Jul 24, 2013

Uchenna Ikonne Speaks about Nigerian Vinyl


Back in the fall, we had a chance to sit down with the founder of the legendary African music blog - Combs & Razor - to tap into his infinite knowledge about the Nigerian music scene...which we thought we'd share in advance of his insane Nigerian compilation: Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983...

As you'll see, our discussion was exhaustive - and you're guaranteed to discover more about Nigerian music than you ever thought existed. Just sit back, relax, and enter the world of Comb & Razor.

Q: Most of us became acquainted with your superb musical taste through your Comb & Razor blog.  How long have you been collecting music and what inspired you to actually start blogging?

Thanks for the compliment! I’m always grateful and somewhat mystified when people tell me how much they appreciate my humble (and admittedly inconsistent) blogging efforts. It was something I did primarily for my own gratification, so I never expected so many people to so readily come along for the ride!

I’ve been an avid music fan since I was about nine years old but I think I only seriously started collecting records in the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to the United States from Nigeria. At the time I was mostly collecting hip-hop, boogie and soul records that I had heard growing up in the 1970s and 80s but for whatever reason had never gotten to own. From there I started buying a lot of deep soul and funk from the 60s, as well as jazz, rock, reggae and Latin stuff. While I’d always been into a wide range of music, my tastes and knowledge were expanded exponentially by years spent working in record stores… back when we still had record stores.

My journey to music blogging was almost accidental. I started the With Comb & Razor blog as a journal documenting the production of a movie I was shooting in Nigeria. The style and content of the movie drew heavily from the last half-century of Nigerian pop culture: Drum magazine, old pulp novels and fotonovelas, forgotten TV shows, vintage fashion, and lots of highlife and pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

When the production wasn’t proceeding as smoothly as we would have liked, we decided to take a break to regroup and then come back to complete the shoot. During this hiatus, just to keep the blog going, I started posting up some of the music I was planning to use on the soundtrack… just my way of trying to keep the dream of the movie alive. Plus, it was a bit of a therapeutic thing; I was so bummed out about the failing production and there was a certain comfort to be found in just immersing myself in the music of what seemed to be simpler, happier times. To my surprise, people seemed to dig it a lot and I started getting more page views than I ever did with my movie diary, so I kept doing it. I started spending more time researching the stories behind the records, and then record labels started contacting me to write liner notes for reissues, and somehow, alas, I never did get around to completing production on that movie! I intend to get back to that one of these days, though.

Q: I know your knowledge of African music is ridiculous. How did you become so knowledgeable about Nigerian music?

I came up in 1980s Nigeria, which might have been the most dynamic period in the history of the country’s music industry. The economy was pretty buoyant and there were so many labels releasing tons of music in so many different styles. Nigeria’s record market was so fertile that it drew musicians from all over Africa and beyond, so we were constantly exposed to a rich smorgasbord of sounds and I just soaked it all up.

Plus, we had a lot of good writing about the music scene in newspapers, magazines, and books. I read it all as a snot-nosed third-grader, and somehow managed to retain a good deal of it even when it seemed like the entire era and its music vanished from collective memory.  It was almost like a mass amnesia fell over the populace: I would say to people “Hey, you remember this record that was a big hit in 1983? Remember how we used to rock that at parties?” The only reply I got was blank looks. They sincerely lacked any idea of what I was talking about! Years later, when I started tracking down some of the musicians, I would sometimes have to remind them of some of their records that they had completely forgotten!

Q: For those of us looking to explore Nigerian music beyond Fela, do you have any suggestions?

There’s so much Nigerian music that the mind boggles trying to access it all. Obviously, a lot of these records are quite hard to come by in the West and when they do show up on eBay or other record markets, they are prohibitively priced. That’s why I think it’s great so many labels are putting out compilations and reissues that allow a wider audience to experience this music. I’ve been concerned that most of these reissues lean a bit too heavily towards funk-oriented material at the expense of all else, but I’ve seen some encouraging diversity on more recent releases. And of course, I look forward to adding to that myself!

Q: You wrote some liner notes for a Soundway Records compilation: The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria.  How did you first become involved in this project?

I've had a relationship with Miles Cleret of Soundway Records for a number of years, as most of us in the African record digging community do know each other. He had wanted to collaborate with me on something for some time but never really found the right project until The World Ends came around. Incidentally, I was already doing a lot of research on the 1970s afro rock scene at the time, so the Soundway comp gave me a ready outlet for stuff I was already working on.

Q: Can you give us a little background about how rock inspired Nigerian artists?

