/ Onye nzuki, EMI Nigeria, 1973
A while back, in the days before it was possible to download my way to knowledge, I did something I would not normally countenance, and bought a couple of Rough Guide CDs in an attempt to get to grips with the music of Africa. Aside from the obvious routes in via the groups most frequently played by John Peel and Andy Kershaw back in the day – Bhundu Boys, Four Brothers – I was at a loss as to where to start my exploration of that vast continent’s sounds. And so I found myself before the African music compilations in one of the chain stores on Oxford Street.
Rough Guide’s ‘world music’ series tends to cover a range of styles and are not limited to the golden periods of any particular country, which is a good thing or bad depending on your point of view. I can never quite escape the feeling that this might be like listening to an equivalent guide for Scotland and discovering – with the recent BBC4 documentary Caledonia Dreamin’ in mind – that it contains not only the music of Orange Juice, Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian but also Hue and Cry, Deacon Blue and Wet Wet Wet. But ears can’t be deceived – they like what they like, and when a Brazilian compilation goes soft and diva-ish and the sheen of a modern production replaces the fresh acoustics of that artiste’s earlier recordings, I skip to the next track.
To give the Rough Guides their due, Congolese soukous contains Kanda Bongo Man’s ‘Saϊ’, which has a glorious guitar sound at least as humdinging as your favourite indie picker’s and singing to match, and kicks off courtesy of ‘Cooperation’ by Franco and Sam Mangwana with ten plus minutes of equally glorious guitar, brass and deadly deep subs. Nigeria and Ghana offers the skittering rhythms and choral harmonies of King Sunny Ade’s ‘Maa jo’, Sir Victor Uwaifo (more of whom later) and recent directions in music from Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen in the stretched and lunar form of ‘Asiko’, which you could seamlessly segue into ‘Bug in the bassbin’ by Innerzone Orchestra (Carl Craig) or any one of its remixes.
I remain very much a novice on the subject of African music. But anyone wanting to undertake their own investigations could do no better than start with Nigeria special: modern highlife, Afro-sounds & Nigerian blues 1970-6 (Soundway) , where the unfamiliar bends until it is familiar, and the familiar – calypso, A love supreme, the organ of Jackie Mittoo, Scratch playing the studio, the scratchy funk of Sly & The Family Stone, the foot-stompin’ disco of Hamilton Bohannon, even motorik Neu! – is charged with the celebratory energy of a West African perspective, built on the foundation of the brassy big band highlife style of the sixties. With the ante subsequently upped by the emergence of Fela Kuti and James Brown’s first tour of West Africa in late 1971, there followed an explosion of musical experimentation and stylistic hybridisation, and it’s this which Nigeria special so spectacularly documents.
Let’s consider for a moment the music of our own sceptic isle during those years. I’ll let you have Nick Drake, John Martyn, Bowie, Kevin Ayers, and Robert Wyatt, and at a push, Roxy Music. I don’t have to remind you of the prog, soft rock and dead-carcass-in-the-road pop crimes committed after Plastic Ono Band and before punk’s tabula rasa inspired or allowed minds and hearts to work differently, and no amount of recasting these crimes as guilty pleasures will force me to concede the point. Those years were without doubt British music’s darkest hours. Across the pond and elsewhere in the world, innovation was in full swing; boundaries were being pushed back, destroyed. It would be a while before that was happening again here.
I have to confess, on sizing up Nigeria special as a purchase, that I balked at the air of kitsch attaching itself in my mind to group names like St. Augustine & His Rovers Dance Band, the Nigerian Police Force Band, and Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band Of Aba, but I needn’t have worried. The names reflect the traditions of Nigerian music, and its recent history, with many musicians learning their trade in army or police force bands. And cuts like ‘Feso Jaiye’ (‘Take life slowly’) by the Sahara All Stars Of Jos have musical space and rhythms as generous as the best funk of the time, the best conscious jazz of the previous decade, and (generalising it to an archetype) a guitar sound that stands against any style of music, any place, any time.
The Semi Colon on the other hand immediately presents itself as a great name to possess; one imagines that Lasbrey Colon really was born with that surname, and was therefore bound to punctuate the name of any group he formed. His self-congratulatory Afrobeat foot-stomps like Bohannon and speeds with the urgency of ‘Time has come today’ by the Chambers Brothers. Miles Cleret’s notes state that ‘Nekwaha Semi Colon’ ‘doesn’t sound much like anything else from the time’ – nor since, I would add. There’s an argument to be made on this basis for flipsides as a staple of the archival collection or retrospective, for it was in those shadowy, dusty vinyl corners that possible paths were experimentally pursued. Often these were paths not subsequently followed, or they were simply dead ends, but when history casts its eye back, it occasionally sees what was missed at the time, and this collection delivers on that remit. A number of the tracks are culled from the flip or from EPs, demonstrating the thoroughness with which Miles Cleret carried out his research, and making this an essential purchase not only for the novice but listeners who already know their way round Africa. On ‘I want a break thru’, the Hykkers anticipate the rough desert licks of Tinariwen with an instrumental as funky as anything released in the US that same year (1972). The compilation even presents – from the B side to his dad’s A – what is thought to be the only recorded work by the Tony Benson Sextet.
The A sides and album tracks are equally delicious, offering songs as varied as the languages in which they are sung, and infinite in the unique patterns – the ceaselessly ingenious repetition and variation of fuguelike arabesques – that are sprung from the strings seemingly of any African who picks up a guitar. That they should be set against similarly inventive rhythms stemming from ancient tradition is part of why Soundway are right to append the word ‘special’ to Nigeria. The first three tracks on the compilation (by the Anambra Beats, Celestine Ukwu & His Philosophers National, and the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination) are typical in having awesome guitar and rhythm which at any given moment has the quality of seeming to be without end, which is just how the listener wants it to be. The fourth is ‘Akula owu onyeara’ by The Funkees, which blends James Brown with ‘Popcorn’-style Lee Perry, a mad echo-laden vocal about a madman, and, as the notes suggest, ‘a bassline that sounds like it was produced in Detroit about fifteen years later.’
And so it goes on – there’s barely anything that you wouldn’t want to listen to repeatedly, and always something that connects with your non-African listening. On the intro to ‘Osalobua rekpama’’, Sir Victor Uwaifo’s guitar chimes out a melodic line that is spookily reminiscent of Paul Weller’s guitar on both ‘Liza Radley’ and ‘Mr Clean’. Perhaps the biggest name on Nigeria special, and one of the most consistent to judge from his appearances on other compilations, it’s great to hear that a Soundway retrospective dedicated to Sir Vic is forthcoming. Soundway’s production values obviously owe a debt to the consummate repackaging of archive material espoused by Soul Jazz, with fabulous graphic design and comprehensive sleeve notes – as thorough as the often sketchy local knowledge of individual artists allows, that is – and recordings you would swear come from the original masters rather than cleaned-up transfer from vinyl.
Treat yourself to Nigeria special and keep your ears peeled for more.