Fortuitously, when I got the LP back home I found that its pleasures extended beyond just the resplendently arrayed beauties pictured on its cover; it was, in fact, a rather solid record in the Johnny Nash pop-soul-reggae mold. A couple of Brook Benton covers, a rendition of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," a Johnny Nash tune, and a few original compositions all cut in the kind of slightly fey, nostalgia-tinged "revival" style that would help birth lovers rock in the 1970s.
The title track in particular rang with a faint familiarity... I recalled hearing it in my childhood, either used as a radio jingle or the theme song for some TV talk show dealing with women's issues or something. "(God Bless) Nigerian Woman"... Yeah, it had been ages, but I remembered it.
I really didn't remember Mark Holder, though. Never heard his name come up in any discussion of Nigerian music, either. Who was he? His rich, evenly modulated baritone and punctilious pronunciation certainly did not sound Nigerian but, hey... maybe he was one of the many Sierra Leonean musicians on the Nigerian in the 70s (they were always better at the whole soul singing thang than their Nigerian counterparts back in those days).
And so did my delusion continue for a few years. I cringe to think about all the times that I mentioned Holder when discussing Nigerian pop music of the 70s... Because I eventually discovered that Mark Holder was actually a singer from Guyana, of all places.
The London-based Holder followed in the footsteps of his Guyanese compatriot Eddy Grant, whose band The Equals helped forge the template for Europop with their energetic (albeit slightly awkward) approximation of US soul strung up with pop accoutrements and garnished with a dash of reggae. Grant of course went on to a successful career as a solo artist and businesman, founding Coach House Studios, the first black-owned recording facility in Europe. Holder would later release music on Grant's Ice label, but he recorded for a number of small labels throughout the 1970s, starting with 1973's "I'm Doing Fine Now" b/w "Something of Value" on Magnet. (Funk heads probably care more about mid-70s bullets like "Music Turns Me On" and "Whatever's Fair," though.) So why did he out of nowhere decide to record a tribute to Nigerian women and why doesn't this album show up on any discographies of the man's work?
Here's my theory...
(Have I written before about the small role Nigeria played in the worldwide proliferation of reggae music? I know I've meant to, but I can't remember if I ever really got around to it...)
Nigerians (and Ghanaians) have been ardent consumers of West Indian music since the golden era of calypso in the late 1940s and 50s, and this fervent patronage continued through the 1960s when new genres such as bluebeat, ska and rock steady emerged. (One could argue that the career zenith of bluebeat's first and greatest star--Millie Small of "My Boy Lollipop" fame--was performing before sold-out crowds in Lagos mere days before the first military overthrow of the government in 1966. While there, Small also recorded a Bournvita jingle that played on Nigerian radio for many years.) By the early 1970s, reggae's first superstar, Jimmy Cliff, was surprised to discover that despite the international fame he had accrued in the wake of The Harder They Come, his largest and most passionate following was in Nigeria.
Around the same time, while attempting to exploit the new international reggae market opened up by The Harder They Come, upstart indie label Virgin Records inadvertently discovered the crucial importance of the then-robust naira. As Lloyd Bradley recounts in his (utterly superlative) history of Jamaican music, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King:
In the second half of the decade, Richard Branson's Virgin Records became the other big player to travel to Jamaica. Initially Virgin was looking for some of the Marley Magic, having wooed and won Peter Tosh, whose classic Legalize It became one of the company's first reggae albums. Taking a slightly more adventurous (and unadulterated) tack than Island, hot on Tosh's heels Virgin signed Keith Hudson and U-Roy, and while their releases sold well in the black market they didn't set the mainstream on fire. Not in the UK anyway, but take said records to Africa and you'd have trouble pressing them fast enough. According to a report in the British music industry trade magazine Music Week, in 1975 alone Virgin sold £150,000 worth of reggae to Africa, a large amount of money in those days. Nigeria was the main consumer, to the degree that the company even started knocking out eight-track cartridges for the Nigerian market, a format that had long since died a death in the UK. To meet this voracious demand, Richard Branson, A&R man Jumbo Van Hennen and Johnny Rotten (the Sex Pistols were signed to Virgin) flew to Jamaica to sign more reggae. And did so with, quite literally, a suitcase full of American dollars to pay out as advances. It didn't take an awfully longtime for the word to get round Kingston's musical community that a bunch of white men down at the Sheraton Hotel were handing out free money to singers. It was only prompt and spirited police action that prevented the people in the soon-formed audition queue, many bearing guitars or hand drums, from getting out of hand. Astonishingly, two weeks and over $100,000 later, the Virgin contingent left Jamaica with a roster that included Prince Far-I, the Gladiators, the Mighty Diamonds, the Twinkle Brothers, Johnnie Clarke and Big Youth.Virgin cofounder Simon Draper corroborates this account in Terry Southern's Virgin: A History of Virgin Records:
We started to get huge orders for Nigeria, so we looked into it a little bit and it became clear that something extraordinary was happening there, that reggae had suddenly become a massive new fad. So that's when Richard went off on his trip to Jamaica with suitcases stuffed full of money, to sign up as many reggae artists as possible. Then we started the Front Line label, as much as anything just to be able to put all this material out, so that it didn't flood Virgin. We had acres of it, and in the end we were chartering jumbo jets to take all of these records out to Nigeria.The reason this is significant is because while Island broke reggae internationally with releases like Catch a Fire by The Wailers and Funky Kingston by Toots & the Maytals which featured reggae "sweetened" with rock-styled instrumentation and deliberately angled towards the longhair rock audience, Front Line was revolutionary in its delivery of the raw, gritty reggae plucked straight from the streets of Kingston and served hot, without milk or sugar. They signed the kind of obscure, deep roots artists that were unknown outside of Jamaica and that no other foreign label would ever touch with a ten-foot pole, and the reason they did that was because that's the way Nigeria wanted it.
So all you of out there enjoying your Culture records, your Doctor Alimantado and Tappa Zukie, your Ranking Trevor and your Mighty Diamonds and your "Uptown Top Ranking"...
The fact you ended up even hearing those records? You have Nigeria to thank for that. And you're welcome.
Virgin's Nigerian gravy train did not last long, though. Draper continues:
[Then suddenly,] all that seemed to stop. It was: a) maybe the market was being flooded; and, perhaps more to the point, b) there was a military coup, and they stopped all imports.(Neither Draper nor Bradley cite exact years, but the coup in question would most likely be the 1975 one that brought to power Major-General Murtala Muhammed, as to part of Muhammed's program of economic reform was the restriction of imports.)
Of course, the Nigerian market was much too lucrative to give up altogether, so reggae records continued to come into the country, though not as imports--they were licensed through Nigerian labels (typically Taretone/Tabansi) and manufactured in Nigeria for the local market.
Many of the black-owned British indie labels such as Ice, BB, Diamond and Cosmic Sounds got in on this action, which was quite natural since they were already used to collaborating with London-based Nigerian artists such as Harry Mosco and Peter King anyway.
So this Mark Holder album is clearly an example of a particularly meticulous package tailored specifically for the Nigerian market. Apart from the title track, it's really a standard collection of singles that Holder had already released in varying configurations on at least three albums between 1973 and 1976. I'm guessing this album is from around 1977, considering the fact that FESTAC was held that year and concentrated much pan-African pride (and commerce) around Nigeria.
"(God Bless) Nigerian Woman"
"Let Me In Your World"
"She's Something of Value"
Mark Holder is still around and is a well-respected elder statesman in the Guyanese music scene. If you're interested in hearing more of Holder's early material, though, his Cameo LP (from 1976) is up for grabs HERE