Oct 23, 2013

From Ireland: Ajo Arkestra (Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble)

Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble are a 14 strong outernational group of afrobeat exponents from the four corners of the world. They are a musical crossroads made up of musicians that have washed up on our shores and share an ancestral understanding of the Underground Spiritual Game playing a blend of free flow afrobeat riddims and heavy dancefloor afro funk.


Ajo Arkestra (Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble) are a 14 strong outer-national group of Afrobeat exponents from the four corners of the world. They are a musical crossroads made up of musicians that have washed up on our shores and share an ancestral understanding of the Underground Spiritual Game playing a blend of free flow Afrobeat riddims and heavy dance-floor Afro funk. The band was founded in 2012, when a group of Afro-beat enthusiast started meeting up regularly at down-town jam sessions. They began making plans to form a new collective that would combine their various musical interests with their particular world view.

Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble

Ajo Arkestra - History Of Money from edzillion on Vimeo.

Oct 11, 2013

Modern Photo: A golden age of popular music in Ghana as seen through the lens of S.K. Pobee by Samy Ben Redjeb

Originally published @ thisisafrica.me, written by Samy Ben Redjeb

 African brothers @ Accra Airport circa 76 [660x300]
African brothers @ Accra Airport circa 1976 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

I´m scanning the negatives I received from Modern Photo, a laboratory in Accra that had built its reputation by taking pictures of political figures and musical events some 40 years ago. Those musical events are what I am interested in.

Until that point I hadn't really been able to picture the magnitude of what had been going on musically in Ghana during those days. All I had were tales and legends of what seemed to be forgotten times, but now, each developed frame feels like an additional piece to the puzzle. That musical scene I admired so much is taking shape, revealing itself in the form of pictures taken by one of the pioneers of modern photography in Ghana, Samuel Kobian Pobee (S.K. Pobee for short).

While working on the first instalment of Afrobeat Airways, I had found photographs with the stamp of the modern photo company and started asking around. It might well have been producer Max Boateng, now manager of Nana Ampedu of the African Brothers, who directed me there. In response to my question, he exclaimed "Modern Photo? Of course I know the place; it is just in front of what use to be the legendary Tip Toe night club - we can go tomorrow morning."

Max couldn’t make it the next morning but told me to call him as soon as I found a cab, so I did. "Let me speak to the driver,” he said. The cellphone that I handed over disappeared between the ear and the shoulder of the cab driver who, while speeding through Accra´s busy traffic, was trying to understand Max´s instruction while the radio was blasting the latest cheesy hiplife hit.

Once we got there, I knew I had arrived at the right place; photos of K.Gyasi, Papa Yankson, Pat Thomas and many more, all nicely framed, had been neatly hung around the main entrance of the store. I entered and asked if I could speak to the manager, not forgetting to say that it was Max who had sent me. I was taken to the offices of Sam Pobee, son of S.K. Pobee, the founder of the company.

I sat down and after handing him the first volume of Afrobeat Airways, explained that I had come to continue working on the series and was now looking for liner notes material to document the second volume. Sam, slightly unimpressed by "my labour of love", nonchalantly looked at me and said “Follow me.” I was taken to the store room where the negatives where stored. The place didn't have air conditioning and a part of the room had been exposed to dust and heat so I was wondering about the condition of these treasures. “Here is a box with pictures of K.Frimpong,” said Sam. That box was stored with others of the same kind, all written on with a thick black marker: ‘Fela Kuti at Napoleon Club’, ‘Uhuru Dance Band 1970’, ‘African Brothers at Accra Airport 1976’ and a few hundred more. "We had serious flooding few years ago and a good part of the our archive was destroyed", he lamented.

Uhuru Dance Band, circa 1970 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

With two of Sam´s employees we started selecting photos of interest, and while doing so, I started to think that the pictures in good condition might become the basis of a beautiful book documenting what has to be described as one of Africa´s most vibrant musical scenes, something equal or beyond anything found in a major European or North American city. That’s a personal opinion, based on my taste perhaps, but even so, I can’t think of many places in the northern hemisphere that could be compared to, nor compete with, what was happening musically in cities like Accra, Cotonou, Kinshasa or Luanda in the ‘70s. After about three hours, some 400 negatives had been selected.

