Don't know if y'all know this, but today is Vinyl Record Day, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the Phonograph (even though technically, Edison's invention originally played wax cylinders and then shellac plates before the vinyl record came into vogue in the 1940s... but you get the idea). As a result, a lot of music blogs are running shamelessly fetishistic tributes to vinyl today and I originally intended to do the same, but alas, it looks like my hard drive seems to have imploded yesterday, taking with it my collection of vinyl cover art and label scans (not to mention like 30 gigs of music and countless photos), so while I struggle to hold back the tears over here, I'll just throw up this rambling-ass entry I wrote a few weeks ago but never posted.
(Edit: I just realized that this posted up as a Saturday, August 11 entry, so I guess I should confirm that Vinyl Record Day was actually on Sunday, August 12. I guess because I posted very early on Sunday morning, Blogger's clock interpreted it as still being Saturday. *shrug*)
I've mentioned before that Latin American music has often served as a conduit and template for my understanding of African music, and to be honest, it's always bothered me a little bit. I mean, what does that say about me? Is my mind really so colonized by The West that I can't even think about and take pride in my own cultural heritage without relating it in some way to forms that are "exotic" and even "neo-African," but still fundamentally western?
I don't think I'm really alone in this, though... After all, didn't Fela say that he never really appreciate African culture until he saw Black Americans wearing dashikis on 125th Street in Harlem? And who was the wise man who said that in order to truly understand one's country, one must leave it? I really do believe that: you need to take a few steps away in order to see the forest and not just the trees. Plus, it can exceedingly difficult to actually concentrate and get a decent perspective on African culture while actually in modern Africa; one interesting thing about living in so-called "Third World" countries is the way you're so often deluged by avalanches of cultural detritus dumped from every other corner of the globe. For instance, I'm sure that many Nigerians d'un certain age will remember when one of the most popular shows on television was a very strange German game show called Telematch:
Yes, it was just as inane as it looks from the intro, kinda like a live-action Laff-a-Lympics (which was, by the way, another pretty popular program, along with other forgettable, low-rent Hanna-Barbera fare like Clue Club).
Probably my favorite of all these bizarre imports, though, was an over-the-top variety show from Brazil called Fantástico - O Show Da Vida:
Watching Fantástico was a bit like falling through a looking-glass into a wonderland where it was always carnaval, exploding with riotous color, light and movement, somewhat frightening imagery, broad humor and probably a little more stark sexuality than most would be comfortable with in a family program. Above all that, though, the show sticks out in my mind for igniting my lifelong passion for Brazilian music via the performances by MPB icons like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania:
or former Mutante Rita Lee (who kinda scared me back in the day):
(Fantástico is actually still on TV in Brazil; I caught it a couple of times last year during the brief period that I had TV Globo in my cable package, but it was a crushing disappointment. Everything I had loved about it was gone: the freewheeling whimsy, the glorious rococo, the camp stylings, the freaky production numbers. What was left was vacuous showbiz junket interviews and "news" stories about UFOs and the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in a bowl of oatmeal. Turns out that sometime in the early 1990s, the format had been changed from variety show to Hard Copy-like newsmagazine. It was like having bamboo shoots shoved up under my childhood. You really can't go home again, I guess.)
It's not like we spent all day rotting our brains in front of the boob tube, though... Back then, most TV stations didn't even start their daily broadcast until four in the evening. The constant distraction of crappy homegrown digital movies was as yet undreamed of and only a few folks had VCRs anyway, so to amuse ourselves, we kids spent a lot of time reading.
Crazy shit, I know... But this really happened.
Now I'm not gonna bullshit you and make like we were working our way through The Great Books in our free time; mostly it was pulpy trash like James Hadley Chase (hardboiled American crime stories as written by an ex-Royal Air Force pilot who had never even been to America) or Enid Blyton's polite and painfully English young adventurer yarns (Hullo! Well-scrubbed middle-class children foil dastardly smugglers and make it home in time for tea and sandwiches? Good old Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog! Hurrah!) or, for starter readers, the lightweight juvenilia of the African Reader's series.
