Friday, May 30, 2008

Among friends

I should probably mention at this juncture that the above photo showing Sonny Okosuns having a larf with Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Jonny Woode (I think... or is that Lemmy Jackson?) and former Biafra leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was--like Tuesday's and Wednesday's header photos--taken from Sonny's personal collection as featured on his now-defunct website, Sonnyokosuns dot org. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to right-click on 'em right before the site went down, and I only post them here only to pay respects to the man. If I offend anybody by doing this, please let me know and I will remove them.

The other day, a YouTube viewer named jahlivid left this comment on that Sonny Okosuns clip from Konkombe: The Nigerian Pop MusicScene I uploaded last year:

A true Nigerian Ambassador. In Zimbabwe and indeed Southern Africa, barring your great foobtballers, Sonny Okosun is widely known. I remember when he came to perform in Harare with Onyeka Onwenu, a true legend he was. His song Fire In Soweto, to this day, remains truly inspirational. A song that forged ahead a revolution and a quest for justice, dignity, freedom and self-rule in our region. To a true son of the soil, Dr Okosun I salute you.
That comment made me think: While Sonny was relatively low-key during the last fifteen years or so of his career, since he changed tracks to gospel with the Songs of Praise LP, there was a time when he was the musical ambassador of Nigeria. Bigger than Fela, King Sunny Ade, Olatunji or anybody else.

Sonny was the first Nigerian artist to fully embrace the possibilities of reggae in his sound, but rather than just aping Jamaican riddims, he broke down the reggae beat and re-constructed it in his own image, investing it with a deeply "African" sound that entranced even the dreads in the land of reggae's birth. Okosuns performed with Toots & the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, and Peter Tosh was also an admirer and a friend. When Tosh visted Nigeria in 1982, he spent three weeks in Okosuns' Lagos home, where he wrote the songs that became his classic Mama Africa album.

Sonny also maintained that Bob Marley had written him a letter expressing his desire to record Sonny's song "Holy Wars." I'll admit that this story always sounded unlikely to me, since (apart from early efforts like "One Love," which was an adaptation of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready") Marley was not really known for covering other people's songs. However, he was not averse to borrowing others' riddims and singing his own lyrics over them, and it is possible that he might have wanted to do this with "Holy Wars," since during that period he had been very vocal about his desire to infuse his reggae with a deeper African sound--a desire that fueled the creation of the album Survival in 1979. That album featured the ode to "Zimbabwe," which Marley performed at the nation's independence celebration in 1980. Okosuns also took the stage at that event and performed "Holy Wars," among other songs.

Sonny was also friends with the great Eddy Grant, with whom he collaborated in 1979 on some lean, crossover-ready reworkings of earlier Ozziddi hits "Fire in Soweto" and "Papa's Land." My intention was actually to post those Eddy Grant-produced tracks here, along with "Holy Wars," but as luck would have it... er, I couldn't find them. They're somewhere in the crates.

So for now, just handle these tunes here:


and you can at least listen to the "Fire in Soweto" redux here:

Oh yes... Another Sonny Okosuns collaboration of note: In 1985 when Little Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band organized Artists United Against Apartheid to record the benefit single "Sun City," Sonny was the only African musician to participate. Watch for him at 4:28 and 5:18 in this video:

(Man... I am the only one who gets really queasy when watching 1980s charity track videos? I know I can't be!)

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