Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Happy birthday!

My birthday was a few weeks ago, and Denis's was a few days after mine; to mark the occasion, I attempted to put together a mix that explored the birthday theme but I wasn't completely satisfied with the results so I didn't post it.

Today is Koko's birthday, so I figured I'd give it another shot... Unfortunately, I fell asleep early last night so I never got around to it.

If I had, though, I would have included these songs... I'm pretty sure Koko will appreciate none of these tunes, but perhaps you might!

Harry Mosco - "Happy Birthday"

Harry Mosco Agada was the leader of The Funkees, one of the foremost rock bands in post-civil war Nigeria. He and the band traveled to London in 1973, where they released two albums but broke up by 1977. Mosco spent the next ten years in London producing and recording albums with variety of Nigerian and British musicians. He returned to Nigeria in 1983, and after releasing the Heartbreak LP, he pretty much hung up his guitar and dedicated himself to running a label (now defunct, I think) and a still-popular recording studio, both bearing his name. If you ever attended a birthday party in Nigeria in the early 80s, I'm sure you'll remember this track!

George Ema - "I'm Growing Older"

George Ema was a Calabar area musician, moderately popular in the early 80s for hits such as "You Lied" and "A Chance," both from the 1980 album Sweeter Than Honey, from which this number is also taken. The LP was one of the early releases on Haruna Ishola's Phonodisk label and was produced by house producer Tony Essien, with the regular Phonodisk players: Lemmy Jackson and Willie Roy on keys, Eugene Ndema, Jean Ketchabra and Felix Lebarty on guitars, Willie Nfor on bass and Steve Black on drums and congas.

Prince Nico Mbarga & Rocafil Jazz - "Happy Birth Day"

Prince Nico Mbarga is of course best known for "Sweet Mother," regarded in some quarters as the most popular of popular African records. With his dual Nigerian-Cameroonian heritage, Mbarga was the perfect figure to popularize in Nigeria the kind of guitar-driven dance music that was burning up most of Francophone Africa. This tune comes from the 1978 LP Prince Nico Mbarga & Rocafil Jazz.

(I know I have posted this song before, but it was rather poor quality; this file is ripped from a brand new copy of the record.)

Eric Kol - "Hard To Say Goodbye"

Soul singer Eric Kol fronted The Immortals in the 1970s before embarking upon a solo career. 1980's My Lady is a Star is another Tony Essien Phonodisk production, with Lemmy Jackson, Steve Black, Basil Barap on bass, Effi Duke on guitar, and Oby Onyioha on backing vox.

(This song probably isn't a perfect fit thematically, but I felt like throwing it in anyway.)

Monday, April 28, 2008


In one of my last posts, I acknowledged that a lot of the Nigerian pop of my youth probably does not travel well (particularly for those who did not experience it at the time of its release). The artist who came into my mind as the absolute epitome of this phenomenon was Onyeka Onwenu--which is a bit ironic given that if there's one Nigerian musician who was pretty much designed to cross over, it was Onyeka. She had clout back in the day--she was recording albums in London in the late 80s when nobody else was still doing that; she was inking international deals; she could be seen in magazines hobnobbing with The Eurhythmics, Rita Marley and Don Cornelius; she was viewed as one of the nation's cultural and artistic ambassadors.

Despite all this, as the interest in Nigerian pop music of the 1970s and 80s grows, a sister can't get no kind of love. I know avid collectors who boast an impressive knowledge of Nigerian music, and yet they have never heard of Onyeka. On the rare occasion that Onyeka's albums pop up in the record market, you can't give them away. (I once saw an eBay seller offering lots of 4 Onyeka records for $9.99 and they still went unsold!)

Quite understandable, though. The fact is, for the most part, Onyeka Onwenu's music does not offer any of the qualities that a lot of people look for in Nigerian or African pop music: It largely is neither rootsy nor "cultural," neither funky nor boogied-out, not "hot" or sexy, not even quirky or awkward enough to qualify as an oddball curiosity. Even when she performs folk songs, the glossy, somewhat frigid production and the overly mannered and tasteful arrangements render them--like a good deal of her repertoire--anodyne MOR schlock.

Still, Nigerians love her, myself included.

I remember when she first came on the scene in 1981: I saw her on TV performing the Everly Brothers' "Walk Right Back," looking very self-possessed and chic and modern with that low-cut hair and whatnot... The girl had some serious spunk. She was a part of that new generation of female singers that included Dora Ifudu, Martha Ulaeto and Oby Onyioha (with whom Onyeka Onwenu was sometimes confused because of the analogous alliteration of their appellations; while they soon they soon distinguished themselves apart, when singer Oby Nwankwo came on the scene a few years later, Ms. Onyioha was again dealing with the mistaken identity blues!). Onyeka managed to outlast them all, though, and established herself as THE First Lady of Nigerian Music (more so than even Nigeria's Lady of Songs™, Christy Essien-Igbokwe).