The African Reader's Library was conceived by African Universities Press in the early 1960s to serve as, I guess, a junior broda to the groundbreaking Heinemann African Writers Series. Several of its popular titles, like Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder's Eze Goes To School, or The Village School and One Week, One Trouble (both by Anezi Okoro) were typically Horatio Alger tales or picaresque stories built around the exploits of young boys (always young boys) on their rocky quest for education.
By the time I was reading them in the early 80s, these novels were around 20 years old, but I never really noticed. After all, most seven-year-olds don't really think to read the publication info on the copyright page, and aside from the occasional curious monetary references (pounds and shillings rather than naira and kobo), there wasn't much in the actual texts that made them come off as particularly dated.
I still remember the first time I encountered a scene in one of those stories that was so anachronistic and jarring to my sensibilities as to make me acutely aware that the book in my hands was a relic of distant (and bizarre) times past: It was in Nkem Nwankwo's Tales Out Of School (or maybe it was the sequel, More Tales Out Of School, I forget). In this scene, a classroom full of secondary school students in Form One or Form Two--that is, eleven and twelve-year-olds--are fooling around in class, celebrating their defiance of some evil authoritarian prefect or teacher by drumming on their desks, playing invisible horns and singing highlife songs. This scene was so shocking that I actually put the book down in bewilderment.
Highlife? I wondered. Why on earth are these kids playing "old man music"?
Yes, I really did call it that. Before I learned the proper name "highlife," I--along with my sisters and many of our peers--generally referred to it as "old man music" and associated it with two broad, sometimes overlapping images:
1) the sour, leather-skinned old coot on your street who would never return your ball when it landed in his yard, choosing instead to remind you (just in case you had forgotten his last wild-eyed rant) that he had Fought Side-by-Side With The White Man™ in the Burma Theater so that scoundrels of no caliber such as yourself could be free to make “ah bloody hell of ah noise!” He would then affect clipped British diction as he fumed about “louts and scallywags” before returning indoors (confiscated ball under his arm) to his Chief Inyang Nta Henshaw records.
2) seedy drinking parlours populated by rheumy, hairy-eared leches, rank gin fumes seeping from their pores as they feasted upon dog meat and clumsily tried to seduce bubbleheaded, barely pubescent schoolgirls. (I once asked my cousin why highlife music was so called; he explained to me with all seriousness that the appellation was meant to be ironic. I believed him since so many of the people I identified with highlife were... Well, kinda lowlifes, really.)
Now, allow me to clarify a bit here: When I say that highlife was “old man music,” my issue was not (just) that the people who listened to it were old or that it wasn’t the latest flavor of the minute blazing its way up the hit parade. After all, most of the music I was digging at the time was stuff like classic Motown, Elvis, The Beatles, The Fifth Dimension--fifteen to twenty-year-old platters extracted from my parents’ record stack (when you haven’t even been on this earth up to a decade yourself, everything is new to you).
Also, I actually did like some highlife myself. I loved the aggressively flashy and forward "Ekassa" style of Sir Victor Uwaifo, for instance, and occasionally savored the mellow ambience engendered at family celebrations in the village by the gentle, muted wah-wah groove of Osadebe and the like. For some reason, though, I never really thought of that stuff as being "highlife" at the time. I can't remember exactly what I categorized it as, but I know that when I thought "highlife"--especially living in Calabar--I was thinking about the old-school "dance band" music with its quaint horn charts and spartan "palmwine" guitar style (so named for its association with drunkenness).
I couldn't conceptualize this sound as the theme music for hot-blooded Nigerian youth any more than I could imagine that a moldy old geezer like the Ol' Solja up the street had ever been bright-eyed and lusty, or fallen in love or had hopes and dreams beyond getting his jollies off by seizing errant footballs from hapless youngsters. Something about the music sounded inherently old and evocative of a faded glamour and vitality. There was a certain note of sadness and loss in it, and a languor to even the uptempo numbers that made it the perfect soundtrack for those whose best days were definitively behind them. Which is probably why I associated it so closely with Calabar.
"Calabar" was what Portuguese sailors called the Efik fishing settlement they encountered on the Bight of Bonny in the 15th century (They accientally also gave the name "Calabar" to a nearby Ijaw settlement, so the Efik area became "Old Calabar" and the Ijaw "New Calabar") and developed into probably the number one port for the trade in slaves. It's estimated that for up to 30% of all Africans shipped off to the New World in chains, Calabar Beach was the last thing they saw before being tossed into the dank hold.
