Oct 8, 2009

Nigerial Special - Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds and Nigerian Blues 1970-76


In music, as elsewhere, the talk is of convergence, and Africa appears to be where pop stars are converging in early 2008. From American hopefuls (Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer) to the British old guard (Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project, Mick Jones collaborating with Rachid Taha), it seems the sound of the djembe has never been cooler, nor the trip from Upper West Side to downtown Lagos easier.

The current enthusiasm for emo-afrobeat (Nigeriana or whatever the NME christens it) might not even see us through the spring, but this compilation, subtitled Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6, arrives seven days after Vampire Weekend’s debut, so perhaps it is forgivable to wonder if there is something in the air that signifies more than a fad on the rise.

The dawning of the 1970s saw a Year Zero for Lagos’s artists: musicians (mainly Igbo from the east) had gone home to support the secession in Biafra, Fela Kuti had returned from America bearing funk, and other progressive minds were enviously looking to rock for inspiration. Highlife (the sprightly, guitar-led and Caribbean-influenced pop of West Africa) had to modernise to survive.

What happened next was an explosion of the imagination as the Nigerians appropriated everything they could, Africanised it and released it into a fertile marketplace. The highlife got a whole lot higher.

Although they are classics of Nigeriana, it’s difficult to imagine anything more Cuban than Opotopo’s 1976 album cut Belema, which features the guitarist Fatai Rolling Dollar, who lost everything he owned when the Nigerian Army attacked Kuti’s compound a year later. Actually, the salsa quotient is increased by the rhythms of The Semi Colon, but somehow both sit perfectly alongside I Want a Break Thru by The Hykkers, a heavy rock jam with unfettered use of the guitar FX pedals, or the reggae within Leo Fadaka’s Blak Sound.

Eye-opening as these 26 tracks are, however, there are apparently tonnes of old vinyl still waiting to be discovered: Soundway promise volumes of disco funk and psychedelic afro-rock either side of Easter. Converge this way, there is definitely something in the air.


Lagos, Nigeria, in a lengthy 2006 New Yorker article, is depicted as a post-industrial wasteland, an environmental, economic, and social disaster, fueled by corruption, crime, and the entropy of over eight million people (and counting) vying for limited space and resources. Lagos is considered a 21st century "megacity" teetering on the brink of total chaos when it's not already embroiled in it. "As a picture of the urban future," wrote author George Packer, "Lagos is fascinating only if you're able to leave it."

Lagos wasn't always like this, nor was Nigeria as a whole. In fact, just about 40 years ago, following the end of the Biafran War, Nigeria briefly experienced a huge economic and cultural boom, its oil revenues generating billions, the nation thriving, and the country producing an impressive number of artists, writers, and musicians. As far as the musicians go, many still only know Nigeria for Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Some are also familiar with some combination of juju masters King Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey, the perfectly nicknamed highlife star Christogonus Ezebuiro "Sir Warrior" Obinna of the nebulous Oriental Brothers International Band, but they still represent just the tip of a vast West African iceberg.

Fela's not included on the illuminating 2xCD Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues, but members of his pre-Afrobeat highlife band the Koola Lobitos are, playing in the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination. Ebenezer Obey's not here, but the man who allegedly taught him how to play, Easy Kabaka Brown, is. "There are thousands of tracks by popular and not-so-popular bands that are still yet to be issued outside of West Africa," writes curator Miles Cleret in the well-researched liner notes.

That diversity, those numbers, and those colorful yet almost unknowable names are part of the challenge in compiling any collection of African music, especially drawing from a region as fruitful as the continent's northwest chunk. It's also no doubt what keeps many from diving in and exploring on their own. But if little on Nigeria Special sticks out for the neophyte or casual fan, all the better: The comp is the perfect place to start if you want to move beyond the better known heavy hitters of Nigerian music.

What makes Nigeria Special doubly useful is that, per its subtitle, it doesn't just rely on funk or dance music. Instead, on Disc One, we get acts like the Funkees, with their soulful, organ-driven "Akula Owu Onyeara", or the trancelike, percussion-heavy "Oja Omoba" from Dele Ojo & His Star Brothers Band. St. Augustine & His Rovers Dance Band offer the unfailingly peppy "Onwu Ama Dike", while "Feso Jaiye" from the Sahara All Stars of Jos, is downright mellow in its sax, guitar and electric piano explorations.

The Nigerian Police Force Band plays Afrobeat in a more familiar mold on Disc Two, their "Asiko Ni Mi" clearly indebted to Fela. Easy Kabaka Brown's band, Opotopo, plays up the West African-Caribbean connection in "Belema". The Hykkers' "I Want a Break Thru" is wah-wah infused psychedelic instrumental rock. The (again, perfectly named) Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba contribute the tightly syncopated polyrhythms of "Alabeke", featuring a smoking guitar solo. Any one of these tracks may be eye opening on their own. Taken as a whole, the comp itself is as revelatory as it is incessantly enjoyable. Pop history has rarely gone down so painlessly. "Thousands of tracks" yet to be issued, claims Cleret? As long as they're this beautifully packaged and presented, bring 'em on.

