Sep 19, 2011

The World Ends: A Conversation with African Music Archivist Uchenna Ikonne




Interview I

...about the compilation "The World Ends ... Afro Rock And Psychedelia In 1970s Nigeria"

As the counter-cultural movement reached its apex circa 1967 in San Francisco with swarms of people preaching peace, love, communal living, psychoactive drugs and “dropping out,” there was a similar revolution commencing in Nigeria that had nothing do with good vibes, wearing flowers in your hair, or communing with New Age mantras. Nigeria was in the midst of a brutal civil war that would end up spanning over two years and extinguish over three million lives in the process. “The World Ends” is the newest compilation of African psychedelic music released on Soundway Records that gives voice to the renaissance of music that occurred after that savage period in Nigerian history. I interviewed Uchenna Ikonne, the man who has been tracking down the music from this turbulent era, and we got to speaking about the apoliticism of the post-civil war generation, Fela as a proto-Kanye West, and some of his favorite records off the comp.

How did you come across all the records/knowledge that are contained in the compilation? Could you relate 1 or 2 interesting stories in the process of finding these records?

That’s a bit of a tough question. I wish I could share with you picaresque adventures about discovering this music but I don’t think that journey has been all that interesting. I was born in the 1970s and while I was too young to have ever been a part of this scene, I grew up in the shadow of it, hanging around older guys and trying to decipher their reminiscences of the music they had rocked to in the seventies. For some reason, those memories stuck with me for years even as this music was forgotten by the masses and maybe about ten years ago I started trying to actively collect some of these lost records.

That led almost organically to me trying to document the history of the musicians who made these records and the world that influenced them. So I started doing a lot of research. I spent almost a year crisscrossing Nigeria, tracking down these guys, many of whom had quit the music game decades ago; some of them didn’t even remember the records I was talking about because this was several lifetimes ago for them. They were pretty flabbergasted, some of them, that these old records were remembered at all, let alone being appreciated by a new audience overseas.

You say that the Nigerian army was instrumental in providing the necessary resources for these young musicians to access instruments. Could you explain how politics played a role in the music itself? I know that the music showcased in this comp is after a heavy civil war, so I wonder if the musicians were trying to escape the political realities that they had just experienced through music, or did they use the music to expand and understand their communal experience of civil war?

The musicians themselves were largely apolitical— like 99% of young guys who join bands anywhere in the world, they mostly just wanted to have fun hanging out with their friends, playing the music they loved, and meeting girls. But I suppose there was a subtle political component to the music. The majority of the bands that recorded during this period came from eastern Nigeria, the part of the country which had until recently been the secessionist state of Biafra, which was the primary theater in which the war had unfurled as Nigeria fought to re-absorb Biafra into the union. By the end of the war, the previously-rich region had been left devastated—physically, economically, and spiritually. Most of the indigenes had lost family members and all their possessions, and while everybody was glad the horror of the war was over, the current reality was still pretty harsh. Many of the survivors of the war testify that the music was a means of escape that really kept their spirits up.

What are your top 3 songs from the compilation and why?

1. “Somebody’s Gotta Lose or Win” by The Hygrades: I like the rollicking, deep rhythm & blues feeling on this. The Hygrades were led by Goddy Oku—a veteran of The Postmen, who were the first rock & roll band in the Eastern region of Nigeria—and he retained a lot of that old school sensibility. So even though most of the performances of the 1960s Nigerian rock & pop bands might be lost to time because so few of them got the chance to record, this track provides some insight into what they sounded like.

2. “Deiyo Deiyo” by The Hykkers: The Hykkers were also one of the groups from Nigeria’s forgotten 1960s rock & roll heyday; in fact, they were probably the first pop band in the country. They were known primarily as TV stars who appeared on a weekly show, playing mostly Beatles covers, so the wild, psychedelic sound they display on this record was a major change of pace for them. Actually, it was a change for the scene as a whole since it was one of the earliest records in this psych-fuzz style.

