Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nigeria's Nashvillian Number One

In the United States, conventional wisdom regards country & western music as a uniquely American cultural product imbued with inherent negro-repellent qualities. In fact, in popular culture the sticky sweet twang of the pedal steel guitar has become synonymous with--to poach a phrase from Randy Newman--"keepin' the niggers down" (much like clawhammer banjo has become an aural cue for images of forcible sodomy and tender-lovin' incest).

Therefore, I've always found it paradoxical that country music has enjoyed enduring popularity in predominantly black nations such as Jamaica and throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

In Nigeria, for example, the most popular singer in the early 1980s was probably Jim Reeves. Every household had a couple of his records, and like 2Pac, he seemed to drop a new release or two every month in spite of having died in a plane crash in 1964. Insanely large blocks of radio time were devoted to playing his tunes, as well as other singers of "sentimental music" like Skeeter Davis, George Hamilton IV, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, John Denver and Don Williams.

This country & western saturation obviously exerted an influence upon homegrown Nigerian music. In some cases--such as the integration of the pedal steel into the juju of King Sunny Ade and the highlife of Celestine Ukwu--the influence was subtle. In others it was much more overt, as in the music of Emma Ogosi.

When Ogosi released his debut, Nobody Knows in 1981, he largely seemed to be an acolyte of Bunny Mack's slick, leisure-suited discolypso, with a couple of nods towards the folksy lyricism of Bongos Ikwue. However, his 1982 follow-up It's Not Easy found him more clearly defining his goal to craft a uniquely Nigerian flavor of country music: "the African Don Williams," they sometimes called him, or "Nigeria's Jim Reeves."

Ogosi rode that wave for a while, but mostly put his own singing career on the back burner in the latter part of the 80s as he dedicated himself to producing and managing his (now estranged) wife, reggae superstar Evi-Edna Ogholi-Ogosi. He released a reggae-inflected album himself, Weekend Show, in 1990 but he's been silent since then. He's promised to make a comeback soon, though.

Here are a couple of cuts from It's Not Easy, produced by Laolu Akins, featuring his BLO colleague Lemmy Jackson on keys and Monomono's Kenneth Okulolo and Friday Pozo on bass and congas respectively.

"Going Back To My Wife"
"Don't Break My Heart"
"There's No-One Like You"

12 comments:

John B. said...

Hey I thought "Nigeria's Jim Reeves" was Joe Nez!

It just so happens I've been working on a post about Joe. The only thing that's been holding me back is I don't have a decent copy of his record "My Landlady," only a crappy cassette version, and I really want to include a couple of songs from it.

Do you have that one? If you do I'd be very appreciative!

Country music is really popular in Kenya too. I have a couple of Kikuyu country-style songs that aren't half bad.

K.J-Azuara said...

Yeah, def heard my sister's father blast a few country tunes...BTW, great blog.

Comb & Razor said...

John:

ha! i actually wanted to mention Joe Nez and a few other country-inspired artists, but i didn't want to get too far from the subject. plus--it did cross my mind that you would probably be doing a piece on Nez sooner or later! (hopefully sooner!)

unfortunately, i do not have the record you seek, though.

k.j:

thanks a lot for checking in, mate!

John B. said...

Okay, does anybody out there have that one? It was re-issued a few years ago on CD, but it's now out of print.

My fave Joe Nez album is Onye ma Eche?, which includes the priceless "Ofe Owerri" and "Abiala ha Ozo." Fortunately I have a good-quality rip of that one.

I have that Emma Ogosi album - don't think I've ever listened to it more than once!

Comb & Razor said...

i'll send some feelers out for it, but it might be a little while before i can dig anything up...

(would you by any chance have Ogosi's first album, btw? that's the only one i don't have)

also, i was planning to ask you earlier this week, but i figured you might still be on your college tour (hope that went well, btw!): do you have Bright Chimezie's Respect Africa? i've only got a lousy cassette rip...

John B. said...

Yes, I do have Respect Africa, but I don't know when I'll find time to digitize it.

We don't leave on our college tour till Saturday. The closest we'll be getting to your neck of the woods, unfortunately, is Hanover, NH.

Comb & Razor said...

alright... whenever you get a chance.

i kinda want to use it for an entry that i wrote almost a year ago and never posted, so i'm sure i can wait a little bit longer!

good luck on the road trip!

Jeff said...

Thanks for pointing out the influence of C&W in Nigeria. That's a head scratcher for me too.

Is C&W some sort of palatable America concentrate?

Or is there something pan-cultural holding up the rhinestones?

It's an influence in some thai music too (Morlam and Loogthung)

Great blog.

Comb & Razor said...

thanks for checking in, Jeff!

yeah, i know that C&W has always been popular in Thailand, as well as in other parts of Asia.... i think country music has a fairly universal appeal because, first of all, the great melodies. also, the very naked sentimentality.

that kind of sentimentality is largely considered corny in America these days, though... because of that, and its association with lower-class whites, C&W is not really popular in the American mainstream, while it still remains the country's top-selling genre... (or at least it was in the 1990s... don't know about now.)

AdR said...

Great blog I just happened to stumble into. Thanks for all the special sounds...

Country has not been unambiguously all-white through the years, although probably now it is, in the USA. Think of Louis and Lil Armstrong playing with Jimmie Rodgers, think of Charley Pride, Bobby Hebb, Joe Simon and many more. And the banjo is originally a Westafrican instrument, as far as I know.

There must be a universal human appeal about this music, which probably has been lost these days with all these so-called patriotic flagthumpin' rednecks.

This mr. Emma does it unabashedly sentimental, as it should be done...

Comb & Razor said...

AdR -

yup... in the 1970s it was far more common to see blacks trying their hands at country music, but even then it was perceived as slightly odd: Charley Pride was a bit of a punchline on both sides of the color line.

not necessarily in a bad way... more like the way people make jokes about Tiger Woods' position as a "black" man in a predominantly white field. for example, Bobby Womack origally wanted his country album BW does C&W to be called Step Aside, Charley Pride, Give Another Nigger a Try and Marvin Gaye reportedly had an unreleased country song called "Why Can't All Niggers Sing Like Charley Pride?" or something like that!

but yeah... country music has not always been lily white. in the early 20th century, both blacks and whites played it and it was mostly indistinguishable from blues, anyway.

thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

hello can you repost the link please