Like most kids around the world, Nigerian youths first encountered rock & roll via Elvis Presley, quickly followed by "the British Elvis," Cliff Richard, who was arguably even more popular in Nigeria. This was the beginning of youth culture in Nigeria. For the first time, teens and young adults had music that was aimed squarely at them and their experience, unconcerned about appealing to the adult audience. These kids called themselves “hepcats” and started forming regional fan clubs where they listened to and traded their favorite records amongst themselves Out of these fan club gatherings, the hepcats started to form rock & roll bands of their own. So you got the first wave of Nigerian pop groups like The Spiders, The Harmonaires, The Cyclops, The Hykkers, The Postmen and The Figures.

As the 1960s wore on into the 70s, these local pop groups imbibed more influence from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but the most influential foreign rock act might have been Santana. Because that group had such a strong Afro-Latin flavor to their sound, they illuminated the potential of infusing rock with African rhythms. And that led to the development of afro rock.

Q: I understand that most of the artists recording rock in Nigeria came from the eastern part of the country. Can you explain this phenomenon?

It’s true that most of the noteworthy Nigerian rock bands came from the east, but there were also plenty of groups in the southwestern metropolis of Lagos, which at that time was the country's capital. For various reasons, though, the Lagos groups tended not to last very long. I have a few theories as to why this happened.

In Lagos, rock mostly remained an underground scene patronized by university and high school students and some young adults. The mainstream, however, stayed devoted to more indigenous pop styles like juju and apala. So already, you have a gaggle of groups scuffling for the spotlight within this relatively small subculture. And while Lagos today is an enormous megacity, it was not quite as big then as it is now. Competition was fierce, and the stakes were close to all-or-nothing: If you had a major act playing a big show at one spot, just about everybody who was anybody in Lagos would be there and at venues across the city, other bands would be performing to an audience of empty seats. So musicians went to great lengths to sabotage each other’s sets and even to try to force one other out of the market altogether.

Furthermore, Lagos can be a very tough place to live for anybody, and especially so for artists. A big part of the reason that someone like Fela was able to thrive in Lagos (apart from the fact that he had a huge, forceful personality and his music was, you know, pretty brilliant) was because he was to some degree a native son; he came from a middle-class background and his family owned property in the city. So he could comfortably sit down to compose and cultivate an audience without worrying about keeping a roof over his head. For a lot of musicians who didn't have the same luxury and might have come to Lagos from other places, they had to desperately scramble to keep their heads above water. If they didn't see any significant rewards—which most didn't—sooner or later they would probably have to pack up and go back to their hometowns. Or they just disappeared into the masses of the disenfranchised in slums such as Ajegunle and Mushin and were never heard from again. And then the ones who might have been native Lagosians, if they stayed with music, ended up joining juju and highlife bands. So you find a lot of Lagos rock groups recording just one or two records and then completely dropping off the radar.

In the east, however, the scene was not concentrated in one urban center but spread over a wide network of cities and towns across the region. There was more room to breathe, and bands could ply their trade within their respective turfs without stepping on each other’s toes. There was still competition, but a lot more camaraderie. Also, it seems that people in the east, for a number of reasons, were just more into this kind of music than the folks in Lagos. Even the Lagos-based bands spent a lot of time touring eastwards because that was where the real audience was.

Q: What happened to the whole psychedelic rock scene in Nigeria? It seems to have vanished.

Well, what happened to the psychedelic rock scene in America or the UK or Germany or Mexico? It was a style that captured the zeitgeist of a particular period in history, but time marches on and people move on to the next popular sound. In Nigeria in particular, the audience began to want to ”get down” more than they wanted to “freak out” and so there was the demand for much more direct dance music like funk, disco and guitar-band highlife, then pop and reggae and Congo music and hip-hop and the wheel keeps on turning.

Q: You have some other projects coming up with Now & Again Records, as well as your own label. Would you mind giving us a sense of what to expect from you in the future?

Yeah, I’m collaborating with Egon of Now Again on a compilation of Nigerian rock and funk. This is of course a subject that’s been visited by a few compilations lately but we hope we can bring a new twist to it. I’m also working with Luaka Bop Records on an anthology of the Nigerian avant garde funk musician William Onyeabor.

In addition, you can look forward to some releases from my own Comb & Razor Sound label. The first one will probably be available in February 2011: it’s an overview of Nigerian boogie music from the 1980s with an 80-page mini-magazine featuring lots of exclusive photos and information. We have similar examinations of other genres coming after that, as well as a full-length book chronicling the development of the post-war eastern rock and pop scene. Also, more collaborations with Voodoo Funk and AfricanHipHop.com

Q: Who would you say are your favorite artists from yesteryear?

Nigerian artists? Wow… Too many to choose from! I really like the funk-rock groups The Hygrades and The Funkees. I’m a big fan of Jake Sollo, who was a member of The Funkees before going on to become a prolific and influential producer in the 80s.  I love a lot of highlife artists like Sir Victor Uwaifo, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, The Oriental Brothers, Dr. Victor Olaiya and Etubom Rex Williams. I used to be a big, big(!) fan of William Onyeabor too, but I must admit that my personal interactions with him have dulled my enthusiasm for his music somewhat. I guess I still dig his records, though.