3. “Blacky Joe” by P.R.O. (People Rock Outfit): I love the rich, emotive vocal tone of the singer Stoneface Iwuagwu on this rock ballad. A lot of times when people talk about African music, the emphasis is always on rhythm and uptempo bootyshaking, but the truth is that what most Africans (and especially Nigerians) are really into is saccharine melodies and sentimental ballads. Of course, there’s also a pretty wild guitar freakout at the end of the song to justify its inclusion on a compilation dedicated to psychedelia.

You talk about Fela in the notes and I thought it was interesting that you made Fela out to be an opportunist, which frankly didn’t surprise me. How do you think the youth of that time viewed him and his music? Were they trying to break free from Fela and his influence, much like how the Sex Pistols wanted to destroy the Beatles/ Pink Floyd? Perhaps my example is a bit abrasive, but what I would like to know is if the musicians of the scene were in a way tired of Fela and what he represented. If they did in fact continue to revere Fela and hold him in high esteem, could you explain why?

There was no time for them to be tired of Fela or what he represented because what Fela represented at that time was actually considered quite fresh and state-of-the-art. Even though he had been on the scene since the early sixties, his music had been considered a bit too avant-garde and as a result he hadn’t experienced much in the way of major success until the single “Jeun K’oku (Chop & Quench)” was released at the end of 1970—around the same time as the rock explosion. And what made that record unique from all of Fela’s previous output was the fact that it was produced like a rock record.

At that point, Fela had been referring to his music as “afrobeat” for a few years, but up until then it was little more than a theoretical genre tag looking for a sound to attach itself to. The funk-rock edge of “Jeun K’oku” functioned as the roux that coalesced Fela’s highlife and jazz influences and finally gave afrobeat the backbone and musculature it had thus far lacked. It very quickly became the best selling record in Nigerian music history and its phenomenal success served as a major impetus for EMI Records to not only sign more rock acts (who had been ignored by all the major labels up until then) but also to urge them to develop a more overtly “afro” sound rather than merely aping Western styles. So even though he hailed from the previous generation, Fela was—obliquely—a godfather of the afro rock scene. Of course, the young rockers probably didn’t aspire to emulate him directly: coming from a jazz background, his music was primarily horn-based while these young guys were more interested in electric guitars and organs. But even Fela himself soon traded his trumpet for an electric organ, an instrument intimately associated with rock music.

As for whether the respect between Fela and the rock musicians was mutual, it’s hard to say for sure what he truly thought about them. In general, it’s hard to tell what he thought about any musician other than himself, really. Like a lot of ego-driven genius-types, Fela liked to give the impression that the only music he had ears for was his own. He sometimes spoke glowingly of certain foreign musicians, but it was rare for him to comment positively about other Nigerian acts. But what’s important to remember is that he was, above all, a professional musician operating in a fiercely competitive environment, so he probably did not see much value in promoting or even complimenting any musician who could be considered a rival to him.

As much as he criticized the rock bands for being unoriginal and imitative of Western musicians, by the same token he also dismissed the practitioners of hardcore indigenous music styles like juju as being embarrassingly quaint and hokey. Even when esteemed Ghanaian afro rock pioneers Osibisa (whose music exerted a huge influence on “Jeun K’oku”) came to Nigeria, he lambasted them and tried to incite the audience against them. Fela was kind of like the Kanye West of Nigeria in that he was never comfortable with any situation in which he was not the center of attention!

Oscar Paul Medina

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Interview II

Uchenna Ikonne could be described as a walking encyclopedia of some sort because of his knowledge of the history of Nigerian music. Based in the United States, he is a filmmaker by vocation and a lawyer by training, but his consuming passion is Nigerian music. Ikonne is currently working on reissuing a lot of Nigerian classic songs under his label, Comb & Razor Sound.

With your knowledge of Nigerian music classics, many would be shocked to realise that you are only 35 years old!

That does often take people by surprise. I’m primarily known as an online presence, chiefly for my writing on my blog combandrazor.blogspot.com, so most people have no idea of my background, age, or appearance. They generally expect me to be much older than I am because I’m writing about Nigerian music and popular culture of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; and they’re often alarmed to learn that I’m in my 30s.

