Friday, October 10, 2008

Jake Sollo is Awesome! Part 2: Ken Eme/1st Flight, Veno and the Prophet "V"

Just so that there is no confusion, let us make this point perfectly clear right from the get-go: Jake Sollo was the hottest, the most prolific, the very best music producer in Nigeria during the first half of the 1980s... and perhaps ever. He is awesome!

A little background: Sollo (nee Nkem Okonkwo) started his career in the 1960s with The Hykkers, a "beat" group formed at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

The Hykkers - "Stone the Flower"

The Hykkers remained a popular draw across the country throughout the Nigeria-Biafra war but disbanded shortly thereafter. Sollo subsequently joined the Aba-based Funkees, who soon became instant superstars due to the East-Central State Broadcasting Service's heavy rotation of a rough demo called "Akula Owu Onyeara" (check out the more polished--but still raw and funky--officially released version on Soundway's Nigeria Special). The Funkees phenomenon spread across the country, into Cameroon and eventually to England where they were championed by legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

By 1976, with creative and personal tensions slowly disintegrating The Funkees, Sollo was offered the golden opportunity to play with the creme de la creme of Afro-rock groups, Osibisa.

Sollo's distinctive rhythm guitar graced hits like "The Coffee Song," but his tenure with Osibisa was short-lived: On July 19, 1977, as the band prepared for a historic performance at London's Royal Festival Hall (captured on the double LP Black Magic Night), Sollo and two other recent Osibisa recruits--keyboardist Kiki Gyan and conga man Kofi Ayivor--failed to report for duty. Gyan--feeling shortchanged by group leader Teddy Osei--had convinced his fellow newbies to join him in a work stoppage to force the management to grant them a raise.

The gambit backfired; at the eleventh hour, a furious Osei called the band's former keyboard player Robert Bailey, percussionist Darko "Potato" Adams, and BLO bassist Mike Odumosu to play the concert, and fired the three mutineers. Author Charles Aniagolu writes about the aftermath of the incident in Osibisa: Living In The State Of Happy Vibes And Criss Cross Rhythms:
Like Wendell, Spartacus and Loughty before them, the three dissidents soon realised [sic] they'd made an awful mistake. They became regretful and penitent, appealing to Teddy to overlook their pertinacity and let them back into Osibisa.

Teddy refused. "We felt that clearly they had jumped into the fire with their eyes open and had no one else to blame but themselves for their misfortune". They later relented and reabsorbed Kofi Ayivor, but not the other two. Within a couple of years, a very frustrated Jake Solo [sic] was dead, killed in a car crash in Nigeria. After a series of fits and starts, Kiki Gyan moved back to Ghana and became a junkie--hooked on heroin.

Even recognizing that Aniagolu is an ardent Teddy Osei sympathizer who spares no efforts in his book to portray all who defy Osei as losers, I wonder if his decision to gloss over Sollo's subsequent career and describe him as "very frustrated" was motivated by any special insight into the man's life. Because from where I'm standing, Jake did just fine after Osibisa. He got steady work as a session man and producer in the London scene and his dance card stayed full upon his return to Nigeria in 1981, especially after the enormous success of Felix Lebarty's Lover Boy.

As the London Era drew to a close with the budgets (and visas) to record in the UK becoming increasingly scarce, Sollo set up shop in Enugu, recording at Tabansi Studios and Rogers All Stars Studio (located in the nearby commercial hubs of Onitsha and Awka respectively) and started cranking out records at a furious clip.

During this period, Sollo was the most in-demand producer in Nigeria. His specialty was bouncy, high-gloss boogie, though he occasionally produced artists in other genres as well. Regardless of which style he was working in, though, a Jake Sollo production was instantly recognizable: the fat, angular basslines... the chirping and chattering guitars... but the chief sonic signature of Jake Sollo records was probably the squiggly and squelchy sound of the Prophet "V".

While the Prophet-5 synthesizer had been introduced in the 1977 and quickly become a hot piece of hardware among art-minded rockers like Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Gary Numan and New Order, by the early 1980s there were still less than 2000 of them shipped and I believe Sollo had the only one in Nigeria.* The revolutionary polyphonic sound of the Prophet allowed it to be a more convincing replacement for horn arrangements. Sometimes Sollo utilized the synth sparingly, as an accent... and other times, he virtually slathered his tracks in it.



A fine example of Sollo's heavy Prophet style would be the work he did on the album Winner and Loser by Ken Eme (1st Flight). I wish I knew more about him/them; as it is, I'm barely certain about whether he was a solo artist or part of a group!