I'm going to steal from my man Ike Chime a Radio Nigeria interview he conducted with Ms. Onwenu circa 1986, in which she discusses, among other things, how she got into the music biz through a meeting with Sonny Okosuns (who produced her debut). You can listen to it HERE.

And from that first album, I think my favorite song was her version of Okosuns' hit "Help":

Onyeka Onwenu - "Help"

By the way, I only recently learned (thanks to reader Da Hurricane Man) about this song's legacy of controversy.

While Okosuns had enjoyed moderate popularity in the 1960s and early 70s with the beat groups The Postmen and Paperback Limited, he only achieved major success with the 1974 release of the Odion Iruoje-produced Ozziddizm LP. Unlike the "copyright" material that Okosuns had previously trafficked in, the album featured a new style--deep, Monomono-style afro-rock and lyrics drawn from Bini folklore and delivered in a declamatory style, as found on songs such as "O'Jesu" and "Adesua."

But stylistically, one song on the album stood out from all the others: the gently melodic, earnestly articulated quasi-reggae groover "Help"

Sonny Okosuns - "Help"

and this turned out to be the one song that really broke Okosuns, that truly endeared him to the fans and generated a store of goodwill amongst audiences that he is still riding today.

Unfortunately, soon after the song became a success, allegations surfaced that Okosuns had actually stolen the song from another singer, and those allegations have never fully gone away. A lot of people are inclined to believe that Okosuns did in fact steal "Help" since it sounds so different from the rest of the album and just about everything else he recorded afterwards. Personally, I'm torn because while it differs from the standard Sonny Okosuns sound, it's not that dissimilar to some of the other more lyrical material he would later write for Onyeka and Yvonne Maha.

Renowned Nigerian music historian Benson Idonije addressed the controversy last year in a feature in the Guardian newspaper that included some recollections from Iruoje:

At the time he got to sign on to EMI in the early 70s, according to Iruoje, Okosuns was copying "all these European pop. But I thought I had to do something more authentic. He could not sing well in English.

"I advised Okosuns to go to his village for some folklores and he eventually came up with 'O Jesu' which was a success." The implication was that Okosuns was more at home with his native songs than European idioms which were obviously problematic for him to sing. Okosuns and his producer both settled for this direction, a format which instructed that his songs should be selected from folklores from the village.

However, Okosuns' next composition was not in anyway different, it turned out to be another one in the conventional pop direction; and was titled 'Help': "When he came up with 'Help,' I found that he still didn't do justice to it in terms of the translation that we agreed upon. I then told him he could not sing it even though it was a good song. I preferred Danny Anyiam [sic] of 'Fuel for Love' fame who had already proved himself a good singer with the Wrinkers [sic] Experience group." Continuing, Odion further explained: "Okosun did not like the choice of Dan Anyiam for fear that he would claim ownership of the song. But he settled for a friend of his called Perry Ernest who was coming from Ivory Coast at the time." According to him, "Perry Ernest arrived on the day of the recording, and, despite the fact that he rehearsed the song right there in the studio, he was able to give it good vocal delivery, with back up vocals by Dan Anyiam. 'Help' was not only a hit, it also turned out to be the song that made Okosuns."

However, the fears that Okosuns entertained in the case of Dan Anyiam became justified with Perry Ernest whom he thought he trusted. Perry eventually claimed the ownership of the song. The information was given wide publicity by the press, but it was Odion who later came to Okosuns' rescue, to refute it.

At that point Okosuns seriously learnt to sing in English and the immediate result was 'Rain' which was also an instant hit. After that came 'Papa's Land' with melodic structure based on the folklore of Ishan people. And it was at this point that the name of the band became Ozzidi [sic] and the concept, Ozzidism [sic].
Now when I first read this piece, I'll admit that Iruoje's account made little sense to me: Okosuns couldn't write lyrics in English and so he needed someone to translate "Help" for him? But if he originally wrote the song in his native Ishan language, why would he call on Igbos like Dan Ian of Wrinkars Experience and Perry Ernest to translate it?

But in the time that it took me to copy and paste the text right now, I looked at it again and I realized that what Iruoje actually says is that Okosuns had a hard time singing in English and he needed another singer to translate--or rather, interpret--the song vocally. Therefore, Perry Ernest performed the lead vocals on the tune.

(This actually makes sense to me, as I never thought the voice on "Help" sounded anything like the Sonny Okosuns I knew, but I chalked it up to him being considerably younger and greener at the time.)

After the controversy, Perry embarked upon a relatively obscure solo career with his band, Afro Vibrations. I'm told that he still performs today and he still plays "Help."

I know I have at least one of his records in the crates... I'll fish it out later and compare the voices.

