Jan 25, 2012

Interview with Afro-Funk Legend Joni Haastrup

Multi-instrumentalist Joni Haastrup is widely regarded as one of the major figures in post-highlife Nigerian music. Alongside his group MonoMono, Haastrup was quintessential in the innovation and development of Afro-funk in 1970s Lagos. Okayafrica sat down with the legendary musician to talk about his recordings, playing with Ginger Baker, and his close relationship with Fela Kuti.

The Interview

You grew up in a royal household in Nigeria, can you tell us a little about your family’s background and your upbringing?

When I was born, my grandfather was King Owa Ajimoko III of Ijesha land in the then Western region of Nigeria. Since I was the youngest at that time, and because of the king’s special love of my father’s family, I was always on the king’s lap in palace whenever we went there. My family is a large group and each of the king’s sons (including my dad) had their individual family houses in town or the suburbs. The king lived in the palace and our dads were given their own individual lands and houses in the town or villages away from the palace. We visited the palace to visit our grandfather on weekends or during ceremonies.

How did your interest in music begin? Any particular acts, bands or people that you remember steering you towards music?

One day in 1954 after school closed, my older brother Segun came back home and decided to introduce the penny whistle to me and he started teaching me what turned out to be my first music instrument. He was the school bandleader at that time, I naturally became his assistant being the only one he taught the penny-whistle to, as well as the only person who accompanied him during morning and end of day assemblies, parades and shows. I learned everything I know musically from, and was inspired and motivated by, my brother.

How did your relationship with Ginger Baker begin? Can you talk about your role in Ginger’s Airforce and SALT tours?

One night in 1969 when I sang with Clusters International in Lagos, Nigeria, we had just returned from a national tour of the country and I went to Kakadu night club. I was then invited to sit in with the Hykers pop group on a couple of songs — The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and Sly Stone’s “Sing A Simple Song”. As I came off stage-left, a tall looking white guy came off his seat to congratulate and invite me to come sit at his table where he was sitting with some members of the Nigerian media. He then told introduced himself to me as Ginger Baker of Cream and Blind Faith with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce and about this new band he just started in London called Ginger Baker’s Air Force II. He told me about the three ladies who sang back ground vocals in the band. He told me that the way he heard me sang those two songs I did with the band showed him that I could join his band in London and sing background vocals with Aliki Ashman, Diane Stewart and Jeanett Jacobs.

I never went on the Salt tour with Ginger Baker. When I left London and went back to Lagos, my next career goal was set… to start my own band in Lagos and play all original songs composed and arranged by me. That was the beginning of MONOMONO, a five-piece all original combo playing all my songs in the clubs and shows. I labeled my music genre Afro-funk. The first Afro-funk song was “Give The Beggar A Chance” which I produced in 1971, recorded and released by EMI in Lagos in 1972.

How did recording for the Give The Beggar A Chance LP start? You used Paul McCartney’s studio? Can you elaborate on the process?

When I started singing with Ginger Baker’s Air Force II in 1970, Denny Laine left the band to go play with Paul McCartney‘s Wings. I arrived back in Nigeria and started MONOMONO and then we heard that Paul MacCartney and Wings were coming to Lagos to record their debut album. I was informed by the A&R manager of EMI who also hinted that Paul was bringing a 16-track board from EMI London to use for his production.

Since EMI Nigeria only had a 2 track Akai tape deck which I and Fela used for our recordings, I started lobbying EMI for the retention of the 16-track after Wings’ production was finished and they returned to England. I convinced Fela to lobby with me, and with both Fela and myself who were then EMI’s top artists, they had little choice but to please us and keep the 16-track equipment in Lagos.

MONOMONO then became the first band to record on the first 16-track board in EMI Nigeria. Although I had been recorded in several 24-track studios in England, it was the first time I produced a record on a multi-track board. My first independent production Give The Beggar a Chance was on a 16 track gear – the same gear used by Paul MacCartney’s Wings. I squeezed every drop of juice from the board in that production and the result made that album sound as good as it did.

Was it different recording in Nigeria and London (like you did with Wake Up Your Mind)? Did you find one of those cities better for your recording process?

The first time I arrived in England and went into Trident Studios with Ginger Baker and the 10 piece Airforce II, there was definitely a nostalgic difference. This is because the studios that we used in Nigeria were all single-track studios. I really enjoy recording my tracks in Lagos because the environment is the best for Afro-funk music. Every thing is perfect, so your feelings about the music don’t get diluted. Hence, I produced all MONOMONO tracks in Lagos and for The Dawn Of Awareness, we did overdubs and mixing in London. Wake Up Your Mind was from left-over tracks from the London mixes of 1978. All I did in the US was master those tracks at Capitol studio in Hollywood.

People cite a wide range of influences, from Hugh Masekela to The Doors, when talking about your music, What are some artists you truly hold as essential to the formation of your own sound?

Creating my own sound was not patterned after anybody else but my own sounds that I heard and felt in my soul. When I hear a song in my head, my spirit picks up the melody and rhythm and I just start singing all the instrumental parts and so I get the music together first and then write the lyrics. With MONOMONO I was able to rehearse the songs with the band immediately and so everything is always fresh when the band begins to learn the songs. I spell out each instrumental part to each musician and because we were all on the same wavelength, Kenneth learns the bass first and so when I start working with the guitar player and drummers it was easier to communicate the melodic and rhythmic ideas to them.

Finally, I had to ask about you and Fela Kuti. You were both acquaintances, but some reviews name you both as rivals. What was your interaction with Fela like? Were you a fan of his music, and vice-versa, was he a fan of yours?

When Fela came back to Lagos from London where he had been studying music, I was singing rock ‘n roll covers in the early 60s. He worked as a radio producer for NBC in Lagos and performed with his band Koola Lobitos at night in the clubs and on Saturday nights.

I moved to Lagos in 1965 and immediately started going to Sunday afternoon pop shows promoted by young pop music promoters who bought British pop songs and encouraged us to copy them so that we could form pop groups in Lagos just like the English boys did in London and America.

All this time, Fela Ransome Kuti played jazz trumpet with his band Koola Lobitos. And then something happened, show promoters who had been buying rock ‘n roll discs started bringing in soul records from USA and by late 1965/66, we all started singing James Brown (“I Feel Good”, Wilson Picket (“Midnight Hour”), Otis Redding, etc. The soul music era made it possible for us young people to start enjoying recognition from the youth of Nigeria. Simultaneously, the same thing was happening in Ghana and all across West Africa.

Fela and I became friends when I went up to him one night to ask if I could sing one of his songs with his band. At first he wasn’t willing to have me sit in with his band because as he said then, I was a cover soul singer and his music was jazz based. He didn’t think I was up to it (singing his songs with his band) He told me “none of you soul and rock ‘n’ roll singers can sing my songs with my band because the music is too advanced for you all”. I told him “try me”. The next weekend he decided to try me. He announced my name to his audience and invited me to come upstage and sing one of his songs, I went upstage and performed one of his songs with his band Koola Lobitos. When I came off stage, Fela confessed to me that he never thought I could do what I did with his band and that whenever I came to his club I should expect to be called on stage to sing.

From that day Fela and I became good friends and closer than he had ever been with any local musician. I substituted for him in his band in 1969 when he had to come to the US to sign a contract for his band’s US tour. Afro beat music was born during that tour in 1970.

okayafrica.com, written by Kam

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