The funny thing about it is that I have spent a lot of time interviewing musicians from that era, and even when I’m sitting with them face-to-face, they still forget how old I am. Like, we’ll be discussing some events that happened immediately after the civil war, and they’ll say to me, “Shey, you know that nightclub we used to go to in Port Harcourt… You remember when so-and-so played there one Friday night like that in 1971. Were you there that night?”

When stuff like that happens, I’m not quite sure how to process it: do I take it as a compliment that I appear so knowledgeable of the era that they forget I wasn’t there? Or does it mean that hard life has aged me to the point that men in their 50s and 60s can look at me and think I am their age mate?

Do Nigerian youth know enough about Nigerian songs of old?

I would not even be exaggerating if I said that many of our youth actually believe that the Nigerian music industry started in 1998 or so. They realise that yes, there must have been music in Nigeria “back in da dayz” - but they think that maybe we only had a handful of artists: Fela, Osadebe, Sonny Okosuns, Onyeka, maybe Evi-Edna, and a few other really popular names like that. I am not playing!

I have had many young people express this to me directly! But what’s curious is that a lot of times, even Nigerians who are old enough to remember better have completely forgotten most of the music of the past; cultural amnesia is an epidemic in our society, and that’s a shame.

Tell us why you decided to embark on this task!

If I didn’t do it, who would? Well, the main thing I am working on right now is the Comb & Razor Sound record label, which will be reissuing a lot of classic music from Nigeria, as well as other countries in Africa and South America.

I’m trying to make it so that our releases are more like “publications”—big booklets full of historical information, stories, and photographs with a CD attached to them.

Because really, people aren’t that interested in just buying CDs anymore and CDs are too easily pirated, anyway. You have to give them the value for their money. We’ll also be releasing the music on vinyl records, which happens to be my preferred format.

You recently embarked on a trip to Nigeria to get more information; were there any challenges?

The number one challenge is always the relative inaccessibility of the information. It’s not like you can just walk into a library or something and comfortably find information. You have to dig for it. And frankly, not a lot of people have the stamina or resourcefulness to do that.

I remember when I first started telling people in Nigeria that I am looking for old records and stuff like that.

They told me, “You can’t find that kind of thing in Nigeria today.” My reply was “No, you mean YOU can’t find it… I can!” And they would say “Ha! You won’t see that sort of thing in the market o!” The market? Are you kidding? Who is looking at the market? To find this stuff, you need to go ‘under’ the market! For months on end I would be rummaging through dark and filthy storage spaces, day in and day out. Getting sinus infections from the dust and mould… digging through urine-soaked garbage and getting bitten by rats. And in the end, when I show all the material I’ve gathered, people always ask “How did you find this stuff?” as if I’m a magician. But really, it’s all right here under our noses!

Security was also a major challenge. Undertaking the project required me to traverse the breadth of the country several times over, and navigating the terrain while trying to stay ahead of the kidnapping epidemic in the East. Well, let’s say it required a good deal of gumption and creativity.

The challenge I feel defeated me, though, was the complete unavailability of a lot of the material. I’m actually a filmmaker by vocation, and my original intention had been to make a documentary film about Nigerian musicians.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get enough period footage to create a sufficiently dynamic documentary because of a lot of the tapes of musical performances recorded for television in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were either dubbed over or thrown away. So, unfortunately, I had to put that project aside.

Any collaborations with record labels in Nigeria for more information?

No, not really. For one thing, most of the big record labels from Nigeria’s golden age of music - EMI, Phillips, Decca/Afrodisia, and the like - they don’t exist anymore. And many of them even discarded or destroyed most of their records, master tapes, artwork, videos, and documentation.

Record keeping is almost non-existent in Nigeria. Why do you think this is so?

