It was in Benin City, in the heart of Nigeria, that a new hybrid of
intoxicating highlife music known as Edo Funk was born.
It first emerged in the late 1970s when a group of musicians began
to experiment with different ways of integrating elements from their
native Edo culture and fusing them with new sound effects coming
from West Africa ́s night-clubs. Unlike the rather polished 1980 ́s
Nigerian disco productions coming out of the international
metropolis of Lagos Edo Funk was raw and reduced to its bare
Someone was needed to channel this energy into a distinctive sound
and Sir Victor Uwaifo appeared like a mad professor with his Joromi
studio. Uwaifo took the skeletal structure of Edo music and
relentless began fusing them with synthesizers, electric guitars and
80 ́s effect racks which resulted in some of the most outstanding Edo
recordings ever made. An explosive spiced up brew with an odd
psychedelic note dubbed "Edo Funk".
That's the sound you'll be discovering in the first volume of the
Edo Funk Explosion series which focusses on the genre’s greatest
originators; Osayomore Joseph, Akaba Man, and Sir Victor Uwaifo:
Osayomore Joseph was one of the first musicians to bring the sound
of the flute into the horn-dominated world of highlife, and his
skills as a performer made him a fixture on the Lagos scene. When he
returned to settle in Benin City in the mid 1970s – at the
invitation of the royal family – he devoted himself to the
modernisation and electrification of Edo music, using funk and Afro-
beat as the building blocks for songs that weren’t afraid to call
out government corruption or confront the dark legacy of Nigeria’s
Akaba Man was the philosopher king of Edo funk. Less overtly
political than Osayomore Joseph and less psychedelic than Victor
Uwaifo, he found the perfect medium for his message in the trance-
like grooves of Edo funk. With pulsating rhythms awash in cosmic
synth-fields and lyrics that express a deep personal vision, he
found great success at the dawn of the 1980s as one of Benin City’s
most persuasive ambassadors of funky highlife.
Victor Uwaifo was already a star in Nigeria when he built the
legendary Joromi studios in his hometown of Benin City in 1978.
Using his unique guitar style as the mediating force between West-
African highlife and the traditional rhythms and melodies of Edo
music, he had scored several hits in the early seventies, but once
he had his own sixteen-track facility he was able to pursue his
obsession with the synesthetic possibilities of pure sound, adding
squelchy synths, swirling organs and studio effects to hypnotic
basslines and raw grooves. Between his own records and his
production for other musicians, he quickly established himself as
the godfather of Edo funk.
What unites these diverse musicians is their ability to strip funk
down to its primal essence and use it as the foundation for their
own excursions inward to the heart of Edo culture and outward to the
furthest limits of sonic alchemy. The twelve tracks on Edo Funk
Explosion Volume 1 pulse with raw inspiration, mixing highlife
horns, driving rhythms, day-glo keyboards and tripped-out guitars
into a funk experience unlike any other.
Double LP pressed on 140g virgin vinyl comes with a full color 20-pages booklet.
- - - - -
Sometimes you just want to kick your shoes off and relax and cut some rug. And with the first volume of Edo Funk Explosion you can, gloriously. Packed full of infectious, committed funk music from the Benin City of the late 1970s, there is a part of me that hopes the record will become the soundtrack to an increasingly carefree, virus-banished future. It’s an intoxicating prospect: sounds dug up from an often turbulent Nigerian past that can now, after 40 years, apply a healing balm to a fretful and lonely present. But for now we should note that Edo Funk Explosion is the latest chapter in the story of a remarkable label, Analog Africa.
Samy Ben Redjeb’s obsessive diggings into forgotten or marginal musical histories from the African and South American continents have (sometimes literally) unearthed sounds that have quietly set cultural agendas this past decade. That should come as no surprise as Analog Africa releases brilliantly reveal the age-old process of people listening to other things from elsewhere and then making something concrete and special from their imaginings. Something we can continue to celebrate. Previous label series, such as Diablos Del Ritmo, for example, have highlighted the crossing of music styles established on the seas routes between Colombia and the west coast of Africa. Edo Funk Explosion is yet another example of music’s essential, pollinating properties.
Edo Funk Explosion also documents the story of the 16-track Joromi studios, set up in Benin City by Sir Victor Uwaifo in 1978. Concentrating on three of the style’s big hitters (Osayomore Joseph, Akaba Man, and Sir Victor Uwaifo) the record goes for the jugular, aiming to get us up on our feet with half a dozen slabs of tough, enervating Edo Funk.
The backstory is one we’ve heard before in different places; a sound-obsessed Head – in this case Sir Victor Uwaifo – making crazed electronic sounds in a home-built studio in the late 1970s. Like Martin Hannett, King Tubby or Lee Perry, or Romania’s maestro of weird sounds, Rodion GA. Like these others, Uwaifo took local traditions and contemporary socio-cultural and political concerns and threw them all together like herbs in a pot of stew. There is a real sense of Uwaifo, Osayomore Joseph and Akaba Man and their respective bands really going for it here and probably why tracks like ‘Iranm Iran’ and ‘Aibalegbe’ feel utterly intoxicating.
None of the tracks sound like they were made to meet the requirements of a particular audience, they feel like the artists want to go to places fast, even if some sonic elements fall by the wayside or get battered by the ride. Sometimes this all-or-nothing attitude gives the music on this compilation a raw, punkish feel, though they are primarily built to make people dance. The aforementioned ‘Iranm Iran’ is about as funky a funk track as you can wish for. Slippery as an eel, the track wriggles through its allotted 5 minutes with a distinct feeling of elan. The low organ coming in sideways – and the funny chirpy squeaks and squawks that pop up on a lot of Sir Victor Uwaifo recordings – really grease the beat. ‘Aibalegbe’ gently moulds South American traditions into a spacy groove, mainly courtesy of a splurging synth. and ‘Orono No de Fade’ by Osayomore Joseph and the Ulele Power Sound also assembles itself loosely around a lovely, life-giving groove. The softer, maybe more reflective side of Edo Funk can be heard with Akaba Man’s bubbling ‘Ta Ghi Rare’, a pleasant seven minute brew full of mild psychedelics such as a weird squeaky synth, an ever ascending bubbling bass and an aqueous guitar lick that turns up to throw things off course five minutes in. Plus a beat that seems intent on playing footsie with the rest of the track. All in all a fantastically disorientating experience.
