AJA WELE-WELE (Palenque Records)

Soukous died out in Paris as it became a watered-down imitation of itself — whether it was the musicians aging and slowing down, getting rich, complacent and jaded, or studio effects that ruined the music is hard to say. But then it found a new lease of life in Colombia where the crate diggers and picotero sound-systems reimagined it by mixing it with their own music. Then a similar thing happened in Nigeria: the reissue labels had been crazy for "Afro funk," desperately scraping the archives for more and more obscure and less and less compelling discs showing the influence of American 70s music on African's largest country, while contemporary Nigerian music went largely unnoticed in the West. But of course there were always those interested in seeing past that: in Congo there are hundreds of thousands of brilliant but now largely lost recordings from the pre-soukous era (or from WWII to Mobutu), while in Nigeria we always found a strong following for the likes of Nico Mbarga, Oliver de Coque, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, Nana Ampadu and his African Brothers and Godwin Opara's Oriental Brothers whose music blossomed after the Civil war over Biafran secession. Now Colombia's distinguished Palenque Records label has reached across the pond and issued a new album of classic Igbo highlife that is a breath of fresh air, or a brisk ocean breeze in the stifling air of Afro-funk, Afro-disco and the rest of that miasma. There is an interesting connection between Nigeria and Congo and that is in the sweet guitar riffing found in the likes of Oliver De Coque and his Congolese counterparts. De Coque apparently learned guitar from a Congolese musician in Nigeria while the great Celestine Ukwu also incorporated the sound into his work. The tracks stretch out in that timeless way, with multiple percussion instruments susurrating underneath like a tropical night full of giant mechanical crickets, a singular guitar lead and smooth lyrics, that we imagine are praising the patrons. Nayoka and his Talented Fellows band of Africa have been performing for over 14 years. Live horns seem like a luxury at this point. His music comes from "passion, practice and consistency" he says. It goes down very smoothly and though it is highly reminiscent of those classic acts I listed above, it is made new in these crisp and clear recordings. A translation of the lyrics would be useful, or even a bit about the personnel, but this is the digital age, so dig it.

EDO FUNK EXPLOSION VOL 1 (Analog Africa No 31 AA091)

Osayomore Joseph and Akaba Man join Sir Victor Uwaifo as the three big hitters on this new release of funk recorded in Benin City, Nigeria, in the early 1980s. The rhythms are very much in the "Afrobeat" mode pioneered by Tony Allen, though we are assured they are more indigenous than the disco style that appeared in Lagos concurrently. However there is a discoid loping beat, like a knackered mechanism animating the wonky groove of Osayomore Joseph, the most unusual of these artists. Nigeria at that time was experiencing an oil boom as it emerged from a horrific civil war that ended in 1970 with the collapse of the secessionist aims of the Biafran state. With prosperity, local record labels sprang up to rival EMI, Decca and Philips, the big European conglomerates that dominated African music. The great Victor Uwaifo opened his own 16-track Joromi studio in 1978. Ever an experimenter he added traditional Akwete percussion to disco and reggae ("Sakpaide no 2") and even his own psychedelic guitar and synthesizer ("Iranm Iran"). His "Albalegbe" has touches of "the Peanut Vendor" and is romping along nicely, until a truly dire synth steps up for a whimpery one-finger lead. Trumpet, even a Melodica, would have worked better in this spot. As in the rest of Africa the arrival of the cassette tape signaled the collapse of the music industry by the end of the 198os, so it's really only in the period between newly independent nations in the mid-60s through the 1970s you have a booming local music culture prospering in most of the continent. The detailed booklet documents the careers of these elders of the Benin funk scene. To my weary ears there is too much bad synthesizer ruining some otherwise pleasant grooves. If only there was away to get a complete multi-channel recording of the master tapes I would fade down the keyboard players on all these tracks. Akaba Man has a good trumpet player and a nice Clavinet continuo bubbling under but then the awful farty warbling oscilloscope of the Moog comes on to bring us down. His tracks are the most energetic but also the biggest employer of cheesy keyboards. "Ogbov omwan" works, however. Uwaifo is solid and dependable; Osayomore is less plagued by bad synth, tending to chirpy flute solos, as on "Africa is my root." The album ends with an even rootsier track by him, "Ororo no de fade." It's interesting to hear Osayomore and Akaba Man but I prefer the earlier Uwaifo and would really love to see someone delve deeply into Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson and other pioneers of Highlife than the tired hybrid pop of the 70s and 80s.

APALA: Apala Groups In Nigeria 1967-70 (Soul Jazz Records SJRLP 440)

Highlife, Juju & Funk are the big genres of Nigerian music which are well-known throughout the world. Lesser-known but no less compelling is Apala, identified primarily with Haruna Ishola. It is drum based and the polyphony of the drums (and occasional thumb piano) is echoed in the singing which derives from Yoruba tradition and the Islamic faith. The singing is slightly nasalized, perhaps to accord better with the talking drum which adds its own voice. There are equal numbers of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria but before both religions there was a pantheon of Yoruban gods and these Orishas are venerated sometimes alongside the big "Cap G" God of the Christians and Muslims. Modern followers of Santeria, Voudou and Candomblé often sing ancient liturgical songs in lost forms of Yoruban. Apala was popularized by Haruna Ishola in the 1940s and along with Fuji music is identified with the Islamic tradition, whereas Highlife and Juju originated in a Christian environment. The songs are traditional, quite often praise songs which are largely improvised but include proverbs or quotes from the Koran. The hypnotic quality of the music comes from the pentatonic thumb piano which holds down an ostinato groove. It's repetitious but not monotonous. Kasumu Adio's "Odale ore" from 1970 strings together proverbs and folk tales; by the 1960s he was challenging Ishola's dominance of the field. Several female singers are also represented. Adebukonla Ajao's music is classified as Waka, another ritual form of music originally sung at religious ceremonies by woman, acapella, or accompanied by hand-clapping. Gradually the dundun talking drums were introduced. As this style of music gained in popularity from the 1920s through the 1950s, the ensembles expanded, so by the 60s they had a similar array of percussionists to the Apala groups. Indeed Waka began to eclipse Apala: with the death of Ishola in 1983, and even a decade earlier, Apala began to wane as other forms, notably Fuji, increased their market share. Another style, Pakeke, is explored by Ayisatu Alabi and her group. The style is named for the small one-headed drum which joins in with the talking drum as two vocalists share call-and-response vocals. All of these recordings were made between 1967 and 1970 and show immense variety within a small area of Islamic traditional music which still engages us 50 years later.

MOSESE (Tabansi BBE546ACD)

Not a household name, Lumingu Puati from Congo seems to have made only this one album back in the day, recorded in Nigeria. To abet his obscurity his name was scratched off the label when the disc became a club hit in Colombia's picotero sound systems. Like their counterparts in Jamaica, the Colombian DJs jealously guarded their rarest discs by obliterating the labels. Puati, whose nickname was Zorro, started out in 1967 as bassist in one of the greatest of all African bands African Fiesta Sukisa, alongside Docteur Nico. He was part of the breakaway group that formed African Soul and later Géant Orchestre Malebo (overdue for a reissue) in 1977, before heading to West Africa to join the truly stellar African All Stars centred around Nyboma, Dizzy Mandjeku and Sam Mangwana. He doesn't seem to have recorded with them, though his bass does turn up on (ex-Lipua Lipua) Vata Mombasa's 1983 En Colère, recorded in Benin. A decade later he played with Sonny Okosuns in Nigeria and also self-published music in Germany later still. This 1987 album is from his Onitsha period. He came to the Tabansi studio with four high-energy Congolese rumba dance numbers and plugged into the house group of session men including Charlie Kamga from Cameroun on bass, Richard Essoa sparkling on lead guitar, Eric Tina Maya of Rocafil West Indies on vocals and Nicco Ossomba, multi-tracked on saxes. It has dueling guitars and choral injections typical of both Vata Mombasa and Sam Mangwana's work of the period. This was an evolved sound, less distinctly soukous and more pan-African, as heard in work of Souzy Kasseya, Sam Fan Thomas & Eddy Gustav. The Tabansi reissue series from BBE Africa is off to a flying start.


