Sep 5, 2011

Who the f*** is Segun Bucknor?

Due to the fact that I recently re-discovered Segun Bucknor and listen to his music again, I thought I have to share some more information and reviews about him.

Segun Bucknor is definitely not a household name. It seems that when it comes to Afrobeat, the first and last name that comes to the mind of most people is Fela Kuti. However, there were many talented musicians who were Fela’s contemporaries that never garnered international stardom. Bucknor was one of them. He had a very brief career. It only lasted 6 years, but they were 6 glorious years. He might not have been popular internationally, but he was wildly popular in Nigeria, Ghana and Benin from 1969 to 1975.

The first thing people do with Bucknor is make the obvious comparisons to Fela Kuti. That’s understandable. What many people do not know is that Bucknor & Kuti are related. They are 2nd cousins. Like Kuti, Bucknor came from a wealthy family, so he went to school abroad. In the early 60s, he was enrolled in Columbia University. It was there that he was exposed to funk like James Brown. The funk influence is fairly obvious if you listen to Bucknor.

In his 6 year career, Bucknor had two bands. The first band was the Assembly, while the second band was called the Revolution. His music, much like Fela Kuti’s dealt with political & social issues. This did not go unnoticed by the Nigerian Government. Similar to when the Nigerian military stormed Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic, Bucknor was in the middle of a performance when army guards stormed the stage. Unlike Kuti, he wasn’t able to continue. Fearing for his life, he abandoned his outspoken criticism of political corruption. This was the end of a brilliant career.

So, Segun Bucknor might not be a household name, but it’s a name that anyone remotely interested in Afrobeat, Highlife and funk music from Nigeria should know. He’s the real deal.



Segun Bucknor is a semi-forgotten figure in the history of Nigerian music, so much so that the only somewhat decent photo I could even find of him is the obscure image from the cover of the compilation Strut released a few years ago. His records are as hard to find as hen's teeth, and he's usually only mentioned as a footnote to Fela, as one of his lesser contemporaries on the late-1960s Lagos music scene.

Actually, the connection to Fela goes back a bit further than that. Segun Bucknor was born in 1946 into a well-regarded Lagos family of musicians; his cousin Wole--as part of the Afro-Jazz Group that also included Bayo Martins and Zeal Onyia--was a Nigerian jazz pioneer who tutored young Fela Ransome-Kuti on the piano.

(Wole Bucknor also featured as a member of an early version of Fela's Koola Lobitos and fathered at least one child with Fela's younger sister, Yemisi Ransome-Kuti. He went on to become the Nigerian Navy's director of music, and I think he is also the father of popular Lagos wedding planner and socialite, Funke Bucknor.) (Edit: Actually, he is not; Funke Bucknor-Obruthe is Segun's daughter, as is media personality Tosyn Bucknor.)

As a student at the venerable King's College, Bucknor sang in the choir, and at the age of 15 he got the chance to play and recorded with highlife bandleader Roy Chicago's Rhythm Dandies dance band. By 1964, highlife was becoming old hat for post-independence Nigerian youth; a Beatles-aping quartet called The Cyclops had inspired a wave of high school rock & roll bands. With three school friends (including future esteemed photojournalist Sunmi Smart-Cole) and played mostly covers of popular pop and rock songs. The following year, he left the band to study liberal arts and ethnomusicology at New York's Columbia University, and it was during his three-year sojourn in the US that his imagination was captured by a sound that had heretofore not made much of a splash in Nigeria--soul music, particularly the music of Ray Charles.

Bucknor sought to introduce soul music to the Lagos scene when he returned to Nigeria in 1968, but he found that he had been beaten to the punch by new bands like The Strangers (led by organist Bob Miga), the Hykkers (featuring guitarist Jake Sollo, later of The Funkees, Osibisa and general awesomeness) and most of all by "Nigeria's James Brown," Geraldo Pino (who was actually Sierra Leonean).

Bucknor swiftly reconnected with his Hot Four buddies and they formed a new band called The Soul Assembly, recording two sides "Lord Give Me Soul" and "I'll Love You No Matter How." The Soul Assembly disbanded in 1969 and reformed as Segun Bucknor & The Assembly, this time moving away from straight imitations of US soul and toward a more organically African expression of soul music. As has often been the case throughout the history of African popular music, Afro-Cuban rhythms served as the bridge between the Motherland and the New World, as evidenced on tracks such as "That's The Time" and "Love and Affection."

