IGBO AMAKA (Palenque Records)

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe (this artist's father) was one of the most influential Highlife stars of the golden age. Though less well-known than Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey or others, he made steady inroads in the west until his reputation was firmly established among connoisseurs and collectors of Nigerian music. According to discogs, he put out 50 long-playing albums. These came out mainly on the Polydor label from the mid-70s to the mid-80s. I never regretted grabbing every one I came across until I had about 20 (I do regret getting rid of them in my big vinyl purge in 2002 which financed some travel). Towards the end of his career, in 1996, he released "Kedu America," a beautifully recorded CD on Green Linnet that recaptured a lot of his hits in abridged form. Chief Stephen's eldest son Okwy has assumed the mantle and taken over the helm of the great band that Chief Stephen fronted so successfully for three decades. I dwell on the relationship because Okwuchukwu, or Okwy, sounds a lot like his father and, in addition to the continuity of the entrancing Igbo vocals, there is of course the dependable group of musicians which continues in the same mellow mode we have come to love. This includes muted trumpet, a warm murmur of guitars along with off-kilter drumming; little sportive bursts on traps in counterpoint to solid congas and a sweet susurration of smaller percussion. As the vocals glide in and out, the wiry guitar with wah wah steps up for a chorus, answered by the trumpets. It is perfect. And apparently in concert the son has a lot of youthful swagger and enough of the "Cool Ruler" to bring the sophisticated sound to an even larger audience, as witnessed by the fact this release is on the culturally diverse Palenque label based in Bogotá!

NWANNE BU IFE (Palenque Records)

There's Delta Blues, from Mississippi, and then there's Delta Highlife, from Asaba, which is in Delta State, Nigeria. It's at one remove from Igbo highlife adding something Palenque Records boss Lucas Silva tells us is Ekobe music, which brings a long gong (Ogene), maracas (Ichaka), pot (Udu) and other drums (Igba) to the percussion backing. The chorus is chanted and the arrangement is frenetic guitars and trap drums too. Anioma means "Good land" in Igbo, and their location is deep in the Delta towards Benin City. Though it's new it does sound like traditional Highlife to me. The old whingey organ does make it sound like a 70s album, but I guess it's a retro touch, as this is a new recording. The guitar is sweet and the lead vocal by Moweta is assured, as the percussion keeps the whole thing moving along. They are typical seven or eight-minute tracks, with the opener stretching out to over 16 minutes. The final cut, "Ahaba Sound System," is solely percussive, which really works out, with the two guitars twisting around on top.


This double-LP is billed as the third volume in a series of "World Spirituality Classics" and features seven songs of "dance and devotion." It is straightforward Nigerian Highlife: the classic Benin City sound developed in the 1970s and 80s, and so has great percussion, guitars snaking along and pleasant organ fills. Although the liner notes compare him to Onyeabor, Fela and Ebo Taylor, I would say Waziri Oshomah is closer in style to Stephen Osita Osadebe with his mellow delivery over ten-minute tracks. A praise song for "Alhaji Yesufu Sado, managing director" clocks in at 17'47, i.e. the whole side of an LP. The lyrics are not as preachy as I feared, suggesting respect, humility and some common sense attitudes we can all relate to, no matter our belief or lack thereof. As far as Muslims go, Waziri seems pretty enlightened and has avoided the de-Africanization of the more fundamentalist Islamicists who want Sharia Law in Africa. Obviously the Christian missionaries did not do a good job, so we now are faced with the other extreme. We can only hope these disparate sects can still put aside their differences and dance. The organist meanders pleasantly into the void left when Waziri is not singing. In fact, though it is not stated, the liner notes say he was inspired by Victor Uwaifo to have electronic keyboards and I think that may be him playing the organ. "Omhona" clearly shows the Uwaifo influence. And some brass shows up to punctuate the proceedings. "Jealousy" is marred by syndrums and some really dreadful synth effects on the keyboard. On track 5, "Ovini Omoekeke Alhaji Inu Umoru," there's a great muted trumpet which also graces the track "Okhume Ukhaduame." On the whole the Uwaifo influence wins out over the experimental attempts.

NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT (Mississippi Records MRI-136)

When you put on an album by Celestine Ukwu you really don't want it to end. There is nothing more relaxing than an hour of this celestial music; if you are ready for an indulgent treat, this is it. It's an immediate neuron balm. Starting out as the Music Royals, Ukwu's band began to reshape Highlife, which was dying at the end of the 1960s as Nigeria fell apart into civil war. Being from Enugu state, in the East, Ukwu was a supporter of the Biafran secession. Oil had just been discovered there and the military did not wish to let the revenue go to a small break-away state. Ukwu and Jim Lawson were ostracized for supporting the weaker side in the struggle, but fans returned after the hostilities ended. In Ukwu's hands, Highlife had slowed down: now the songs were philosophical musings on life's uncertainties; the instrumentation had changed dramatically also. Ukwu went for a highly layered sound. In one of his earlier bands he had toured Congo and been exposed to the music of Docteur Nico so he added a lap-steel guitar and you can hear the influence of the African Fiesta guitarist in his own playing. His songs are melancholy, but what stops them being mournful is the busy percussion, bongos and guitars, and the unexpected bright vibraphone trinkling away in continuo (or out of tune piano on his first album), played by Ukwu himself. Muted trumpet, and an endearing squeaky clarinet add a touch of pathos. Interestingly there are no guitar solos: everything is carefully orchestrated with only the horn-men and occasional keyboards indulging in flights of fancy. Four of the five tracks here were on the Greatest Hits CD put out by FlameTree in 1997. The album opens with "Ejina Uwa nya isi (Don't be arrogant)" which features discretely martial drum rolls behind the claves and congas. The haunting "Okwukwe Na N'chekwube" is one of my favorites: the muted trumpet, whining plaintive steel guitar swooping around like an owl in the studio, introduce the melody, first brightly on the guitar, then the vocal plaint of Celestine comes in at 3 and a half minutes, singing "For every beginning, there is an end / When something bad happens, it feels like it'll never come to an end / If something bad happens, let us leave it to God..." That was on the Ilo Abu Chi album, and that religious title song is also present. First recorded in 1971 as a single on Philips, it was redone for the 1974 LP. "Onwunwa (Temptation)" was on his first album True Philosophy, issued in 1971. The fifth track, "Tomorrow is so Uncertain," is a ten-minute rarity and it's great to hear it restored here. The sound is full and warm and improved over the most-likely scratchy LPs you may have, if you have them at all. (I only have a rip of the album, and not only is it scratchy, it was recorded a bit slow as I now discover!) This was the title track on his 1973 album. The 30-second horn chorus intro is fascinating and, set against the vibraphone and bass, is unlike anything else from Nigeria.
You might argue for inclusion of the heavily anthologized "Igede" or "Osondu," or another hit single "Elege," but nothing is lacking here: any slice of Ukwu's heavenly music is welcome. He recorded about 36 songs in total, excluding the early 45s. A completist like me would love to hear the half dozen singles recorded early in his career which were never gathered on any of his 6 LPs, but I am sure the continued interest in his music will bring them to light eventually. (If something is lost and forgotten it was either not very good to begin with, or conversely so good all copies were played to death!) His last hit was "Money Palava" in 1976. After his tragic death in a car crash at age 37 in 1977, two more albums appeared: one by his band, renamed the Celestine Ukwu Memorial Band, who recorded four tracks in tribute to him, and a greatest hits assembled by Polygram which included one vault rarity: an alternate take of "Igede."

OKU NGWO – DI OCHO (Palenque Records)

It's like they never went away. Technically, they didn't, but we have not really heard from the Oriental Brothers since Original Music, Flametree and Afrodisia put together some compilations of their early albums. This Igbo Highlife group came from Eastern Nigeria, hence the "Orient" in their name. Established in 1973 by brothers Dan Satch Opara (lead guitar), Godwin Kabaka Opara (rhythm guitar), and Sir Warrior (singer) they ruled the airwaves, not only in West Africa, but as far way as Cartagena, Colombia where the sound system DJs idolized their bright polytonality. It's this transatlantic connection that has brought the group back to the studio, after a 20 year hiatus, to celebrate their 50th anniversary with a new album. The original line-up had a hit album on Decca in 1974 and then broke into three factions, all claiming the name. Dr Sir Warrior had the most popular band (Oriental Brothers International) until his death in 1999. Godwin Kabaka founded his own band in 1977, his lyrics were proverb-laden, his music combined traditional sounds with other influences from Ghana and even Congolese guitar. A classic collection of Kabaka's material was reissued by Palenque Records recently, so this reunion is the logical next step. As the last man standing, guitar heavy Dan Satch now carries the mantle. There is great continuity in their sound, though only the original conga player has survived the five decades. Nevertheless we have the sweet insistent sound of 70s highlife on a thick layer of percussion, traps, congas and other percussion, wiry guitar, throbbing bass, and long discursive vocals. The ten-minute tracks expand outwards and blend together.


