Monday, December 31, 2007

Ofege IV: How Do You Feel

Okay... 2007's got like 30 minutes left; let's see if I can squeeze in one last entry before 2008 and close out the Ofege series with the fourth album, 1978's How Do You Feel.

I've often wondered why this album is rarely mentioned in discussions of Ofege... I guess a lot of people just don't know it exists. But I wouldn't be surprised to find that some degree of rockist snobbery were involved; you know, the "Disco Sucks" variety, the kind that makes heads snicker at BLO's latter albums like Bulky Backside.

But such was the tide of the times; 1978 was a world away from 1973 and even in America, black bands like Funkadelic and the Ohio Players that had erstwhile purveyed raggedly funky rock were shifting their output exclusively towards slicker, more dancefloor-oriented material. As Melvin said to me, "the fuzzbox was out of fashion."

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a brief chat with Ofege bassist Paul Alade. I found him to be a very charming and affable fellow with a markedly philosophical perspective on his days of pop stardom. He swiftly rejected the suggestion that How Do You Feel? represented the band searching for a new sound or trying to fit in, asserting that it was "just us being us."

Interestingly, Alade confirmed my earlier suspicions that the sound of the second album, Last of the Origins was a record company-mandated attempt to steer the band in a more polished, mainstream direction ("To them, we were just some stupid kids," he snorted) and recalled Higher Plane Breeze as a return to the roots, free from label manipulation. The difference in sound from their earlier recordings he attributed to the band's burgeoning maturity and changes in their musical environment.

"Right back to Try and Love," Alade explained. "if you listen to any of our records, you can hear our influences... You can tell what we were listening to at the time, whether it was Santana and jimi Hendrix, or Osibisa... Sly & the Family Stone and everything else.

"By the time you get to How Do You Feel, we're really still doing the same thing, playing our same sound, but also absorbing some of the other things that were happening at the time. Like the disco sounds you hear on the record. And reggae was a big thing happening at the time. But when you listen to songs like 'World at Peace' and 'Frustration,' that's just the basic, roots Ofege sound."

Judging from a song like "Bomp Your Booty," I'm going to guess that they were listening to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players. Probably some Akie Deen stuff too, as evidenced by the soca-ish intro of "Check It Out," which leads into a lean, angular groove that sounds like it was ripped from Jake Sollo's late-70s playbook (as do, unfortunately, the disco hoots). Sollo himself--recently having partaken in Kiki Gyan's mutiny from Osibisa--plays lead guitar on the album.

The Ofege lineup here is pared down to its core: M-Ike on drums, Paul on bass, Melvin on rhythm guitar ("Today, we probably would do everything by ourselves," Alade reflects. "But back then you needed to hire extra guys to play live").

As on Higher Plane Breeze, Robert Bailey, late of Osibisa, mans the keys; another Osibisa insurgent, Kofi Ayivor, aids on the congas; and the synth textures of Francis Monkman, last heard on Last of the Origins, are back again.

I forgot to ask Alade about the identity of "Majek," who produced the last two Ofege albums, but I must say I like the job he did on them. As much as I love the rugged stonerism of Try and Love, the Ofege songs I return to most are the more melodic groovers like "H.P.B." and this album's "Take Your Mind Away" that employ the acute guitar attack in service of fluid danceability. The title track is a sexy rub-a-dub killer, too, perfect for win'ing yuh waist pon the gyal or bwoy of your choice!

How Do You Feel does project interesting new directions for the band, but we would never discover whence those paths would lead, as after this LP, Ofege was no more.

I asked Paul Alade if they went into How Do You Feel knowing that it was going to be the final album.

"No, not at all," he replied. "We would have liked to keep going... When we were in school, we all lived in different parts of the country, but every summer we would try to get together and [record an album]. By the time of How Do You Feel, school was over, and we just went in different directions. The three of us were able to come together to make this album, but after that Ike went to school in England, and then I left to England too for a while, then to the States. And I've been here ever since."

Melvin Noks released two seldom-heard solo albums as Melvin Ukachi, Evolution (1982) and Ofege as One (1984) before packing it in.

They all admit to missing it, though, and they're all down to put the band back together... but only if they can get a fair deal this time. So if anybody out there has the wherewithal to make that happen, wouldn't it be cool to be able to write another chapter of this story in 2008?

(There's a little surface noise on this record, y'all... Especially on side B. One thing I have definitely got to do in 2008 is invest in a vacuum vinyl cleaner!)

Happy new year, everybody!
OFEGE - HOW DO YOU FEEL (POLYDOR/PHONOGRAM, 1978, POLP 030)

Paul "B-Tee" Alade - Bass, vocals
Melvin "Karchi" Noks - Main vocals, rhythm guitar
Mike "Ike" Meme- Drums, congas, percussion & vocals
Jake Sollo - Solo guitar
Francis Monkman - Strings & keyboards
Robert Bailey - Keyboards
Kofi Ayivor - Congas
Miranda - Violin
Ann - Vocals

Special thanks to Georgie Mann for spreading his good vibes

All songs composed and arranged by Ofege
Produced by Majek

SIDE A
1. World at Peace
2. Burning Jungle
3. Check It Out
4. Bomp Your Booty
5. Take Your Mind Away

SIDE B
1. How Do You Feel?
2. Ideal Situation
3. Naira Power
4. Nature Queen
5. Frustration

(Pardon the rough cover scan... I'm in a bit of a hurry, but I'll fix it later)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ekassa fever!

When I posted that Sir Victor Uwaifo's Greatest Hits comp a few months ago, I said that I didn't think it was representative of his best work, but I didn't say what I thought was.

For the record... This:



For my money, Uwaifo's early-70s "Ekassa" recordings captured the most exciting synthesis of his highlife, cubano, Bini and soul & rock influences, with the "Guitar Boy" getting flossy on the axe, drums, organ, flute and xylophone.
SIR VICTOR UWAIFO & HIS MELODY MAESTROES - EKASSA VOL. 2 - TALK OF THE TOWN (PHILIPS, 1973, 6361 033 (PL))

SIDE A
1. Ekassa 28 (Ebibi)
2. Ekassa 34 (Igiodo Giodo)
3. Ekassa 31 (Isede)
4. Ekassa 32 (Votumamuoga)
5. Ekassa 25 (Aiworo)

SIDE B
1. Ekassa 38 (Ame'sihion Segbe)
2. Ekassa 24 (Kikikri)
3. Ekassa 26 (Akhuankhuan)
4. Ekassa 35 (Sumwen-Sowa)
5. Ekassa 29 (Osulelelemule)

Yeah, if I were to select any Uwaifo records for a collection of "classics," I'd definitely have to choose some of these. Here are some (relatively) recent video clips of the perennial showman performing "Ekassa":



Monday, December 10, 2007

Wake Up Your Mind

Yes... Back to business.

The past week or so has been so busy that I've hardly had time to check out my favorite blogs, let alone post anything on this one, so yeah... I know I've got a backlog of requests to get to.

I promised my man Calumbinho that I was going to throw up Joni Haastrup's Wake Up Your Mind like three or four days ago and my pal Ofon has been waiting for Haastrup's Monomono albums for months now--one of the reasons I delayed on the Monomono stuff was because I had been trying to secure an interview with Mr. Haastrup, and that hasn't quite worked out yet. I'll keep trying, but in the meantime, I guess I can at least make Calumbinho happy!

Let's see... What to say about this record? Well, it's the one and only solo album by one of Nigeria's most respected and beloved musicians. While Joni Haastrup is mostly unknown to kids who came of age in the 1980s (my generation), among the folks who were grooving in the late 60s and the 70s, the mere mention of his name is apt to elicit responses of tremendous affection and awe. I've gotten the sense that more than any other single musician, Joni Haastrup embodied the all aspirations of Nigerian music in the post-highlife era.

