Oct 14, 2011
The Lijadu Sisters - Danger
In 1970s Nigeria, only a tiny handful of female artists broke through the backing singer/dancer ceiling to become stars in their own right, particularly if they wrote their own material -- And Fela cousins The Lijadu sisters did just that. Their repertoire ranged from love songs and dance anthems to philosophy and political/social commentary. “The music business was hard for women in Nigeria,” says Taiwo Lijadu. “Back then, they didn’t think women had brains.”
Twins Taiwo and Kehinde were born in Jos, in northern Nigeria, on October 22, 1948. They enjoyed singing from an early age, encouraged by their mother, who bought them records by a wide range local and overseas of artists. Kehinde and Taiwo remember with special fondness discs by Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Ray Charles and, later, Fela Kuti (who, like the Nobel Prize winning writer and political activist Wole Soyinka, was their second cousin).
The Lijadu Sisters began working as session singers, but solid-gold talent and determination – and, no doubt, the twins’ extraordinary physical beauty - soon led to their first own-name release, “Iya Mi Jowo” (“mother please”), which came out on Nigerian Decca in 1968. The song was written by Taiwo in 1965 and the story behind it is included in the notes for the album Mother Africa, for which the sisters rerecorded it.
In 1971, the sisters met the British drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith, Airplane), who in the first half of the 1970s was a frequent visitor to Nigeria, where he recorded and performed with Kuti and his band, Africa 70. In 1972, the Lijadu Sisters performed with Baker’s band at the cultural festival accompanying the Munich Olympics in Germany. For a while, Taiwo and Baker were an item. Another fortuitous male encounter was with the multi-instrumentalist Biddy Wright. Wright’s mother was a close friend of the sisters’ mother, through whom the three met. Sadly no longer with us, Wright co-arranged and played on all four of the classic 1970s Lijadu Sisters albums released on Decca’s Afrodisia imprint, which are now being re-released by Knitting Factory Records – Danger (1976), Mother Africa (1977), Sunshine (1978) and Horizon Unlimited (1979).
In 1988, they visited the US with Sunny Ade, and performed under their own name with Ade’s band, winning an enthusiastic review in The New York Times. By the end of the decade, things were looking good for the Lijadu Sisters in the US, and after the Ade concerts they stayed in the country while their green card applications went through.
Then disaster struck. Kehinde suffered dreadful spinal injuries in a fall in the hallway of the twins’ Brooklyn apartment building (they lived on the first floor). “The first doctor who saw me gave me six months to live,” says Kehinde. “Then they said I would never walk again. But I said to myself, ‘I will be strong, I will not give up, I owe it to my family.’” The accident threatened to finish the Lijadu Sisters’ career, and it kept them out of the public eye until 2011, when Knitting Factory’s reissue program began. While Kehinde was recovering, the twins withdrew completely from the limelight. Inevitably, rumors about their wellbeing and whereabouts abounded. Some people thought they had died, others that they had married rich Americans and retired into lives of luxurious obscurity. There were several other tales. Everyone missed them terribly. Kehinde eventually overcame her injuries, but it took many years, and she still suffers its effects. “I am walking, even dancing again now,” she says. “But I cannot sit down for more than two hours at a time, and I cannot fly any distance at all.” During Kehinde’s recovery, the sisters’ were sustained by their embrace of the traditional Yoruba belief system Ifa (which has a divination strand of arcane complexity and infinite nuance), and their study of the use of herbs in healing. “Our mother taught us that unless we had something to promote, it was best not to do interviews,” says Taiwo. “Save it for when you have something to talk about. And we have not spoken for a long time. But the Knitting Factory program means we have something to talk about once more. We are back, and we are going to perform again.” Adds Kehinde,“It is decades since we have performed publicly, but now we are ready - and the music will be of today! We thank our fans for remembering us, and we want them to know why we have been silent. We love them very much.”
In 2011, Kehinde and Taiwo, inseparable since birth, share an apartment in Harlem, NYC. It is wonderful to have them back.
The Lijadu Sisters’ Afrodisia debut, 1976’s Danger, is as funky and mellifluous as it gets, the twins’ gorgeous harmonies underpinned by a solid Afro-rock beat and framed by Wright’s funky organ and guitar work. Danger has a vibe of uplifting positivity which would be a feature of all four of the Lijadu Sisters’ Afrodisia albums.
