Thursday, May 15, 2008

West Indian Musicians I Once Thought Were Nigerian: Mark Holder

When I picked up this album in a Lagos market about eight years ago, I was motivated less by any curiosity about the music it contained than I was by my interest in vintage women's fashion and glamour photography.

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


jon said...

Another thing to add to the embarrassingly long list of 'things I didn't know'. Fascinating stuff. So thank you Nigeria indeed. Gritty roots reggae epicures to a man/woman.
There must have been an upsurge of Nigerian artists working in this style soon after. Fancy doing a post on some of them? You got a Nigerian Prince Far I? I'd like to hear something like that ;-)
I have put up a couple more old african 45s on Mixed Messages if you are interested, and will try to put some more up soon. I've started putting up the odd mix too.
thanks again,

Comb & Razor said...

what's up, jon?

was just thinking about you the other day, actually... it'd been a while since i'd checked in at Mixed Messages and i was wondering if you had started putting up mixes again! glad to hear you're back in action!

reggae actually did become the dominant popular music style in Nigeria in the 1980s... and to be honest, i think it was to the detriment of Nigeria's music scene as a whole.

i have a big entry on the subject that i wrote about a year ago but never posted... i'm gonna put it up soon, though.

N.I.M.M.O said...

I somehow missed this post when I read through last week but it could also have had to do with time difference though.

Never heard of Mark Holder but there's really so much many of us did not know about the Nigerian music scene and its development. You have a gold mine of information here.

Incidentally, all through the weekend I was thinking about the musician called Bunny Mack. My question is along the same lines of this ere post: Is he a Nigerian? (I assume he still lives. I also remember reading a comment by a son of his on this blog called 'Kev'.)

I really dont remember much of his songs apart from 'SuperAfrico' (?) and the other one about being '... born with a Silver Spoon in my mouth ..'. I believe you would have the proper titles for them.

And you are so right about reggae becoming the dominant music style in the 80s. It practically killed off other forms except maybe Afrobeat.

Brother mine, do you have any info on Terrakota who had been dubbed as Nigeria's 'first reggae star'. Right or wrong?

Many thanks for all these info.

Comb & Razor said...

N.I.M.M.O. -

while Bunny Mack was big throughout West Africa, and especially in Nigeria, he was (and is) in fact a Sierra Leonean.

the songs you mentioned ("Supafrico" and "Silver Spoon") were indeed big hits, but i'm sure you also remember "Let Me Love You (you know the song... "you're my sweetie, my sugar, my lady, my lover, so honey let me hold you, let me love you forever... oh yeah! oh yeah!")

reggae started slowly creeping into the Nigerian music scene in the early 80s with Terra Kota (Gboyega Femi) who had a big hit with "Sodom"... by 1986 or so you had the Mandators with "Rat Race" and the like. by the time Majek Fashek and Ras Kimono hit the scene, reggae was officially the popular music of Nigeria.

i'll probably be posting some Teraa Kota music a little later.



Comb & Razor said...

actually... my bad: The Mandators' first hit was not "Rat Race" but "Rise to the Top."

i'm gonna do a big Nigerian reggae post one of these days... i just don't know how much people are into that kind of music, though...

N.I.M.M.O said...

Yeah, I do remember that song. Incidentally, it was on 96.9 CoolFM this morning; (its 'Old School Wednesday'). Funny, but I thot it was by Eddy Grant.

I remember that Eddy Grant recorded and released(?) an album in Lagos in the 70s. (I believe Fela and other Nigerian acts jammed on that album too). In it was a track in which he sand praises of the city but for the life of me I just cant remember the song!

But I am sure it was there. Practically every musician of note back then did something on 'Lagos'- which was the entertainment capital of Africa back in the days.

I can however still remember a groovy number by Remi Kabaka (post OSIBISA) with the following line 'Every body loves funky Lagos, funky Lagos, its a funky lovely town' etc, etc.

(That line seemed to go on ad infinitum till you get bored and just lift the 'pin'. LOL).

Can you remember the album.

N.I.M.M.O said...

On reggae: I think everybody born in Nigeria in the late 70s/early 80s was raised on reggae as staple music. And people never forget the music of their childhood/youth. That why we have 'old school'.

On Eddy Grant: I think the song was 'Eko (Lagos) Rock'. Not sure though.

Comb & Razor said...

N.I.M.M.O. -

i remember Eddy Grant coming to Nigeria and i believe i remember him recording there too... don't think i remember the song, though!

on the other hand, i think the "Funky Lagos" song you're referring to might have been by the band Tirogo rather than Remi Kabaka.

Lola said...

My goodness, you are such a mine of musical information. And my heart aches so with nostalgia. Not that I recognize much of the music but the album covers just take you right back to the 70s. Is it possible to find what I think is probably the only album by Wole Soyinka which contains "I love my country I no go lie."

Do you know anything about Kingsley Bucknor? I remember this video that used to play in Nigeria in the mid-eighties, I think, and he did this song, "Let's save Nigeria" with a group. Haven't heard anything about them ever since.

Comb & Razor said...

Lola -

thanks a lot for your comment.

y'know, i think i rememver that song "I Love My Country"... it's the one that goes:

I Love my country, I no go lie,
Na inside am I go live and die,


i never knew that was Wole Soyinka! thanks for informing me... i am definitely going to try to find it!

thank you for reminding me of Kingsley Bucknor, too... one of his records, Just U and Me (as seen further down on THIS page) has recently much hunted in the boogie market, and i was wondering why his name was familiar to me...

so he's the one who did that song "Let's save Nigeria... let's save our nation... let's save Nigeria... and bring her *something something*," right? it had a choral sound to it...

yeah, thanks a lot... i'm going to look for that, too!

Lola said...

Yeah! You're right on both counts. Hope you can find them. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I was just wondering where I could get Terra Kota's music - especially those of his songs-Sodom and Iya ni wura

Comb & Razor said...

Anonymous -

i will be posting some Tera Kota soon... maybe as early as next week. so stay tuned!

Hippi-Tombi said...

This was a refreshing and informative read!

I also used to think Eddie Grant was Nigerian.. I remember watching him on NTV, singing a song with a chorus that went "Neighbour, Neighbour (but pronounced Neba, neba)". He wore frayed blue jeans, a white t-shirt with a map of Africa on it and had short dreadlocks.

This was in the late seventies, before NTV was re-named NTA.. I'd just learned to read (I must've been 5 or 6 at the time)and I can still remember the old NTV grey backgound with the type written blue "Eddie Grant" boldly written

Imagine my surprise when I next heard of him sometime in the eighties in America with "Walking on the Sunshine"!

Every source I checked proclaimed him to be Guyanese/British, nothing was ever mentioned about him ever having been in Nigeria..

For the first time in years, I know I didn't dream up that song, or mix him up with someone else as my husband has always insisted!


Comb & Razor said...

Hippi-Tombi -

Yes, Eddy Grant was a great friend to a lot of Nigerian musicians and he visited the country once or twice, too.

"Neighbour, Neighbour" was a big hit that I thought was a Nigerian song, as well... Ditto its flip side "Hello Africa."

(Glad someone else remembers the old NTV too!)

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