Earlier in his career, he was billed as "Johnny Haastrup"; the later "Joni" spelling appears to be a tip of the hat to Jimi Hendrix, and like Hendrix, Haastrup exuded the aura of an individual who just has music spontaneously pouring out of his soul. He started performing as a teenager in the town of Ilesa, singing in school bands with his older brother, guitarist Segun Haastrup. During a trip to Lagos, the brothers tried out for immortal bandleader Bobby Benson's Jam Session Orchestra; neither of them made the cut, but Joni brought the house down with his animated Chuck Berry impression. Soon thereafter, legendary trumpeter Victor Olaiya witnessed Joni's energetic dancing and singing in a high school drama group and was sufficiently impressed to recruit the youngster to join his Cool Cats band (in which no less a personage than Fela Ransome-Kuti had apprenticed in the late 1950s). This was 1965 after all; the rhythm of Lagos nightlife was changing. "Beat music"--rock & roll and soul--was seeping into the scene and Olaiya (true to his reputation as "the evil genius of highlife") presciently realized that he would have to incorporate the new foreign sounds. The Cool Cats became The All Stars Soul International, which Joni Haastrup fronted for a year and a half.

In 1966, saxophonist Orlando Julius (a contemporary of Fela, credited in some quarters as the true originator of the term "Afro-beat music") released the album Super Afro Soul on which Joni Haastrup featured as a guest lead vocalist on a few tracks, such as "Bojubari" and a "copyright" of the Temptations' "My Girl." The album was a momentous success, helping to usher in the ascendance of soul music and cement Joni Haastrup's reputation as "Nigeria's Soul Brother Number One."

During the war, beat groups prevailed: Segun Bucknor & his Soul Assembly, The Strangers, The Clusters (whose lineup included future BLO members Laolu Akins and Mike Odumosu and, briefly, Joni Haastrup) and The Hykkers. It was with the latter band that Haastrup was sitting in when he caught the attention of Ginger Baker, on his first visit to Nigeria in 1970. Baker was so besotted by Joni's electrifying stage presence that he snatched him off to London to join Ginger Baker's Air Force. Baker envisioned him playing a multiinstrumental role, which was initially a surprise to Joni:
There was a lot of misconception about what I could do. When I went with Ginger, he saw me singing. He never saw me play an instrument, but he had this great belief within himself that I could play any instrument. So he wanted me to play the organ because Steve Winwood was leaving. And he also wanted me to play guitar because Denny Laine was leaving. So I got into London on a, I think on a Tuesday. The first gig was on Thursday. I have never heard the music of the band. I don't know what they sound like. I don't know anybody in the band but Ginger. I've never even heard Ginger play drums face-to-face except on record. He wants me to play organ and guitar and sing in this big ten-piece band with Graham Bond and Bud Beadle and all these people. And I uh, and I said, "Well, Ginger I don't really play any of these instruments. I'm just a singer." And he goes, "Hey! You can do it. You can fuckin' do it." [laughter]
It's a testament to Haastrup's innate musicality that, despite his initial reservations, two days later he was playing guitar and keyboards in the Air Force!

Haastrup returned to Nigeria later in the year, playing the keys for Baker again in Salt.



(Yes, I've posted this video before, but I wanted to point out something I didn't mention before: Mr. Muttonchops in the red tank top? That's Tunde Kuboye, later of Jazz 38 fame.)

Joni hooked up with Kenneth Okulolo, who had played bass in Olaiya's All Stars during Haastrup's tenure with the band. He served as Haastrup's co-pilot in Monomono, one of the earliest afro-rock ensembles to capitalize on the success of Osibisa. The band's 1972 debut album, Give The Beggar a Chance, was met with massive success in Nigeria and beyond, and the 1974 followup, Dawn of Awareness was picked up for international distribution by Capitol Records.

Confident that Monomono was about to cross over into the big time, Haastrup traveled to the US to urge Capitol to back a tour for the band. Capitol balked, and Haastrup returned to Nigeria dejected. He made another attempt in 1976, but when it became clear that Capitol was not interested in promoting them, Monomono disbanded. It was at this point that he recorded his solo album, with some assistance from some of his bandmates.

Wake Up Your Mind was released in 1978, the year after FESTAC, so it's unsurprising that it finds Haastrup in a pan-Africanist mood. In the music, one can hear echoes of Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang, Mighty Sparrow and even KC & the Sunshine Band's Bahamian junkanoo-inspired disco, as the lyrics exhort the unity of the African disapora. The album is definitely designed for maximum crossover effect, but Haastrup has never been shy about his ambitions to transcend the conventional ideas of what an African musician should sound like:
[We need to] show the African musician as an artist first, then as an African... We can be pop, we can be rock, we can be jazz, we can be soul, we can be everything because in actual fact we have [made] an incredible contribution to all of that already. So why deny ourselves, or why deny us, the opportunity to cross over into the commercial industry.
I don't know to what degree the album was successful in penetrating the international market, but after Wake Up Your Mind, Haastrup left Nigeria pretty much for good. He worked as a session musician and producer in London and by the early 80s he was in the Bay Area, fronting Joni Haastrup & the Afrikans and doing more session work (most notably on several Chris Isaak albums from the late 80s up until the mid-90s).

Just yesterday, I was chatting with Calumbinho about Joni Haastrup and he made an interesting observation about Joni's singing. Despite his reputation as a showman, his vocals have a decidedly understated quality to them, and even when if he's singing in Yoruba and you don't understand the lyrics, you can feel the humility, honesty and intense love radiating from his delivery, much like Milton Nascimento. By all accounts, Joni is a really zen dude, and while's he's been a practicing Buddhist for many years, music is his real religion. As he says: "I just want to play my music and make people smile, keep people happy. Not limit myself to what people think I should be."

Today he still lives, plays and teaches in Oakland, California.
JONI HAASTRUP - WAKE UP YOUR MIND (AFRODESIA, 1978, DWAPS 2053)

SIDE ONE
1. Free My People
2. Greetings
3. Wake Up Your Mind

SIDE TWO
1. Champions and Superstars
2. Do the "Funkro"
3. Watch Out





All Joni Haastrup quotes above culled from Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm, by Gary Stewart, 1992, University of Chicago Press.

Update 1/27/08: Damn... I just noticed that I said the bass player in that clip was Ken Okulolo when I meant to say Tunde Kuboye! Damn... My bad. Wires got crossed there. I've fixed it now, anyway. My apologies for the misinfo!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Ozziddi For Sale

This selection was spurred by an observation Undercover Black Man made in the comments earlier this evening regarding the odd title choice for Yvonne Maha's Child For Sale. I always thought it was an odd title myself, especially since it was hardly reflective--even obliquely--of any content on the album. Then it occurred to me that it might have been a riff on the title of this 1976 album by the album's producer, Sonny Okosuns.

Ozziddi For Sale is mostly a loose Ozziddi band jam session essaying reggae, afrobeat and the trademark Ozziddi sound. The album was a major breakthrough for Sonny, and represented the beginnings of his reinvention as a champion for social justice; the song "Let My People Go" presages the "voice of the downtrodden" persona that would define his music through the 70s and 80s, and even hints at the Christian voice that would become his emphasis in the 90s.

Here's two tracks from the album:

Festival of the Hunters

Let My People Go

Friday, November 30, 2007

Twenty-five years ago today


...and then, everything changed.

I still love you, Thriller; you're the tops!

(I should totally be making a full-length post about this, but time's tight this weekend... Maybe later!)

Monday, November 26, 2007

On: The Quincy Jones of Nigeria, woman singers and the London Era of Nigerian music

When I first started seriously getting into music around 1982 or so, like most people, my interest in various records was based upon the appeal (vocal and/or visual) of the singer. I maintained massive mental inventories of my favorite vocalists; when required to fill in the "Fave Singer!" category in slum books, I took five or six single-spaced, tightly-packed lines to list them all. But I soon learned that this adoration of singers was the way that small boys--or girls in general--approached music. Within the esoteric community of serious soundheads (an all-male fraternity, of course), singers were admired, sure... but ultimately, the name and face shouting from the front of the record sleeve was much less impressive than the name listed under the credit "Produced By."

