When I was around nine years old, I nursed a simmering schoolboy crush on Martha Ulaeto, who was a rather popular singer in Calabar. She was a local girl who had achieved considerable heights as one of the few trained operatic singers in Nigeria at the time, and her primary repertoire comprised jazzed-up arrangements of traditional songs drawn from the area's folklore. As such, the people of what was then called Cross River State took much pride in her large-scale projection of their culture and she was a mainstay on Calabar's Cross River Radio and NTA Channel 9. I remember seeing her on TV singing "Everlasting" and "Ije Lovu" surrounded by a bunch of dancing kids, looking like a sexy music teacher. I begged my mom to buy me a music magazine that had an article about her in it (I can't remember what the magazine was called but I do recall that the cover of that particular issue featured Eddy Grant wearing an uncomfortably tight pair of football shorts). Most of what I know about Martha Ulaeto came from that article:
She fostered her passion for singing in cultural arts tournaments while a student at Cornelia Connelly College, Uyo before going on to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) where she studied under Samuel Akpabot, singing the title role in a 1971 rendition of the redoubtable composer's Cynthia's Lament. After an appearance in Adam Fiberesima's opera Opu Jaja, she won a scholarship to the National Conservatoire in Athens and subsequent voice training in London. Finding few outlets for a prima donna of the opera upon returning to Nigeria, she turned to the Efik ballads, work songs and children's rhymes she had heard growing up and found success amidst the blossoming vogue for female folk singers. However, when it came time to release her first album, 1981's Love Me Now, Martha determined to prove that (as she put it in the sleeve notes) "I can also freak out."
Love Me Now was recorded in London with Akie Deen (who mostly underlayed gentle calypso-tinged production, but floored the pedal on a torrid disco scorcher or two) and released on Olu Aboderin's Skylark Records.
She swiftly followed up her debut with 1982's Everlasting, a more boogie/modern soul-flavored set featuring more original compostions. It was produced by Mike Abiola Phillips and released on Martha's own ULA label. She had a very interesting sound on this album... Singing R&B with an operatic vocal style occasionally made her sound uncannily like Miss Piggy, but it totally worked for me. Maybe because I loved The Muppet Show and the production was so damn pristine.
("Everlasting" was the song on which I first heard slap bass. Well... I mean, not really. In retrospect, I can think of a score of songs I had heard before that which are dripping with slap bass, but this was the first time I really noticed it--along with the reverb on the handclap--and went "Huh? How'd they do that?" It was probably the key moment at which I started thinking about record production and after that, I kind of sought out those kinds of sounds... That is, until I vigorously forswore them during my funk purism phase in the late 90s.)
She released two more albums on ULA between 1983 and 1985; I really can't remember if she put out anything after that, though. I believe she lives in London these days and is still involved in musical education and her great love of the opera.
Here are a couple of tracks from her first two LPs.
And Martha, if you read this, holler at your fan!
"Nti Eweb (I Remember Eweb)"
"Nne, Nne, Nne! (Mother, Mother, Mother!)"
"Ije Lovu (Love Trip)"
"Love is Best"
* The only thing perhaps more execrable and groan-inducing than played-out Brady Bunch references is a lame pun playing off of a played-out Brady Bunch reference, but I really couldn't think of another title for this post, so give me a break, willya?
** I have no idea why this track is coming up truncated... I'm working at trying to fix it, though! (2/18/08: FIXED IT)