The hand-lettered banner for this LP attempts to create a logo for the artist and adds the subtitle, "The Consistent Highlife King" which is rather modest but certainly speaks the truth about Chief Stephen. His numerous albums feature a long track on each side: at some point it breaks down to talking drums and other percussion and then the guitars start to wind back in with wahwah and perhaps the backing harmony singers turn the melody around a bit, then Chief Stephen comes back singing in his warm musing voice and for another fifteen minutes all is right with the world. Maybe a muted trumpet steps up to solo. Consistent yes and consistently great. First released in 1984, this disc by the Sound Makers International was hailed immediately as a masterpiece in Nigeria and beyond. It's the summation of all of their finest ideas: the Chief's slightly haranguing world-weary vocals are a litany of Igbo aphorisms over a soothing blend of guitars and percussion. It doesn't build to a climax, it merely subsumes you in its warmth. Stephen O. Osadebe started out in the late 40s in Lagos as a nattily attired Nat King Cole-style crooner. After the devastating Biafran civil war in the 60s Nigeria tried to regain its composure and its prominence as an economic force in West Africa. Many bands turned to the USA for inspiration, even while international corporations sucked out the oil from under their feet. Bucking the trend towards Western-style music, Osadebe kept on crooning and promoting his laid-back drawn-out groove in album after album, and they are all dreamy and superb. He toured the US 20 years ago and recorded a fine album called Kedu America, benefitting from better studio facilities. But of the homegrown discs, this may be his finest hour.

NO WAHALA: HIGHLIFE, AFRO-FUNK & JUJU 1973-87 (strut 2xLP, download or streaming)

As far as I know this is the fourth entry in this potentially endless collection of Nigerian oldies showcasing highlife, funk and (better left unsaid) disco. The double album Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story came out in 2001; Lagos Jump followed in 2008. Then there was Sweet Times in 2011, which I missed. Strut has also devoted serious coverage to Orlando Julius, Ebo Taylor, Fela, Tony Allen and Pat Thomas with individual new albums and reissues. We start off with what sounds like "Kung fu fighting" with farty synth lead which fortunately gives way to a nice guitar and percussion groove, punctuated by horns, by Odeyemi. The second track is neither disco nor funk but a sweet highlife number by the great Prince Nico Mbarga called "Sickness." His Rocafil Jazz have been neglected with all the rush to Fela-style funk in the last few decades. One of the few Nigerian acts to have an international following before Sunny Ade, after they hit big with "Sweet Mother," they put out another 20 albums before Prince Nico died tragically in a motorbike accident. Felixson Ngasia and Sina Bakare turn in what I would call filler: it sounds okay but doesn't move me, despite "conscious" lyrics in English. The International Brother band always make me perk up however. Sir Steady Arobby and his posse turn in a dreamy 8-minute highlife workout heavy on the percussion. Don Bruce and the Angels give us a perky "Kinuye" followed by a real gem: "Let them say" by Rogana Ottah & His Black Heroes from their 1986 Who knows Tomorrow LP. One thing about endless compilation series is you might start to turn up obscurities but some of them are ridiculous. While the guitar and organ are interestingly off key, the lyrics to "Psychedelic shoes" by Etubom Rex Williams are absurd. After that diminishing return, even the great Sir Victor Uwaifo & his Titibitis have a hard time regaining our trust. New to me is M. A. Jaiyesimi & his Crescent Bros band who close out the set with a short sweet melodious highlife number. A good way to round it off.

VOL 1 (Analog Africa AADE05)

I balk when I see albums on the second hand market listed for $100 or more, but not until I looked up this album on discogs did I see one that regularly sells for eight hundred dollars. Apart from the fact that second-hand dealers unscrupulously list everything as "VG+ in a VG+ sleeve" when it has been trampled by herds of marauding wildebeest since it left the pressing plant, it is encouraging to see a reissue that you know is going to be mint and actually sound clean. Analog Africa has done the music community a great service by putting it back in print, not so much to cut down the marketing rogues as to let us decide for ourselves if it is really all that good and worthy of this legendary (albeit monetary) status. Since Samy created the cult of T.P.O. Poly-Rythmo it is appropriate he be the one to champion their legacy in this populist way. Because of their close association with the Socialist president of Benin, the band were ostracized in neighboring countries, but a sensational showcase at FESTAC 77 soon raised their profile in West Africa. Ahehehinnou was their soul singer but the producer Adissa Seidou resented Ahehehinnou and threatened to kill him, even performing Voudou rituals to bewitch him. So Ahehehinnou quit and, traveling to Lagos on business, met up with the Black Santiagos, and asked them to back him on a solo disc recorded at Decca studios. The opening cut, "Best woman," is in English and has wobbly brass to match the vocals. Fans of Ignace de Souza will appreciate his contributions on trumpet. He also did the arrangements on this set of Afro-funk, ballads and Highlife. There is some fine guitar interplay on the B side opener "Maimouna Cherie," and a bright solo from De Souza. Buy this album from Analog Africa and you can take that $800 you saved to buy yourself a nice musical instrument.

A Movie by Remi Vaughan-Richards (Singing Tree Films)

This is a movie about culture, about vanishing music and the importance of trying to preserve it. Those of us who collect African music know how hard it is to find certain things that seem crucial, and it takes a lot of work, and education, to get to the point where you can identify those things that are important. Of course we see this in every culture: Africando, the african salseros; Buena Vista Social Club, the Cuban old timers, are found and paraded before us, and then what happens? They get a taste of recognition and then shuffle off the mortal coil.
--Faaji Agba are dropping.
--That's the idea, searching for them, looking for them to play, for them to teach us...
Remi Vaughan-Richards spent five years on this film, so you see the story of this group of Nigerian veterans unfold and indeed death comes into the picture also. But before then they get to enjoy another moment in the spotlight. Fatai Rolling Dollar is most famous because of his unusual name, but the others have distinguished pedigrees. The group was the brainchild of Kunle Tejuoso, owner of Lagos' famous book and record emporium, Jazzhole Records. He put in a recording studio to his shop and invited more and more of the old-timers to come and jam. Pretty soon he had a great band of elders with some younger talents joining in. Faaji is a style of Yoruba music, like Highlife, Juju or Afrobeat, that appealed to the entrepreneur. "Don't kill me with 'toy' music," sings Dollar. Tejuoso admits he was not particularly interested in the Afrobeat revival which is why he overlooked most of the musicians associated with Fela that were still around, although he does have a former Fela sax-player in the group, Eji Oyewole, who talks about the violence surrounding the military raids on Fela's compound. We meet artists like singer-songwriter Sina Abiodun Bakare, Alaba Pedro and S.F. Olowookere (undoubtedly a major influence on early Nigerian music, though I had never heard of him). But it was not just a question of getting them off the street and into the studio, but getting them to work as a group, to feel the vibe, and believe in themselves. They were no longer the young delinquents who had scandalized the town in the 40s with their songs. They still had chops, some of them, but needed to come together as a group with one leader (though each had been a bandleader in his day). This dynamic is one of the most interesting parts of the film, as well as the mix of styles it presents. The five-year journey culminates in a 2011 trip to New York to perform, but this is beset with more deaths and denied visas. This is a fascinating and well-crafted documentary that I will return to.


There's something about "established artists" that causes a thrill in retailers. They would rather restock someone they know and have already sold in a new package, like say The Beatles in Mono, than try a gamble on an unknown artist. It's the same in all cultural fields (art, books, movies, etc), hence we have a three-disc set of mostly unknown Fela Kuti material from his earliest days, before he got to Afrobeat, when he was just trying to find his way between Highlife, Jazz and Soul. The sonic quality is not great and some of the music is pretty predictable, but of course there are legions of Fela Zombies who will march out and add it to their collection, play it once, then shelve it. But nevertheless there are some revelations here: Fela played trumpet before he took up the sax. The liner notes tell us he was a better trumpeter, but that's open to question, based on the evidence here (& he was an annoying saxophonist). The arrangements tend to be the same throughout: a horn statement, then Fela's vocals come in over the rhythm section, then a repeated horn riff under the verse, then the trumpet solo or a sax solo, then horns in unison and a return of the vocal with a repeat chorus and fade. It's all done in under 5 minutes. At this point, 1960 to 63, Fela's band were the Koola Lobitos. They couldn't compete with the big name highlife bands like Victor Uwaifo or Rex Lawson, and also didn't fare well with jazz, since you couldn't dance to it. They tried to fuse both, as did Ghana's legendary Ramblers and Uhuru dance bands and Togo's Black Santiagos. But there was stiff local competition from Joni Haastrup as well as O.J. Ekemode; then the James Brown thing hit big when Geraldo Pino and the Heartbeats came to Lagos from Sierra Leone and swept all before them. This is likely why Fela also got into ersatz soul and funk at this time. There are some good riffs and churning rhythms here, including a live 6 track set that was issued on EP and some songs by the Koola Lobitos without Fela, but it's mostly interesting as a historical artifact.


