ONE of the most vibrant, positive sounds coming out of Africa today is the husky voice of Christy, one of Nigeria's leading female singers, who is planning to go on a concert tour in the United States next summer. You hear the deep resonance of her voice after she finishes bathing her infant son and warmly greets visitors in the living room of her modest home here. Then she settles into a comfortable over-stuffed chair, slipping off first one, then her other sandal, and resting her bare feet on the rug.
``I see it this way,'' says Christy. ``I'm just sent to this world to sing songs that will bring comfort to people's hearts and homes.''
The voice, the bass-note laugh, and her big smile offer hints of why she and her let's-make-life-better lyrics have captured the love of so many fans in Nigeria and other African countries.
Here in her home, Christy Essien-Igbokwe is quiet, almost shy. But on stage, she is all energy. Not the kind of Mick Jagger, nonstop, running-around-the-stage energy, but a rhythmic, moving, fast-walking energy in body and voice. Her lyrics take you into a world where people care for each other, where politicians don't push people around, and where a woman has a chance.
Christy does not sing like some kind of musical preacher, but in a fun way with a laugh in her voice, an impish wink, and generous punctuations of husky ``oooohs,'' belted out. Audiences love it, responding with an enthusiasm that infuses her with still more energy.
``I don't even know what I do on stage, because when they are responding and very happy, it takes my spirit so high. And I do things I wouldn't believe I could do,'' says Christy, who sings in four Nigerian languages as well as French and English. Why does she sing?
She laughs. ``That's a funny question to me. I believe I'm a born singer; I'm a born artist; I'm a born songwriter, and that is why my songs are inspired by the spirit of God. I sleep; I'm given songs to sing. I'm told: `Talk about this.'
``I wake up in the morning, and I say to my husband, `I've been given a song to sing.' And I have no other choice than to sing that song. When I wake up in the morning, I'm humming the songs; I'm humming the guitar; I'm humming the bass line.''
What kind of songs does she end up writing and singing?
Christy responds by quietly singing a portion of the song ``My People'' in Nigerian-dialect English: ``Make we no let politicians push us around/ ... No matter who you be/ Ooooh/ No matter your job/ Ooooh/ Come on everybody/ Let we build Nigeria now.''
Discussing the political situation here, she says: ``The politics we play in this country is very mean: ... `If you are not with us, you are against us, and what do I do to get you out of my way?...'''
Christy's song ``Can You Imagine?'' starts with a quiet instrumental section, which is calming, followed by the lyrics ``Can you imaaa-gine/ What this world would be like if we live as one?/ Can you imaaa-gine/ What this world would be like if we give peace a chance?/ ... It shouldn't matter if you're black or white/ Is it so difficult to live as one family?''
Her ambition is to spread her beliefs through her music. One thing she feels strongly about is that African women, including urban dwellers and even the employed, are not yet free.
``The woman has a lot to contribute to the society and the whole world. And I discover that in Africa women are not given a chance. The men believe that the place of a woman is in the kitchen and bearing children. And that's all.''
``The man says the woman is a weaker sex. How is she the weaker sex? The woman works also. You come home together. The woman is going to the market to get foodstuffs for the home. She comes back; she has to clean up and everything. She feeds the man like a baby. And now you turn around and say the woman is the weaker sex?'' Her song ``She's a Woman'' begins slowly, with spoken lyrics: ``She's a woman/ So strong and courageous/ There's a woman/ Dignity and pride/ ... Please give the woman a chance.''
... Remember together with a woman/ We make a better world/ ....''
Christy was born in 1960 in a small town in Eastern Nigeria. Her father is a traditional chief and farmer. Her mother died when she was a young child. When Christy started singing songs at home, her stepmother encouraged her to tape-record them. In 1976, with some coaxing by Nigerian musician Jimi Henshaw, she made her first commercial recording. Her popularity grew, and she went on to win Nigerian, African, and some US singing awards.
``Among the female musicians in this country, Christy is the best and No. 1,'' says Sunny Ade, one of Nigeria's most popular singers.
Christy and her husband, Edwin Igbokwe, a Nigerian businessman, have four sons. The youngest was born in September. She is careful to spend much of her time with her family and feels strongly that female singers can balance careers and family. She attributes help in the balancing act to her husband, who has encouraged her singing.
``Like now, you can see my husband here, encouraging me,'' she says, as Edwin sits across the living room with baby Samuel in his arms. She takes some credit for having shown that Female singers in Nigeria don't have to sacrifice family - or have illicit sex with men - to promote their careers, she says. They simply have to work hard.