Chris Obehi is a young Nigerian musician, singer and songwriter. After migrating from Warri, in Nigeria to Palermo, in Sicily, he began busking and mixing sounds from Nigeria with songs from his adopted culture in Sicily. The result is an award-winning new album: Obehi.
"Home is always home," says Chris Obehi over the phone from his home city of Warri in Nigeria. For the first time since he left the country as a minor, Chris has returned home to see family, friends and film a documentary about how Nigeria has changed since he left in 2015.
He says he sees more hardship there than he remembers when he left, but thinks that generally "the way of life has not really changed."
"Since I came, I’ve been eating a lot," Chris says with a laugh. "A lot of Fufu. You know Fufu?" He explains that this is a dough made from fresh or fermented cassava or yam.
"Yeah, I’ve been eating a lot of that. Happy moments to get together." Chris' voice as he describes his favorite dish comes across as warm and gentle. Seeing his family again is "full of great emotions. It is one of the most beautiful days of my life," he confides.
Warri, which is located in Nigeria’s southern delta, is a city of about half a million inhabitants. It is not far from all the riches -- but also the conflicts -- that the oil industry has brought to the country.
'I wanted to get a better future'
When asked why he decided to leave when he was just a child, Chris explains that the Islamic terror group Boko Haram were a threat. The kidnappings were getting worse, he says, which is why he decided to leave for Italy to pursue his dreams.
"I wanted to get a better future, for my music and my life," he says. "I love music so much, I dreamed of going around the world with the music and spreading my message. There was so much insecurity that I fled the country. People going missing, you know, it's really scary."
Chris grew up in a household filled with music. His mum listened to Gospel music and went to church. "She sings in a choir. So there was a lot of Hallelujah and stuff like that" around the home, he giggles. His dad was more a fan of Afrobeat, Reggae and the big beats from across the continent.
Fela and Femi Kuti, Bob Marley provided the soundtrack to their lives, he explains. But also outside the home, Chris spent a lot of time focusing on music: "I started playing keyboards in the church to train my ear, and the drums," says Chris. Once in Italy, he taught himself guitar from YouTube.
Kidnapped in Libya
Back in 2015, Chris journeyed through Niger to get to Libya, where he got a job washing cars to pay for his passage to Europe. Life was dangerous in Libya though, Chris remembers. After being there for about four months, one day he was kidnapped and thrown in prison.
"It’s a lawless country. I saw horrible things there," he says quietly. "People were shot there, and horrible things. Libya was hell. It was terrifying," he recalls.
Even now, flashbacks from that time come back to Chris, he admits quietly. Chris decided he had to get out; he hatched a plan with another young boy in the prison. "I had faith and I believed I would get out of there," he explains.
"We decided we had to escape. Can you imagine a place where you have about 500 people and one toilet? You see the pee and the feces and everything. Some people there were being eaten by leaches."
Every day, the guards would come and call out names of people who were going to be released. Chris is a bit vague on the details, but presumably these people's families had paid the ransom required to get them freed.
"When they call out a name and no one answers, we just have to say yes and walk out," Chris told his friend. One day, just a couple of weeks after they had been jailed, his friend managed to walk out using this plan, and came back to get the others soon after.
Rescued by the big boat
Once he got out, Chris says he was terrified that the traffickers would catch up with him and that he’d be thrown back in jail. But he managed to make it onto an inflatable boat, and he was a couple of days into the voyage when a rescue ship arrived.
"I was crying you know. The boat was shaking and water was getting in. There were babies inside crying. We were 105 people." Again, Chris is not sure anymore which boat picked them up but he remembers the fear he felt: "It was night and this very big boat came towards us very slowly."
People were fighting, he remembers, and the boat was taking on water. Some were crying, some praying. "There were some casualties," he says with a tone of sadness in his voice. When the 'big boat' arrived, Chris saw a little boy who appeared to have become separated from his family. He says his survival instinct kicked in, and he picked him up from the boat to stop him from being crushed.
"I went close to the little boy, I touched him and he was so cold. I put him very close to me. I couldn’t just leave him alone." By taking responsibility for the infant, Chris got lifted off the ship as one of the first. In saving him, Chris was saved too. Many of the others on the boat ended up in the water.