Think of this as jazz rather than Afrobeat when you listen to it. For me Afrobeat quickly leads to musical slackness, so I have sworn off it. Those long, endless sustained grooves are not an invitation to improvise so much as to go on the nod. You are fortunately not subjected to lots of ersatz Afrobeaters so you may be more open-minded. This is at heart Afrobeat, but it is genuine, varied, musical and original. O.J. is a saxophonist and song writer. (Well, he used to be "O.J." but I think prefers his first two names now so we don't confuse him with the quarterback turned criminal.) O.J. started out on sax and at 19 was already fronting I.K. Dairo's band, before joining Eddy Okonta's Top Aces in 1963. His sides with the Afro-Sounders from 1969 to 72 were released on Afro Ideas on the Ekosound label in 2003. Orlando took Nigeria by storm backed by his band the Modern Aces. Their first album Afro Soul (Strut) has a Motown feel to it and includes a strong James Brown cover and a weak cover of "My Girl." During the early 80s he taught at Berkeley (where I met him). He went back to Lagos where he continued to infuse Highlife with funk, soul and jazz. He jammed with the Crusaders, even Louis Armstrong, and recorded with Hugh Masakela and Lamont Dozier. For this album, backed by the London-based psychedelic jazz group Heliocentrics, he has revisited many tunes from his repertoire, some of them never before recorded. This is a well-mixed sharp recording that draws you in from the start. O.J. is a fine sax player and the band punch back with trumpets and baritone over the familiar chonking groove. There's a bit of psychedelia, a lot of funk, pidgin lyrics and a warm feeling like this really is a lost album from the vaults of Ibadan.

THE BEST OF THE BLACK PRESIDENT 2 (Kalakuta Sunrise/Knitting Factory)

I reviewed this for the latest Songlines. In fact I wrote what I thought was a really excellent, balanced review laying out the pros and cons of Fela as an artist and especially his shortcomings as a performer, but then their copy boy sheared it and made mincemeat out of my undying prose and left a few dangling modifiers stranded in mid-sentence to make me look like an illiterate. Damn them. If they didn't pay me so well I'd write an angry letter. So you know the tale: Fela was a fine songwriter with a massive ego. He wrote superb political songs with a James Brown style groove that he made all his own with lots of drums and percussion (even the guitar is used as a percussion instrument) and released a couple of dozen LPs, mostly with one song per side. This compilation is the latest foray into repackaging the Fela legacy for anyone who doesn't have it yet. And this first double-disc release represents some of his finest work in sonic high fidelity. I dont think you need all or even a lot of Fela in your collection. If you have the Wrasse double disc The Two Sides of Fela, you have "Roforofo Fight," "Water no get enemy," & "Kalakuta show" and that's a good start. This brace includes "Everything Scatter," "Monkey banana," and the long version of "Sorrow, tears and blood." Et voilà: enough Fela to get your party going.


I'd just about had it with reissues of "classics" by "unknown" Nigerian artists when this set took me by surprise: Yes, he is unknown and by George it is something of a classic. The seventies in Nigeria produced Afrobeat alongside the homegrown Highlife, Juju, and imported Calypso sounds. Even reggae began to make inroads, along with funk and rock, as we all know too well by now. Oyelana was a theatre student of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka so he brought drama, comedy and his acting skills to his stage presence as bandleader. He was also something of a scholar and adapted Yoruba folklore to infuse his songs with meaningful stories. His band, called the Benders (because of their ability to fuse different styles; we wont go into the other meaning), know a good groove when they find one. This is a two-hour set of his best, including two versions of one hit, "Agba lo de," the (scratchy) single and the album versions. And it's not long 'til they crank up the fuzztones and rock out, but there's plenty of "drama," as on "Ogun adubi," with organ echoed by metallic percussion and a very jungly vibe on the bass and guitar. There's no lyrics or translation in the promo copy I got but I do know Ogun is the Yoruba god of hunting and war (therefore the beaten iron percussion is a call to him). The percussion break is truly alive and seething. Fans will appreciate the expansiveness of this set, but I found the second disc less crucial as it was more of the pervasive Afrobeat sound and the reproduction quality is occasionally poor. The highlight is the last cut "Which way Africa?" a ten-minute jam that seems to indicate the irreversible direction towards Afrobeat with lyrics in english and a rant worthy of Fela.

ROUGH GUIDE TO HIGHLIFE (2nd edition) (RGnet 1280CD)

Here's a Rough Guide you can get your teeth into. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss $10 goodbye. While anyone who is a fan of Highlife will have the best tracks on here, it is well-sequenced and a great introduction to the genre (as well as related styles like "Joromi" and palm-wine) that spanned Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone as they emerged from colonies to independent states. Some stalwarts are placed strategically between lesser-known artists to give a really good momentum to the set. Last time Rough Guide did a Highlife compilation I complained that Gentleman Mike Ejeagha and Prince Nico Mbarga were absent, and they still have not made the cut. I suppose the licensing is too steep for Rough Guide's budget. The centrepiece on this outing is the sublime "Osoni Owendi" by Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. He released scores of albums over the years but that disc remains his most brilliant. He remade a couple of favourites on a trip to the USA, for his Kedu America album, including this track, but here is the full eleven minutes. The pillars are Fela with "Highlife time," an early offering from his Koola Lobitos before he discovered James Brown, Bobby Benson's perennial favourite Caribbean-style "Taxi Driver," Sweet Talks' "Juliana" from the essential Hollywood Highlife Party album, Celestine Ukwu's "Igede part 1," and the Chief Stephen track. Other big names Roadmaster & Agyemang, Victor Uwaifo and Victor Olaiya, are represented by less-well-known entries. Koo Nimo shows up with the lead cut from his new album (reviewed above). Pleasant surprises are delivered by the Professional Seagulls Dance Band (Rex Lawson's backing band who continued after his death), with "Atabala Woman," and "Tsutsu Tsosemo" by the Black Beats which (like the F. Kenya track "Memia" also included) was on the Electric Highlife from the Bokoor Studios compilation a decade ago. The only sour note is the gospel track that closes the disc, but it does remind us that at some point in the 80s Highlife went to Hell in a handbasket. The bonus disk is Seprewa Kasa's eponymous album which came out on Riverboat in 2008.

DANCING TIME (The Best of Eastern Nigeria's Afro Rock Exponents 1973-77) (Soundway Records CD039P)

MAKE IT FAST, MAKE IT SLOW (Soundway Records CD040P)

Dancing Time is a cut above most West African funk reissues. In their mid-70s career the Funkees covered a lot of British and American pop tunes like War's "Slipping into Darkness" or Marley's "Get up, stand up," and wrote originals that sound like Kool & the Gang, but added solid drumming and percussion and acid-washed lead guitar. It's poppy as well so among the 18 cuts collected here there's bound to be something to tickle your fancy. That being said, there seems to be no end in sight for the Afro-funk craze. There are reissues, as well as bands trying to sound like Egypt 80. If I don't notice some of the reissues people will think I am prejudiced against it, but the truth is I am a bit sick of it. The half-hour Rob album, Make it fast, make it slow, includes that cut which was on the first Soundways CD Ghana soundz. Now Soundways has released the entire album for anyone who wants to gobble the whole pie. The album came out on Essiebons in Ghana in 1977 but did not fare well. It was Rob's second release, more religious, and more contemplative than his first (also reissued on Soundways), and featuring an army brass line-up known as the magnificent second battalion. Frankly, "Make it fast, make it slow" is the best track on here, and only completists or fanatics will want it all. But now that I think of it, I have the same feelings towards Rocksteady remakes of Motown ballads that some people clearly have for Afro-funk. The Funkees' Dancing Time is an example of the curious parallel-universe of American songs that are mutated by culture and enhanced by age. So yes: more Afro-Rock from the 70s for those who can't stop 'til they've had enough.