(Deinma, I know I still owe you some Sunny Okosuns music, by the way... I've been trying to put together a big tribute post to him, especially since he's been in poor health lately.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Grown folks music

Been a while since I threw up any highlife, so here's some Calabar-style dance music fom Isaiah Dickson's Isadico Dance Band to shake off those mid-week blues.

"Eti Eyeneka"/"Echi Di"
"Nam Uruak Fo Obong"

Can't you just smell the palm wine?

EDIT: Hmmm... The tracks are not playing for me right now. Is anybody else having this problem? If so, my apologies... I'll have to try to fix it later!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jake Sollo is Awesome Part 1: Lover Boy & the Esbee Family

Lately, a couple of readers have requested to hear some Felix Lebarty and I'll admit that it gave me a moment of pause: Why haven't I posted any of his music at all up until this time? Was he not, after all, probably the biggest Nigerian music star for a good chunk of the 1980s? Did not his music burn up the floor at many a birthday party when I was in primary school?

Yes, all of that is indeed true. Also true is the fact that in some way, I'm a bit embarrassed by Felix Lebarty. Somehow, I just don't feel like he's traveled very well. Of course, I realize that some would argue that most of the music I post has not traveled well (if it even travels at all), but I'm not even talking just about Lebarty's records per se. I mean him--his whole style, image, everything.

The nasal singing. The crappy wannabe Yankee phoneh. The "sexy" sighs and yelps. The drawn-out gimmick of him naming his lead singles after the girls he's supposedly dating at the time. The okoro-next-door romanticism. The faux-leather pants. It's all terribly cheesy to me now and to be honest, it was cheesy to me even back then. But, y'know, cheesy in that way that was good in the 80s.

My feelings about Felix Lebarty reflect the reasons why until recently I mostly distanced myself from 80s (black) music in general: Because it was the soundtrack of such a formative period in my life, I used to fear that I was too close to it emotionally to ever objectively assess its actual value as, y'know... music rather than as nostalgia.

I'm over that problem now, I think... As I've gotten older, I've found myself becoming less and less intimidated by the power of my own sentimentality and adhering more and more to Duke Ellington's rule of music appreciation: "If you like it, then it's good." I threw on Lover Boy a few months ago, and yes, I thought it was good--mostly because of Jake Sollo's crisp production, of course.

I have frequently alluded to my ardent admiration for Sollo; amongst most lovers of 1980s Nigerian boogie Lemmy Jackson is the ne plus ultra, but for my money, Jake Sollo was the most vital and interesting producer of the era. (Not to mention one of the sharpest rhythm guitarists to ever walk the earth.) By the early 80s, after almost a decade spent in London gigging with everyone from Osibisa to Bunny Mack to Kim Wylde, Sollo was settling back in Nigeria, mostly functioning as a house producer/A&R at Chief G.A.D. Tabansi's Taretone/Tabansi Records, and it was in this capacity that he discovered Felix Lebarty.

Actually, Felix--younger brother of Aigbe Lebarty, a Bini highlife bandleader in the Victor Uwaifo mold who enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 1960s and early 70s--had already been "discovered" before he met Sollo. Producer Odion Iruoje and fledgling pop star Kris Okotie spotted Felix on stage at the Presidential Hotel in Port Harcourt fronting his rock band the Sex Bombers and swiftly recruited him to play guitar (alongside BLO) on Okotie's 1980 debut I Need Someone.

Okotie, meanwhile, was already setting his eyes on consolidating power behind the scenes as a producer and an executive. He set up his own label and planned for his first artist to be Felix Lebarty, whom he was grooming into a lightweight version of himself. (He would later create a female version of himself in the person of his younger sister Lorine Okotie, of "Single Girl" fame.) But in the meantime, in order to strengthen the Kris Okotie brand, his primary focus had to be on releasing new Kris Okotie music. As Okotie knocked out three LPs between 1980 and 1981, Lebarty grew tired of waiting for his shot. Without the knowledge of Okotie and Iruoje, he took a meeting with Jake Sollo and forged what would turn out to be a longterm professional relationship with Chief Tabansi.

(This move would later fuel much controversy, speculation and rumors of bitter, mortal enmity between Okotie and Lebarty.)

In January 1982, Sollo traveled to London with Lebarty and recorded the album Lover Boy. As was common during the London era of Nigerian pop, the record featured African and British musicians, including Pat Henry and Tracey King--two thirds of a trio of London session vocalists (along with Wendy Harris) who frequently worked with Sollo and whom he produced as "Galaxy" (not to be confused with London producer Phil Fearon's 1980s band of the same name).

While Lebarty's warbling vocals and songwriting style retained a superficial resemblance to those of his erstwhile benefactor, Sollo distanced his new charge from Okotie's laidback pop-rock sound by cutting him on thumping discolypso arrangements full of big drum kicks, squiggly synth lines and bright, blaring horns.