Only now did I start to understand the cultural legacy that the synergy between one of the best photo studios and one of the most important venues in the country had produced. I was curious and wanted to understand what had happened in this place. Here’s what Sam had to say:

"When Modern Photo was created in 1955, the Tip Toe night club just opposite of our offices was already operating. The manager was Mr Page, an American. My father S.K. Pobee, the founder of Modern Photo, wasn't too much into music then; he was mainly taking pictures of political figures. It wasn't until 1966, when he leased the Tip Toe, that his interest in all cultural things began to grow. 

At the Tip Toe night club (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

The first thing he did when he took over was to modernise and renovate the whole place. He bought new furniture, and ordered a new set of modern musical equipment. At that time every club had a residential band. For example The Lido night club, a few blocks away, had Broadway Dance Band, Napoleon club had Basa-Basa and Bunzu Soundz. Tip Toe had the Uhuru Dance Band and the Blue Monks, a group my father had formed and sponsored.

Gyedu Blay Ambolley circa 1975 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

To keep up with the demand, every club had to invite bands from other parts of Ghana and also from abroad to stand a chance of surviving the fierce competition. One of the first groups my dad invited to Ghana was Fela's Koola Lobitos. They were followed by Victor Uwaifo, who had a big following here in Ghana, and then Ignace de Souza, a fantastic musician from Benin, just to name a few, but there were many. However, he was most impressed by a powerful band from Congo Brazzaville, Les Bantous de la Capitale, who stayed here for 6 months - by the time they left they were playing and singing Twi highlife perfectly. One of my dad´s main qualities was his sense of innovation; he started organising boogaloo competitions influenced by James Brown´s ‘mashed potato’ dance style. The people were dancing while the band were playing soul tunes, and we had bands who played that style incredibly well - especially P.P Dynamite and also the Hougas (with Gyedu-Blay Ambolley on bass). We also organised ‘Miss Tip Toe’, contests and the girls really looked nice in their mini skirts and their Afro hair. Today it’s all artificial.

Miss Tip Toe  (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

Additionally to the highlife and big band concerts, my father introduced another event called ‘Jazz Night’, on which he would have two drummers competing against each other. The most memorable one was between Kofi Ghanaba (a.k.a. Guy Warren) and Uhuru´s percussionist, Max Amah. Oh, you would have loved it, I tell you. That day Kofi took a beating.

Tip Toe dance competition circa 1971 (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

You know my father was also someone who was into advertising and promotion and he knew how to convince the musicians to be loyal to the Tip Toe night club. He would tell them "after the sound check come to the studio, I will make a picture of you and place an advert in the daily graphic to promote your next show". This is what made Tip Toe stand above the other clubs, the fact that we had Modern Photo. The promotion tools we used worked so well that on Saturday afternoon, when we had what we called the ‘Afternoon Bump,’ starting at 6pm. If by 1pm you were not inside Tip Toe you wouldn't come in - sold out. That’s the reason why so many bands and musicians wanted to work with my father and that’s what made our success.

Hedzolleh Soundz (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

My father left to the United States between 1973 and 1977 to improve his skills. When he returned, he found the place was going strong; I had perpetuated his work. But unfortunately my efforts would not be rewarded because in 1979 we were hit by a second curfew. It was serious. The first one, which took place in 1966, didn't last too long. It didn't hit us too hard, but it was the third that knocked us out. It killed social life and the music industry in this country. Everybody had to be home by 10pm: no parties, no concerts, no boogaloo, no Miss Tip Toe. When after two years that crazy curfew was over most of our musicians had already left the country and DJs had replaced the bands. Live music was dead."

Name unknown (Photo: S.K. Pobee)

I left Modern Photo and crossed the street to see what was left of the legendary venue. I wasn't too surprised to find that the place that had once hosted legends such as E.T. Mensah and The Black Santiago had now been bought by one of the many churches that had mushroomed all over the country. I entered the place and was shown around by a kind gentlemen who was trying to convince me that there were an infinite number of paths to accept Jesus as my personal saviour. Little did he know that my "saviours" had left the stage many years ago.

