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Nigeria Special Volume 2 & Afrobeat Compilation Reviewed
Ross Pounds , March 25th, 2010 04:40

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In recent years, world music has become less, well, worldly. The creeping influence of the sounds of the Sahara have found their way to America’s West Coast, and to California in particular, scattered out over the underground landscape like seeds falling and floating off a particularly beautiful, and enviably fertile, flower. The burgeoning African hip-hop scene, too, has gone full circle: the bubbling flows and garish styles its impressionable, youthful rappers learnt from MTV imports, and then melded with their own instruments to create something wonderfully unique, are now impacting on the next generation of rappers and producers in America and Europe. Now Africa is firmly in the spotlight, good documents of its musical history (as well as those of the Caribbean islands and other areas of particular potency with a broadly African base) are needed; compilations that are well researched and unpatronising, expansive without being hopelessly scattered. And that’s where Soundway Records come in. With recent, fantastic compilations documenting the musical landscapes of Panama, Ghana, and the biguine sounds of Guadeloupe and Martinique, Soundway is a label striking out on its own, highlighting sounds more or less obscure outside their countries of origin. Some of their most sterling work has dealt with the incendiary, explosive sounds coming out of Nigeria in the 1970s. The country's ever-simmering tensions have also produced sublime, and influential, music, in recent decades.

The music captured here, on Nigeria Special: Volume 2 and Nigeria Afrobeat Special, holds a mirror up to the political and cultural landscape of a country constantly at boiling point, the songs feeling like a necessary explosion, the outcome of some great culture clash between Western hedonism and traditional African morality as it became more and more apparent to the Western world how lucrative the huge reserves of Nigerian oil might be. The 1970s were Nigeria’s golden age.

With an ugly civil war behind them, the nation was in the ascendancy, possibilities looming large on the horizon. As the critic Bill Meyer wrote recently: “Cultural pride and a cosmopolitan awareness of what was happening musically elsewhere in Africa, the Caribbean, and the rest of the world infuse the title Nigeria Special with extra meaning; it was a special time, a special place, and the music fully exemplified that quality.” As anyone who’s heard the enchanting Cazumbi compilations can testify, the influence of rock & roll has permeated African music since the early 1960s, creating heady concoctions which give some idea of what it might sound like if Link Wray or Dick Dale decided to seduce the minds of the citizens of the Congo or Mozambique rather than Californian high schoolers.

It’s for a reason, though, that Nigeria is often the country upon which most of the focus falls. The likes of King Sunny Ade, Femi Kuti and, most famously, Fela Kuti are all products of Nigeria’s great fusion. The magpie-like mixing of the sounds of South America, of Cuba and Brazil, with the traditional African sounds birthed in the Congo to create Highlife and latterly Afrobeat, with its blending of various indigenous sounds and American jazz and soul. And that’s where we come in.

Both of these compilations have arrived at a time when the sounds of African music are being embraced more broadly than at any time in the past. In the mainstream, by the likes of Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend, and most recently Fools Gold, and in the burgeoning underground, Saharan desert blues influences to be found all over the blissed-out glo-fi of Toro Y Moi and Ducktails. Couple this with the rapturous reception received by the latest, and final, collaboration between Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, as well as the huge success of the likes of Amadou and Mariam and Tinariwen, and the Western thirst for traditional African sounds is being quenched like never before.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate subtitle for Nigeria Afrobeat Special than "The new explosive sound in 1970s Nigeria", given the head-to-toe ratio of absolute corkers on offer here. It’s a selection which focuses heavily on the big band sound emerging from the country at the time, all wailing, parping saxophones and brass solos paired frenetically with unhinged, relentless polyrhythmic blues. The fantastic thing about Nigeria Afrobeat Special, and great news for all those Afrobeat afficinados, is that a large portion of these tracks are genuine hidden gems. Unpolished wonders previously never reissued outside of Nigeria. Following the lead of Fela Kuti, whose musical and political ideals formed the core of Afrobeat’s message, the tracks on offer take their leads from all directions, from highlife and Yoruba music, to more traditional funk and jazz. Kuti’s groundbreaking style influenced any number of bands, all of them, in one way or another, incorporating his aesthetic into their repertoires to satisfy the tastes of the audiences at the time.

It’s a gloriously rowdy mix, all bruising horns and skittish, juddering rhythms, the obvious draw being Kuti’s previously unreleased original 45 version of ‘Who’re You?’ (not the Abbey Road recorded version that would later appear on Fela’s London Scene). It leaps out of the speakers from the first second, barrelling straight into nearly nine minutes of frenetic organ solos and cascading horns, all gloriously pinned together by Kuti’s unmistakable, albeit raw here, voice.

But it’s a credit to Soundway, and especially compiler Miles Cleret, that it doesn’t eclipse the other tracks. Orlando Julius’ ‘Afro-Blues’, for example, is a polyrhythmic masterpiece, coming across like the first track ever laid down for an imagined Lagos-based branch of Motown studios. Some of the better known Nigerian scene kingpins are represented too – Segun Bucknor’s 'Revolution' with the jazz-flavoured late night jam ‘Gbomojo’ alongside Bongos Ikuwe & The Groovies with the forward thinking ‘Otachikpopo’, which melds traditional voice styles and balafon with guitars, an electric organ, and a saxophone. The legendary producer Victor Uwaifo also gets a hand in via ‘Hankuri’, a cut featuring the previously unknown artist Andrew ‘Madman’ Jaga.

