Sunday, May 27, 2007

Remembering the Titans: John Wayne and Segun Bucknor

I swear, sometimes there is nothing cooler in life than the feeling of freedom you get on a Sunday evening when you know you don't have to go to work the next day. God bless Memorial Day!

Today has mostly been rewarding... I did some writing (a music piece for the legendary Lagos Daily Times... yep, they're coming back!), picked up the suit I'm wearing to my friends Enyi & Megan's wedding next week (snazzy!), learned a few Seu Jorge songs on guitar ("Tive Razao" and "São Gonça"), then listened to a lot of early 1990s R&B (seriously: I really do miss Hi-Five sometimes, yo).

I'm kinda pissed at myself for forgetting to write something yesterday about John Wayne's centenary. (And this is supposed to be the time of year we honor great American heroes too!) But hey... there's already a gang of people talking plenty about it. So instead, I'll pay tribute to a different, non-American hero... Mr. Segun Bucknor.

Segun Bucknor is a semi-forgotten figure in the history of Nigerian music, so much so that the only somewhat decent photo I could even find of him is the obscure image from the cover of the compilation Strut released a few years ago. His records are as hard to find as hen's teeth, and he's usually only mentioned as a footnote to Fela, as one of his lesser contemporaries on the late-1960s Lagos music scene.

Actually, the connection to Fela goes back a bit further than that. Segun Bucknor was born in 1946 into a well-regarded Lagos family of musicians; his cousin Wole--as part of the Afro-Jazz Group that also included Bayo Martins and Zeal Onyia--was a Nigerian jazz pioneer who tutored young Fela Ransome-Kuti on the piano.

(Wole Bucknor also featured as a member of an early version of Fela's Koola Lobitos and fathered at least one child with Fela's younger sister, Yemisi Ransome-Kuti. He went on to become the Nigerian Navy's director of music, and I think he is also the father of popular Lagos wedding planner and socialite, Funke Bucknor.) (Edit: Actually, he is not; Funke Bucknor-Obruthe is Segun's daughter, as is media personality Tosyn Bucknor.)

As a student at the venerable King's College, Bucknor sang in the choir, and at the age of 15 he got the chance to play and recorded with highlife bandleader Roy Chicago's Rhythm Dandies dance band. By 1964, highlife was becoming old hat for post-independence Nigerian youth; a Beatles-aping quartet called The Cyclops had inspired a wave of high school rock & roll bands. With three school friends (including future esteemed photojournalist Sunmi Smart-Cole) and played mostly covers of popular pop and rock songs. The following year, he left the band to study liberal arts and ethnomusicology at New York's Columbia University, and it was during his three-year sojourn in the US that his imagination was captured by a sound that had heretofore not made much of a splash in Nigeria--soul music, particularly the music of Ray Charles.

Bucknor sought to introduce soul music to the Lagos scene when he returned to Nigeria in 1968, but he found that he had been beaten to the punch by new bands like The Strangers (led by organist Bob Miga), the Hykkers (featuring guitarist Jake Sollo, later of The Funkees, Osibisa and general awesomeness) and most of all by "Nigeria's James Brown," Geraldo Pino (who was actually Sierra Leonean).

Bucknor swiftly reconnected with his Hot Four buddies and they formed a new band called The Soul Assembly, recording two sides "Lord Give Me Soul" and "I'll Love You No Matter How." The Soul Assembly disbanded in 1969 and reformed as Segun Bucknor & The Assembly, this time moving away from straight imitations of US soul and toward a more organically African expression of soul music. As has often been the case throughout the history of African popular music, Afro-Cuban rhythms served as the bridge between the Motherland and the New World, as evidenced on tracks such as "That's The Time" and "Love and Affection."

As Bucknor further developed his brand of Afro-Soul, he cultivated a flamboyant visual style to accompany it. Eschewing the sharp western-style suits that characterized popular musicians of the day, he and his band (now renamed The Revolution) appeared shirtless, festooned with cowrie shells. Bucknor shaved his hair into a demi-mohawk and added to the stage show a trio of insane, booty-shaking nymphettes called The Sweet Things:

Oh yeah, I should mention that this here footage is, of course, poached once again from the Ginger Baker in Africa DVD (and to think that I said there was hardly any good stuff on it!) Director Tony Palmer is obviously quite entranced by the Sweet Thing dancers (and can you blame him?) so Bucknor barely gets any screen time here, but if you can control your blink reflex, you can spot him barking into the microphone behind the organ, wearing a green waistcoat. But Palmer sure loved filming those Sweet Things, ah tell yuh whut... He even had them stage another performance in Fela's Afro-Spot in Surulere specifically for documentation purposes (ah... yes. "documentation."That's what we're calling it!):

Sorry for the crappy quality at the beginning of both clips, y'all... I'll try to fix that later.)