OK, I have to say this is weird. I am not going to go on about how simplistic the Rough Guides can be, how their compilations seemed aimed at people who just arrived from another planet and never heard of African music before, or any of that. Here's their Rough Guide to Psychedelic Africa which is a lamentable compilation. The songs, while familiar, don't even hold together as a set or flow in and out of one another. One or two may be loosely called psychedelic, but that's not the point. The reason I am bothering to mention it is the bonus disc: It's the 1973 Sir Victor Uwaifo & his Melody Maestroes' Ekassa - Talk of the Town Vol. 2 (which came out as Philips [Lagos] 6361 033). It's a fantastic statement of highlife (not the rock and roll pretension of "Guitar Boy" or his reported showboating, which you don't see on a recording). This should be the featured disc, presented as a reissue -- forget about trying to wrap the tag of psychedelia around Baobab, Poly-Rythmo, Ebo Taylor, etc. The market is sophisticated enough and knows the value of this stuff -- see the rave reviews on WithComb&Razor or Global Groove. Rough Guide did this before with their feeble African Guitar Legends comp where the bonus disc was an excellent Syran Mbenza set, bound to get overlooked. Anyone who buys the disc because they've heard of Baobab is not going to "get" the Uwaifo disc. Making this a thrown-in freebie (with ZERO documentation) to a clutch of familiar reissues is bad strategy and a disservice to Victor Uwaifo's fans. (And if you want psychedelic African music, get a Monomono CD!)

AFRICAN DRUM SONGS (Inner Spirit Records)

Though best-known as bassist for Victor Olaiya, King Sunny Ade, Joni Haastrup's Monomono, O.J. Ekemode and other Nigerian superstars, Baba Ken Okulolo has produced a solo album of drumming, percussion and vocals. After moving to the US Okulolo formed several groups, including Kotoja (to play highlife-rock fusion), the Nigerian Brothers (traditional acoustic music) and West African Highlife Band, comprised of some legendary members of Highlife groups like Sweet Talks and Egypt 80 who jammed on oldies, and most recently another fusion band The Afrobeat Connexion. This new solo venture, like everything he does, is thoughtful and well-crafted. It coasts along on buoyant rhythms in which you will hear a wide variety of sounds from the Old & New Worlds, made by udu, djundjun, djembé, agogo, shekere, cajón, congas, talking drum, clay drum, pennywhistle and koi koi. By the mid-point, "Ewa bawa se" you are totally entranced and though this is the longest cut at 5 minutes, I would have loved to have it go on longer. But Okulolo changes gears and throws down a new rhythm and more enchanting melodies for "Iyeye O." Though there's no thumb piano it reminded me of Francis Bebey from Cameroun; the vocals particularly conjured up the meditative Chants à penser from Centrafrique more than Twins Seven Seven or other traditional Nigerian drumming albums. It's an accessible and fun album.

GIVE THE BEGGAR A CHANCE (Soundway/Tummytouch TUCH2027CD)
THE DAWN OF AWARENESS (Soundway/Tummytouch TUCH2026CD)
WAKE UP YOUR MIND (Soundway/Tummytouch TUCH2028CD)

How do we explain the vast upsurge of interest in African funk? I suppose it's that it is both good and nostalgic with the added appeal that we have not heard most of it before, so we are able to revisit the sound of our (Western) youth without indulging in maudlin flashbacks to specific events in our past that the music of our own youth is likely to invoke. We have come so far so fast in terms of African music. Before the Internet it was hard to find out about older albums. There are a few books (apart from the dull enthnomusicology journals) like Stapleton & May's African Rock, Wolfgang Bender's Sweet Mother, Ronnie Graham's Da Capo Guides and Graeme Ewens' Africa Oye!, but even with those you might miss out on some important developments. About a decade ago albums began to fly on EBay and names like Super Eagles and Monomono came to our consciousness. Joni Haastrup's Monomono first re-appeared on Nigeria 70, a great collection on the Strut label that came out ten years ago. Haastrup's story is pretty unique. He started out with Victor Olaiya & scored a hit with O.J. Ekemode, singing on "Super Afro Soul," but then went to UK with Ginger Baker's Airforce where he played with Graham Bond, Steve Winwood and other super-talents of the white rock scene who were creative and innovative beyond the labels normally associated with rockers. This gave Haastrup insight on what might be possible back home where he formed Monomono in 1971. Baba Ken Okulolo was bassist, Jimmy Adams played guitar and the percussionists were Candido Obajimi and Friday Jumbo. Haastrup sang and played organ. Though the band only lasted two years it was an important element in the Nigerian Funk scene. Soundway has reissued their two LPs & Haastrup's first solo album from 1978 in a burst of crazy funk & flame. Now that we know Haastrup's story the title cut of "Give the beggar a chance" suggests the influence of Traffic, something I didn't expect to hear in African music. The main sound on here though is Afrobeat & this album, their debut, written in London and recorded in Nigeria, is fine. The follow-up The Dawn of Awareness also has jazz and soul influences but moves to more of a San Francisco psychedelic sound in the guitar added to the Yoruban percussion groove. The title cut "Plain fighting" goes out with Duane Allman guitar combatting Ray Manzarek organ in a tasty flourish. The third album, Haastrup's solo debut, has pops on track two suggesting it was too much effort to de-click it. Either that or Soundway is trying for the authentic "used vinyl" sound.

BE NICE TO THE PEOPLE (Normal Records QDK CD054)

This is not Afrofunk, it's English-language pop, but recorded by Nigerians back in the day, like they say. It came out in 1976 and pretty much vanished and the band broke up. Of course there was a famous band called Question Mark & the Mysterians who scored a huge hit with "96 Tears", but this not them, though they do have a Farfisa organ in the line-up. Said organ is drowned out by Victor Egbe on fuzz-tone guitar who cranks it up for his solo in the opening track "Have you?" a real scorcher. Their influences, from the Beatles to the Byrds are close to the surface, suggesting something like the Monkees, a bunch of enthusiastic kids. However they did learn to play, and took the name Question Mark when they couldn't decide on a name -- the Sensations or the Dee-Mites -- and went on as "?" on a talent show in Lagos. They snuck out of their boarding school to spend the weekend in EMI studios recording their first two singles. While they cite Monomono's first album as a big influence there is very little than can be called African about this effort. It's a novelty disc with good guitar and pretty corny lyrics.


Chopteeth is a Fela cover band based in Washington, D.C. It's obvious African funk is bigger in the West than in the homeland. Back in Nigeria they've gone on to hiphop, the Congolese & Kenyans have nuevo Gospel, while other decadent modern musical entities pervade the African landscape; but white kids from Berlin to Bangor are now discovering the sounds of African acts from Dakar to Djibouti who got into the James Brown sweat-drenched groove and made it their own. Reissued Fela LPs go for $750 on line (I sold my originals for a fraction of that years ago). At a certain point you've heard something enough and don't need to go on hearing it, which is why I don't have Abbey Road or Let it Bleed in my collection. However I am interested in artists who can take something and make it new which is why I don't dismiss the new Chopteeth album out of hand. For all his legendary status Fela was crap live! He made great albums and clearly generated a lot of excitement in his home base but when he came to America on tour he was so arrogant, so full of disdain for the audience, such a lousy instrumentalist that you left wondering why you even bothered to come. He also perplexed audiences by never playing his "hits" in concert: once he recorded a track it was dropped from the repertoire so audiences expecting to hear "Monkey Banana" or "Roforofo Fight" in concert left disappointed. Yes he was a first rate poet, but he was a second-rate saxophonist and a third-rate keyboard player. However the success of the Broadway show and enduring interest in his work is enough to validate his position in African culture. Chopteeth have got inside the horn and percussion groove and also stretch further afield to cover Afrisa, Baobab and Simandou de Beyla. They even do a Duke Ellington piece, "Didjeridoo," which is atmospheric and has a low trombone pulse simulating the aboriginal instrument. In addition the tenor and baritone saxes work wonders on this number. They make a bold attempt to cover "Jiin ma Jiin ma" by Baobab but unfortunately fall short: they really shouldn't try to stand up against one of the great African bands who are still touring and performing. The vocals and flute are really weak on this. In fact they should ditch the vocals entirely (apart from the pidgin on the Fela tracks) since their French pronunciation is really bad, and stick to instrumentals, which they do very well, until they find someone who can really sing. By all means check out their act, if you get a chance: maybe they will start writing new material, or like the Afrobeat Academy of Berlin, find some African artist to back.

