Saturday, May 31, 2008

In a mannish mood


It's not like Sonny was just all anti-apartheid all the time, holy war, Africa for Africans, liberation for the people, fight the power 24/7/365...

"Sherry Koko"
"Steady & Slow"


He sang other songs, too.

(Nota bene: Me posting the above candid shot of Sonny with Onyeka Onwenu is not in any way, shape, or form meant to insinuate that they slept together. I just couldn't find another suitable photo today, alright?)

Friday, May 30, 2008

Among friends


I should probably mention at this juncture that the above photo showing Sonny Okosuns having a larf with Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Jonny Woode (I think... or is that Lemmy Jackson?) and former Biafra leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, was--like Tuesday's and Wednesday's header photos--taken from Sonny's personal collection as featured on his now-defunct website, Sonnyokosuns dot org. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to right-click on 'em right before the site went down, and I only post them here only to pay respects to the man. If I offend anybody by doing this, please let me know and I will remove them.

The other day, a YouTube viewer named jahlivid left this comment on that Sonny Okosuns clip from Konkombe: The Nigerian Pop MusicScene I uploaded last year:

A true Nigerian Ambassador. In Zimbabwe and indeed Southern Africa, barring your great foobtballers, Sonny Okosun is widely known. I remember when he came to perform in Harare with Onyeka Onwenu, a true legend he was. His song Fire In Soweto, to this day, remains truly inspirational. A song that forged ahead a revolution and a quest for justice, dignity, freedom and self-rule in our region. To a true son of the soil, Dr Okosun I salute you.
That comment made me think: While Sonny was relatively low-key during the last fifteen years or so of his career, since he changed tracks to gospel with the Songs of Praise LP, there was a time when he was the musical ambassador of Nigeria. Bigger than Fela, King Sunny Ade, Olatunji or anybody else.

Sonny was the first Nigerian artist to fully embrace the possibilities of reggae in his sound, but rather than just aping Jamaican riddims, he broke down the reggae beat and re-constructed it in his own image, investing it with a deeply "African" sound that entranced even the dreads in the land of reggae's birth. Okosuns performed with Toots & the Maytals and Jimmy Cliff, and Peter Tosh was also an admirer and a friend. When Tosh visted Nigeria in 1982, he spent three weeks in Okosuns' Lagos home, where he wrote the songs that became his classic Mama Africa album.

Sonny also maintained that Bob Marley had written him a letter expressing his desire to record Sonny's song "Holy Wars." I'll admit that this story always sounded unlikely to me, since (apart from early efforts like "One Love," which was an adaptation of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready") Marley was not really known for covering other people's songs. However, he was not averse to borrowing others' riddims and singing his own lyrics over them, and it is possible that he might have wanted to do this with "Holy Wars," since during that period he had been very vocal about his desire to infuse his reggae with a deeper African sound--a desire that fueled the creation of the album Survival in 1979. That album featured the ode to "Zimbabwe," which Marley performed at the nation's independence celebration in 1980. Okosuns also took the stage at that event and performed "Holy Wars," among other songs.

Sonny was also friends with the great Eddy Grant, with whom he collaborated in 1979 on some lean, crossover-ready reworkings of earlier Ozziddi hits "Fire in Soweto" and "Papa's Land." My intention was actually to post those Eddy Grant-produced tracks here, along with "Holy Wars," but as luck would have it... er, I couldn't find them. They're somewhere in the crates.

So for now, just handle these tunes here:

"Rain"
"Amen"

and you can at least listen to the "Fire in Soweto" redux here:



Oh yes... Another Sonny Okosuns collaboration of note: In 1985 when Little Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band organized Artists United Against Apartheid to record the benefit single "Sun City," Sonny was the only African musician to participate. Watch for him at 4:28 and 5:18 in this video:



(Man... I am the only one who gets really queasy when watching 1980s charity track videos? I know I can't be!)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Elder Steve Rhodes (1926-2008)

sigh

Man.

I'm gonna have to skip the Okosuns post tonight. Tomorrow, we'll talk a bit about Nigeria's foremost music historian and performer of legend, the late Elder Steve Rhodes.

Rest in peace, baba.

This Song Been In My Mind All Week: Shola Allyson-Obaniyi - "Eji Owuro"

Well, more like 24 hours, really.

I just got hip to her yesterday and I have since been unable to stop thinking about this song:


I really like her voice and the melody... She sounds kinda like she's influenced by my girl Yinkas Davies. The tinny, rinky-dink production pretty much cheapens the whole deal, though.

Can someone tell me more about this Shola Allyson-Obaniyi chick?

(Today's Sonny Okosun post is coming later... Kinda swamped today I am.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

My people, wake up

It was in the 1970s and 80s that Sonny Okosuns achieved his greatest success, forcefully projecting through his music a message of African unity, pride, resistance to oppression and sympathy for the struggles for independence raging across the continent. The repressive apartheid policy in Southern Africa was the central target of his attacks, so much so that in 1978, his Fire In Soweto LP was officially banned by the government of South Africa.