Felix Lebarty - "Lover Boy"
Felix Lebarty - "Ngozi"
Felix Lebarty - "My Number One"

Lebarty also filmed several promotional videos to accompany the tracks. I can still remember the Saturday afternoon they debuted those clips on NTA 9.... They all looked pretty much like the standard UK black music videos of the day--the male artist lip syncing in front of a glittery curtain... two women in chic disco wear gyrating on either side (as a rule, at least one of these ladies was always caucasian)... smoke machine... public access cable optical effects (usually doubling, tripling and quadrupling)... Basically, Snoop's "Sensual Seduction" video.

When he appeared onscreen blurting "Boy-Boy-Boy... I'm your Boy-Boy-Boy" we were like, "Who is this Kris Okotie manque?" (cf. the opening of "Lover Boy" to that of Okotie's "You Are My Woman"), but within a matter of seconds it became clear that he was projecting a kind of saucy charm that was a world away from Okotie's earnest intensity.

By the time the barnstomping "Ngozi" came on, everybody knew the kid was a star. Instead of him being viewed as a Kris Okotie clone, almost overnight he had spawned his own army of imitators such as Dizzy K, Terry Mackson and Chris Mba. And because for the first several months of his stardom virtually nobody called him by his real name--he was generally referred to as "Lover Boy"--people were more inclined to compare him to Honey Boy (who was the biggest star in Nigeria at the time) than to Okotie.

Lebarty and Sollo reunited the following year for Lover Boy '83, featuring the hits "Chi-Chi" and "Sexy Woman." As Lebarty's pop dominance grew from strength to strength, Okotie announced in 1984 that he was leaving the music business. Of course, the rumor mill went into overdrive about him being cowed by the Lover Boy onslaught, but really, Kris Okotie was a lot smarter than that; his premature retirement from music was actually a carefully thought-out power move. (We'll talk more about that later.)

Jake Sollo also had success in 1982 with Peace of Mind, the sophomore album by the Esbee Family.

While officially a trio consisting of guitarist Kingsley "Dallas" Anyanwu and singer Maurice "Jackie" Anyaorah (both late of the then-recently dissolved varsity rock band Sweet Breeze) with bassist Ndubuisi "Roy" Obika, in essence Esbee Family was a supergroup comprising the Sweet Breezers, Galaxy, and Sollo himself lending support on guitar, synths and occasionally bass.

(Well, that was the case on the second LP, anyway; on the first, 1980's Chics & Chicken, Anyaorah, Anyanwu, Obika and Sollo were joined by vocalists Carol Ingrams and Pamela Douglas.)

The Esbees were the first Nigerian band I remember seriously digging. So funky and urbane, such a suave and debonair look... They were like a Nigerian answer to Chic!

(Actually, now that I think of it, that's a fairly apt comparison as Sollo's guitar playing and production style always reminded me a little bit of Nile Rodgers.)

I also recall being rather fascinated by their lyrics, which seemed very "adult" and "sophisticated" to me at the time. In contrast to the generic proclamations of love I was used to in a lot of pop music I listened to, the Esbees often had a certain narrative specificity to their discussions of relationships between men and women. (I was intuitively aware of this even as I was unsure what they were talking about. "Chics are magnets"? Huh? And what is the meaning of this mysterious "gin & lime" that this woman wanted so badly? I still don't know for sure!)

Also, there was a mild sense of danger listening to them, as their wry, casual celebrations of fleshly pleasures were occasionally distressing to my nascent Christian sensibilities: I blushed at songs like "Chics & Chicken" that talked about girls who "spread their legs so wide/so you may see through" or "My Man Understands," in which Tracey King extols her dude, who is so much in love that he's willing to ignore the gossip and take a chance on turning a harlot into a housewife.

Esbee Family - "Gin & Lime"
Esbee Family - "Chics are Magnets
Esbee Family - "My Man Understands"

I really got into this band, and I was pretty disappointed when they didn't release another album (as far as I know). I later heard that Anyaorah and Anyanwu went to the States to get their PhDs and I know Roy Obika produced records for other artists in the 80s. Tracey King is still doing her thing, but I don't know about the other two Galaxy girls. I was recently informed that the Sweet Breeze were reuniting, so I guess that's encouraging.

Sadly, Jake Sollo died in a car accident in the mid-80s (a loss that pretty much dealt a deathblow to Nigerian pop music, in my opinion).

May his funk forever live on!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Can You Feel It?

Yeah... Been a while, y'all...

I dunno... It wasn't exactly writer's block or blogger's burnout, but for some reason I just couldn't bring myself to post for more than two weeks.

We'll be back in business as of tomorrow, though. In the meantime, check out this old FF Yellowhand video.

(I actually only discovered François Feldman relatively recently, but he's a veritable institution amongst French funk fans.)