Carol and I were standing at the Alitalia ticket counter at the Lagos airport, late in July 1964, checking our bags through before boarding a 707 for Rome.
'"Oho," a familiar voice said. "You mean you are leaving Nigeria at last."
It was Zeal Onyia, standing there with a huge smile--and Art Alade and his Canadian wife, Willa, too. They all had huge smiles. But we could tell that they weren't happy to see us go. The smiles were a good front, and we smiled back--but we all were sad about it underneath.
We had met Zeal through Art, who was a director at the then-new Lagos TV station, and we had met Art because he directed the "Battle of the Brains" show the day that our school's team--MBHS--went up against the King's College team. After a time we became friends with Art and his wife and began hanging out with them at the Mogambo Dancing Restaurant, near the airport. Art spent a lot of time there because he just loved to listen to Zeal Oniya's band play--loved mainly to hear Zeal on the trumpet.
Art had gone to college in the States. That's where he got into TV production. I think he and Willa met when he was working on a cruise ship. (A few days before we went to the airport, Art bought our little white Fiat 500 with the red racing stripes for Willa. If you know theFiat 500, you understand that the racing stripes were a joke. I heard recently that they painted it blue. )
Zeal had studied in the U.K. and was back in Nigeria, playing his heart out at Mogambo every night.
One evening at our house we all were drinking Star beer (Ah, Star! Beer at its best!) with Victor Allen, a British economist who had been involved in a coup that tried, but failed, to take over the Nigerian govenrnment. He was under police surveillance--an unmarked cop car parked out front or our hourse all the time he was there--and we all were just a bit nervous. Even Zeal seemed nervous, but I think he would just have preferred to be blowing his horn with the band. A few months later Victor Allen tried to smuggle himself out of the country disguised as a market woman. (Why he picked that disguise suggested something about his grasp of reality: he was a tall, lanky white guy who spoke no Yoruba.) Of course they caught him.
Anyway, there we were at the Alitalia ticket counter, about to leave Nigeria after two years of teaching at the Methodist Boys' High School, in Lagos. We chatted with Zeal and Art and Willa for a while, and then it came time to board the airplane.
As we turned to go, suddenly Zeal whipped something flat and thin out of his agbada.
"Here," he said. "Please take this as a token to remember us by in your travels."
It was a 78 rpm record in a brown paper sleeve--a bakelite 78 rpm record, one of the most fragile artifacts the human race has ever produced. Those records would snap into pieces if you just looked at them hard. He handed it to Carol, and she took it carefully and looked at the label.
"Oh, Zeal, Oh, it's one of your records!"
"Yes. I'm sorry--it has already been played a few times. It's the last one I have."
She slipped it part way out of the paper sleeve and we could see several scratches across the grooves. The bakelite was no longer black black, but was greyish from wear. But it was a treasure! It was two sides of Zeal and his band, recorded who knows where. The lables were beige and the printing, dark blue, and Zeal had written on one side "Good luck--Zeal."
Carol carried that record--very carefully--onto the plane. And off it in Rome. And she carried it when we rode a Vespa GT up over the Alps to Austria, holding it gently in front of her, so that nothing would break it. In Salzburg, we visited the Radio Austria studios and convinced a technician to dupe it to a cassette tape. The very next day, the record got broken in half when the Vespa hit a bump.
That cassette is missing now, but around 1974 I made a copy on another cassette, and recently I converted that tape to an MP3. So Zeal's scratchy 78 rpm record has gone through three stages of copying now--but if you care to play what's left here of the two sides of that 78, I think you'll agree that he was one of the very best trumpet players ever.
If you're going to listen to these recordings more than once, please download them, instead of downloading them each time. Right-click on the link and select "Save target as..." or "Save link target as...". That will protect my bandwidth limit.
If you knew Zeal or if you know about him and, perhaps, where other recordings by him might be found, please let me know.
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