When I hung out with music hipsters in their teens and early twenties, their conversations were just inscrutable to me--hours of nothing but Leon Sylvers III produced this and Mizell Brothers are in the studio with so-and-so and Nile Rodgers should have been behind the boards on that session and Narada Michael Walden is a very underrated producer... What lingers in my memory above all is the hushed reverence that crept into their voices every time anyone uttered the name Randy Muller, like some sacred oath!

Now I didn't know shit about what a producer did: I reckoned he was something like the conductor of an orchestra, but truthfully, I didn't exactly know what a conductor did either. I mean, the musicians already have the sheet music in front of them, right? So what's that jerkoff in tails really doing standing in front of them gesticulating with a stick?

Regardless, I sussed that the producer was somehow the smartest guy in the room; the man who saw the big picture... who made it all happen. Part technician, part musician, part magician. While the singer stood in the studio, emptying her soul into the microphone with an emotional nakedness that would move any onlooking mortal to the point of tears, on the other side of the glass, the producer was mostly unaffected, entrenched as he was in manipulating the knobs and meters on his expansive mixing desk, obsessively committed to achieving the sonic vision in his ears.

The only producer I really knew or cared much about was Quincy Jones; he had produced Off The Wall, after all, and at that point, my world pretty much revolved around Michael Jackson. The next producer I took an interest in was one whose name had been popping up with increasing frequency in my hipster friends' conversations and among the supercool DJs on Calabar's Cross River Radio: Lemmy Jackson.

I admit it: the only reason I cared about Lemmy Jackson at first was because I thought he might be a heretofore undiscovered member of the seemingly ever-expanding Jackson clan. I got into Millie Jackson for the same reason. (What a rude shock that was!) Millie Jackson was not, of course, any relation to the Jacksons of Gary, Indiana and neither was Lemmy. Lemmy Jackson (born Otu Udofa) was in fact a Nigerian producer, and if you were a Nigerian musician, you weren't shit if he wasn't producing your record. "The Quincy Jones of Nigeria" they called him.

Jackson's rep as "the man with the magic fingers" took off in 1981, a banner year in which three landmark albums bore his production credit: Christy Essien-Igbokwe's Ever Liked My Person?, I Want To Feel Your Love, by Oby Onyioha, and under his own name, Tonight. The latter two were released by Time Communications, a new label established by insurance tycoon Paul Aifuwa of Time Insurance Brokers, who had hired Jackson to serve as in-house producer. Aifuwa envisioned an affair much more upmarket than the average Nigerian record company and even than the multinational labels like Decca West Africa and EMI Nigeria: handsome packaging, lavish production values, proper publishing for the songs... the whole nine.

I'd wager that Aifuwa was inspired in some part by apala star Alhaji Haruna Ishola's Phonodisk Records, which had been the first homegrown "major" label on the continent built from the ground up by indigenous Africans. Phonodisk had not only top-shelf recording and mastering facilities and a reheaarsal studio, but also its own record press and a motel to house talent and personnel during sessions. Phonodisk's first smash was the 1980 album I Need Someone, recorded by a young law student named Kris Okotie, produced by Odion Iruoje and featuring the band BLO (for which Lemmy Jackson was keyboardist) as session players and arrangers. Jackson, sans BLO, had since become the leader of Phonodisk's house band.

Aifuwa entered a partnership with Phonodisk, recording at the company's studios at Ijebu-Ode, Lagos and having Time Communications' records distributed by Phonodisk. However, instead of mixing the records at Phonidisk's facilities, he chose to send the tapes to London for that extra awayan polish. This was hardly an uncommon practice, of course. A good chunk of Nigerian records at the time were mixed and mastered in London. I'm not completely sure why, as there were many facilities where the records could be competently mastered back home in Nigeria... I guess they did it just because they could. These were prosperous times: civilian government had returned after more than a decade of military rule; the oil boom was over, but the Nigerian naira was still almost twice the value of the US dollar; casual weekend trips to London were not unusual among the middle class. The music industry was booming too, and EMI and Decca were spreading that major label moolah, flying musicians to record their albums and shoot their videos in London like it was nothing. Even tiny, backyard labels like Average Records were sending their tapes to Jand for mastering. I often refer to this period as the London Era of Nigerian Music.

Another distinguishing feature of the London Era was the large number of Nigerian musicians residing in the UK at the time. The most important of these were probably The Funkees.

The Funkees originated as an army band after the civil war, and by the time they relocated to London in 1973, they looked to be the group that was closest to achieving the dream of becoming "the next Osibisa." Unfortunately, after just two LPs and a couple of 45s, the band broke up in 1977. Most of the members--Jake Sollo, Harry Mosco, Mohammed Ahidjo, Chyke Madu and Sonny Akpan--remained active in the London music scene, doing session work, recording their own albums aimed at the Nigerian market at home and abroad, and supporting visiting Nigerian artists.

The Funkees' debut album Point of No Return (alternately issued in France as Afro-Funk Music) was co-produced by a charismatic Sierra Leonean named Akie Deen, who had been hustling hard to promote West African and Caribbean music around London since the beginning of the 1970s, before there was any real "scene" to speak of. Over the course of the decade, Deen would become the man to know among African musicians in London as he knew everybody in London's black music world and was a central force in organizing, booking and marketing West African and West Indian musicians, between which he made little distinction. The result was a dynamic, musically miscengenous climate: Nigerians, Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans making soca and calypso, Trinidadians playing on Nigerian afro-funk records, and hybrid styles like discolypso.

Adding to the mix were the many young white session players who worked in the London black music scene and, by extension, on African pop records. Probably the most significant of these was trumpeter Luke Tunney, whose credit appeared on several Nigerian albums in the early 80s, mostly as a horn arranger. Tunney went on to form the duo Mercy Mercy, best remembered (by some) for the 1985 soulboy dance classic "What Are We Gonna Do About It".

Another one was Morris Michael. Michael mostly contributed background vocals on Harry Mosco and Jake Sollo sessions, but he was also a guitarist with a clean, jazzy tone, as he would show later in the 80s as half of the Tears For Fears-esque sophistipop duo Private Lives.*** (The band broke up shortly after its 1984 debut Prejudice and Pride--featuring the single "Living In A World (Turned Upside Down)"--flopped, but like another short-lived, twee 80s New Romantic twosome, Seona Dancing, they have continued to be big in the Philippines.)

Okay. I am really digressing now, aren't I?

So yes. The Time Communications label mixed their records in London.

Oby Onyioha was the first artist signed to Time. A baby-voiced vocalist with a toothy grin, Onyioha represented the new wave of Nigerian female pop singers emerging with the arrival of the new decade. It might be odd thinking about it today, but twenty-five years ago, the very idea of Nigerian female pop singers was in and of itself quite novel and maybe even a little revolutionary. Looking over the Nigerian popular music scene of the 1960s and 70s, you notice that female singers are very rare, owing largely to the prevaiing perception in the culture that a female singer was two, maybe three notches above a prostitute. Yes, there were a couple of ladies like Joyce Obong or Alice Eyo who cut a few sides or featured as girl singers in the highlife orchestras, but their careers were usually brief: they got married and left the singing behind, because it just was not a good look for a woman of decency.

Which is not to say that no women whatsoever were able to grab a microphone without letting go of dignity. In the early 1970s, Nelly Uchendu and Joy Nwosu managed this balancing act, and Julie Coker released some well-received records, as well. But Coker had the advantage of already being a respected television newscaster and in any case, her records featured "folk" music rather than "pop." Uchendu and Nwosu were also billed as "folk singers," clearly a much more respectable sobriquet than "rock singer." Other than the freespirited and fiercely independent Lijadu Sisters, who started out singing folk but switched to rock--and frankly, were viewed by some as being kind of "loose"--it's hard to think of too many female "pop" singers from that era.