BABA MO TUNDE (IndigeDisc 2147)

It's been a decade since King Sunny Adé's last album and when he came through town recently I seriously thought about going to his show, but then remembered how hard it is to park on Divisadero Street in San Francisco at night & how I was too worn-out to stand in a sweating crowd half the night. So I guess that shows I am officially past it as a clubber. Had I heard this album though, I would have been there with my dancing pumps on. Nigeria is back in the news with the fiftieth anniversary of their independence from Britain; it's not my top destination, much as I love Igbo highlife and the market literature that used to appear in Onitsha. I met their most famous author Chinua Achebe in 1988 and told him his books had inspired me to go to Africa. And how did you like Lagos? he asked. Well, to tell you the truth, I admitted, your books rather put me off going there, so I went to Zaire instead! Bethatasitmay, we all respond with a smile to the Juju beat as the talking drums drive up the pulse and then that sweet sauna-dripping electric steel guitar slides in followed by the mellow voice of King Sunny. Ever since 1982 when Adé signed to Island Records he has brought joy to the world, starting with "Ja fun mi." I remember I first heard him on John Peel's BBC radio show and, hearing Peelie's droll Liverpudlian namecheck after the song, I wrote "Sunnier Days" on the tape, thinking that was the band's name. To me the music always signals brightness. The music tends to get lost in its expansiveness, so it's nice that this is a two-disc set as it can stretch forever (like a cassette tape on auto-reverse, though not so literally). It doesn't break substantial new ground from 1983's classic Synchro System (which came out in a wonderful expanded remastered set from IndigeDisc in 2003). The lyrics are traditional Yoruban folklore; the music gets grooving and stays that way. Adé not only has a sweet voice, he is a fine guitarist. A synth and organ have been overdubbed: they add lots of atmosphere, especially to the last cut on disc one, "Baba l'oun S'ohun Gbogbo."


Miles Cleret has brought us a fourth (or is it fifth?) collection of '70s Afrobeat. Once again his selection is of rarities that have not been reissued outside of Nigeria in the last 40 years. The set kicks off with Fela, performing "Who're you?", a track he re-recorded at Abbey Road for Fela's London Scene, here heard it its original home-pressing from a 45. Other, by-now familiar names, include Bongos Ikwue, with the eccentric "Otachikpopo," and Orlando Julius, one of Fela's main rivals for the Afrobeat crown, who turns in a jazzy "Afro-Blues." Jazz is also the mood found in Segun Bucknor's instrumental "Gbomojo," and the Black Santiagos wind things up with "Ole." Fela emerged with his new lineup, called Africa 70, and quickly eclipsed the Soul craze that was sweeping Nigeria with this harder groove. Among the unknowns are Madman Jaga, who was discovered by Victor Uwaifo. As usual, the obscurities are the best part. There's a really killer groove from Bob Ohiri and his Uhuru Sounds called "Ariwo Yaa" with two, or maybe three guitars all taking a different approach to the tune. If you can't get enough of this, there's a triple LP set that includes five additional tracks not on the CD.


This set is more laid back than the Afrobeat volume that Soundways released simultaneously. The tracks are shorter, mostly three-minute ditties, unlike the churning 10-minute jams of the Afrobeat set. Again, only one or two familiar names are sprinkled throughout the playlist. Twins Seven Seven add a glockenspiel to their normally pure percussive groove; The People Star is so familiar I did a web search to discover what I suspected: it's Stephen Osita Osadebe playing under an alias because of contractual problems. He returns under his real name for "Onyebu chi," which is based on the Peanut Vendor changes, and has a great muted trumpet backing his smoky vocals. The muted trumpet is one of my favourite Nigerian sounds and returns on Paulson Kalu's tune. I also like the way guitarists try to fit in notes around the very complex drum patterns, as on "Motako" by Fidel Sax Bateke & the Voices of Darkness. As usual the CD comes with a fully annotated 24-page colour booklet (which I haven't seen yet) with history, trivia and alluring visual morsels; the triple LP this time out has two added tracks. Samples can be heard on Soundway's website.


The Western public's taste for Afrobeat seems endless, so here's another set of the stuff for greedy consumers. Rough Guide has a good track record but they can't all be winners. Souljazz Orchestra kicks it off with a rocking cover of "Freedom no go die" (If it is not a cover, it is a pretty good imitation of Fela Kuti). The only brand name act on here is Tony Allen. The others are, I think modern practitioners of this historic style. It's sequenced well because all the tracks use the same beat so it just flows along from one Fela imitation to the next. And, as obnoxious, sexist, ranting and egotistical as Fela was in concert, there's no replacing him. These bands are all pale imitations. The sound is there, but not the spirit of the man. Fela is even now a Broadway musical. I kid you not. I am sure Disney's Lion King team are working on the movie rights. Even Tony Allen who has the distinction of being a key part of Fela's sound, brings a really vapid vocalist to his track, "Kilode." Then we get to a gratuitous cover of "Get up, stand up" by Kaleta & Zozo Afrobeat, including an imitation Bob Marley vocal. There really should be a moratorium on bad covers of Bob Marley songs. This song went on too long and then the next one was irritating so I pushed it forward, fully expecting more preaching in a track titled "Saro-Wiwa" but it is a pleasant and inventive instrumental by Ted Sirota's Rebel Souls. This one only for die-hard Afrobeat fans. If you want something real, buy Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou instead.


I hesitated a long time before buying this. Some things become so familiar we stop hearing them. I would put on "Joromi" or "Guitar boy" by Victor Uwaifo and anticipate every beat. So I purged most of my Victor Uwaifo albums a couple of years ago, keeping only two songs. One of them, "Kirikisi," kicks off this album and is, I think, one of his best. The other "Dododo" is also here and was included on the Strut compilation NIGERIA 70. I recall a lot of posturing rock-god style guitar showiness from his music in the 80s that didn't survive the test of time, but fortunately that is absent here (despite the oft-reproduced cover image of himself pretending to be Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck). This set focuses on the early Ekassa singles of the early 70s which is his peak. There's a lot of diverse rhythms, percussion grooves and only a touch of rockstar flash. Victor hails from Benin City in Nigeria which is the site of the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous for its brass sculpture (of which Uwaifo is a modern exponent) and other arts. However modern Benin (which used to be Dahomey until 1975) is named after the Bight of Benin. Confusing, I know. But it is to the ancient rituals of the Edo people that Uwaifo turned for the new sound which underlies these recordings. From his teenage debut as a guitarist in the band of the other Victor -- Olaiyo -- he branched out as a highlife star with the Melody Maestros and created Akwete music in the 60s. Interestingly he claims this was based on a fusion of colours and sound. He heard notes as colour, so assigned notes of the scale to different colours and then "interpreted" traditional Akwete cloth textiles as scores. "Dodoko" which was released as Ekassa no 1 is one of his most pleasing tunes. It was based on the coronation dance of the Edo Obas (kings of Benin). Then he set traditional fables and folklore to music keeping it fresh with his psychedelic guitar leads. Fifty songs were recorded in this style between 1971 and 1975 at which point Victor switched to a new style and the famed Titibitis were born. "Obodo eyo" is pure rock but with loose percussion; there is a loping quality to the rhythms and a load of percussion -- bells, drums, congas, shakers -- underneath it all. But then a smoking sax will start wailing. "Agho" starts off like "19th Nervous Breakdown" and goes into funk with two guitars setting up a "Land of 1000 dances" nah-nah-nah-nah-nah exchange in opposing channels. (The understated & often surprising rhythm guitar is one of the joys of this disc.) Then the organ and trumpet play "Tequila!" It's all fair game. "Iye Iye oh" brings it back down to a more familiar highlife groove that would have done credit to Celestine Ukwu himself. "Madaka" is a bluesy number with hints of "El Manicero" in the muted trumpet & wah wah guitar on echoplex. The last track is almost a novelty number, it is an instrumental jam with walking bass over palm wine sounding guitar, then a wailing blues harmonica by John Collins brings it all back to the Yardbirds. Despite overmodulation on a couple of cuts, this is a solid and thoroughly delightful hour and fifteen minutes of Sir Victor at his best.