There is plenty of politics bubbling away under the surface. The opener ‘Africa Is My Root’, from Osayomore Joseph is a no nonsense funky stomp that is very much a pan-African rallying call. Joseph’s ‘Who Know Man’ and ‘My Name Is Money’ have the structural feel and direction of Fela tracks but the way both tracks are balanced on gentle guitar licks make them calls to shake hips to, than raise fists.
It’s a superb release.
- - - - -
Nigerian Edo Funk, as presented in this impeccable compilation from Analog Africa, is a mixture of afrobeat, disco, and funk, tinged with overtones of reggae, and incorporating traditional Edo languages and instruments. In contrast to the slicker Lagos highlife sounds a couple of states west of Edo state’s capital, Benin City, the music is characterised by sparse, repetitive arrangments which call to mind minimalism and dub. The Benin City of the 70s and 80s was oil-rich and enjoying a period of stability following the end of the civil war in 1970 – audiences there were cosmopolitan and adventurous and wanted highlife grooves with a twist that combined local styles with an international vibe.
Eschewing the scattershot approach of your average compilation, Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 shines a light on three of the era’s biggest stars, presenting a portmanteau of the work of Sir Victor Uwaifo, Osayomore Joseph and Akaba Man. In many ways it’s a journey into a vanished, vanishing world – the informative liner notes compare the elegance of the 70s architecture with the pretentious villas favoured by today’s affluent classes and reflect on the contradictions of a country coming out of civil war and suddenly awash with foreign cash. A newfound self-confidence was tempered by inevitable political corruption and anxiety over how to express a modern, distinctly African sensibility.
You can hear this in the first track, ‘Africa is My Root’ by Osayomore Joseph and the Creative Seven, with its mocking chorus, ‘You are dancing like a white man / you are dancing like a fool’. And with such a timeless opening sentiment it hardly matters what the rest of the LP is like. Genius. In context, the song is making a serious point about the social mores of post-colonial Africa and about encouraging an authentically African sense of self-confidence in throwing off the trappings of a foreign, exploitative culture. Out of context, I’m like totally guilty as charged here.
Joseph is cast as the political conscience of the album. A flute player, his future career was seemingly decided by an early formative encounter with Fela Kuti. Although no recordings of the two playing together survive, Fela was an admirer of Joseph’s playing and seems to have inspired the younger artist’s forthright political stance. Returning to Benin City on a mission to funkify his hometown, Joseph’s lyrics lay into government corruption and constantly return to the racist legacies of colonialism. His skewering of the dictatorship in the 1990s saw him vanish into Nigeria’s prisons for weeks at a time.
Osayomore Joseph is not a subtle man, and so much the better. ‘I am the minister of peace / the minister of criminals / the father of the devil’ he sings on ‘My Name is Money’, over a languorous rocksteady beat. It’s hard not to like the guy.
The dub influence is heard most clearly on the outstanding ‘Sakpaide No. 2’ by Sir Victor Uwaifo and his Titibitis. A titibiti, fact-fans, is the Edo name for the bee hummingbird (why, what did you think it meant?) It’s the smallest bird in the world and its cleverness has earned it a place in Edo mythology as the king of the birds. Anyway, ‘Sakpaide No. 2’ is utterly gripping stuff, full of the offbeats and tension and the expansive echo you associate with dub. There’s more though – Edo Funk is never just one thing – the rhythms and textures are so layered with whacky, improvised touches within these minimal parameters that you could easily mistake this for Can if it wasn’t for the edgy, staccato energy behind those horns.
Uwaifo, regarded as the most innovative musician of the era, is a synesthesiac who sees music as shapes and colours and was influenced by the rhythmic patterns of brightly coloured Akwete textiles. Edo Funk focusses on his work from 1978 onwards when he was fully ensconced at Benin Cities Joromi studios and able to play with all the latest synthesisers and effects. Dip into the instrumental bits of ‘Iranm Iran’ for a sense of the guy’s studio chops. Electronic effects warp the horns, rhythm guitars and organs into something unique – a cheeky liminality between cold studio trickery and the thrill of performance.
This sense of playfulness can also be found in the songs of Akaba Man, chock-full of exuberant and unexpected noises. Akaba Man’s work is preoccupied with finding a spiritual dimension to a disco beat – the cover of his most famous album, Obo, shows him carried down from on high upon an enormous supernatural hand. He’s got a more soulful thing going on as a vocalist compared to Joseph and Uwaifo, and a smoother command of melody which more than makes up for the relative lack of drama in the arrangements and production. Arguably, his music is the most direct and the most in tune with its Edo roots. In ‘Ogbov Onwan’, every detail is at the service of the song. While I couldn’t pretend to have much of an idea what he’s talking about, there’s no doubting how it comes over at gut level – from the opening guitar riff to the opening up of the melody into the jams that propel us from one verse to the next – this is killer stuff.
Picking out a trio of artists like this works well, enabling a deep dive into their scene and drawing out all kinds of interesting points of continuity and difference that a wider selection of voices might obscure. And as you’d expect from Analog Africa, this is a ridiculously good stack of tunes. An essential compilation and hopefully the first of many.