Then came the 1980s, bringing with them Onyeka Onwenu, Martha Ulaeto, Julie Pip, Dora Ifudu, Uche Ibeto, Funmi Adams, Ima Valentine and a score of educated modern ladies holding their heads high and singing the liberated songs of the New Woman--and some of them even wearing trousers as they did it! After the decidedly austere presentation of the folk singers, to have a woman like Oby Onyioha wearing red lipstick and a perm, cooing "I Want To Feel Your Love" and exhorting her sisters to "Enjoy Your Life" while decadent strings swooped around her was a deliciously radical change of pace, forerunning a substantial cultural shift.

In his Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music, Ronnie Graham attributes this sudden surge in female singers to the success of Nigerian entertainer Patti Boulaye, who had become the UK's answer to Diana Ross after winning the TV talent show New Faces in 1978. I used to think that was just a little bit farfetched since Patricia Ngozi Ebigwe had been in her teens when she left the country during the war and her rise to stardom had entirely taken place away from Nigerian shores, so I thought of her more as a "Nigerian-born singer" than a Nigerian singer per se.

Of course, I didn't doubt that Boulaye was an inspiring figure to Nigerian women, especially as her kisser was plastered on the wrapper of the most popular bath soap in Nigeria (1:17 mark, yall), but I felt her success said as much about the prospects of Nigerian female pop musicians at home as, say, Shirley Bassey's did. But when I think about it now, Boulaye was not as divorced from the Naija scene as she might have seemed; in 1976, before she really blew up, she returned home to star in one of the first major Nigerian feature films, Ladi Ladebo's Bisi, Daughter of the River.

If Boulaye's meteoric rise left any doubt regarding the commercial appeal of Nigerian female pop singers, Theadora Ifudu blew it off the map. In 1979, the arty co-host of NTA Channel 10's Bar Beach Show self-released her debut album First Time Out (backed by members of Monomono) and almost immediately was signed by Epic Records and whisked off to New York to record her followup. It was official; someone out there wanted to listen to modern Nigerian women.

It made sense that the next singer poised to take advantage of this new vogue would be the woman regarded as one of the grand dames of Nigerian female pop. In 1981, Christy Essien-Igbokwe was only 21 but was an old hand, having released her first record (1977's Freedom) when she was a mere 17. Like Coker and Ifudu, she had been a beloved television personality and her wholesome image made her the perfect ambassador for the country. Her sixth album was set to be a major affair intended to cross her over to international audiences.

The new album would be the first album release from Lagos International Records: I don't know a great deal of the story behind Lagos International, but from the slick LIR releases I've seen, it is clear that it was a London-based label more or less dedicated to disseminating Nigerian pop music in Europe and America. LIR's domestic marketing and distribution was handled by Skylark Records, the label owned by Chief Olu Aboderin, founder of the Nigerian Punch newspaper (at which Essien's husband, Edwin Igbokwe was GM at the time). Several Skylark releases featured arrangements by Lemmy Jackson--who, with BLO, had also backed Essien on her previous album, 1980's Give Me A Chance--so not surprisingly, Jackson got the job helming the Ever Liked My Person? sessions in Los Angeles.

Ever Liked My Person? deviated from previous Christy Essien outings in numerous ways. For one, no Nigerian musicians on the record; Jackson instead used seasoned L.A. studio vets like George Bohannon, Webster Lewis and James Gadson, imbuing it with the ultra-professional, early-80s West coast gloss of a Brenda Russell record. (Just in case you're wondering: I like Brenda Russell.) And the material ditches the funk and soul that characterized previous Christy releases in favor of adult contempo, country & western, and highly polished pre-World Music™ fusions of Caribbean rhythms sung over in Yoruba, Efik and Igbo. The record itself was pressed up on snazzy green vinyl!

I don't know the extent to which Person? achieved its goals of putting Christy on the international radar (I recall seeing her mentioned in write-ups in minor rock mags) but it is definitely her best known album back home. If there's one Christy Essien tune universally considered an evergreen classic in Nigeria, it's "Seun Rere," the song with which she represented Nigeria at... some international song contest.

(I can't remember exactly what it was called... It was like Eurovision, except I think it was in L.A. I remember the announcer's voice proclaiming "CHRISTY ESSIEN i-guh-BO-kway!!" and her coming out and performing "Seun Rere" and "Ka Anyi Gba Egwu"--the latter with some frantic dancing--and then they showed a video of her walking the streets of Los Angeles singing "Ever Liked My Person?" It's stunning that I can hardly find any documentation of this online, because it was quite a big deal at the time; thereafter, she became known as "Nigeria's Lady of Songs.")

Lemmy Jackson's sumptuous solo album, Tonight, was recorded simultaneously with Onyioha's, using the same Phonodisk standby studio players like Eugene Ndema, Basil Barap and Paul Sokeng (I believe all three were Cameroonians) as well as his BLO colleague Laolu Akins. In London, he overdubbed strings and horns (provided by Luke Tunney, Annie Whitehead, and Gary Barnacle) and percussion from London-based Nigerian musician Keni St. George.

I can imagine that the results might be a tad rich for some tastes, but this was pretty much what a lot of people wanted to hear back in '81: Homegrown music with production that was just as slick and "sophisticated" as anything by Gamble & Huff or The Bee Gees. Lord knows I ate it all up: the rare Morris Michael guitar solo on the title track... the mutated bass on "I Can Satisfy You"... the restrained vocal on the ballad "Tell Me Love"... the subtle tonal shifts between chorus and verse in the bubbleheaded disco number "Make Your Body Dance"... I loved it all and I still do. (A different version of the song appeared on BLO's 1980 Bulky Backside LP, by the way.)

While I Want To Feel Your Love and Tonight sold well and signalled a promising start for Time Communications, they ended up being the label's only releases. Apparently, Aifuwa quickly learned that as the economy started dipping, the rewards of the home market alone were insufficient to support or justify the expenditure he was pouring into the enterprise. Aifuwa didn't leave the business of show, though; later in the year, he staged the massive Tempo '81 concert featuring (among others) Miriam Makeba, The Commodores, and reggae band Third World, who so enjoyed their trip to Nigeria that they immortalized it in song.

Phonodisk also packed it in a couple of years later, a casualty of perpetual mismanagement. Haruna Ishola was a very smart and ambitious man, but he was also illiterate and spoke no English; hence, he was dependent upon his children to carry out most of the label's day-to-day business. Let's just say they didn't exactly uphold dad's noble aspirations for the company.

Out of the fray, Lemmy Jackson ascended from session man to studio royalty. BLO called it quits in 1982, freeing Jackson up to devote himself to fulltime production. He would enjoy a decade-long run as Nigeria's producer par excellence, weathering changes in public taste from disco and boogie to reggae and beyond. After the hits dried up for him altogether, he accepted the invitation from the governor of Akwa Ibom State to run the state's new ultramodern recording facility in Uyo, where he resides today, developing new acts and training the next generation of studio wizards.

Now, there's something I've been wanting to clear up regarding Tonight. In a previous post, I referred to Lemmy Jackson as a "velvet-voiced soul singer and keyboardist." This characterization was based on the Pendergrassian baritone on display throughout the Tonight album.

I never actually owned this album back then, but I knew it every song on it by heart because Cross River Radio played the thing from end to end, as they did with Ever Liked My Person? and Oby Onyioha's I Want To Feel Your Love. (I should probably mention that both Jackson and Essien were local kids done good.) So I never really read the sleeve notes on Lemmy Jackson's Tonight; I just knew that these songs were credited to him.

So, not long after I made that post, I'm looking at the credits on Tonight and I notice that right at the bottom underneath every other credit--including the engineers and stuff--that it says "Lead vocal - Selmore Lewison."