Lyrically, most of the songs address social and political issues, sometimes directly, sometimes through metaphor and allusion. The uptempo opener, “Danger,” is on one level about a “dangerous lover.” But in the wider context of the times – with the police and army’s abuses of power running rampant and otherwise unchecked (Fela Kuti’s eviscerating Zombie was also released in 1976) – it captures life on the edge in contemporary Nigeria.
“Danger” has a bridge which is almost identical to the one used by Jamaican artists Althea & Donna on “Uptown Top Ranking” and Trinity on “Three Piece Suit.” Intriguingly, both these records were released a year after “Danger.” Kehinde and Taiwo put it down to something that was in the air at the time. That said, it remains a remarkable coincidence.
In Yoruba, “Amebo,” which follows, literally means “someone who gossips.” The twins here extend the word to mean they are watching the powers that be – “your office of power” and “the work you have done” – and will not be afraid to speak up about wrongdoing and incompetence.
They do just that on “Cashing In,” which addresses the complacency and corruption of the Nigerian ruling elite in general, and in particular the then-recent revelation that government ministers were flying prostitutes into the country at the tax payers’ expense. Such people are cashing in, sing Taiwo and Kehinde in the refrain, while “poverty’s a common sight.”
The slow and mournful “Lord Have Mercy,” which closes the album, returns, heartbreakingly, to the idea of poverty amidst national economic wealth. It tells the story of a boy the twins saw “dying on the street…children starving; mama’s dead, poppa’s gone; life is wasted; Lord, have mercy; Lord, hear me crying.” In fact, this particular child was taken in by a concerned passer by – but the lyric doesn’t reveal that, because Kehinde and Taiwo realised a happy ending would let listeners off the hook.
The remaining tracks, “Life’s Gone Down” and “Bobby,” are respectively an example of the Lijadu Sisters’ signature positivity (“it’s not too late, if we hurry; people get together, life’s gonna get good”), and a rock-steady infused love song.
Knitting Factory Records - home to all things Fela Kuti, natch - is set to re-release of four long out-of-print albums by Nigerian twins the Lijadu Sisters, Taiwo and Kehinde. The sisters, cousins of Fela, were a rarity in Nigeria. Not only were they female in an industry dominated by male artists but they wrote their own material, which was often political and always topical. Recorded at the famed Decca studios in Lagos, Nigeria, the hotbed of the Nigerian music scene at that time, the albums combine Afrobeat, Western and UK pop music and reggae, with the sisters singing in both English and Yoruba.
The releases are as follows:
Danger (1976) - November 8, 2011
Mother Africa (1977) - 1st quarter 2012
Sunshine (1978) - 2nd quarter 2012
Horizon Unlimited (1979) - 3rd quarter 2012
Long out of print and prized by collectors, these albums have never before been available on CD or digitally; they'll also be available on vinyl and all formats will include the original artwork. Remastered from recordings taken off the original vinyl LPs (the tapes have long been lost), these recordings sound as urgent and timely today as they did set against the turbulent scene of Nigeria in the '70s.
The series will kick off with Danger on November 8, 2011; the Lijadu Sisters' first release on the Afrodisia label. Danger is as funky and mellifluous as it gets, with the twins' gorgeous harmonies underpinned by a solid Afro-rock beat and framed by multi-instrumentalist Biddy Wright's funky organ and guitar work. Danger has a vibe of uplifting positivity which would be a feature of all four of the Lijadu Sisters' Afrodisia albums.
Lyrically, most of the songs address social and political issues, sometimes directly, sometimes through metaphor and allusion. "Danger," the uptempo opener and title track, is on one level about a "dangerous lover." But in the wider context of the times - with the police and army's abuses of power running rampant and otherwise unchecked (Fela Kuti's eviscerating Zombie was also released in 1976) - it serves as a glimpse of life on the edge in Nigeria during those turbulent political years.
The reason the Lijadu Sisters aren't well known today, except by collectors, is that Kehinde, while the duo was touring North America with King Sunny Ade in 1980, suffered a severe spinal injury that has kept them out of the public eye until now. They're living in NYC and have been very hands on with the project, working with Knitting Factory Records to make these albums available again. The sisters are also planning select shows timed around these releases; stay tuned for updates.
The Lijadu Sisters were featured in Konkombé, British director Jeremy Marre's 1979 film on the Nigerian pop scene and were a hit in the '80s on the UK television show, The Tube. Check out this clip of The Lijadu Sisters at Decca Studio in Lagos in the '70s:
03. Life’s Gone Down Low
04. Cashing In
06. Lord Have Mercy
Labels: The Lijadu Sisters