Lately, a lot of music writers have tended to write Bucknor off as a Fela imitator or follower, but watching that footage, I can't help but wonder about the degree to which Bucknor influenced Fela in terms of visual presentation (he rocked the "jungle" costumes and the scantily-clad girl dancers first) and even in terms of the fusion of soul and African sounds.

One area in which I am fairly certain that Fela influenced Bucknor, though, is the in the increasing social commentary in songs like "Son of January 15th," (the date of the 1966 military coup d'etat that usurped Nigeria's First Republic) and "Pocket Your Bigmanism" (an indictment of the new Nigerian upper class).

In 1975, feeling that the cycle of Afro-rock/soul bands had run its course and was losing out to both the encroaching DJ culture as well as to the new generation of Yoruba juju musicians that had emerged in Lagos since all the Eastern musicians deserted the city during the civil war, Segun Bucknor disbanded the Revolution and concentrated on journalism. He still lives in Lagos and very occasionally performs, but I kinda wish he had kept going through the 1970s like Fela did and claimed his rightful place in the pantheon of innovators in Nigerian popular music.

Here's a couple more tracks from him:

"La La La (Hard Version) (Part 1)"


"La La La (Acoustic Version)"

"Who Say I Tire"

"Dye Dye"

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

The information in this blog entry was gathered from Sue Bowerman and Quinton Scott's interview with Segun Bucknor in the Poor Man No Get Brother CD booklet, the 1975 Segun Bucknor interview included in Musicmakers of West Africa by John Collins, "What happened to Nigeria’s Pop Music of the 60s?," an article by Sunmi Smart-Cole, and a little random hearsay.

Update 05/28/07: Part of the reason I have undertaken this modest chronicle of Nigerian popular music is because there really is no central, reliable source for this information available online. So I cringe when I find that my attempt to provide such a source actually contains inaccurate information. I'm working on that, though... For now, a lot of my sources are second- and thirdhand, and things sometimes get misinterpreted in transmission. I edited this post to correct the following factual errors:

- Captain Wole Bucknor is Segun Bucknor's cousin, not his brother.
- the percussionist in the clip is not Sunmi Smart-Cole; Smart-Cole was indeed a founding member of the Hot Four and the Soul Assembly, but when the latter band was dissolved, Bucknor formed the Assembly with all new members.

Update 06/13/07: I re-upped the Segun Bucknor the five Segun Bucknor tracks and added two more: "Who Say I Tire" and "Dye Dye."

Update 03/01/08: Thanks to input from Seal67, I changed the bit where I said the Strangers were led by highlife bandleader Bobby Benson's son Tony. While I was here, I made the corrected about Funke Bucknor, too.


denis said...

i can't stop watching those videos


AFKAP of Darkness said...

same thing here, man! it's , like, hypnotic or something... especially in the first clip when ol' girl starts shaking like she's in a seizure!

Seal67 said...

Nice one dude, just two things I want to point out. a. The percussionist is none other than the great Papa Chico, last seen playing the Conga's at Nazir Ado Ibrahim's nightclub Club Towers in the late 90's; b. I'm absolutely sure that the Strangers were not led by Tony Benson but by Bob Miga an awesome Hammond Organist, they were based in Enugu hence.. I'm sure you remember the track- Love Rock ("Some talk about love...")that was the Strangers and Miga at his best on the Hammond Organ. All said, fantastic post, more abeg!

Comb & Razor said...

thanks a lot for the info Seal67!

re: the Strangers thing... i was just having that conversation with someone not too long ago!

i KNEW that Bob Miga is the figure most associated with the Strangers, but John Collins states (in both Musicmakers of West Africa and West African Pop Roots) that Tony Benson was the leader of the group!

eventually, i just figured that maybe Benson started the band and Miga later took over or something... but more likely since Collins was based in Ghana rather than Nigeria, and he had an enormous amount of information to compile, he might have just gotten his circuits crossed. (it's happened before)

well, i'll edit the post so as to avoid perpetuating that misinformation.

again, thanks a lot... and i'd love to hear more from you, too; i've mined your blog for info in that past!

Tosyn SPEECHgirl Bucknor said...

im sitting here, with a few tears in my eyes
thank you so much for writing about my father

im an artiste, and it was a pleasure growing up with Segun Bucknor
He might not be given the credit and awarenees due to him, but he loves his life, and his music, and for him, that is what matters
Funny thing, you can still catch him performing here and there, and i am hoping to trap him in the studio one of these days.

Thank you once again and i will be back to give u some yOUTUBE links of his performances

Comb & Razor said...

SPEECHgirl -

quite an honor to have you stop by, considering how much i enjoy watching you on "New Dawn"!

your dad is definitely one of the giants in my book... unfortunately, his era is one that isn't frequently documented (especially since so much of the music from that pre-war era is lost now). but i'm glad to hear that he's still performing. you MUST convince him to get back into the studio, though!

Zeus said...

Damn, those Sweet Things are something else.