Palenque Records, the premium Colombian-based label, has now started going back to its roots, finding the African artists who influenced the early Picotero sound-systems back in the days when sailors would bring vinyl records to port for trade, and DJ collectors would try to keep them exclusive by scratching out the labels before spinning them in their sound systems, while eager fans would sneak tape decks into the shows to capture the elusive African tunes being highlighted. One such album is by the wonderful International Guitar Band of Nigeria, led by Godwin Kabaka Opara. As a young man in the 60s, Kabaka played trumpet in a brass band before taking up guitar. His family band was called the Oriental Brothers (not because their guitars were tuned to different keys and sounded Chinese, but because they came from Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo homeland). The last cut "Onye ikekwere meyeka" translates as "Do better if you can," and became the title of a reissue album by John Storm Roberts' Original Music label in 1995 (The first side of this album was included on the Original Music release). The band was formed in 1971 by three brothers, Christogonus a.k.a. Warrior (vocals), Dansatch and Godwin Opara. With proverb-laden lyrics and musical influences from both Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukous, the music dominated the club scene in Nigeria in the 70s. Eventually the brothers split into separate bands in 1977. The Oriental Brothers were prolific and put out many wonderful albums throughout the 1980s, led either by Warrior or Dansatch. Mossiac Music of USA and Flametree of London reissued CD compilations leased from Afrodisia. After his break from the Oriental Brothers, Kabaka's first album (on Decca) was a huge hit, including the song "Mangala," a tribute to a former bandmate who had passed away. The brothers' guitar style has been called "relentless" and it is indeed a strong, driving component of the music. But they also break it down to the drums (traditional Ibo hand percussion of shekere and conga drums) with vocal declamation, almost like a sermon, while the guitars take a break. Taking advantage of the LP format they would stretch out and record songs that were 20 minutes long, filling the entire side of an album.

PATIENCE (Ugabi 5 Productions)

Hot on the heels of the remarkable Oliver Nakoya album Aja Wele-Wele comes another dose of mellow Nigerian highlife with the sweet sound of yesterday, as welcome as a hot tub on a chilly night. Tony is the son of Vincent Ugabi, largely unknown in the West although he did tour to the USA in 2007-8, but author of over thirty albums of Etaskor music from Benin City, Edo State, in the 1970s and 80s (some of which are available on Spotify, etc). In the vein of his father, and other highlife musicians, Tony's music is largely praise songs for his patrons. Vincent wrote some of the songs, in fact, and another son Andrew is also succeeding in the same career with a debut album released in this past year. My friend Michael Scott, who is the resident expert on Nigerian music, has posted some of Vincent's music on his blog, along with an interview with the octogenarian singer. "Waziri Oshomah and Vincent Ugabi were the two most important singers in the movement," says Scott. It's very meditative and it's aim is to bring hope to the hopeless. The son is aware of this too as the new album has shout-outs to both Michael Scott and another of my music buddies, Dr Chris Meserve, both of whom are outstanding collectors and archivists and I am proud to say, came to African music through listening to my radio show from San Francisco in the 1980s. Tony learned his craft in the ranks of his father's band and has taken it over so there is a seamless transition to the now 50-year-old sound. "E go beta (Patience)" has pidgin english lyrics that suggest things will improve if we have faith in God. I did not know until I googled Weppa Wanno that the Ugabis come from a kingdom that recently separated from its conjoined neighbor, under British rule. There's Tony's take on "Sweet Mother" praising his mummy in English. Then we get to the two longest cuts, clocking in at ten minutes each, "Simeon and Moses," which seems to show that inter-tribal animosity goes back a long way (Simeon's is the only one of the 12 tribes of Israel not blessed by Moses according to Deuteronomy – OK, I won't go there). Maybe it's better we don't know what this is all about. This is a very impressive debut album. Tony has picked up his father's mantle, and wears it well. Hopefully the world will now be ready to hear the word from Weppa Wanno.

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.