I walked back to the meeting point with my cab driver, 5pm sharp in front of the Lido Night Club, as I was told. Since the word “sharp” takes on a less uptight meaning in this part of the globe, I decided to take a walk through the nearby market. Crowds of people thronged the food stands, wandered past music and clothes stores, vegetable and fruit stands and breathed in the scents of tomato and spicy chilli sauce. Music was blasting from all corners and unlike the delicious gravy that was to be consumed with fufu and banku, the music I was hearing was all but hot. The frequencies reaching my ears were sterile and artificial - cleansed of sweat, breath and passion. Where had that “sweeter than honey” sound of Highlife gone?

Although everyone would like to blame the curfews, piracy and political mishaps - certainly a big part of the issue - producers and musicians might have been partly responsible for using technologies that did not do justice to the nature of West African music. In the early 80s, some instruments, especially horns and percussions, were sacrificed and replaced by the drum machines and synthesizers that were in vogue at the time. In turn those were replaced, a decade later, by midi and computers. If curfews were a bludgeoning darkness on the local music scene, the light at the end of the tunnel was stuffed with a big fat digital keyboard. The harvest of this dispassion is three decades of sonic mediocrity.

The 60s & 70s generation of Ghanian musicians had birthed unique sounds based upon principles of excellent musicianship and recording techniques, with deep respect for traditional music. They had excelled to such an extent that the new hybrids of music they created still command respect all over the globe 40 years later. They provided an example to follow. The music created in “the old days” is not, as I was so often told, “grandma and grandpa” music but world class music.

As Ambolley liked to say: “It doesn't surprise me that our music is finally travelling because, you know, if you do something good, it will be remembered forever. That's right, brother."

With the support of Eleonore Sylla and Robert Sobotta of the Goethe Institute in Accra, the Analog Africa team, comprised of Paula Adank Montanez (Label Manager), Vikram Sohonie (Analog Africa’s editor) and myself, we made our way to Ghana to interview some of the legendary artists and producers of what has to be described as “the golden age” of Ghanaian popular music.

Their memories on paper, their music saved, our hopes are to be part of a movement - created by dedicated labels and music collectors - that will make sure this music is be remembered for generations to come. Amen!

My hope with this essay is to generate interest for the pictures of SK Pobee and to find people that might be interested in exposing them in galleries. If you’re interested in exhibiting these photographs, please contact me at info@analogafrica.com.

Oct 6, 2013

Lemi Ghariokwu - A Dynasty of Album Cover Art for Fela Kuti!

 written by  Lemi Ghariokwu, 
published on 4th October 2013 @ granta.com

As a youngster and aspiring artist in the early 1970s, I learnt a lot from attending art exhibitions and visiting private studios and galleries in Lagos. It was a ritual for me to flip through newspapers eagerly to check out the cartoon page where the artists reign supreme with their take on socio-political issues in the country. My other pastime was to check out the street sign-writers and their organic form of art. The minibuses in Lagos always had philosophical slogans written on them.

In Nigeria, everyday life is noted not so much for the abundance of technology as for the fact that so much of it does not function. The country’s political rulers are not satisfying the needs of the people and are interested primarily in enriching themselves. A new enemy has also arisen in Nigeria – insecurity has intensified due to kidnapping and terrorist extremism. Yet despite the despair, the underlying attitude has remained irrepressibly optimistic. In the last three decades or more, a couple of artists have started using the tools at their disposal to analyse political developments. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was one major artist; with his Afrobeat music, he challenged the forces of repression and corruption in governance in the state of Nigeria. He suffered great consequences but never gave up the fight till his death.

