Monday, December 31, 2007

Ofege IV: How Do You Feel

Okay... 2007's got like 30 minutes left; let's see if I can squeeze in one last entry before 2008 and close out the Ofege series with the fourth album, 1978's How Do You Feel.

I've often wondered why this album is rarely mentioned in discussions of Ofege... I guess a lot of people just don't know it exists. But I wouldn't be surprised to find that some degree of rockist snobbery were involved; you know, the "Disco Sucks" variety, the kind that makes heads snicker at BLO's latter albums like Bulky Backside.

But such was the tide of the times; 1978 was a world away from 1973 and even in America, black bands like Funkadelic and the Ohio Players that had erstwhile purveyed raggedly funky rock were shifting their output exclusively towards slicker, more dancefloor-oriented material. As Melvin said to me, "the fuzzbox was out of fashion."

A few weeks ago, I enjoyed a brief chat with Ofege bassist Paul Alade. I found him to be a very charming and affable fellow with a markedly philosophical perspective on his days of pop stardom. He swiftly rejected the suggestion that How Do You Feel? represented the band searching for a new sound or trying to fit in, asserting that it was "just us being us."

Interestingly, Alade confirmed my earlier suspicions that the sound of the second album, Last of the Origins was a record company-mandated attempt to steer the band in a more polished, mainstream direction ("To them, we were just some stupid kids," he snorted) and recalled Higher Plane Breeze as a return to the roots, free from label manipulation. The difference in sound from their earlier recordings he attributed to the band's burgeoning maturity and changes in their musical environment.

"Right back to Try and Love," Alade explained. "if you listen to any of our records, you can hear our influences... You can tell what we were listening to at the time, whether it was Santana and jimi Hendrix, or Osibisa... Sly & the Family Stone and everything else.

"By the time you get to How Do You Feel, we're really still doing the same thing, playing our same sound, but also absorbing some of the other things that were happening at the time. Like the disco sounds you hear on the record. And reggae was a big thing happening at the time. But when you listen to songs like 'World at Peace' and 'Frustration,' that's just the basic, roots Ofege sound."

Judging from a song like "Bomp Your Booty," I'm going to guess that they were listening to Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players. Probably some Akie Deen stuff too, as evidenced by the soca-ish intro of "Check It Out," which leads into a lean, angular groove that sounds like it was ripped from Jake Sollo's late-70s playbook (as do, unfortunately, the disco hoots). Sollo himself--recently having partaken in Kiki Gyan's mutiny from Osibisa--plays lead guitar on the album.

The Ofege lineup here is pared down to its core: M-Ike on drums, Paul on bass, Melvin on rhythm guitar ("Today, we probably would do everything by ourselves," Alade reflects. "But back then you needed to hire extra guys to play live").

As on Higher Plane Breeze, Robert Bailey, late of Osibisa, mans the keys; another Osibisa insurgent, Kofi Ayivor, aids on the congas; and the synth textures of Francis Monkman, last heard on Last of the Origins, are back again.

I forgot to ask Alade about the identity of "Majek," who produced the last two Ofege albums, but I must say I like the job he did on them. As much as I love the rugged stonerism of Try and Love, the Ofege songs I return to most are the more melodic groovers like "H.P.B." and this album's "Take Your Mind Away" that employ the acute guitar attack in service of fluid danceability. The title track is a sexy rub-a-dub killer, too, perfect for win'ing yuh waist pon the gyal or bwoy of your choice!

How Do You Feel does project interesting new directions for the band, but we would never discover whence those paths would lead, as after this LP, Ofege was no more.

I asked Paul Alade if they went into How Do You Feel knowing that it was going to be the final album.

"No, not at all," he replied. "We would have liked to keep going... When we were in school, we all lived in different parts of the country, but every summer we would try to get together and [record an album]. By the time of How Do You Feel, school was over, and we just went in different directions. The three of us were able to come together to make this album, but after that Ike went to school in England, and then I left to England too for a while, then to the States. And I've been here ever since."

Melvin Noks released two seldom-heard solo albums as Melvin Ukachi, Evolution (1982) and Ofege as One (1984) before packing it in.

They all admit to missing it, though, and they're all down to put the band back together... but only if they can get a fair deal this time. So if anybody out there has the wherewithal to make that happen, wouldn't it be cool to be able to write another chapter of this story in 2008?

(There's a little surface noise on this record, y'all... Especially on side B. One thing I have definitely got to do in 2008 is invest in a vacuum vinyl cleaner!)

Happy new year, everybody!

Paul "B-Tee" Alade - Bass, vocals
Melvin "Karchi" Noks - Main vocals, rhythm guitar
Mike "Ike" Meme- Drums, congas, percussion & vocals
Jake Sollo - Solo guitar
Francis Monkman - Strings & keyboards
Robert Bailey - Keyboards
Kofi Ayivor - Congas
Miranda - Violin
Ann - Vocals

Special thanks to Georgie Mann for spreading his good vibes

All songs composed and arranged by Ofege
Produced by Majek

1. World at Peace
2. Burning Jungle
3. Check It Out
4. Bomp Your Booty
5. Take Your Mind Away

1. How Do You Feel?
2. Ideal Situation
3. Naira Power
4. Nature Queen
5. Frustration

(Pardon the rough cover scan... I'm in a bit of a hurry, but I'll fix it later)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ekassa fever!