— Joshua Klein, April 7, 2008


Shortly after the disastrous Biafran war and before the profits from Nigeria's oil boom were completely squandered, laundered, sequestered or stolen, Nigerian music was on a roll. By the mid '80s, the home grown recording industry would be in serious decline, but this entertaining 2CD set reminds us how vibrant things were, mining a vein overlapping that of Honest Jons' 2005 releases, Lagos Chop Up and Lagos All Routes – with the added bonus of informative sleeve notes that you can actually read, and reproductions of colourful cover art. Compiler and label boss Miles Cleret avoids the obvious juju/apala/Afro-beat scenes also very active at the time, concentrating as the title indicates on the rather psychedelic, 'western'-influenced Afro-rock and the more gentle, loose-limbed highlife typical of the period, mostly by musicians from east of Lagos. Even serious Nigerian music heads will know only a few of the bigger names such as Victor Uwaifo, The Funkees and Celestine Ukwu, but the lesser known artists are in no way overshadowed.

Highlights are multitudinous, but the first track that really catches the attention on disc 1 is the surging Amalinja, by The Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination with its insistent sax work. The Funkees weigh in with the funkily chugging Afro-rock Akula Owu Onyeara, boasting prominent bass, searing vocals, wah-wah guitar and noodling organ. Dele Ojo and His Star Brothers band are rootsier; Oja Omoba being a percussion-rich treat, while the swinging highlife of The Harbours Band's Koma Mosi may be the model for King Sunny Ade's Easy Motion Tourist. Other standouts include gloriously mellow highlife from St. Augustine & His Rovers Dance Band and The Sahara All Stars of Jos, whose “Feso Jaiye” floats along on a languid groove decorated with sweetly muted trumpet, sax, sublime vocal harmonies and what sounds like a vibraphone. To close, there’s a smouldering Afro-jazz instrumental by The Tony Benson Sextet, featuring the kind of luminous organ solo that might have been ground out by The Spencer Davis Group or suchlike a few years earlier.

Disc two opens with the slinky, Fela-influenced Asiko Mi Ni by The Nigeria Police Force Band. The bass-line strongly suggests Dave and Ansel Collins' reggae smash Double Barrel (from two years earlier) and the organ solo is straight out of bedlam. Opotopo's jaunty Belema features Fatai Rolling Dollar, who recently made a comeback working with Tony Allen, and then there's Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba, who sound like they learnt a thing or three from New Orleans funkmeisters The Meters. Two other highlights are Collins Oke Elaiho & His Odoligie Nobles Dance band – whose hypnotic Siminyi-Yaya features yet another monster bass line and an infectious vocal hook – and The Hykkers’ Afro-rock instrumental I Want To Break Thru, with its wonderfully crazed guitar grooves.

One could go on, but there wouldn’t be room to write even half the bands' names. This compilation pulls off the trick of being a fine place for the curious novice to start, but also of great interest to specialists.



01. The Anambra Beats - Ayamma
02. Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National - Okwukwe Na Nchekwube
03. The Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination - Amalinja
04. The Funkees - Akula Owu Onyeara
05. Dele Ojo & His Star Brothers Band - Oja Omoba
06. The Harbours Band - Koma Mosi
07. The Semi Colon - Nekwaha Semi Colon
08. Sir Victor Uwaifo & His Melody Maestros - Osalobua Rekpama
09. St. Augustine & His Rovers Dance Band - Onwu Ama Dike
10. The Sahara All Stars Of Jos - Feso Jaiye
11. MonoMono - Ema Kowe Iasa Ile Wa
12. Tunji Oyelana and The Benders - To Whom It May Concern
13. The Tony Benson Sextet - Ugali
14. The Nigerian Police Force Band 'the Force 7' - Asiko Mi Ni
15. Godwin Ezike & The Ambassadors - Torri Wowo
16. Opotopo (easy Kabaka Brown) - Belema
17. Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band Of Aba - Alabeke
18. Popular Cooper & His All Beats Band - Arraino
19. Collins Oke Elaiho & His Odoligie Nobles Dance Band - Simini-yaya
20. Bola Johnson & His Easy Life Top Beats - Buroda Mase
21. The Hykkers - I Want A Break Thru'
22. George Akaeze & His Augmented Hits - Business Before Pleasure
23. Shadow Abraham With Mono Mono Friends - Omo Yen Wu Mi
24. Leo Fadaka & The Heroes - Blak Sound
25. Osayomore Joseph & The Creative 7 - Eguae Oba
26. Etubom Rex Williams & His Nigerian Artistes - Akpaison

Further information can be found on the offical homepage!!!

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