Hmmmm.... That's interesting. Lead vocal on what? All the songs seem to be sung by the same singer...

Then I realize that Lemmy Jackson is not credited for a vocal performance anywhere on the record; not even for background vox.

Then I realize that on BLO's last three records, Lemmy Jackson is the only member of the band who is never credited with any vocals whatsoever.

For some reason, I felt a bit deceived... Like, after 25 years of thinking he sang these songs, he actually didn't sing shit?

I guess I can't be mad... It's not like he ever claimed that he did sing on the album (even though they practically buried that "Lead vocal" credit) and hey... They called him the "Quincy Jones of Nigeria," right? I guess this "Selmore Lewison" was his James Ingram! And it explained a lot, really: I had long wondered why--if he had a voice like that--he had never released another solo album. Then again, it raised the question why me and my man Enyi felt we could hear a tinge of an Efik/Ibibio accent on songs like "I Can Satisfy You" and "Tell Me Love" while "Selmore Lewison" was clearly a name that could only belong to a West Indian?

Who was this "Selmore Lewison"?

Well, it didn't take too long to ascertain that Selmore Ezekiel Lewinson was the birth name of Dan-I, a Jamaican-born British singer who scored a top 20 UK hit in 1979 with "Monkey Chop"--an early Trevor Horn production that incidentally got a lot of burn on Cross River Radio. (I actually thought that it was a Nigerian song, largely because of the pidgin English lyrics... I probably should have saved this for "West Indian Musicians I Once Thought Were Nigerian" week.)

Sure enough, "Dan I" was credited as a background singer on the Oby Onyioha album, so I decided to find out more about Mr. Lewinson. Here is some of what I found.

Dan-I performed in various styles throughout his long career--pop, rock, reggae, ska, gospel--he even toured Nigeria during FESTAC '77 and was a member of a short-lived Funkees splinter group called Abraka (apparently named for the 1974 Funkees single).

Sadly, Dan-I passed away in September 2006. So I'm posting the Tonight album in his memory (and also dedicating it to my boy Etino).

Hope y'all enjoy it as much as I do.
LEMMY JACKSON - TONIGHT (TIME COMMUNICATIONS, 1981, TPLP1001)

Lemmy Jackson- Yamaha Acoustic and Electric Grand Pianos, Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, Prophet 5 Synthesizer
Laolu Akins - Drums on all except "We Can Do It"
Basil N. Barap - Bass
Eugene Ndema - Guitar
Paul Sokeng - Drums on "We Can Do It"
Morris Michael - Guitar on "Tonight"
Percussion - Keni St. George, Lemmy Jackson, Dean Disi
African xylophone - Francis Igboke, Igwe Ede
Horns - Luke Tunney (trumpet), Gary Barnacle (sax), Annie Whitehead (trombone),
Strings - The Locrian String Ensemble

Backing vocals - Jane James, Ray Shell, Morris Michael, Simeon Catlyn
Lead vocal - Selmore Lewinson

Backing tracks recorded at Phonodisk Studio, Ijebu-Ode, Nigeria
Overdubs at Hillside Studio, London, England
String overdubs and mixing at Rak Studios, London.

All songs written and arranged by Lemmy Jackson
Horn & string arrangements by Luke Tunney
Get the ZIP or track by track:

SIDE A
1. Don't Let Love Slip Away*
2. Tell Me Love
3. I Can Satisfy You

SIDE B
1. We Can Do It*
2. Tonight
3. Make Your Body Dance



*Yoooooooooooo... I gotta apologize for the skip at the beginning of "We Can Do It" and the maybe four skips in "Don't Let Love Slip Away"... I actually ripped those songs, like, eight different times trying to get rid of them, but in the end I had to accept that the problem was due not to scratches or even dirt, but small defects in the vinyl itself. Hope it doesn't bother anybody too much!**


**Why am I so apologetic about this? Shit, stuff like this is just part of the vinyl experience! I dunno, though... Modern listeners (among which I count myself, I guess) are so conditioned to a perfectly pristine listening experience at all times that I feel almost like I'm spitting in your faces by posting any recording that's anything less than flawless!

Here's some bonus beats for ya, for what it's worth:

Oby Onyioha - "Wait for Me"
Christy Essien-Igbokwe - "Shooby Shooby"
Oby Onyioha - "I'll Put It Right Again" (Doesn't this song kinda anticipate Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called..."? BTW I really don't care if you think this tune is a saccharrine monstrosity, I love it!)

***12/5/07: I kinda implied above that Morris Michael was a "young, white session player"; however, I just found this photo of Private Lives and alas! he appears to be a gentleman of significant negritude! My bad... I guess I racially profiled the dude based on what his band sounded like, which is more Kajagoogoo than Imagination. (Actually, Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs guests on Prejudice and Pride.)

For what it's worth, I had only ever seen the album's front cover, which for some reason pictures a drawing of two white guys... So you can't blame me!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

April 4, 1971: The Stairsteps on The Barbara McNair Show ((IN COLOR))



Dunno... Just had a hankering for that Windy City soul today...

That's a young, pre-P-Funk Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey on the drums, by the by.

Ahh... what the hell. Since we're looking at YouTube videos featuring 1971 performances by juvenile soul groups, here's the Voices of East Harlem at the Soul to Soul concert in Accra, Ghana on March 6, 1971.



Man... The crowd was feeling it! (And can you blame them?) They seem a lot more hype than they were during Ike & Tina's set:



I remember reading somewhere that it was not so much that they weren't into the music per se, but the conservative and painfully polite Ghanaian audience just wasn't sure how to react to a woman such as Tina (and those fine-ass Ikettes).

(Why yes, I am somewhat bored today! How did you guess?)

Friday, November 23, 2007

Just a l'il somethin' to jumpstart the weekend right quick

What manner of appellation does one apply to these musical morsels by Maxwell Udoh, former lead singer of the Doves of Calabar?*

Regardless of what the label may say, this is no average record: t's a little bit makossa, a little bit Nico Mbarga, a little bit discolypso, a little synthpop, and it's all held together by funky basslines that pop with such viciousness that they'll crunch your spinal cord if you don't take your time.

I don't know what to call this sound but what I do know is that if this shit here don't make you jump up even a little bit, well...

I have some unfortunate news. I-I don't know how to break it to you, but...

looks away soulfully; takes deep breath.

...You're dead.

I'm sorry. We did everything we could.

Don't Make Me Wait Too Long

This Is No Way (To Say Goodbye)


*Someone requested some of their material recently, right? I'll be getting to that soon enough, trust!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Now I know my Naija 80s babies gonna feel this one...

I think it was sometime in late 1985 that I first heard that Yvonne Maha was dead.

Two years earlier, she had been the sensational talent find of 1983. Her Sonny Okosuns-produced debut Child For Sale had been a smashing success--the toast of the primary school hit parade, the soundtrack to many a preteen birthday party and family roadtrip. She had blown into our lives like a whirlwind of adorableness and goshdarn it, the public was sucked in. Now two years had passed since anybody had seen or heard anything from her. Two years can feel like a mighty long time when you've been alive for just over a decade yourself, and people started to wonder and speculate as to why she hadn't come out with another album.

And then the news of her fate hit the national gossip network: Yvonne had gotten pregnant. Tried to have an abortion. Something went wrong. She died.

Now this puzzled the hell out of me at the time. "She was having an abortion? How old was she, thirteen?"

"Yes," my aunt replied sternly. "That's why she died. She was too young and her body could not withstand the pregnancy. And the moral of the story is: Don't have sex before marriage! You hear?"

Well, however well-meaning the moral may have been, the story itself was soon discredited as pure fabu(lism): Some people knew which secondary school Yvonne Maha went to and confirmed that she had never been pregnant and was certainly not dead. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief and went back to waiting for her follow-up to Child For Sale.

About two years later, the rumor mill once again reported again that Yvonne Maha had died.