Getting to know Palermo
Chris regrets that doesn’t know what became of the little boy. "I can remember him smiling, up to now. He was looking at me and I was looking at him." Chris lost touch with the child once they disembarked in Sicily, but says that he hopes he is "OK out there."
"The most important is that he is safe," says Chris.
In Palermo, he was given accommodation, as he was a minor. He also had the right to study due to his young age. At first he rebelled against the idea of having to learn a new language. He remembers he kept saying, "no, I only speak English." In the end though, he understood that in order to be able to get on and get by, "I need to understand the language."
So, he set about learning Italian and bought himself a "really basic" guitar. Chris began to busk in the multicultural area of the city known as Ballarò. Here, there were well-established communities from several West African countries, including Nigeria, Guinea and Senegal. He felt right at home: Foodies like Chris get to enjoy Senegalese Mafé alongside Sicilian Caponata here.
He was attracted to the soulful singing of Sicilian singing legend Rosa Balistreri, especially a song called "Cu ti lu dissi," which sung in the Sicilian dialect. He began to sing it around Palermo and soon attracted an enthusiastic reception from Palermo locals and musicians alike.
After all, the lyrics of the ballad resonate with Chris, which translate as "Who told you that I was about to leave you?"
'Cu ti lu dissi'
"(W)hen I came here, I heard this song and I was so captured by her voice and the high emotions. She was singing from her heart," says Chris.
The song proved to be Chris' entry into Palermitan society: "I was so happy when I finally learned the song that I took my guitar and went to play it on the street," Chris remembers. As he began singing, he recalls passers-by "smiling" but also looking surprised.
"I remember seeing the emotion on their faces; they were thinking, 'wow, what is this African guy doing singing this Sicilian song?'" They began asking him questions and he got chatting to people.
Soon, Chris became a regular feature on the street, and later at music festivals on the island, he ended up collaborating with local musicians while honing his craft. "Music is a universal language, you know?" says Chris.
'We are not fish'
Although Chris smiles frequently in his videos and on social media posts, and seems to be happy with his life today in Palermo, pain and difficulties were never far during his journey to Italy. In one song on the album, Chris sings this lyric in Italian: "When I smile, people think everything is OK, but things are actually not always that great."
In another song on the album, "We are not fish (Non siamo pesci)," sung also in Italian, Chris says over and over again that "we are not fish, we are human beings." The song tells the story of a small child condemned to live "as a fish" at the bottom of the sea after falling out of one of the migrant boats. This is a moment that Chris experienced personally during his journey.
His album, recorded, mixed and mastered in Palermo by Fabio Rizzo at Indigo records and sold on the 800A label, brings in and mixes lots of his influences: there's Afrobeat, Italian pop, funk with lyrics in his native Esan language as well as lyrics in Pidgin, Italian and English.
Some of his collaborations have taken Sicilian music back to Africa, too. One of his tracks did well in South Africa, Gambia, and Chad, Chris explains: "When I came here, I didn’t feel at home. But the first time I saw this hospitality from the people, this warm hospitality, things got better," Chris remembers.
Giving something back
Having received this welcome into the Sicilian community, Chris felt it was important to give something back, too. His music, he says, is his way of offering something back; it has allowed Chris to call Sicily his second home: "Sicily is really welcoming. It is a place where you easily get along with the people. Palermo is a really special place. They want to get to know you, and know about where you are coming from."
Of course there are racists too, says Chris, but Palermo is a place where migrants can get jobs and find a place "to lay their heads." He met a lot of people who "really wanted to help me, creating my future, going to school, to study and to encourage you to go forward in the way you want," he highlights.
Chris hopes to apply for full Italian citizenship in the future. But before that, he plans to take more of his music out into the world: "For me, I see my future everywhere. My music started in Sicily, but we are going to take it all over the world and show the world how we do it, he says.
Once he returns from Nigeria, he’s looking forward to doing more collaborations with Sicilian artists, and hoping that his concerts will start up again soon as well, when regulations linked to the COVID-19 pandemic begin to ease.
"I am the future. We are the future," Chris laughs, shyly.