The genuine standouts, though, come via Eric Showboy Akaeze & His Royal Ericos, with the slithering highlife syncopations of ‘We Dey Find Money’, the calypso flavoured ‘Do The Afro Shuffle’ by Godwin Omabuwa & His Cassanova Dandies, where Afrobeat percussion combines with a shufflebeat on the drumkit to delightful effect, and most obviously through the outstanding ‘Awiro Yaa’ by Bob Ohiri & His Uhuru Sounds. It’s a song that shifts masterfully from Juju-style vocal harmonies to a West Coast funk groove, like Eric Burdon fronting El Chicano with a backing group made up of various members of Bloodstone and Black Sugar. Ohiri, King Sunny Ade’s lead guitarist, remains a relatively unknown quantity as a front man but on the evidence provided someone needs to have a dig around in the vaults and reissue some more material as quickly as possible.

The journey through Afrobeat presented by Soundway here is intriguing and well worth the effort that so obviously went into it. Pats on the back all round.

But nothing lasts forever. Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6 is, sadly, the fifth and final instalment of Soundway’s Nigeria Special series. It might say Volume 2 on the cover but, alongside compilations detailing funk and disco, rock and the above-mentioned Afrobeat, it’s the final chapter of a fantastic story, a mammoth undertaking pulled off with considerable panache and genuine care and passion. How many people really knew much about Nigerian music, apart from King Sunny Ade, Femi Kuti, and Fela Kuti, before Soundway came along? It’s a series that has opened up new doors, dug deep in hidden chests, found genuine treasure troves and masterpieces long thought lost. And Nigeria Special: Volume 2 is a fitting eulogy if ever there was one.

Following a similar template to 2007’s first volume, Miles Cleret has again gone above and beyond the call of duty, hunting around Nigeria for over a decade in order to find the tracks which best document the most exciting period in the country’s recording history. The majority of the recordings on offer here have been forgotten or out of print for nearly thirty-five years and encompass the range of sounds which made the Nigerian sound such a unique one in the first place.

Incorporating styles that vary from highlife to Juju and Nigerian blues, and in the indigenous languages of Yoruba, Igbo, Bini, and Ijaw, Volume 2 is layered with the same Afro-experimentalism that pervaded its predecessor, furthering the laid back, mid tempo feel found on the first volume.

It’s a mouth-watering musical stew, with an impressive amount of ground being covered. There’s the bluesy guitar band style of the Otarus and Peacocks Guitar Band International sitting alongside the more uptempo sound of highlife pioneer Stephen Osita Osadebe, who brings new life to the Cuban standard ‘Peanut Vendor’ with his Igbo version of the track. One of Nigeria’s most famous sons, the painter Twins Seven-Seven (so called as he was the only surviving child of seven sets of twins) lends the compilation a beating heart with a rare Juju recording of ‘Totobiroko (Ogbele)’, its rich proliferation of percussion tones lending it a beguiling European feel. The progressive sound of the time is well documented too, the likes of the Black Zenith, the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination (with a rhythmic, seductive version of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’), Tunji Oyelana, the Nkengas Opotopo, and Joy Nwoso reminding us how experimental Nigerian music could get, blending jazz, highlife, and, in Nwoso’s case, opera. In a fitting tribute to highlife godfather Rex Lawson, two years after his death his band The Riversmen reappeared as The Professional Seagulls Band and, with ‘Ibi Awo Iyi’, contribute a sublime, languid composition which is perhaps more indicative of the time and place of its creation than any other track featured here, and a more than fitting tribute to a man who will not soon be forgotten.

And that’s perhaps how Nigeria Special: Volume 2 should be seen: as a tribute to what’s gone before. The jaw-dropping sense of awe of the early compilations may have been lost, but only because that sense of discovery that one felt upon listening to them for the first time is no longer there. And that’s no criticism. The musical landscape of Nigeria has been opened up for all to hear. The legacy of these documents will be felt for decades to come, and there’s no higher compliment that could be paid to Soundway, and to Cleret, than that. The recent reissue of Pax Nicholas’s Na Teef Know de Road of Teef on Daptone points the way forward: it’s time to take that next step, to re-release the work of so many of the artists showcased by Soundway, and to a lesser extent Strut, over the last four years or so. What was once a black hole is now open: we know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, we just have to go and find it.

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Baby Jebus
Mar 25, 2010 10:47am

Excellent. What about an interview with Mr Cleret about his musical peregrinations. I heard him on Maconie's Freak Zone the other day and his interests go much wider than seventies West Africa (he played a blinding bit of Ghanaian three chord psych and something great from Colombia, which sounded more African than Latin).

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John Doran
Mar 25, 2010 11:20am

In reply to Baby Jebus:

You know, that's not a bad idea.

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