"I thought they said she died two years ago!" I groaned.

"That was just a rumor," my aunt clucked. "She didn't die back then, but she's dead now. This time it's true."

"How did she die?"

"Complications from abortion."

Oooooooooookay.

"And that is why you should not have sex before marriage!"

After that, the "Yvonne Maha is dead" story would resurface anew every few years. And with each new iteration, its peddlers would firmly assure you that yes, this time she really was dead and that yes, she died during an abortion. As recently as 2005 I heard people telling that story.

Well, for the record: In 2007 Yvonne Maha is alive and well and living in Brazil. But the persistent reports of her demise do kind of beg an interesting question: Why did the public seem to so desperately want--almost need--Yvonne Maha dead? And from an abortion, of all things? And why is it that as years have gone by and Yvonne Maha has receded somewhat in the public's memory, the "death by abortion" story has been passed on to early-90s preteen singer Tosin Jegede? (For the record: Tosin Jegede is not dead, she's a sculptor.)

Could it be that these little girl singers represent purity and innocence, and so the thought of them growing up into womanhood and inevitably engaging in womanly activities such as sexual intercourse is so unacceptable that we must create these myths where their sexual precocity leads to their destruction?

> shrug < Shit, I dunno.

Anyway, if you were a kid in Nigeria in the 80s, you almost certainly know this album inside out. Listening to it now, I'm surprised at how well it holds up for me--I mean, even if twee cutesy-kiddie stuff like this makes your molars hurt, you can't completely front on the music itself, can you? This was the period when Sonny Okosuns could do no wrong and his Ozziddi band was on the way to becoming the Ozziddi brand. The tasteful instrumental performances and production on this album are very much on par with great Okosuns albums such as Fire in Soweto and 3rd World. I remember really loving the backing vox on this record, and they still sound pretty good to me, too.

The song "Don't Treat Me Like a Child" still makes me slightly uncomfortable, too. I used to love this song back in '83, when I first realized that I loved ballads, but even then I thought it was a bit on the creepy side. It was so obviously a ventriloquist number with a grownup putting these supposedly cute/coy words into a little girl's mouth, but what made it particularly discomfiting was the video: Yvonne and some boy sitting on a bench at Apapa Amusement Park, dressed in their best birthday party duds as she serenades him. Both of them look ungodly embarrassed by the whole affair, especially the end where she reluctantly slides over (you can actually see her blushing as she looks off camera at someone who is obviously goading her forward) and hugs him, singing "Wait for me to grow up... Then I will kiss you, too... Then I will kiss you... Wait for me to grow up, then I will love you... too."

And the worst thing about it was that rumor had it the boy was her brother!
YVONNE MAHA - CHILD FOR SALE (GOLD RECORDS, 1983, GR01)

Keyboards - Johnny Woode & Tony Edmonds
Drums - Geoffrey Omadeboh
Bass - Willie Nfor
Lead guitar - Yakubu Daniel
Rhythm guitar - Nelson Tackie
Congas & percussion - Patrick Oziegbe
Trumpets - Big John & Robert Ngumu
Saxophone - Becks Abeke
Horn arrangements - Luke Tunney

All songs written by Sonny Okosuns with the exception of "Wings of a Dove" by Millie Small and "Layo Layo" which is traditional and arranged by Sonny Okosuns.

Album produced and directed by Sonny Okosuns.
Album arranged by Ozziddi led by Johnny Woode Olimah.
Download the ZIP , or track by track:

SIDE A
1. Wings of a Dove
2. Don't Treat Me Like a Child
3. Diocha

SIDE B
1. Lagos Town
2. Going To School
3. Layo Layo

Friday, November 16, 2007

H.P.B. = "Has played better" (Ofege, Part 3)

So here's the situation: Higher Plane Breeze is my favorite Ofege album.

It also happens to be the one Ofege album that I own only one copy of, and whoever owned that copy before me must have loved it as much as I do--or more--because the surface of that bad boy is worn smooth as glass. When I play it, I have to tape a nickel's worth of pennies to the cartridge to keep the needle from skittering across the platter like an elephant on ice skates, clumsily grasping for purchase where there is none.

I was able to acquire two additional copies of this record a few years ago, but some jerk absconded with them (along with a suitcase full of other records) and promptly disappeared into the recesses of Elephant & Castle. (I'm still trying to track down the asshole.) Since then, I've been trying to acquire a good copy, but it's pretty pricey on the collectors' market. I remain on the hunt, though!

In the meantime, I reached out to a couple of record collector types who I know have the album--and who I'm pretty certain download music with abandon from this blog--and begged 'em for a rip. Of course they demurred. A lot of record collectors really hate sharing because if the music gets out to too many people, it dilutes the specialness of their assiduously cultivated collections. I don't get it. I mean, I understand the logic but I just don't get it. Whatever, though.

So yeah, since I promised, I just went ahead and ripped my crappy copy. I dunno if the quality is good enough to play in a club or on a radio show, but I just wanted to give those of you who haven't heard it a chance to check it out.

Originally, I cleaned up almost all the "frying akara" crackle and pop, but it ended up taking part of the drums with it, so I had to put a lot of it back in. (Even now, if you listen closely you can hear that the drums are slightly clipped.) Also, there are a couple of mildly distracting skips on "H.P.B." and "Our People" (my two favorite songs on the album!) but that sort of thing will not kill us, will it?

OFEGE - HIGHER PLANE BREEZE (Polydor, 1977, POLP015)

Paul Alade - Bass guitar
Melvin Noks - Lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Mike Meme - Drums, percussions & conga
Soga Benson - Lead guitar
Robert Bailey - Keyboards
Kiki Gyan - Keyboard synthesizer on "Contraband"
Miranda (English Rose) - Strings on "Come Right Back"

All songs composed & arranged by Ofege
Produced by Des Majex
Melvin was kind enough to identify the band members for me. They are, left to right: Melvin Noks, Soga Benson, Dapo Olumide (squatting), Paul Alade, Mike Meme.

You know, I just noticed that despite his prominent placement on the cover, keyboardist Dapo Olumide isn't credited with any musical contribution on the album. In his stead we have Robert Bailey (formerly of Osibisa) and oddly enough, Kiki Gyan, who had replaced Bailey in Osibisa five years earlier. Actually, Melvin kind of suggested that Ofege was, at the heart of it, the trio of himself, Paul Alade and Mike Meme (who appears to have been the primary musical visionary). Soga Benson (who was a member of the St. Gregs rock band Grotto) was pretty much a session player and Dapo... Well, it looks like he was sort of on-and-off, hanging around mostly for the poontang.

(I had always heard that one of the members of Ofege was a prominent pilot now. Turns out that the current manager of Aero Contractors, Nigeria is one Captain Dapo Olumide.)

Some other info I might need to correct: I said earlier that Try and Love and Last of the Origins were recorded during the band's final year at St. Gregory's College and that Higher Plane Breeze was might have been recorded while they were attending the University of Lagos. Melvin tells me this is not so. None of them went to UniLag (most of them went to England and Germany for university) and Higher Plane Breeze was recorded right after they graduated from high school.

Also, I previously stated that Try and Love and Last of the Origins were released in 1973 and 1974 respectively. I have to admit that I picked up that bit of info because it was stated as such on many other websites and I assumed they had been able to confirm somehow because the date of release is not printed anywhere on the labels or jackets of those two records.

For the record: Melvin insists that Ofege was formed in 1973 and the first album was not recorded until 1974 (when they were in Form Four) and the second one in 1975. I'm gonna go back and edit that in the old posts just so as not to perpetuate wrong info.

Anyway, I'll try to confirm all this stuff when I do the official interview.

UPDATE 11/17/07: WE HAVE A CLEAN RIP OF THE ALBUM NOW!!!