I first encountered this record in 1983 (or maybe early 84) when the music videos were played on NTA 9 Calabar. As I mentioned before, the immediate appeal of the video was the fact that they looked really cool. Unlike a lot of groups of the time, they seemed to have a coordinated style and gimmick (they wore boots and sweet flight jackets) and they had some awesome breakdancing (by this time, though, we still referred to this style of dancing as "Electric Shock!"--yes, with the exclamation point). The videos billed the artist as "1st Flight" (with a logo showing a low angle of an aeroplane taking off) and they seemed to be a trio... or at least a duo (it was a bit hard to distinguish the actual group members from the dancing extras sometimes). I recall hearing on the radio that the group's lead singer was named Ken Eme.



Now I have the album in front of me and it says both "1st Flight" and "Ken Eme" on the cover, and while he's pictured chilling with one of the other guys on the back, the other fellow remains unidentified. Apart from Sollo's semi-regular session men like bassist Modjo Isidore and pianist Sony Enang, the only person credited is Ken Eme and the LP label doesn't mention 1st Flight at all.

Oh well...

Anyway, here's one of my favorite cuts from the album--a funky neo-calypso banger called "Love is What You Need." (Listen to it over good speakers or headphones and dig all the cool stuff Jake's got going on with the guitars in there!)

Ken Eme/1st Flight - "Love Is What You Need"

I never heard of 1st Flight again after 1984, and they seem to have been erased from the popular consciousness, because apart from my boy Enyi, I cannot find anybody who remembers them. Even my older sister with whom I used to sing the title track, Donny & Marie style--I asked her if she remembered "Winner and Loser" and started singing it; she looked at me like I was crazy!



The style on display on "Love is What You Need" reminds me a lot of another Jake Prophet track: "Groove I Like" by Veno. This song (which has been a favorite among boogie lovers over the past year) is from the album Nigeria Go Survive, from 1985. The release of this album marked (for me, at least) a distinct detour in the direction of Nigerian popular music. Maybe because there wasn't as much Jake Sollo music around after it? Someone told me Jake died while working on this album, but I'm not sure that's correct. (The car crash that claimed Jake and Al Jackson Nnakwe was in late 1985). Anyway, this album was co-produced by Roy Obika of the Esbee Family, and much of it really doesn't sound like Jake's work. Is it possible that Obika completed Sollo's work after the accident?

Probably.

For now, enjoy the Jake Sollo awesomeness!

Veno - "Groove I Like"


*We-ell... Come to think of it, William Onyeabor must have had one too, right?

16 comments:

John B. said...

This post is a good example of why you are considered a "blogger's blogger." No way in the world would I have known anything about this guy, or even known that he existed but for your site. It's not that anybody else in the "Naija Blogospere" cares to write about this stuff. . . .

Comb & Razor said...

ha... thanks, JOhn!

most of the time, i don't even really expect anybody to be interested in this stuff per se, but i figure i might as well just try to get the information out there anyway!

bcr said...

i have to say that i'm TOTALLY interested in "this stuff".. and it's particulary enjoyable reading yr recollections! thanx so much for taking the time to do so and sharing these treasures with ME!

Comb & Razor said...

thanks, bcr... more to come!

zim said...

Have to agree with the above comments, I love the story/context you are giving to the music.

do you think the boots inspiration was just the flight gear or from prince nico or was everybody in those days sporting that look?

http://hem.bredband.net/b202639/images/sleeves/278188.a.580.jpg

Comb & Razor said...

hmmm... well, zim, while Prince Nico has surely been the most famous and enduring model of platform boots, i doubt that he introduced the style.

in the 1970s, everybody was wearing the boots, which were known as "syka"(pronounced "sai-KAH"--short for "psychedelic").

some of my teachers were still rocking them in the early 80s and feeling extremely stylish, but among the younger generation, boots were still popular, but without the platform heel.

when i come across a record i'm not familiar with during vinyl hunts, if somebody is wearing boots on the cover i usually cop it on general principle, as there is a stronger than usual chance that it's gonna have something funky or rockin' on it!

temi said...

*nigeria go survive, africa go survive* wow

Nigeria Special said...

Hi Comb and Razor

Sorry to do this in comments, but I need an email to you. A big cheers for the post on Nigeria Special which brought in a whopping great 222 visitors! I was really looking forward to receiving that article on NS you said you would write, but I guess no time (tell me about it!!!!).