This is a handsome and lovingly packaged set of two dozen 78 RPM discs that show a hidden aspect of African culture in Great Britain. It was never easy being black in Britain: even in my youth I recall Enoch Powell wanted to ship all the blacks back to Africa (which would have been a shock to those that were from the Caribbean). But sailors were allowed to stay and so black communities first took root in port towns. There's a story of returning troops from the First World War marching into Cardiff and opening fire in the black neighbourhood, like they were taking down Zulu warriors. Fear of the virile black men having their way with white women also led to lynch mob rampages in Liverpool at the same time. So the mood of black immigrants at the time of these recordings can be said to be generally grim. This is traditional West African music of various ethnicities; some of it is brilliant and it is all crystal clear. The first West African recordings on the Zonophone label were made by Fela's grandfather, J.J. Ransome-Kuti, and were Christian hymns sung in Yoruba! But he came to London to record while the music on this disc was seemingly all made by Africans living in Britain at the time. Track three is a previously unreleased chant by Ben Simmons: it is a possession ritual and really astounding. Zonophone had no idea what to do with it. These recordings were not part of the black tradition -- music hall minstrelsy, Negro spirituals, African-American jazz -- but unabashedly rooted in Africa and aimed at an exclusive African audience. No whites in England would have been down the record shop looking for the latest Harry Quashie release. Prince Zulamkah's "Ligiligi" seems like a nonsense song, but it has call and response vocals which are very catchy. Most of the songs are in Fanti, and the lyrics are translated. The sequencing is clever so that some of the more rudimentary numbers are followed by complex pieces with guitar and percussion to sustain your interest. Like a shot and a chaser.


This disc is subtitled AFROBEAT NIRVANA and contains an hour of Afrobeat, drawn from discs on the Vampisoul label licensed from Premier Music of Nigeria. It starts strong with Bola Johnson, opts for a churning instrumental groove from Fela then gets interesting with a highlife oldie from Opotopo, called "Belama." This is a new band to me, and is drawn from a Vampisoul double disc called Highlife Time. The sweet old-time 60s sounds of Victor Olaiya are up next with "Okere / I feel alright." There are two tracks from Tony Allen's AFRO DISCO BEAT which sounds a lot like Fela, as you can imagine. There are also two cuts from Orlando Julius' Super Afro Soul, which is a swinging psychedelic compilation. A second Fela cut comes on which is so thrashed-sounding and irritating you have to skip forward, then we get a Motown cover: OJ & His Afrosounders doing the Temptations' "My Girl." Fred Fisher Atolobor gives us "WTFS" which is disco, and the set closes with another rousing Tony Allen funk instrumental. All in all this compilation is not a patch on, for example, MONEY NO BE SAND, the 1995 set assembled by John Storm Roberts (Original Music 031), but it's good to be introduced to Opotopo & I may break down and get the Highlife Time comp that features them.

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe died 11 May 2007. His was the voice of Nigeria for many years and he put out scores of top albums throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s. And what a great voice it was. His music is so laid back it's like being in a warm bath. You never want it to end, and in fact it goes on and on! He was voted Top Highlife Star in 1991 and had a US hit in 1994 with his CD KEDU AMERICA. I believe he moved to the US at this point. His music is a continuation of the traditional Ibo Highlife of the 1950s and 60s, complete with sweet guitars, muted trumpet, trombone, sax, and tons of percussion. Three horns, three guitars, congas, clave and shakers keep it moving behind the Chief's sweet sleepy vocals. His albums were generally one long track on each side so they unroll slowly and deliberately with a sustained pulse.

He was born near Onitsha in 1936 and started his own band, the Soundmakers International, in 1964 just as the Beatles were changing the sound of pop music in the West. But Osadebe kept to his own course and refused to adulterate his pure Highlife. In 1981 he achieved his first gold record for sales, and continued to release albums in praise of various Ibo Social Clubs that would attract his fans to hear him perform. His biggest hit came with OSONDI OWENDI, released on Polygram Nigeria in 1984. His sparkling recording KEDU AMERICA, a CD that recreated many of his great songs but in shorter takes, was aimed at the international market and beautifully produced by Xenophile records of Connecticut. Seven of his albums are available as downloads from Emusic and iTunes, or you can hear a great selection of his hits from 1970-85, remastered (& abridged), on the CD SOUND TIME on Pulse records distributed by indigedisc. Obituary here.


I recently purged a lot of Nigerian LPs from my collection, but if you know me for the mouldy fig I am, you can imagine I held on to the oldest stuff, some 10-inches on PHILIPS & DECCA. For most of us the 60s is the beginning of Nigerian music. There's a great series of classic West African recordings that came out on John Storm Roberts' Original Music label in the 1990s, like YORUBA WOMEN OF THE DRUM, LUCKY STARS & ROSY MORNINGS (which covered the Ibadan Juju scene of the 60s), TELEPHONE LOBI (which covered Ghanaian danceband giants of the 50s and 60s) and MONEY NO BE SAND (which featured the sparkling Lagos pop of the 60s). Original Music also put out hits on individual artists such as Ignace de Souza, Godwin Kabaka Opara & Orlando Owoh. Anything predating 1950 has been terra incognita except to a few devoted collectors. There was one Rounder LP from 1985, JUJU ROOTS, that covered the 30s to 50s. The only overlap with the present release is in one or two artists: Irewolede Denge (who stands out) and Ayinde Bakara, not exactly household names. Modern Nigeria is less than a century old and is still going though infant struggles. The government is violent and among the most corrupt in the world, but as long as their violence and corruption benefits foreign interests (like big oil), the rest of the world thinks of Nigeria as a functioning democracy. Juju and Apala were already well-established musical forms when recording technology arrived in 1930. Britain had taken over the land in 1862, so many of the songs are about throwing off colonial oppression and restoring the glory of the Yoruba kings. Because of the ethnic diversity of the kingdoms annexed under the tiny crown of Queen Victoria, it was hard for a pan-Yoruban sound to emerge and to this day there are different styles of music in Benin, Nigeria and Ghana. Apala, the drum-based, rhythmic style reached a zenith in the 60s and 70s but Juju and Sakara (originally street-music played during Ramadan, Sakara became courtly music with the addition of the goje, or one-string fiddle) predominated. All three styles are heard here. The recordings are occasionally rough & it may not be something you play repeatedly but the collection is an important piece of the history of modern African music. The lyrics are translated and annotated which adds considerably to the enjoyment. However the one song which is not translated, Theophilus Iwalokun's "Iyawo o ra mi," is my favourite piece on this collection. Though it clocks in at under 3 minutes (like everything else on here), Iwalokun still manages to get a sleepy juju groove going.


Never set your hopes too high. I was looking forward to this release, thinking I might discover something new or fill in gaps in my knowledge of West African music. Last year's excellent GOLDEN AFRIQUE VOL 1 from Network Medien showed the depth of West African music and covered a large swath of the West African landscape, leaving out the Anglophone countries. Though some of it was familiar, there were many surprises. Rough Guide jumps into the fray with a compilation that covers the whole place, from Senegal to Nigeria, and spreads itself far too thin. There is not a single track on here that is not available on some other CD published in the last few years. Their goal seems to be to sample what's out there as an introduction to newcomers, but the least they could have done is found some rare King Bruce, Mike Ejeagha or Victor Olaiya track. There are two tracks, Celestine Ukwu's "Ife si na chi" and Victor Uwaifo's "Ekassa No 34," leased from Premier Music of Nigeria whose CDs are harder to find than the Sterns, RetroAfric, Dakar Sound and Popular African Music albums they have sampled for the other selections. We go from the roots to Afrobeat to Bembeya Jazz without passing GO or collecting $200 (which we could have used to buy some rare LPs on EBAY and spice this set up a bit). The Bembeya track "Whiskey Soda" is a gem, but it is poorly recorded and by no means the best cut on HOMMAGE A DEMBA CAMARA. This is followed by an even worse recording, Dexter Johnson doing "Manicero." There's an Estrellas Africanas LP with Johnson that sounds heaps better & covers similar material. On the whole this is great music, but it is all too familiar and the transitions (like Eric Agyeman to Rail Band) are incongruous. Call me a purist but I like to separate sets from different cultures unless there is a musical bridge than will connect say Bembeya quoting "El Manicero" in "Dya Dya" to a Congolese group like A. H. Depala doing "Moni Moni no dey." Why doesn't someone take the AFRICAN MUSIC LP (Dutch Phonogram 1983: See my African Top 50) & reissue it on CD? That would be a better service than skimming the surface of this musical ocean.


These are two separate CDs, but constitute a set. In contrast to the elegantly designed Lobi Traoré disc (from the same label), these two have hand-lettered covers (in the Fela tradition) that are a drag to try to decipher. Ghariokwu Lemi's imitations of the awful cover collage by Martin Sharp for Cream's DISRAELI GEARS quickly descended into shorthand for Nigerian funk and is now a tawdry cliché. The text has been run through a fax machine and pasted up crookedly over solid colors to give it a funky retro look. Memo to H-Jons's art director: Bad typography is never cute, it's only bad. While it's true bad typography usually goes hand in hand with lousy copy, in this case it is something we would actually like to read, if we could. The music is familiar: you probably have the classics like "Joromi" by Sir Victor Uwaifo & "Softly softly catch monkey" by Ikenga Super Stars, but they flow together nicely in this well-arranged sequence.