As Bucknor further developed his brand of Afro-Soul, he cultivated a flamboyant visual style to accompany it. Eschewing the sharp western-style suits that characterized popular musicians of the day, he and his band (now renamed The Revolution) appeared shirtless, festooned with cowrie shells. Bucknor shaved his hair into a demi-mohawk and added to the stage show a trio of insane, booty-shaking nymphettes called The Sweet Things:

Lately, a lot of music writers have tended to write Bucknor off as a Fela imitator or follower, but watching that footage, I can't help but wonder about the degree to which Bucknor influenced Fela in terms of visual presentation (he rocked the "jungle" costumes and the scantily-clad girl dancers first) and even in terms of the fusion of soul and African sounds.

One area in which I am fairly certain that Fela influenced Bucknor, though, is the in the increasing social commentary in songs like "Son of January 15th," (the date of the 1966 military coup d'etat that usurped Nigeria's First Republic) and "Pocket Your Bigmanism" (an indictment of the new Nigerian upper class).

In 1975, feeling that the cycle of Afro-rock/soul bands had run its course and was losing out to both the encroaching DJ culture as well as to the new generation of Yoruba juju musicians that had emerged in Lagos since all the Eastern musicians deserted the city during the civil war, Segun Bucknor disbanded the Revolution and concentrated on journalism. He still lives in Lagos and very occasionally performs, but I kinda wish he had kept going through the 1970s like Fela did and claimed his rightful place in the pantheon of innovators in Nigerian popular music.



Who Say I Tire is the "most complete compilation to date" focusing on the work of 1970s Nigerian Afro-funk musician and political activist, Segun Bucknor. Although history may have overlooked Bucknor's career in comparison with his legendary contemporary, Fela Kuti, this double-disc collection draws attention to a major talent. Key to Bucknor's musical development was a three-year period in the USA during the 1960s, meaning that on his return to Nigeria much of his early work featured a a newfound awareness of soul music and American funk. It was later, during the advent of the 1970s that Bucknor set about redeveloping the African aspect of his music, forming Segun Bucknor & The Assembly and subsequently Segun Bucknor & The Revolution. The transition was marked by switching from an onstage get-up of Western-style suits to bare torsos and shaven heads, marking a return to African tradition and roots. By the mid-1970s Bucknor had turned his attentions to journalism, but the political commentary and powerfully soulful sounds of his music remain a document of the times.


While he didn’t have the same longstanding career or notoriety as Fela Kuti, Nigerian singer, pianist, guitarist and composer Segun Bucknor was just as much of a trailblazer in what came to be known as Afrobeat. Like Fela, Bucknor started out playing in the popular highlife style. And like Fela, it was a visit to the United States (Bucknor studied arts and music at New York’s Columbia University from 1965 to 1968) that opened his eyes and ears to American soul music. Upon returning to Nigeria, Bucknor formed The Soul Assembly, a band whose sound closely echoed what he’d heard in the States. After that short-lived group ceased to be, Bucknor sought to combine the swing and drive of soul with a musical foundation that was more specifically African and a viewpoint that likewise reflected the growing radicalism of post-colonial Nigeria. He dubbed his new band The Assembly (later The Revolution) and the most complete compiling of his work with them is found on the double CD set Who Say I Tire.

Cues taken from the sweeter side of soul can be heard on tracks like “Only In My Sleep,” “That’s The Time” and “Love And Affection,” but it’s when tackling more prickly subject matter with “Adebo,” “Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow,” “Poor Man No Get Brother” and “Son Of January 15th” (which laments the day in 1966 when Nigeria’s prime minister was killed in a military coup) that things really sizzle. The music is raw, funky and consistently fine, and Bucknor’s is usually the only voice testifying above the chug of drums, percussion, guitar, bass, keys and horns. The nearest thing you’ll find to Fela-style rambling is on the song that gives the album its title, where Bucknor makes it clear that adversity will not hold him back. Despite such an assertion, he pretty much called it quits by 1975 and switched his focus to journalism. But he still performs occasionally in his home base of Lagos, and if the release of Who Say I Tire does anything to steer him towards more of a full-on comeback, that would be very good indeed.


Frustrated by the direction of Nigerian music in 1969, Fela Kuti decamped to the US for a tour that lasted around 10 months. He left a vacuum filled by Bucknor, who proceeded to sing songs of social commentary, criticism and political awareness, with an almost primeval African jazz-funk bent and stage presence. This double-album of early 70s rarities mixes a rhythmic, repetitive series of funk loops providing an almost hypnotic, drug-induced backing for Bucknor’s targeted lyrics.


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