Anyway, I'm now contacting you on behalf of Songlines Magazine (http://songlines.co.uk) following the announcement last week that Global Rhythm has pulled its print version. Songlines have asked me if I can send top bloggers a free copy (including CD) to show them an alternative. If you're interested just email me at timjim(at)nigeriaspecial and I'll get it sent out straight away.

If you're not familiar with Songlines, check out their interactive magazine sampler at http://www.songlinesinteractive.co.uk/interactive/056/ or if you want to read more about the sad end of another great world music print magazine try http://soundroots.org/2008/10/global-rhythm-drops-print-mag-goes.html

Hope to hear back from you soon

See ya

Timjim

Anonymous said...

Hi CnR:

well done for the work you are doing. Can you please give me a link to download the Mp3 version of Vernos song "Nigeria go survive" I hope to hear from you.

Capote!

Anonymous said...

It is also important to note that Jake Sollo grommed a lot of musicians,producers and artist managers as well as executive producers in Nigeria.
Do not forget that Chris Mba's album ever lasting love and hit track'Baby Don't cry was produced by Jake Sollo for Chris Robins Records where Orits Wiliki was the artist Manager for Chris Robins Records then at Onitsha.Not forgetting Kenny George's Falling back in Love Again album.Kenny George's album Falling back in Love again produced by Jake Sollo is amongst the albums with the best engineering ever done by any nigerian producer both living or dead.Although Kenny George's falling back in love again made an impact but it has a very powerful engineering done by Jake Sollo and Jeoff Driscol in London Back then in the Eighties.
The late Al Jackson that died with Jake Sollo is one of the artists in line to be produced and released by Jake Sollo.
Jake has a lot of influence in the music of Ortis Williki who happens to be amongst Jakes session musicians then.Williki remains today one of the best music producers in Nigeria.It was jake that propelled the likes of Lemmy Jackson to stay put in Nigeria and emerge as a mega producer after the death of Jake Sollo.The Likes of Mr.Harris the owner of Salt Records that produces Prince Wadada'Holy Holy Holy ,Adu Deme,David Abeke etc where once amongst the Jake Sollo groomed Boys.These group of Jake Sollo boys are very meticulous when it comes to music production.These Jake Sollo groomed boys can easily reject you and your money if you do not have the talent.They do not want their name in any broken record.Lemmy Jackson,Orits Williki too rejects being associated with any broken record.
Jake is a multi instrumentalist extraodinary and a good apostole of Nigerian Pop music.
Listen to the Esbee Family Chicks and Chicken and you can feel the Jake Sollo Bass Line Groove on the track.Also Felix Liberty is another Jake Sollo production that is very special.Not forgetting Jide Obi of Tonight Fame.Terry Mackson's Modupe Fame,Galaxy and Shock Proof by Jake Sollo himself.
George Achini of Cameroon,Eddie Pollo Ghana and Ernest Mensah also from Ghana,Friday Pozzo,Zack and Gebba swarry,Leslie Burner,Nkono Teles,Mary Brown,Veno Marioghe,Bunmi Olajubu,Sandra Onoh including the late Tina Onwudiwe were all Jake Sollo session musicians.
In those days it is very interesting to be in session with Jake in a Studio.Lemmy Jackson also is very interesting in the Studio quite unlike the producers of these days.Many of them produce broken records.
For now only Orits Williki has some element of Jake Sollo production style sine Salt Records,George Achini,Nkono Teles,Leslie Burner,Lemmy Jackson has not come out with somthing new.

Comb & Razor said...

Anonymous -

Thanks a lot for your very insightful comment! Did you work with Jake yourself?

Please email me at combrazor (at) yahoo (dot) com

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is very interesting.I am not sure who is posting this but I am so glad to see something great portrayed about my dear friend and music partner, for several years-Jake Sollo. He is one of the greatest talents out there that did not get the recognition and praise he deserved. I am Mary Brown, or Mary Udekwu, and by self or with Veno, and sometimes Al, and many others made great music with Jake Sollo.

Comb & Razor said...

Mary Udekwu! So glad to hear from you! Please email me at combrazor at yahoo dot com!

raymond dumas said...

This is fantastic!. great to have such information at ones fingertips today - do you have any idea what kind of Guitar is pictured at the top ? I have noticed Hoffners we very popular but it is hard to learn more just from photos? thx again great work.- raymond

Comb & Razor said...

Raymond, it looks like a Fender Telecaster to me but I'm not sure...

Anonymous said...

Uncle Jake used to come to my house when i was very little, Pat finn was my dad, uncle emma ogosi, isaac black,uncle jasper, eddie okonta……….the list is endless
Nay