LAGOS ALL ROUTES is subtitled "Juju & Highlife, Apala and Fuji," so it's the traditionally grounded music of the 70s, while LAGOS CHOP UP has Afrobeat instead of Apala, putting a slightly different spin on this disc. But the shots of Apala and Fuji are interspersed with the other styles and it works well. I like the way the music lilts back and forward between the older dance bands with trumpet and scratchy vocals (like Victor Olaiya) and the percussion driven grooves. Afrobeat is represented by the Nigerian Army Rhythm Group, every bit as good as Fela. Mike Ejeagha is surprising (another aspect of bad typography is you instinctively don't trust it, so I will have to check to see if the track listing is right). Lots of gems here: Shina Williams stands out, Rex Lawson delivers with his Highlife classic "Owuna Derina," while Ebenzer Obey keeps us swaying to his classic sound with slide guitar.


To know Fela's music is to love its churning momentum, but to know Fela is to have second thoughts. I've said it before, Fela was a fanatical control-freak who ran his little empire (Kalakuta Republic) almost as a religion. He was like David Koresh with a better band. It's silly to separate his music into "Jazz" and "Dance" as it's all one. I think he fits more into an R&B category than jazz proper (whatever that is). But if you think of jazz saxophone, i.e. Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Pharoah Sanders, for example, Fela doesn't cut it, not even as a keen student. Or take jazz piano: not even Chick Corea or Keith Jarrett would allow this playing out under their name. (I would have said Air Supply but is that classified as jazz?) Anyway, Fela's music is to enjoy and not to dissect. Like James Brown it's all about him and not the individual musicians who really make the sound. I didn't rush out to get the many Fela box sets that came out since his death in 1997; this is the first repackage I've sprung for and it's a well-chosen nine tracks. It's a shame I had four of them on vinyl but that shows that the best stuff is the perennial picks: "Water no get enemy," "Sorrow tears and blood," "Roforofo fight," and "Kalakuta show." New to my collection is "Just like that" with its tedious chorus, and "Pansa pansa" which is a gem that riffs on "Go slow" as well as "Monkey banana."

LOW PROFILE (Honest Jon's Music, two LPs or both on one CD)

A couple of Nigerian rarities: Fela Anikulapo Kuti's band, Africa 70, at the height of their popularity in Africa at the end of the seventies, jamming on four tunes. Each jam is about 12 minutes of the the slow sweaty groove you associate with Fela and each features one of his sidemen. Mr Big Mouth was Tunde Williams, lead trumpeter, and clearly a fan of Miles Davis. He turns in a brace of tunes. The second pair comes from Baba Ani, the baritone sax player. Fela sticks to keyboard and second sax. No hassle, just a mellow late-night groove. Actually there are lyrics, but not Fela's, some of the other band members recorded indistinctly do a sing-along chorus in what sounds like a live recording. A slice of low-fi funk n' fun from the clubs of Nigeria: It's one for the die-hard Sufferers and Shmilers.

ORLANDO'S AFRO IDEAS 1969-72 (Ekosound 001 2003)

Here's one for fans of Afrobeat. One of the great Juju artists in an early incarnation doing the funky thang. Nine tracks available outside Africa for the first time, show another side of O.J., as well as another take on Afrobeat. It doesn't take long to build to the groove and, once there, it locks in. While Fela is usually credited as the pioneer of AfroBeat, it was O.J. & his Modern Aces who, from 1965, began pushing the Highlife sound towards American R&B, releasing SUPER AFRO SOUL in Nigeria in 1966. Four members of O.J.'s band defected to Fela's Koola Lobitos, taking the sound with them.

O.J. is best known for his early 1980s American hit DANCE AFRO BEAT. I remember running into him in Leopold's Records in Berkeley in 1984 and being amazed to learn he was teaching African percussion on campus just two blocks away. After working in the US for two decades, he returned to Nigeria in 1998 and continues to make music. This album fills in an important gap in his career as well as a big piece of the story of Afrobeat. After two of his early singles (one a welcome to Nigeria for James Brown), we get the whole of the album ORLANDO'S IDEAS from 1972, where the band are stretching out. It was right after this important album that he decided to emigrate to America. Who knows where the music would have gone if he stayed, however some statements only need to be made once.


The next installment in the story of Nigerian soul, funk and R&B comes along in a handsome package with more great near-lost sounds from the 70s. Following up on the great GHANA SOUNDZ album from Soundway last year, this one shows why Afro-beat and Afro-funk have such staying power and continue to attract new fans. Fela is here but he is only one of a roster of great Nigerian artists who took the message of James Brown, "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud," to heart. The Afrocentric beat had strong reverberations in Lagos. For me the strongest tracks on here are by the stalwarts of the sound: Victor Olaiya and Orlando Julius, whose track "Mura Sise" is the outstanding gem here. (It can also be found on OJ's AFRO IDEAS CD.) But there's lots to discover here. Fred Fisher's "Asa-sa" thumps right to the middle of the dancefloor with its heavy beat. It's something of an all-star session with Fred on trombone and Tunde Williams of Africa 70 on trumpet adding some punchy horn stabs. Fred's twin brother Bob Ohiri, lead guitarist with King Sunny Ade at the time, plays a Famous Flames riff while monster bassman Ken Okulolo (from Johnny Haastrup's Mono Mono and now of West African Highlife Band) keeps it booming. Call and response vocals in the style of Fela make it instantly memorable.

RED HOT + RIOT (MCA/Universal Music)

I went off Fela Kuti for reasons other than his popularity in the West. I always liked his albums and he deserved crossover success as a contemporary of James Brown. But I saw him in concert three times and each time he was insufferable and not "Shmiling." He hogged the spotlight, taking over the solos from his more talented sidemen, made long ranting political speeches, and generally showed what an egotist he was, flaunting his gaggle of young and pretty wives who were paraded like chattels on the stage. Nevertheless his music was supremely important and who can fault a lack of humility given his situation in the realpolitik of Nigeria. His worst break was of course dying of AIDS-related illness in 1997. We've all lost friends, teachers, and those we admired to this disease but it seems to be leveling off in our society. However in sub-Saharan Africa more than 20% of the adult population is affected by HIV, and in the next 20 years 55,000,000 Africans will die of AIDS-related causes. (This will not alleviate the problems already there brought by famine and war.)

The latest installment of the AIDS benefit CD series is called RED HOT + RIOT and is totally devoted to the music of Fela, remixed sampled and spun out with varying degrees of success by a batch of mostly African artists. Fela's music, of course, lends itself well to this treatment as it is cyclical, groove-oriented and trancelike and can be broken down into samples easily. Also there are the famous riffs: "Suffering and Shmiling," "Water no get enemy", "Zombie," to name the most obvious. These riffs are even famous in the US and everyone knows at least the chorus. So when a talented bunch of people including Djelimadi Tounkara, Roy Hargrove, Blackalicious, Jorge Ben Jor, Cheikh Lo, Les Nubians, Dead Prez, Meshell Ndegeocello, Archie Shepp, Baaba Maal, Sade, Lenine and Tony Allen (Fela's original drummer), sample Fela tracks and rework them, the result is bound to be interesting. Add in snippets of Fela saying things like "I have death in my pouch, so I can't die," and you have a very interesting document, and a solid addition to your Fela collection that goes a lot further than, for example, the posthumous Bob Marley tracks with dancehall additives that did nothing for the music. I thought of Marley's Ghost because the remixing inevitably uses dub techniques.

Cheikh Lo's "Shakara/Lady" is a good example and is a real dance hall crasher. It segues into a dance mix with Manu Dibango honking pontifically. Djelimadi Tounkara adds great "pan-African" guitar to "Tears and Sorrow" delivered by an artist known as Common.

"Zombie" is the first weak track (#13, at 37 mins in!), delivered in a bad cover version by Bugz in the Attic featuring Wunmi. I have no idea who they are but assume they have some hairstyle-of-the-month status that got them aboard the project. (Aha! Instant answer: "You saw her first as the famous braided Soul II Soul dancer showing the world the moves of the new soul vibes in her self designed clothes." -- Google search result.) Part Two is much better with Roy Hargrove on trumpet, adding to the original baritone bomp of Oluwaseyi Clegg.