Get the Zip > HERE < or track-by-track:

SIDE A

1. Bazooka Bash
2. To Be Wise
3. Contraband
4. Come Right Back

SIDE B

1. H.P.B.
2. Our People
3. Majic Music
4. It's All Over

It's reassuring to know that there's good people out there who will hook up a brother in need... A million thanks to Calumbinho and Zim. I owe you guys!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The son also rises: Femi Kuti goes global

Previously, I expressed befuddlement at Island Records' decision--when looking for a new Third World Superstar in the 1980s to replace the late Bob Marley--to sign the relatively temperate King Sunny Ade rather than the sexier, more extreme, more rock & roll Fela. Really though, you can't blame them that much: As those who have lived and worked with Fela will testify, the same fire-veined, volatile personality that made him such an exhilarating presence both onstage and in the studio also rendered him a major pain in the nyash to manage or negotiate with. So it's understandable that the multinationals might choose to keep their distance from him and go with a more docile and pliable artist.

However, in one of his last interviews, Fela revealed to Keziah Jones that one major label had actually made a concerted effort to sign him in the early 1990s:

Motown came here some time ago to sign me up. In the first place the deal they were offering me was so ridiculous. These bastards came all the way from America to come and talk this shit? I said to people: “Look at this name ‘Motown.’ That word is Yoruba: mo-ta-ohun, it literally means ‘I sell my voice.’” [Laughter.] I said: “Anybody who goes with these people will be finished.” Then later Motown collapsed or the head was sacked or something like that. They had been found out! Yoruba is the secret of universal witchcraft. I was born here to understand that language, see?
After being turned down flat by Fela, Motown's emissaries were not about to leave Lagos emptyhanded, even if it meant settling for the next best thing. I'm assuming that's what happened anyway, because around that same period, Femi Anikulapo Kuti was signed to Motown subsidiary Tabu.

Before it was acquired by PolyGram and merged into Motown in 1993, Tabu had been an independent label best known for cutting-edge modern soul releases by 80s acts like Alexander O'Neal, Cherrelle, and The S.O.S. Band. Under Motown, it was being refashioned to serve mostly as a World Music™ boutique, with signings such as Lucky Dube and The Wailers Band. While Fela remained unobtainable, the addition of his son to the roster was a credibility-boosting coup for the new Tabu.

Femi wasn't exactly a Johnny-Just-Come himself, having cut his teeth as a saxman in his father's Egypt 80 organization in his teens and fronting his own Positive Force band since 1986. His 1989 debut, No Cause For Alarm? and the 1991 followup M.Y.O.B. had both enjoyed moderate success in Nigeria, but Femi remained shrouded by his old man's shadow. The public found him to be a nice enough lad, and a competent musician (possibly even more so than his father, as his fluid, circular-breathed sax lines sanded away Fela's characteristic discordant honks and squawks) but utterly lacking in the hard-headedness, the brio, the gra-gra that made Fela the patron saint of the sufferman. Needless to say, not too many people expected him to graduate to the world stage so soon... Not even Fela himself.

(As much as Fela may have later railed against Motown, Femi has reported that his father was at the time deeply impressed when he scored the Motown deal, and proudly trumpeted it to all and sundry as evidence of his own superior child-rearing technique.)

Unfortunately, the Motown contract was short-lived; as alluded to by Fela in the above quote, the record company was about to hit some hard times.

In 1995, Andre Harrell was appointed president and CEO of Motown. Harrell--who had revolutionized and reenergized the R&B genre in the late 80s and early 90s with his Uptown Records label and was expected to retool and refocus the legendary label for a new generation--ascended to the throne with an extended self-promotion campaign of astounding profligacy, but seemed unable to produce significant results. Perhaps he was lost without the two men who had helped him make Uptown a success--New Jack production whizkid Teddy Riley and a young, visionary intern named Sean "Puffy" Combs--but of the 30 new acts signed by Motown during Harrell's tenure, only a handful managed to release product. And they mostly sucked. (Remember Jason Weaver? Taral Hicks? That girl group Shades with that song "Tell me your name, what car do you drive, how much money do you make"? Of course you don't! And trust me: you are the lucky one!)

By 1997, with losses hitting the $100 million mark, Motown was forced to give Harrell the boot and prune the company, in the process scrapping subsidiaries such as MoJazz, Mad Sounds and yes, Tabu. The company did not exactly collapse as Fela described, but the bad publicity permanently tarred the label's reputation and ended its almost 40-year run of relevance.

Even though Motown crashed, Femi Kuti didn't. After Fela's death, Femi took over management of The Shrine, scored a massive hit with the saucy "Beng Beng Beng," landed a new deal with MCA and became a highly respected figure not just among fans of afrobeat and funk, but also in the realms of house, techno, hip-hop, and neo-soul.

In May 2000, he was honored as the Best-Selling African Artist at the World Music Awards in Monaco, where he also took the stage with his band. His rendition of "Beng Beng Beng" got the audience of international music stars and sundry stuffed shirts so hype, it reminded me of the reaction to Ricky Martin's performance of "La Copa de la Vida" at the 1998 Grammys, which led directly to the late-90s "Latin Explosion." If Femi had gotten a chance to play on an awards show that people actually watched, I have no doubt that afrobeat would have really blown up on a global level.

Yesterday, for the first time in maybe seven years, I listened to the one album Femi Kuti released with Motown and was surprised at how great it was. I'm tempted to say that it's his best album, in fact. (Of course, I'd have to listen to 1999's Shoki Shoki again just to be sure; I've not listened to it in a while either, but I remember most of it being fire.) It's interesting, in retrospect, to hear Femi making a run for greatness at a time when Fela was still alive; he sounds hungry, energetic, and most importantly, unladen by the weighty mantle that I feel has burdened his last two albums.

I saw him when he toured behind this album (on the Africa Fete revue with Baaba Maal, Oumou Sangare and... was Lucky Dube on that bill? I forget.); that was the first concert I ever went to in the States. I remember I got a promo cassette there that had a bonus non-album cut. I should have posted that, huh? Okay... I'll dig it up later.

FEMI KUTI - FEMI KUTI (Tabu, 1995)

Femi Anikulapo Kuti - Lead vocals, alto saxophone and solo, soprano saxophone and solo, baritone saxophone
Dele Sosimi - Background vocals, Yamaha DX7, Korg M1, keyboard solo on "Nawa"
Otolorin Laleye - Background vocals, trumpet and solo, flugelhorn solo, percussion
Gbenga Laleye - Background vocals, flugelhorn
Yinka Osindeinde - Background vocals, tenor saxophone and solo
Tiwalade Ogunlowo - Background vocals, trombone
Yemi Folarin - Alto saxophone
Gbenga Ofisesan - Percussion, conga solo
Efosa Igbineweka - Background vocals, rhythm guitar and solo
Obinna Ajuzigwe - Background vocals, bass guitar
Jude Amarikowa - Background vocals, drums and solo
Yeni Anikulapo Kuti - Vocals, tambourine
Sola Anikulapo Kuti - Vocals, clefs
Alaba Otomewo - Vocals, maracas
Funke Yusuf - Vocals
Josh Milan - Korg X1 solo


All songs written by Femi Kuti
All songs produced by Andy Lyden and Femi Anikulapo Kuti
Download the ZIP or get it track by track:

1. Wonder Wonder
2. Survival
3. Frustrations
4. Nawa (Introduction)
5. Nawa
6. Plenty Nonsense
7. Stubborn Problems
8. No Shame
9. Live For Today
10. Changes

Monday, November 12, 2007

A little highlife-soul from Ghana

I neglected to mention in yesterday's Flash Domincii post that Owuro Lojo--the Supersonics' 1970 followup to the massive success of The Great & Expensive Sound--was a flop. To explain the album's poor reception, commentators offered everything from Domincii's overreaching sonic ambition alienating the audience to the relatively bland cover graphics. All of these might be valid factors, but I don't think we can discount the fact that highlife in general was suffering a mild malaise at the time, thanks largely to the rising popularity of soul music, its supreme messiah James Brown and his African avatar, Geraldo Pino.