Q: How about your favorite find on vinyl?  Do you have any that you're particularly proud of?
I come across so many records of different types that it’s hard to isolate any particular one (or five, or ten) as my favorites. They all appeal to me for different reasons—sometimes on a sentimental level, sometimes because they’re just so rare, sometimes because they fill in the gaps of a story that I’m researching. And sometimes it’s that they just offer mindblowing music. Some recent finds I’ve been fond of include:

1. Shango Dance Band, 6th Infantry Brigade – S/T LP (EMI, 1974)
This is a pretty rare and heavy afrobeat album by this group led by Ojo Okeji, formerly a sideman in Fela’s Koola Lobitos group. There’s some similarity to Fela’s sound, but it’s a bit more relaxed and less raucous. And with song titles like “I Need Your Love” and “Women Are Great,” you know he’s got loving on his mind more than political agitation!

2. The Front Page – Sparkle In Your Eyes/Gimme Some Time 45 (Anodisc, 1975)
This is one of those records that I don’t necessarily think is musically superlative though it’s still quite enjoyable. But I was pleased to find it because it’s not all that often you come across 45s from the Anodisc label. The Front Page was a relatively obscure soul group from my hometown of Aba. I think they released just two singles, this one and another, “You Can’t Change Anything.” The group would re-record both singles with a heavier, funkier sound about a year later under the new band name The Friimen Muzik Kompany.

3. The Semi-Colon – Ndia Egbuo Ndia (Afro-Jigida) LP (EMI, 1976)
Semi-Colon is one of my favorite Nigerian music acts and this little-seen LP is considered the group’s best album. A lot of heads have mixed feelings about Semi-Colon albums because the styles usually fluctuate radically from funk to pop to rock & roll to reggae, but this one is lean, fierce psychedelic afro rock from end to end.

4. The Hygrades – Baby/Jumping Cat 45 (EMI, 1971)
Debut single from the influential eastern rock group, The Hygrades. “Baby” is a nice light pop tune, though not particularly compelling. The real winner is the wild guitar instrumental on the flip.

5. Stone-face & Life Everlasting – Love is Free/Agawalam Mba 45 (EMI, 1973)
Excellent single from former Hygrade Stoneface Iwuagwu. The a-side is a beautiful psychdelic pop rock song with beautiful vocals. The b-side? One of the heaviest, most aggressive and relentless funk tunes I’ve ever heard!

6. Charles Duke – Send Them Back/Suk Usan Idang 45 (EMI, 1973)
Two sides of groovy funk-rock from Duke, formerly of The Ceejebs. I count myself really lucky to have found this one as it’s almost completely unknown. Even Duke himself had forgotten about it when I asked him!

7. The Doves – Ewat Udem/Akan Anwan Isong Idung 45 (BEN, 1974)
The Doves were a very popular pop-rock group throughout the 1970s and early 80s, but this early work from them has a deeper, more rugged vibe. The a-side is a delightfully unruly highlife number and the other side is wiry native rock. Total gem.

8. Foundars 15 – Fire Woman LP (EMI, 1977)
Foundars 15 was one of the more sophisticated funk-rock groups of the 1970s and this is their most satisfying LP. The sound is heavy and distorted and the arrangements are audaciously complex for the time.

9. The Apostles – Down Down The Valley/Battery Rock 45 (BEN, 1973)
This was the first record by The Apostles of Aba, one of the east’s biggest groups. It was the pleasant pop of the a-side that put them on the map, but the organ-driven instrumental b-side is the real winner for me. While it’s clearly derivative of “Acid Rock” by The Funkees, it goes much further than that track. It sounds pretty futuristic by today’s standards, so I can only imagine how far-out it must have been in 1973!

10. Mary Afi Usuah & the South Eastern State Cultural Band – Ekpenyong Abasi LP (SESCULT, 1975)
Mary Afi Usuah is one of Nigeria’s unsung national treasures. She trained in opera singing in Italy and sang on the score of a couple of movies there, such as Demofilo Fidani’s spaghetti western And Now Recommend Your Soul to God. She also happened to be my music teacher for a while in the early 80s, but I didn’t know at the time that she had recorded this amazing album with highlife bandleader Dan Satch Joseph. It’s so rich and deep and spiritual, with notes of rock, jazz, traditional rhythms and European film music. Soundway included a track from this LP, “Ima Mma Nyem” on the Nigeria Special 2 compilation, so you should check that out.

Q: By the way, what are your thoughts about the musical FELA?