It’s probably a controversial view, but I think that we as Africans have a peculiar relationship to the concept of antiquity. We joke about “African time” and what-not, but I really do believe that the African perception of time is a bit more… fluid than it is in the West. We tend to live primarily in the present, and even our concept of “the present” is very elastic.

I once read about an anthropologist who was looking for artefacts in a certain African country, and he was presented with a carved wooden mask representing an ancient fertility god. He asked the indigenes if the mask was “authentic” - by which he meant: “does this particular mask actually date back to an ancient era of this land? Is it an antique?” And the people told him, “Of course it’s authentic” - by which they meant: “Yes, it was made here, and it still represents this particular fertility god who we still worship.”

Whether or not the mask is old was unimportant to them: all that matters is whether the mask did its job as the avatar for the god. It wouldn’t make a difference to them if the mask was carved 3000 years ago or yesterday. And if there was a mask from thousands of years ago representing a god that they no longer worshipped, then they would have no qualms with burning it or throwing it away because it served no useful purpose for them in “the present.”

So it is with us in Nigeria. We’re fixated upon how utilitarian things are to us in “the present,” and “the present” trumps everything.

That’s why you have television stations erasing the only copies of classic TV shows like ‘The Village Headmaster’ so they can use the tapes to record today’s music videos. It’s why record companies hired contractors to cart away and destroy entire libraries of master tapes of Nigerian music from the 1940s to the 1980s, so they’d have room for the music of the 1990s. ‘The present’ is all that exists for us.

When will your releases hit the market?

The first of these publications will probably be released in the US and Europe at the end of November. I’m not sure exactly when it will come to Nigeria, but obviously it will find its way here. It’s a musical chronicle of the years of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-83) and covers a lot of the notable developments of that era: the increased professionalisation of the Nigerian music industry with the rise of high-tech independent labels like Phondisk and Tabansi, the rise of solo singers as the old bands died, the emergence of more women in the music scene, and so on.

The next one will probably be out in December, and it will focus on the venerable Semi-Colon Rock Group of Umuahia. Then in early 2011, we’ll have something concentrating on music from Cross River and Akwa Ibom States and then a spotlight on Benin-style highlife, and lots of other stuff in the pipeline.

Is royalty payment a big issue for you?

It is a big deal to me. A BIG deal. You see, one thing that a lot of people don’t know is that most Nigerian musicians of years past never made any money off the sales of their records. I mean, ask someone like Onyeka Onwenu if she ever made even one naira from record sales. There’s no way I can in good conscience perpetuate that kind of exploitation of our artists and so, it’s of the utmost importance to me that the original artists are paid, even if it’s not a huge amount of money.

CDs actually are not selling as much as they were ten years ago, so nobody is getting rich off selling discs. But one thing we’re working on is developing ways to licence the music for use in films, television, adverts, ringtones, and other applications, and hopefully we can make some decent money for the artists that way, because some of them really, really need it.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?

I’d love to tell you that I hope to become a millionaire from it, but I’m much too realistic to even fool myself with that, let alone fool you. If, as a result of my efforts, Nigeria’s rich heritage of popular culture becomes fully recognised and celebrated, and I get to see our national artistic legends reap some of the money and kudos they deserve, I think I’d call myself a happy man.

And if I’m able to even make a few pennies from it myself to stay afloat and continue doing what I do, that would be a bonus, because this is really expensive work and I fund it pretty much completely out of my own pocket.

What’s next after this?

Well, I don’t like to look like I’m this guy who is stuck in the past, because despite my interest in history, I’m very much on the cutting edge of culture! I want to sign some contemporary artists to Comb & Razor Sound; I’m just looking for artists who are really unique. What I would really love is to find a really cool, young Nigerian hard rock/funk band.

Also, this whole music thing is really a side track that I stumbled into over the past two or three years and it has taken me away from my work as a filmmaker, so I’d like to get back to making movies soon.

To that effect, I have some film projects I’m developing. I haven’t completely given up on the documentary either. I’m also working on a book on the history of Nigerian filmmaking, and a cartoon series for Nigerian TV.

Jayne Usen

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