Africa: Remembering Ikoli Harcourt Whyte, the Nigerian musical genius who was a leper


The name Ikoli Harcourt Whyte may not ring a bell among most of today’s generation of young Nigerians.

For me, I got to know a bit about Harcourt Whyte as a young undergraduate at the University of Benin in Edo State, when we had to do an assignment on the play, “Hopes of the Living Dead” written by legendary dramatist, Professor Ola Rotimi.

Around the same period, the play was on stage in Lagos directed by the great Bayo Oduneye, popularly called Uncle B. Apart from the compelling storyline, the realisation of the drama on stage was a complex task.

Indeed, Ola Rotimi in his notes referred to the technique employed in the drama as a “convoluted concourse of juxtaposed variegated happenings.”

According to information on, Ikoli Harcourt Whyte (1905-1977), popularly known as Harcourt Whyte was a composer best remembered for his classic hymn “atula egwu.”

Ikoli was born in Abonnema in the old Niger Delta region in 1905. He was named Ikoli as a baby by his parents Munabo and Odibo. Between 1915 and 1918, he attended a number of schools including Bishop Crowther Memorial School.

He was an active member of the school brass bands and took interest in playing the flute and side-drum. Later on in his life, he adopted the name Harcourt Whyte. His people, the Kalabaris relied on fishing and trading, and Ikoli as a child was trained in these skills.

In 1919, he was diagnosed with leprosy after symptoms were first noticed in 1918. In the early 1920s, he was sent to Port Harcourt General Hospital where he developed his talent in music and went on to form a vocalist band with forty other lepers.

In 1932, he was transferred to Uzuakoli Leprosy Hospital, Bende Division, Eastern Nigeria where he met doctor-reverend-musician T.F. Davey from England. Harcourt Whyte was encouraged by Davey, who took him on village survey tours to collect various traditional sounds.

In 1949, after 34 years of ill health, Harcourt Whyte was finally cured and discharged by Davey as “clean.”

He then dedicated much of his life to the betterment and education of lepers who suffered the same illness as he once did.

He performed sacred compositions inspired by Methodist Church hymns and Wesleyan doctrinal philosophy.

His works attracted wide interest and were popular throughout the Igboland, eventually earning him the title of “father of Igbo church music.”

His career saw him compose over 600 hymns and compositions in the Igbo language. He died in 1977 in a motor accident.

The life of Harcourt Whyte was depicted and some of his hymns were sampled in a 1985 stage play titled “Hopes of the Living Dead” by Ola Rotimi.

“Otuto Nke Chukwu” as performed by Harcourt Whyte was sampled in “Champion of the World” in Everyday Life by Coldplay.

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