When I posted that Sir Victor Uwaifo's Greatest Hits comp a few months ago, I said that I didn't think it was representative of his best work, but I didn't say what I thought was.

For the record... This:

For my money, Uwaifo's early-70s "Ekassa" recordings captured the most exciting synthesis of his highlife, cubano, Bini and soul & rock influences, with the "Guitar Boy" getting flossy on the axe, drums, organ, flute and xylophone.

1. Ekassa 28 (Ebibi)
2. Ekassa 34 (Igiodo Giodo)
3. Ekassa 31 (Isede)
4. Ekassa 32 (Votumamuoga)
5. Ekassa 25 (Aiworo)

1. Ekassa 38 (Ame'sihion Segbe)
2. Ekassa 24 (Kikikri)
3. Ekassa 26 (Akhuankhuan)
4. Ekassa 35 (Sumwen-Sowa)
5. Ekassa 29 (Osulelelemule)

Yeah, if I were to select any Uwaifo records for a collection of "classics," I'd definitely have to choose some of these. Here are some (relatively) recent video clips of the perennial showman performing "Ekassa":

Monday, December 10, 2007

Wake Up Your Mind

Yes... Back to business.

The past week or so has been so busy that I've hardly had time to check out my favorite blogs, let alone post anything on this one, so yeah... I know I've got a backlog of requests to get to.

I promised my man Calumbinho that I was going to throw up Joni Haastrup's Wake Up Your Mind like three or four days ago and my pal Ofon has been waiting for Haastrup's Monomono albums for months now--one of the reasons I delayed on the Monomono stuff was because I had been trying to secure an interview with Mr. Haastrup, and that hasn't quite worked out yet. I'll keep trying, but in the meantime, I guess I can at least make Calumbinho happy!

Let's see... What to say about this record? Well, it's the one and only solo album by one of Nigeria's most respected and beloved musicians. While Joni Haastrup is mostly unknown to kids who came of age in the 1980s (my generation), among the folks who were grooving in the late 60s and the 70s, the mere mention of his name is apt to elicit responses of tremendous affection and awe. I've gotten the sense that more than any other single musician, Joni Haastrup embodied the all aspirations of Nigerian music in the post-highlife era.

Earlier in his career, he was billed as "Johnny Haastrup"; the later "Joni" spelling appears to be a tip of the hat to Jimi Hendrix, and like Hendrix, Haastrup exuded the aura of an individual who just has music spontaneously pouring out of his soul. He started performing as a teenager in the town of Ilesa, singing in school bands with his older brother, guitarist Segun Haastrup. During a trip to Lagos, the brothers tried out for immortal bandleader Bobby Benson's Jam Session Orchestra; neither of them made the cut, but Joni brought the house down with his animated Chuck Berry impression. Soon thereafter, legendary trumpeter Victor Olaiya witnessed Joni's energetic dancing and singing in a high school drama group and was sufficiently impressed to recruit the youngster to join his Cool Cats band (in which no less a personage than Fela Ransome-Kuti had apprenticed in the late 1950s). This was 1965 after all; the rhythm of Lagos nightlife was changing. "Beat music"--rock & roll and soul--was seeping into the scene and Olaiya (true to his reputation as "the evil genius of highlife") presciently realized that he would have to incorporate the new foreign sounds. The Cool Cats became The All Stars Soul International, which Joni Haastrup fronted for a year and a half.

In 1966, saxophonist Orlando Julius (a contemporary of Fela, credited in some quarters as the true originator of the term "Afro-beat music") released the album Super Afro Soul on which Joni Haastrup featured as a guest lead vocalist on a few tracks, such as "Bojubari" and a "copyright" of the Temptations' "My Girl." The album was a momentous success, helping to usher in the ascendance of soul music and cement Joni Haastrup's reputation as "Nigeria's Soul Brother Number One."

