for the record. On “Cultural Praise,” the expertise of the Ogene percussive tradition was sought after by KCee, leading him to collaborate with the Okwesili Eze Group. Even with the far-ranging motivations behind the recording, at its core what was being presented was a groovy song,  a gyration medley that passed messages of positivity. 

On “Ojapiano,” the intended demography is different. Rather than east-side travellers and elderly folks, this was meant for those who spend their Friday nights outside and don’t necessarily bother about Sunday morning. The choice of Amapiano as a sonic base was peculiarly striking because of its aforementioned standing in these parts. It’s the soundtrack of many urban societies across Nigeria, thus wielding that immediate appeal of the familiar. 

Where the song strikes sonic gold is in its Oja playing. From clips available on social media, the mastermind behind the flute in question is a young Nigerian man. In one such video KCee and the Oja player OJazzy Igbonile—who’s clad in animal skin wear—are luxuriating in each other’s presence, obviously heated by the steam of music in the room. Stretching the cultural palette from the incursions on ‘Cultural Praise Vol.1’, the resultant project from the earlier mentioned record of the same name, KCee entrenches Igbo musicality—and some would say spirituality, but more on that later—into the tapestry of modern Nigerian pop music. 

The Oja is an ancient instrument. Its origin is in Igbo land, which is officially referred to as southeastern Nigeria. Of all the regions, this is the most forested, surrounded by thick forests and dense, lush vegetation. With access to this natural resource, the Igbo people have always been fine woodworkers. Craftsmen have evolved from Awka to Enugu, creators of masquerades and repositories of the gods’ powers, ornately designed stools and musical instruments of the highest caliber. 

Among instruments such as the Egwe, Igba, and Udu, all of which are percussive tools, the Oja stands tall. Pre-colonial societies utilised its distinct harmony in many social occassions, mostly as a means to call forth the unique spirit of its listener. For those who’ve attained great reputations, the Oja can be used to sing their praises. As someone who lives in the East, I have been opportuned to hear the instrument played live, often to soft strums of accompanying music from any of the aforementioned percussions. 

Some of its most mesmerising renditions I’ve witnessed were by Gerald Eze, who is a musicologist and Ogbuoja. He wields the instrument with grace and dignity, never showing off or merely seeking appraisal. Rather, it’s a teachable experience whenever he plays, as he usually follows up with his fine oratory skills to tell the history and uniqueness of the flute. Listening to him one cool evening in Awka, I was gradually transported to a place of pristine wisdom, and the weight of experiences which seemed from centuries earlier flowed within me. I grasped for the familiar, but the more he played, the immediate world lost its meaning on me, and so I was contemplative for a long time after the last note. 

Eze, who’s the subject of a wonderful essay on Afrocritik, is an embodiment of the ageless wisdom retained in sounds. He places the genealogy of the Oja in like importance with the saintly acclaim of classical music, perhaps even more considering how important flutes have been to Sub-Saharan African societies. According to his conversation with Chiedoziem Chukwudera, the Oja’s distinct quality is its very high sense of individuality. No two players can play the same time, and “no two people will ever play the Oja in the same way. Each sound emitted will be unique in itself”.

Considering how quickly “Ojapiano” has blown up, it’s possible to conclude that this experience is novel to mainstream audiences. Moving at the pace it does, the center of Nigerian music is pulled towards several sounds at once, and with worldly ambitions of conquering, the external becomes prime currency. We do not look inwards enough. As they should, the southeastern music scene has championed the utilisation of this sound, even way longer than most people know. 

One of my favourite threads on Twitter right now explores the timeline of the Oja, sketching its evolution from traditional-leaning musicians like Queen Theresa Onuorah and Ejike Mbaka to modern purveyors such as CKay (“Anya Mmiri”) and Jeriq (“Cartel Business”). The diverse emotional scales between the last two records are proof of the Oja’s liquid form, able to serenade as much as it incites. Zoro and Flavour’s “Ogene” and Kolaboy’s “Kolapiano” (which was an early fusion of amapiano and the Oja) have also adapted the instrument poignantly, repping the colourful Igbo culture while furthering the pockets of their artistry. 

The biggest indicator of the Oja’s appeal right now is the love it’s getting, not only from listeners but musicians as well. ODUMODUBLVCK who’s undoubtedly one of the hottest artists in the country has shared a video of him layering his richly emotive vocals over the production, extending the genius input he had on Zlatan’s “Oganigwe,” another song which utilised the Oja. A master of the quaint and local, the rapper emerges a perfect fit for a potential remix, while the Igbo leanings in his overall presentation just signifies the richness and freshness of that particular culture. 

As The Cavemen have most successfully displayed in recent times, the culture’s history of performance still offers a lot to the disciplined musician, whether it’s through the utilisation of an ancient instrument, interpolating a classic song, or plucking church hymns and rinsing them in the rivers of contemporary sound. 

Yet this imminent entry into deeper aspects of culture raises fresh concerns. Compensation is the most pertinent, how much is owed to the custodians of these folk traditions, and to whom exactly payment is made to. KCee has faced an infringement charge from prominent Catholic composer Jude Nnam, and it’s revealing how much happens between taking societal songs and making them modern. People have similarly commented on the agreed compensation between the artist and the player OJazzy. Whethere he was paid as a session instrumentalist or as a producer and songwriter on the record (which he is) becomes an argument of moral proportions, but that’s exactly why the business of music should ideally not come secondplace to the creation, especially not during these periods of long-reaching contractual consequences which might make or break a musician. 

In all of this, the viability of culture restores itself to the zenith of popular conversation, and that’s a win. The proximity to global success shouldn’t obscure the fact that a thriving industry doesn’t consume and regurgitate everything, rather it listens and moves with the trueness of personality. As more societal concerns have revealed, the destiny of Nigeria rests in the potency of its individual parts, and where one is doing something right, it shouldn’t be hard to give praise and learn respectfully, if one so desires. 

For too long the southeast has been excluded from discussions in mainstream media. Lauded for business and economy, and less for its culture and philosophy, there’s a need for more investors in the creative landscape but also more focused efforts from within. As someone who cracked the scope many years ago, it’s fitting that KCee is again at the forefront of this conversation. It goes beyond the Oja; this is the heartbeat of life at its finest.