I've really not had the chance to see it, unfortunately. From the bits of it I have caught on the Tony Awards and elsewhere, it does seem like quite an exhilarating aural and visual experience! But I have to admit feeling a bit dismayed at the apparent lightness of its libretto. It seems to me that there isn’t much focus on storytelling beyond a few bullet points of the man’s life. I was really hoping the upcoming Steve McQueen-directed Fela biopic would deliver a more fleshed-out portrait, but I recently read that the producers had scrapped the screenplay written by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele and opted for a looser, more abstract, music-driven narrative approach. Which to me sounds like they might be looking to draw inspiration from the musical. And that’s okay, I guess… It seems to be a fantastic concert party and scads of fun, but I’d really love to see a well-done, sufficiently nuanced examination of Fela and, perhaps more importantly—to me, anyway—of the society that shaped him.

Q: The other day I was listening to nothing but Afro Funk on Pandora...and I found myself wondering how come we don't get this caliber of musicianship anymore.  Do you think there's hope for the African music scene?  Are there any contemporary artists that you listen to from back home?

Does Pandora have a good afro funk selection? I’ve never really tried programming for any of that stuff on there! I should probably check that out…

Anyway, the music industry in Nigeria is more vibrant right now than it’s been in a long time and I’m very excited about the progress that’s been made. I mean, for the first time—in my lifetime, anyway—most Nigerian youths support and identify with homegrown music more than they do stuff from overseas! That’s a pretty big deal, considering how enamored Nigerians have always been of foreign sounds.

That said, while I listen to and enjoy a lot of the contemporary Naija pop music, I really can’t say there’s too much of it that really grabs me and shakes me to the soul or dazzles me on a consistent basis. I think the reason that I’ve been unable to connect with it on a deeper level is because of, as you said, the paucity of the musicianship. And mind you, when I say “musicianship,” I don’t even necessarily mean it in the traditional sense of live instrumentation; I think there are some incredibly inventive musical things that can be done with computers and sampling and sequencing. The problem is that the basic concepts of musical construction have largely been abandoned.

Q: What sort of concepts are you talking about?

Well… Just the structure through which we create and listen to music. In the past, in appreciating a piece of music, you had any number of features you might observe. Beyond fundaments like melody, harmony and rhythm, you might listen for tone, texture, syncopation, voicing, phrasing, and so on. But now, through a gradual process of reductionism, this array of musical elements has been boiled down to the binary formula of “beat” and “lyrics.” And the lyrics are given primacy of place in the equation, with the “beat”—the actual musical component—being relegated to a background role. People dance to the “beat,” but they don’t really listen to it per se. When’s the last time you heard a commercially-released instrumental track? That idea barely makes sense now because music on its own has little value; it’s just the hodgepodge of sounds that act as a cushion for the words.
Mind you, none of this is unique to the Nigerian situation—it’s pretty much the status quo for most contemporary pop music almost anywhere in the world. And I don’t want to come off as the old geezer shaking my fist and grumbling about how these darn kids have destroyed music, because these trends were actually initiated by my generation.

To make a parallel, look at what's happened in Congolese music. The classic Congo songform was like a three-course meal: you had your lovely, melodic verse, then your lilting chorus, then you get your verse again, maybe served with a dollop of countermelody. Then you have another chorus. Then, you get the moment everyone's waiting for, the sebene.  That's the breakdown section where the tempo accelerates, the rhythm changes direction and the guitars start playing hypnotic, interlocking rhythm patterns. That's the dessert portion of the meal—when all the dancers get to throw down and show out. And then maybe you’d cool done with another verse before the band hit you with another helping of sebene on the way out.

If you listen to the direction a lot of soukous music went in the 1990s, this measured sense of dynamics was largely thrown out the window. Tracks started out with the sebene and rode that sebene all the way to the end of the song. It’s like nobody had the patience to make their way through the “courses” of a song, they wanted to proceed directly to the dessert and eat only dessert. And hey, I’ve got a massive sweet tooth myself but if I eat nothing but cake and ice cream all the time, eventually I’ll get sick!

Now in Naija you don’t have the sebene, but what you have is the hook. A lot of the popular songs are really all hook. The primary concentration seems to on fabricating an insanely catchy lyrical refrain, preferably one that’s built on a trendy catchphrase, or has the potential to create a new one—“Kini Big Deal!” “Gongo Aso!” “Ginger Ur Swagger!” “Wa Wa Alright!” And if you can score a big enough hook, you barely even have to write verses.

Of course, I don't rule out the possibility that perhaps I'm too old to truly "get" it because it's not really made for me to "get." Just like the highlife generation never understood the hepcats in the 1960s because they made music that was not designed to be “got” by the old squares. I guess I’m one of those old squares myself now. While I may listen to the new music and come away disappointed because it’s not meeting my expectations of what music should be, the kids really feel that this music is expressing their unique experience and worldview, then I think that’s cool. Music should not stay in one place… It’s got to keep moving, and if that alienates some dusty old geezers, so be it. Time marches on!

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