In Carlos Moore's Fela, Fela: This Bitch of a Life, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti recounts being forced to pack up his highlife band Koola Lobitos and flee Lagos in 1967 when the Sierra Leonean Pino arrived in town and singlehandly demolished the highlife market with his heavy James Brown sound. Fela took refuge in Ghana, but was dismayed to find that even the heartland of highlife was not safe from Pino's sweaty, funky influence. In fact, Ghanaians took to soul even more enthusiastically than Nigerians and by 1968, the Accra Daily Graphic was reporting that "The soul craze ... now dominates the West African pop music nightclub scene (with highlife coming a poor second best)."

In order to survive, highlife orchestras had to start incorporating soul numbers into their repertoires, often "copyrights" (ie cover versions of popular hits). But it's not like they completely capitulated:

Reliable old standbys like the Ramblers and the Tempos (led by the venerable E.T. Mensah) interplayed their swinging clave with incessant soul backbeats and snuck full-on highlife sections into songs like Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" and Aretha's "Save Me."

The younger generation of players proved even more adept at this kind of musical code-switching, as illustrated by George Danquah's "Hot and Jumpy," which almost seamlessly oscillates between sweet-and-sour highlife and hard-edged funk.


But by far, the most organic fusion of highlife and soul during this era is C.K. Mann's "Asafo Beson" (a.k.a. "Funky Hi-Life"), a deconstructive funk track that layers "native" elements like handclaps, foot stomps, choral vocals and small percussion instruments, gradually building the the groove until it reaches a jubilant explosion of ribcage-rattling bass and chirpy organ stabs. "Asafo Beson" originally appeared as just the intro of an album-long concert party LP (which is kinda like the Jamaican "one-riddim" albums, with several different songs being played in a continuous stream over the same groove) but hearing it on its own, "Funky Hi-Life" fades out just in time to get your jollies off and still leave you wanting more.

None of the abovementioned tracks are particularly rare, of course. In fact, all of them have been compiled at various points over the past five years, so many of your probably already have them in your iPods or your Last.fms or whatever the heck y'all be listening to. But that's what I'm grooving to today as I had to work on Veterans Day, so groove with me, won't you?

The Ramblers Dance Band - "Knock on Wood"
from The Hit Sound of the Ramblers Dance Band, Decca, 1968

E.T. Mensah & his Tempos Band - "Save Me"
from E.T. Mensah's African Rhythms, Decca, 1969

George Danquah - "Hot and Jumpy"
from Hot and Jumpy - New Dimensions in African Hustle! Reggae! Native! Soul! Quami, 1970

C.K. Mann & his Carousel 7 - "Funky Hi-Life"
from Funky Highlife, Essiebons, 1975

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Highlife in London: Flash Domincii & the Supersonics

1967 was a gobsmacker of the year for trailblazing music trilling out of Swinging London: Disraeli Gears, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?, Their Satanic Majesties, Bee Gees 1st... and, of course, The Great & Expensive Sound of the Supersonics by Flash Domincii & the Supersonics.

Flash Domincii was a bit of a big deal in the 1960s but today he seems to be mostly forgotten, along with the colorful London highlife scene of which he was a mainstay. African pop music had supported an enthusiastic hepcat following in London since at least 1945 when the West African Rhythm Brothers steamed through Trafalgar Square on V-E Day. When rock & roll exploded on the mainstream in the late 1950s, illustrating the general public's growing taste for "primal" rhythms, many trendwatchers expected its popularity to be fleeting as the audience's palate would logically gravitate toward more rhythmically potent and exotic sounds such as West Indian calypso, South African kwela and West African highlife.

(Such predictions were not unique to the UK, as we are reminded by the kitschy 1957 American teenpic Bop Girl Goes Calypso--its plot centers around an uptight grad student who scientifically calculates that rock & roll is soon to be supplanted by calypso.)

Details on the life and career of Flash Domincii are sparse, so I've never ascertained his real name, date of birth, or even when and where he started playing music. What is clear to me, though, is that he is a Nigerian Yoruba and and seems to have represented a bold new generation of highlife players, arriving on the scene about a decade after the 1950s heyday of London African music luminaries like Nigerians Ambrose Adekoya Campbell, Ginger Folorunsho Johnson and Nat Atkins (born Obafunsho Akinbayo) and the popular Ghanaian bandleader Cab Kaye (a.k.a. Augustus Kwamlah Quaye, father of musicians Caleb, Terri and Finley Quaye, and who was once erroneously believed to also be the grandfather of Tricky).

Domincii's Supersonics included old hands such as West African Rhythm Brothers percussionist Ade Bashorun and Calabar trumpeter Sammy Obot (who led Ghana's unofficial national orchestra, the Broadway--later Uhuru--Dance Band), as well as several rising Young Turks: saxman Teddy Osei (who would go on to cofound Osibisa), guitarists Akanni Akinde (of Victor Olaiya's Cool Cats) and Fred Coker (cofounder of the Afro-rock band Assagai, whose lineup included Terri Quaye), bassist Charles Ononogbo (also of Assagai), drummer Gasper Lawal, percussionist Ayinde Folarin (who played on some of Fela's earliest recordings and later in Assagai, but is probably best known to beatdiggers and psysch heads alike for his role on Demon Fuzz's Afreaka!*) and multiinstrumentalist Peter King.

But the one thing that signified more than any other Domincii's radical standing as a captain of highlife's new wave was the use of the organ, an instrument of sacred connotations that had never before been played in the profane context of highlife. At the time, the organ was showing up with increasing frequency in progressive rock but there's something retro and conservative in the way it underscores the subtle, churchy flavor of the melodies, reminiscent of I.K. Dairo's. In fact, the organ's reedy texture recalls Dairo's accordion, and with the strong Yoruba accent of the music, prominent use of talking drums and and twangy guitars, a case can be made that Domincii's Supersonics served not only as a training ground for the burgeoning Afro-rock generation, but as also an indicator towards the direction juju music would take in the next decade.

Over the next few years, Domincii would further experiment with the possibilities of highlife orchestration, but he appeared to be too far ahead of the audience--or maybe they were just turning more toward other genres. The Supersonics disbanded in 1970 and Domincii dropped off the radar, reemerging in the 80s with a more Ghanaian-influenced sound and an increased appreciation for reggae and jazz.

FLASH DOMINCII & THE SUPERSONICS - THE GREAT & EXPENSIVE SOUND OF THE SUPERSONICS (Fisher Music, 1967, FMLP002)

Sammy Obot - Trumpet
Peter King - Alto sax, flute, violin
Teddy Osei - Tenor sax
Akanni Akinde - Rhythm guitar
Fred Coker - Lead guitar
Charles Onos - Bass guitar
Eddie Davies - Organ
Gasper Lawal - Drums
Ayinde Folarin - Conga drums
Ade Bashorun - Bongos
Osun - Talking drum
Flash Domincii - Vocals

Recorded at Maximum Sound Studio, London


Download the zip HERE. Or download track by track:

SIDE A

1. Eagle & Me
2. T'Oluwa Lawa Yio Se (Organ)
3. Adumadan
4. Iwin Nla Pade Wa (Organ)
5. Ololufe Jowo Wa

SIDE B

1. Orente (Organ)
2. Gbayesata
3. Igbehin A Dara Fun Wa
4. Kabo Oloyin Momo
5. Wa Ololufe

(You'll notice that I've taken a new approach to delivering the music, especially for my folks who want/need to download one track at a time. Let me know if it works for you or if you find it unthinkably stupid.)

*I didn't upload it and I haven't downloaded it either; I just happened across it while searching for an article with which to explain Demon Fuzz to the unaware. So help yourself... Hopefully it is what it says it is!

Update 5/25/08: Sorry, kids... Had to kill the links. Sincerest apologies to Mr. Domincii; no harm was intended.