In 1974, I earned Fela’s trust and friendship through my acquaintanceship with the journalist Babatunde Harrison. Fela had just experienced his first beating and incarceration by the police and this gruesome experience inspired the hit song ‘Alagbon Close’, which was the first cover I designed. Having listened ardently to recountings of the harrowing experience from the man himself and having been privy to the stages of the composition of the tune, the cover was a fait accompli. It actually started with a drawing of Fela I had in my portfolio prior to my chance meeting with ‘Tunde Harrison, which showed the musician dancing on a mishmash of mud and rubbish. The final design of ‘Alagbon Close’s’ cover showed Fela’s ‘Kalakuta Republic’ in the background standing solidly on the left and Alagbon Close jailhouse on the right, a broken chain leading from the walls of the jail, half of which is still attached to Fela’s left wrist as he dances triumphantly over a capsizing police patrol boat and is helped, in effect, by a prodigious whale.

The next two album covers for No Bread and Kalakuta Show followed the tow of Fela’s vitriolic statements on vinyl. No Bread was an elaborate oil painting; portraying a mélange of social ills plaguing a developing nation; the cover forespoke of the doom to come. This cover took the best of two weeks and a trip to ‘cloud nine’ to achieve. Fela had insisted I try out a concoction of igbo (marijuana) to ‘elevate’ my talent. Not wanting to let my great friend down, I tried the herb and the resultant effect was superb, but being a teetotaller and someone with a mind of his own, I learned to be myself and thereafter tune into the right frequency. Kalakuta Show is another oil painting, this time illustrating the arrogant sacking of the ‘Republic’ in another Fela-versus-Police drama, featuring a portrait of Fela with the smoking Kalakuta Republic in the background, while Fela, his aides and his radical lawyer are hotly pursued by a baton-wielding policeman!
My association and friendship with the maverick was very cordial. I was treated like a son, friend, adviser and comrade by the Afrobeat legend. I was a travelling companion, sharing the great ideology of Pan-Africanism on some of the trips across the West African coast. Between 1974 and 1993 I designed twenty-six album covers for his music career.

I designed the Yellow Fever cover in 1976. The song is an admonition to African women who are fond of using bleaching creams to lighten their dark skin tone, and I did use a model to express visually what Fela has orally illustrated in the song. Points of emphasis include the bad effect the bleach has on the face and bum. My life model was a girl named Kokor who was a member of the household at Kalakuta Republic. I decided it was going to be a straight-in-your-face image of misinformed African beauty. Fela had already expressed disgust at the belief that skin lightening enhances African beauty. I showcased a typical ‘offending’ cream in the top-left corner of my cover art. ‘Soyoyo Cream Skin Bleacher’ was actually my own creation. The word soyoyo is a Yoruba expression for ‘bright and glow’! I painted in the price tag of 40 naira which was high end for a cream, and yet so harmful to beauty and the psyche of African women. Fela reacted very positively when I submitted this cover for his approval and in his characteristic manner said glowingly ‘Goddamn!’, wittily adding ‘Lemi is a mutherfucker me-e-n!’ just to round up.

In 1976, the then-military government in Nigeria had instructed soldiers to horsewhip erring drivers on the highway. The soldiers carried out this order without impunity and with a fervour reminiscent of zombies. That was why, having been severally harassed by military personnel, Fela came up with the idea to compose ‘Zombie’. Everyone, including some military personnel from the nearby Albati Barracks, fell in love with the catchy rhythm and martial tempo, which galvanized the dancers, who wouldn’t let the song end. Fela’s saucy reprise of the Army Bugle call and horn riff got them jumping and whooping with the release of being able to mock oppressors they both feared and despised. The song became an anthem of protest for people, which was chanted under their breath anytime they felt oppressed by military personnel.

