As 2008 winds to a close, I think I will spend the rest of the month mostly filling overdue requests and posting up old entries from the vaults that I never published for whatever reason. This one here is for my girl Tutu who requested it in, like, January.
The 1984 release of Lamentation For Sodom by Tera Kota (nee Gboyega Femi) remains--in my mind at least--a major turning point in the direction of Nigerian pop music.
I was in Form One when the record came out. I remember sitting in the school art studio trying to stay awake through a highly abstract lecture on the terracotta sculpture of the ancient Nok civilization when the art teacher suddenly digressed and spent the rest of the period going on about this musician named Tera Kota and how awesome his album was.
I was unfamiliar with this Tera Kota fellow and considering myself a pretty hip cat, I set out to hear him. Over the Christmas break I caught the video for the album's title track on NTA 6 Aba. "Oh, it's reggae," I thought, a bit disappointed.
Now, I listened to reggae back then, but I wasn't into it like that. Of course, "raggae" had enjoyed widespread popularity in Nigeria since the late 1960s and at least since Sonny Okosuns' "Help", most Nigerian musicians routinely included a reggae cut or two on their albums.
The difference was that up until then, reggae was viewed primarily as a style of music, unburdened by any particular ideology or lifestyle. It was just a particular beat and tempo, not unlike jazz or rock & roll. Most of the Nigerian artists who specialized in reggae--Cloud 7, Iyke Peters, Yinka Abayomi and the like--and even the very popular foreign reggae artists like Honey Boy, Ginger Williams and Winston Groovy--all of them used the reggae beat as a vehicle for delivering songs featuring conventional pop subject matter ie kissing and dancing.
But roots reggae, with its militant message of righteousness, revolution and Rastafar-I (and the rampant smoking of Indian hemp that all this implied)... For me and my crew--clean-cut pop/funk/disco kids who were then gravitating towards the emerging hip-hop scene--roots was what we thought of as "senior brother music"; the kind of thing listened to mostly by
What Tera Kota did was drag this scene from the fringes and install it firmly at the center of the popular culture.
While there had been other artists like Bassey Black & the Natty Messiah or even Pazy & the Black Hippies who had made nods towards roots culture in the past, none had done it as uncompromisingly as Tera Kota, or on as large a scale. In contrast to the glamorous and decadent image of a lot of musicians during the boogie era, Tera Kota was aggressively ascetic and asexual, and projected an aura or personal purity that bordered on misogynistic. He made it abundantly clear that he did not mess with the opposite sex (whom he referred to as "Jezebels") and would not tolerate even the most casual interaction between himself and any Daughter of Eve.
Furthermore, Lamentation For Sodom was more slickly packaged than any Nigerian roots reggae before it. Producer Lemmy Jackson recorded the album in Lagos with top-of-the-line session players (including members of the Cameroonian Mighty Flames Metallik Funk Band) and then took the tracks to London for overdubs by leading lights of the UK reggae scene such as keyboardist Paget King (known for his work on records by Honey Boy, Dennis Bovell and Linton Kwesi Johnson) and the inventor of Lovers Rock, Nigerian-Scottish guitarist John Kpiaye.
The result was a Nigerian reggae album with a big, world-class sound that was the perfect soundtrack for a society in transition.
Nigeria was going through a turbulent period: the military had recently seized control of the government and instituted a repressive dictatorship, the economy was plummeting, corruption was running wild, public morale was crumbling. Roots reggae became the voice that expressed the frustration and disillusion of the people in a failing nation. And unlike the case with Fela's music, nobody got hurt--no names were named and all criticisms of the government were cloaked within Biblical imagery and rendered comfortingly ambiguous.
Femi explained his scriptural allusions and prophetic aspirations in a 1988 interview with Prime People:
All the difficulties of the average Nigerian notwithstanding, Tera Kota says Nigeria still qualifies as 'Sodom.' 'Sodom' is Tera Kota's reaction to what Jamaicans call 'Babylon'. According to him, Babylon is oppression of blacks by whites, and Sodom is "oppression of blacks by blacks, as in Nigeria." He claims that Africa is no Zion, a black paradise.Thus was the new paradigm set. Right before my eyes, the students and even some of my younger teachers who had been wearing bowties and suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up and hotcombing their hair back to look like Michael Jackson all of a sudden were sporting berets and dark shades and had stopped combing their hair altogether. Reggae music was the Sound of Now. The floodgates were opened for The Mandators, Majek Fashek, Ras Kimono, Amos McRoy Jegg and scores of other Rasta reggae singers to follow and Tera Kota very quickly got lost in the stampede. He never scored another big success despite repeated attempts, but for a few months in 1984, he was the man.
"Nigeria is still 'Sodom'. If I had the foresight to sing about Lamentation for Sodom, and four years later people are still lamenting, then people should take cognizance of my messages. What I described in Lamentation is still happening."
Tera Kota - "Lamentation For Sodom"
Tera Kota - "Nitori Owo"
Tera Kota - "On The Run"