During the war, beat groups prevailed: Segun Bucknor & his Soul Assembly, The Strangers, The Clusters (whose lineup included future BLO members Laolu Akins and Mike Odumosu and, briefly, Joni Haastrup) and The Hykkers. It was with the latter band that Haastrup was sitting in when he caught the attention of Ginger Baker, on his first visit to Nigeria in 1970. Baker was so besotted by Joni's electrifying stage presence that he snatched him off to London to join Ginger Baker's Air Force. Baker envisioned him playing a multiinstrumental role, which was initially a surprise to Joni:
There was a lot of misconception about what I could do. When I went with Ginger, he saw me singing. He never saw me play an instrument, but he had this great belief within himself that I could play any instrument. So he wanted me to play the organ because Steve Winwood was leaving. And he also wanted me to play guitar because Denny Laine was leaving. So I got into London on a, I think on a Tuesday. The first gig was on Thursday. I have never heard the music of the band. I don't know what they sound like. I don't know anybody in the band but Ginger. I've never even heard Ginger play drums face-to-face except on record. He wants me to play organ and guitar and sing in this big ten-piece band with Graham Bond and Bud Beadle and all these people. And I uh, and I said, "Well, Ginger I don't really play any of these instruments. I'm just a singer." And he goes, "Hey! You can do it. You can fuckin' do it." [laughter]
It's a testament to Haastrup's innate musicality that, despite his initial reservations, two days later he was playing guitar and keyboards in the Air Force!

Haastrup returned to Nigeria later in the year, playing the keys for Baker again in Salt.

(Yes, I've posted this video before, but I wanted to point out something I didn't mention before: Mr. Muttonchops in the red tank top? That's Tunde Kuboye, later of Jazz 38 fame.)

Joni hooked up with Kenneth Okulolo, who had played bass in Olaiya's All Stars during Haastrup's tenure with the band. He served as Haastrup's co-pilot in Monomono, one of the earliest afro-rock ensembles to capitalize on the success of Osibisa. The band's 1972 debut album, Give The Beggar a Chance, was met with massive success in Nigeria and beyond, and the 1974 followup, Dawn of Awareness was picked up for international distribution by Capitol Records.

Confident that Monomono was about to cross over into the big time, Haastrup traveled to the US to urge Capitol to back a tour for the band. Capitol balked, and Haastrup returned to Nigeria dejected. He made another attempt in 1976, but when it became clear that Capitol was not interested in promoting them, Monomono disbanded. It was at this point that he recorded his solo album, with some assistance from some of his bandmates.

Wake Up Your Mind was released in 1978, the year after FESTAC, so it's unsurprising that it finds Haastrup in a pan-Africanist mood. In the music, one can hear echoes of Stevie Wonder, Kool & the Gang, Mighty Sparrow and even KC & the Sunshine Band's Bahamian junkanoo-inspired disco, as the lyrics exhort the unity of the African disapora. The album is definitely designed for maximum crossover effect, but Haastrup has never been shy about his ambitions to transcend the conventional ideas of what an African musician should sound like:
[We need to] show the African musician as an artist first, then as an African... We can be pop, we can be rock, we can be jazz, we can be soul, we can be everything because in actual fact we have [made] an incredible contribution to all of that already. So why deny ourselves, or why deny us, the opportunity to cross over into the commercial industry.
I don't know to what degree the album was successful in penetrating the international market, but after Wake Up Your Mind, Haastrup left Nigeria pretty much for good. He worked as a session musician and producer in London and by the early 80s he was in the Bay Area, fronting Joni Haastrup & the Afrikans and doing more session work (most notably on several Chris Isaak albums from the late 80s up until the mid-90s).

Just yesterday, I was chatting with Calumbinho about Joni Haastrup and he made an interesting observation about Joni's singing. Despite his reputation as a showman, his vocals have a decidedly understated quality to them, and even when if he's singing in Yoruba and you don't understand the lyrics, you can feel the humility, honesty and intense love radiating from his delivery, much like Milton Nascimento. By all accounts, Joni is a really zen dude, and while's he's been a practicing Buddhist for many years, music is his real religion. As he says: "I just want to play my music and make people smile, keep people happy. Not limit myself to what people think I should be."

Today he still lives, plays and teaches in Oakland, California.

1. Free My People
2. Greetings
3. Wake Up Your Mind

1. Champions and Superstars
2. Do the "Funkro"
3. Watch Out

All Joni Haastrup quotes above culled from Breakout: Profiles in African Rhythm, by Gary Stewart, 1992, University of Chicago Press.

Update 1/27/08: Damn... I just noticed that I said the bass player in that clip was Ken Okulolo when I meant to say Tunde Kuboye! Damn... My bad. Wires got crossed there. I've fixed it now, anyway. My apologies for the misinfo!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Ozziddi For Sale

This selection was spurred by an observation Undercover Black Man made in the comments earlier this evening regarding the odd title choice for Yvonne Maha's Child For Sale. I always thought it was an odd title myself, especially since it was hardly reflective--even obliquely--of any content on the album. Then it occurred to me that it might have been a riff on the title of this 1976 album by the album's producer, Sonny Okosuns.

Ozziddi For Sale is mostly a loose Ozziddi band jam session essaying reggae, afrobeat and the trademark Ozziddi sound. The album was a major breakthrough for Sonny, and represented the beginnings of his reinvention as a champion for social justice; the song "Let My People Go" presages the "voice of the downtrodden" persona that would define his music through the 70s and 80s, and even hints at the Christian voice that would become his emphasis in the 90s.

Here's two tracks from the album:

Festival of the Hunters

Let My People Go