When the time came to do to create the cover art for this landmark song, I found myself unable to focus on the right idea initially. The breakthrough came right on time one Kalakuta morning just as Fela was asking how the sleeve was coming along. Tunde Kuboye, the photographer, film-maker, jazz musician husband of Fela’s niece, Frances, walked in with a bunch of his photographs taken at that year’s Independence Day military parade at Tafawa Balewa Square in central Lagos. With Tunde’s permission, I selected ten military images, and a few of Fela. I was set on making a graphic collage. Back in my studio I laid a cardboard mat on my drawing board and edited Tunde’s ten shots down to four. I was feeling like a shaman, and as I put them down, the pictures just dropped into a position reminiscent of an Ifa divination . . . subconsciously! Not wanting to take any chances, I fixed the pictures down with masking tape, then traced their position in pencil. I overlapped the photos and cut and pasted them down. Then, using a hard paintbrush and thick poster colour paint, I wrote, in freehand, the album title, Fela’s name and his band directly over the picture, outlining the result with a Rotring pen. Finally, I added the shadows.

The sleeve was an instant hit at Kalakuta, in Nigeria, Africa and around the world. It led new listeners to wonder what lay on the vinyl inside. For the initiated, it told the story of life under an oppressive military dictatorship – and what it takes to come through it feeling that you’re still somehow in command of your destiny.

Beasts Of No Nation (B.O.N.N.) was Fela’s attack on his jailers for an eighteen-month undeserved incarceration from a trumped-up currency trafficking charge. Smarting from his experience in jail, Fela throws his punches like an enraged prize-fighter. In typical Fela style, Beasts Of No Nation made the acronym BONN, which is a disguised reference to the once de facto capital city of West Germany and the days of Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

The music is as powerful as it gets and beneath his knife-edge, cutting sarcasm, Fela’s voice rages. It would take a serious sleeve to convey that acid tone. I knew I had to depict the evils of South African apartheid, and the failures and hypocrisy of the United Nations. I made the delegates look like rats, and I portrayed the oppressors with animal’s horns and fangs; the slavering vampires of Margaret Thatcher, South Africa’s Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, Ronald Reagan and President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire cram the frame. The quote used on the top left of the cover art is from a speech by Botha, and among my beasts are Generals Mohammed Buhari and Babatunde Idiagbon, the men responsible for Fela’s 1984 jail stint. The images of Beasts of No Nation seethe with primal urges – greed, control, vengeance – and the spirit of defiance is embodied in the demonstrators waving a placard with a line from the song, ‘Human Rights Is Our Property’. The demonstrators wear Black Power sunglasses and their pink tracksuits pulsate with pastel against the sombre palette of their enemies. Fela’s costume is the same exuberant pink, and their gestures are echoed in his triumphant Black Power salute, as he faces them across the frame, while the offending judge cowers at his feet.

Fela decided to make an incursion into the various untouchable aspects of our society. He took advantage of the sweet and seductive power of those things that are looked upon as taboo and he invited Nigeria to the debate, and I stand with resoluteness behind him to this day.

Lemi Ghariokwu illustrated ‘Teju Cole’s Water has no Enemy’from Granta 124: Travel. See his illustration and read an excerpt from the piece here.

All images courtesy of Lemi Ghariokwu

Oct 1, 2013

De Frank Professionals - Psychedelic Man (get it)

Originally published by amazing digging4gold!

Well Folks, here it is.

Yet another highly sought-after gem from Ghanaian funketeer - De Frank.  Much like other renown West African funk artists - Ambolley, Geraldo Pino, Harry Masco - De Frank’s catalogue affirms his admiration for American funk and soul.  On “psychedelic Man” he  goes all in and does away with most of the highlife and other Ghanaian rhythms found on some of his other recordings - one which we featured a while back - and replaces it with english-induced afro-soul and the occasional reggae number.

Most often, the record is noted for the track “Call Me frank,” but the real standout is the song right after. “Waiting for My Baby” embodies everything I love about Afro-funk:  moody organ chords, dirty horn lines, and a driving pulse, all accented by De frank’s signature high-pitched vocals. De frank allows the band to breath over the instrumental, adding little more than the title name as a chorus, with the occasional added line, which he sings just long enough to give the listener a break before ushering back the horns.

This track is beautiful in every way and yet another testament to De Frank’s gifted musical ability.


A1 I Don't Know The World Is One
A2 Think Of The Future
A3 Psychedelic Man
B1 Let's Make The Music
B2 Call Me Frank
B3 Waiting For My Baby
B4 Man No Cry