(A good number of those enslaved Africans ended up in Cuba, by the way. There, slaves from Calabar became known as Carabali, and were greatly feared for their fierceness in combat and their clandestine, ultra-masculine Ekpe cult, which served as the foundation for the super-secret Cuban Abakuá society, the fount of seminal Afro-Cuban musical forms such as rumba and guaguanco.)
(See? I'm doing it again!)
Oh yes, one other interesting factoid about Calabar's macabre slaving past: From it we find possibly the oldest literary work by a Nigerian writing in English, The Diary of Antera Duke, being three years in the life of an Efik chief, 18th January 1785 to 31st January 1788. Only a fragment of it survives today, but it's an intriguing read indeed; Duke records in colorful broken English the day-to-day life of a local slave kingpin: Putting on his "whiteman trousers" to chill out and drink tea with the European slavers. Venturing out on expeditions to neighboring towns and villages to round up captives to sell to the whites. Storming a local bar and decapitating its patrons as a human sacrifice to his ancestors. (Legends such as this persisted as terrifying fables during my childhood; whenever an Obong--the ceremonial paramount ruler of Calabar--died, parents wouldn't let their kids leave the house until it had been announced that he'd been safely buried, as it was rumored that the Obong's minions still beheaded random people in order to properly inter the king.)
Even after the slave trade was abolished, Calabar remained a major trading port and the British kept it as the seat of government for for the Niger Coast Protectorate, making it, in essence, the first capital of Nigeria. With its modern roads, and other amenities such as the first post office in the country, the first primary school and one of the first and best secondary schools (the legendary Hope Waddell Training Institute), Calabar became known as "the Canaan City," the land of milk and honey. Even when the Brits shifted their administrative center to Lagos in 1906, Calabar retained a certain glamour as a cultural center, especially for its music. You see, Calabar was the home of the Niger Coast Constabulary Band, a police band that played loud, John Philip Sousa-style military marches on modern brass instruments. The influence of the Niger Coast Constabulary Band propagated a strong tradition of brass orchestras in Calabar, chief amongst them the legendary Calabar Brass Band, who would parade through the main streets of town playing their Africanized take on Salvation Army music with a gaggle of revelers trailing behind them.
When Calabar's economy started to decline in the 1930s, a lot of musicians left town to resettle in more happening cities, taking with them the distinctive Calabar brass sound that would infuse a very elegant and "modern" elan (and volume) to various local folk musics that up until then were built largely around low-impact instruments like guitars and mandolins, rattles, tambourines, empty bottles and tabletops. The Calabar Brass Band relocated to Lagos, where they continued their tradition of parading across the island and, under the alias "Lagos Mozart Orchestra," recorded sides such as "Ore Mi Kini Se?" ("What Did You Do, My Friend?"):
Lagos Mozart Orchestra - "Ore Mi Kini Se?"
The Calabar sound inspired many young players to pick up horns and was integral to the development of highlife. Calabar was a place that was frequently immortalized in song and just about every highlife dance band worth their salt had a "Calabar" number or two in their repertoire.
(Incidentally, here are two, both from Ghanaian bands: Jerry Hansen's Ramblers and King Bruce & the Black Beats:
Ramblers Dance Band - "Ekombi"
King Bruce & the Black Beats - "Abasi Do"
That was all over by the time I was growing up in Calabar, though.
Over the past decade, recently-departed Cross River State governor Donald Duke has done much to sexy up the Calabar's image, promoting it as one of the most progressive, pleasant and livable cities in the country. Still, my predominant image of it is one of a provincial town full of mold-covered, colonial-style architecture (Kinda like how I imagine Old Havana, I guess). My Calabar was a ghost town, a land that time had passed by, and nothing was more symbolic of that than its hoary old horn highlife which had seemingly fallen out of favor everywhere else in the country since after the war. Calabar was a place where young people complained how "dead" it was, and dreamed of getting the hell out of soon as they were old enough.
So once I was old enough, I got the hell out.
(Alright, y'all... I said it was rambling. And you know I hate long, long entries, so I'll just cut it off here and post the rest later.)