The producers, made a smart decision in putting the mellow stuff at the end. After Sade, we get Lenine, one of Brazil's great singer-songwriters with a band called Yerba Buena (!) doing "Colonial Mentality" for a brief ninety seconds then it turns into a Baaba Maal album for the last ten minutes. Kaoding Cissoko's kora adds the magic to transport us to Mali, but the band on this cut, New York-based Antibalas, are one of the best Fela tribute bands. Added to this is Taj Mahal doing the English vocals and playing acoustic guitar. This is an excellent fusion, and a great rounding out to the album. A fine concept, well executed.

(Rough Guide RGNET 1002 CD)

Graeme Ewens compiled this set, and what a pleasure it is! From the blissfully dystonic Celestine Ukwu to the squelchy Burger Hilife of George Darko, the disc tells the story of one of the happiest, party-ing-est (!?) musics known.

One of the cornerstones of the Highlife sound is an out-of-print album simply titled AFRICAN MUSIC that came out on Dutch Phonogram in 1983 (cat 814 480-1). It's due for reissue as it features the crème de la crème of Highlife; Rough Guide could have simply reissued it. Two of the artists on there are conspicuously absent from the Rough Guide: Gentleman Mike Ejeagha and Prince Nico Mbarga, who in their way bracket the music from the sixties through the eighties. However, all the other great highlife stars made the Rough Guide, and certainly all the choices are hits. It kicks off with Celestine Ukwu's "Igede" which can only be described as a Desert Island disc, one you have to have. But again, as on the Dutch compilation (and even Ukwu's GREATEST HITS compilation that Flametree did in 1997), it's only Part One of this scorcher. (If any future compiler is interested, Part II is on Polydor LP polp 093, that also contains his hit "Money Palaver.") Like so many of these musicians, Ukwu's career was truncated by the Civil War and tragically cut off by his premature death.

There are two tracks by Sir Victor Uwaifo on AFRICAN MUSIC: "Ekassa 24" and "Five days a week love," either of them a better choice than the obvious pick, "Guitar Boy," which wears thin. I'm sorry Mike Ejeagha and his Premier Dance Band, who ruled the sound in the early sixties, didn't make the Rough Guide, but it is truly surprising that Prince Nico was omitted. He was the biggest Highlife star (He died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years ago). Perhaps the fact that his songs were hits outside Africa has damned him to exclusion, but then George Darko had one hit in Germany, compared to the several hits Prince Nico had internationally.

Ewens' love for Franco is evident in his choice of Alex Konadu's "Asare" which has a flanged guitar imitating the style of the Grand Master. Inyang Henshaw is new to me. A member of the minority Efik people, his track is light and pleasant in a "Blue Spot"-ish way. These old-time songs are great and it's wonderful to have them all being recycled again, but I wonder what is going on in West Africa right now. The political and economic news is bad and it could be that indigenous music is in a sorry way. Highlife itself fell victim to reggae, and a curfew effectively killed the club scene. People stayed home and listened to cassettes.

The big shocker on this Rough Guide album is the licensing credits. Most of the tracks, including the classics like "Bere Bote" by Rex Lawson, "Omo Pupa" by Victor Olaiya, "Guitar Boy" of Victor Uwaifo, as well as the bracketing tracks by Ukwu and Darko are currently unavailable. If you don't have these artists' albums, you'd better grab this Rough Guide and then you'll know what it is you are supposed to be looking for!

(Rough Guide RGNET 1075CD)

Even without liner notes you'd recognize the music on THE ROUGH GUIDE TO NIGERIA AND GHANA -- I.K. Dairo, King Sunny Ade, C.K. Mann, Tony Allen, Captain Yaba, Adewale Ayuba, Sir Victor Uwaifo, E.T. Mensah, Eric Agyeman, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, and Sweet Talks comprise this album. From Highlife and Afrobeat to Juju and Fuji this CD covers all the bases in Anglophone West African pop. The only artist I didn't know was the last one, Amazeba Nat Brew who has five albums out in the speedy kpaalogo style which owes something to soukous and other international styles. This may be the future of the music but the more traditionally based artists like Chief Stephen still sound great (& appeal to me more). This album also reminded me we haven't heard from Captain Yaba since his killer debut funk album, TINANURE, six years ago. I'd have liked to see Celestine Ukwu in the line-up. But then there's also the African Brothers, the Oriental Brothers, Prince Nico Mbarga, the Ramblers and Rex Lawson -- enough artists in fact to make up a sequel, or call it a prequel and emphasize the roots. Then again Adewale Ayuba's "Fuji Shuffle" is as rootsy as it gets and will delight anyone just getting into Nigerian music backwards, that is through the recent popularity of Afrobeat. Unfortunately it's only a 6 minute piece, and Fuji kind of takes over so you need to play a whole hour's worth. But then the point of any successful sampler is to get you to buy the whole album sampled. This Rough Guide does a great job of covering all current styles while paying homage to the pioneers like Dairo and Mensah. This must have been an easy and fun compilation to put together and hopefully will expose more people to the deep riches in Nigerian and Ghanaian music.

THE SHRINE AFROBEAT (Union Square Music)

What explains the sudden surge in popularity of the music of the late Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti? His numerous albums are appearing on CD; the original scratched LPs are going for ridiculous sums on EBAY; there's boxed sets and a slew of Afro-funk albums. The answer is quite simple: it's easier to display a stuffed tiger than a live one. While Fela was alive he was a tricky even problematic character, always giving promoters a hard time, putting out brilliant albums then going on tour and refusing to play anything the audience might be familiar with. THE SHRINE AFROBEAT is a compilation of Afro-funk from England's Ocho label that kicks off with a typical if obscure Fela cut, "Fefe naa efe," based on a Yoruba proverb in praise of breasts. Then it goes off into dream space for "Yegelle Tezeta," an Ethiopian jazz groove that is sort of dance-floor filler material while people get drinks & the deejays find their direction. Then an old fave, "Washi Wara," a Latin groove by the great Bantous de la Capitale rocks the house. Surprisingly the fourth track sounds like rockabilly: that's Jimi Solanke's "Eje Kajo." C.K. Mann's "Funky Hilife" takes a typical highlife ballad and halfs the tempo adding a bassline from funk. Historically it's interesting but I don't see it making it on the dancefloor which allegedly was the criterion for inclusion on this compilation. Similarly King Sunny Ade's "Synchro system" was important in its day (July 20, 1984) but it's no longer something you play at parties unless you are really a neophyte. Captain Yaba, on the other hand, is waay cool, and the Ghanaian's "Yaba funk" from his 1996 CD TINANURE really slams. (Yes I know the origin of "cool" comes from Yoruba.) Manu Dibango's "Wakafrica" is pleasant but his playing is very lounge. He lacks the creativity of Jean Serge Essous or the real edge of Momo "Wandel" Soumah. The CD ends with a new cut from trappist, er trap-drummer Tony Allen, co-creator of Afrobeat with Fela, adding dub to a characteristic slowly building percussion piece with chicken-scratch guitar. Overall THE SHRINE AFROBEAT is an interesting concept and a tribute to a style of music that essentially died with Fela. There are many other Highlife artist worthy of this compilation like Black Masters or African Brothers, but the serious omission here is Sonny Okosun. Artists like Captain Yaba will take elements of it and help it evolve. (I'm assuming readers have the Captain Yaba album, if not, buy that instead of this.)


A great party album that goes to the roots of Highlife and enlivens your spirit from the get-go. The band (who rightfully should be called West African Highlife All-Stars), based in Oakland, California, are almuni of some of the great Nigerian bands of the 1960s, when they were all starting out. Now elder-statesmen of the music, with busy fingers in other bands like Kotoja and Nigerian Brothers, the modest quintet put together a "greatest hits" of their youth rife with memorable riffs. But this is no "Stars on 45" reprise, it's an all-out jam! Bobby Benson's "Taxi Driver" will be best-known to new ears (it was even covered by the wacky 3 Mustafas), but the others are equally gold, from Rex Lawson's "Bere Bote" to Victor Olaiya's "Omo Pupa." My only regret is that there's no trumpet, which would have sweetened the sound. Instead Pope Flyne's keyboard takes the part. Flyne, ex-Sweet Talks, contributes two songs and bassist Ken Okulolo appends the closer, "Kajo." As one of the many hits on this glowing disc attests, "It's time for highlife!"