Over the years, various critics (myself included) have occasionally questioned whether his persistent railing against repressive governments in South Africa, Mozambique, Angola, etc. might have been something of an opportunistic publicity ploy. After all, Naija was not exactly the New Island of Utopia either, but Sonny never went out of his way to indict any of Nigeria's brutal military dictators or civilian kleptocrats on wax. If anything, he was pretty chummy with a lot of the leaders.

But regardless of all that, Okosuns' music did do a lot to raise awareness among the masses as to what was going on in Africa. Speaking for myself, being a kid at the time, I didn't know anything about the situation in South Africa. Hell, I didn't even know that there was a situation in South Africa until Sonny told me. First time I heard the word "apartheid" was in the song "Fire in Soweto." I didn't know where the hell Soweto was or why there might be fire there, didn't know that there was any sort of unpleasantness going down in Namibia--I found out about all that stuff because Sonny Okosuns' sang about it. I'm sure many people my age (and even older) might offer a similar testimony.

Okosuns' music was the rallying call for the groundswell of support for South Africa that swept across the continent, so much so that in 1978 his Fire in Soweto LP was banned in South Africa. His songs stayed on repeat as Nigeria, at great expense, took the leading role amongst African nations in advocating for the end of apartheid and the liberation of black South Africans.

Today, thirty years later, black South Africans are free... Free to kill immigrants from other African countries, with a special emphasis on Nigerians.

Ain't that a bitch?

"Tell My People"
"Fire in Soweto (original version)"

Please wake up.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

You want to live in the moon?

I've got an elephantine backlog of entries to put up, so I hope I get the chance to post 'em all this week.

And of course, we will be paying ample tribute to the late Sonny Okosun(s), so stayed tuned for that. As I mentioned before, I had already prepared a tribute post of sorts, surveying his career through the 1970s and 80s, but it hinged on the whole "Help"/Perry Ernest issue.

I'll have to get back to that discussion at some later date as I don't feel like questioning the man's artistic legacy right now. Whether or not he really wrote "Help," he wrote many, many other great songs that continue to resonate in their hearts and souls of those who heard them.

Here is one of them:

Sonny Okosuns - "Revolution"

Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Made in Nigeria" Part 6 is up on Boogieheads Radio!

Yes, I stay bigging up Boogieheads because it's one of my favorite podcasts and Obafunkie jR is a really cool dude to boot.

I just started listening to the latest show, which is chock full with that gritty, hard as shit 1970s funk and afrobeat for those of you who find the 80s boogie a bit too rich to digest. So far, so funky... I'm grooving to some of that early, deeply soulful Christiana Essien right now. I notice we got some Tee Mac coming up, and also Founders 15.

Check it out, y'all.

Sonny Okosuns (1947-2008)

According to Nigerian gossip blogger Niyi Tabiti, Sonny Okosuns died this morning (apparently at Howard University Hospital in Washington D.C.).

Damn, yo... I was just preparing my tribute post for tomorrow, too.

Rest in peace, Ozziddi soldier!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Party Beats

Well, this is a bit of an oddity.

Throughout the 1980s, the name "Nkono Teles" (or sometimes "Nkono Telex") was a regular feature in the credits of records by an array of Nigerian artists ranging from new wave funk and boogie acts like Dizzy K. Falola, Mandy Brown Ojugbana and Jombo, to reggae upstarts like Majek Fashek and Ras Kimono, to respected old hands like King Sunny Ade and Fela.

What is remembered by few is Party Beats, the Cameroonian keyboard wizard and producer's solo album from 1985 (or 86... I forget). And I do mean "solo"--while Teles pulled in several of the artists he had worked with (including Dizzy K., Veno Marioghae, Mike Okri and Mannix Okonokwo) to lay down backing vox, Teles took for himself the credit "Lead vocal, synthesizers, keyboards and computers, syncussion, guitars and all other instruments."

Teles was not much of a singer, but a lot of the tunes on the LP were actually not bad, with springy pop melodies and fresh freestyle/electro-boogie arrangements that made them a clarion call for b-boys. I particularly remember the track "Be My Lady" getting a lot of radio play.

Teles has always been a strong advocate for futurism and technological advancement in African music and he was clearly getting his "Rockit" on here. Yeah, some of it sounds a bit cheesy in retrospect, but yo... back then we listened to stuff like this and it was like, "The future is NOW!!!"



These days, Nkono is back home in Cameroon where he produces artists in his ultramodern studio in Douala.

Nkono Teles - "Party Beats"

"PRODUCED AND COMPUTED BY NKONO B. TELES FOR TENO MUSIC ENTERPRISES RECORDS"

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Peacocks R Us

To the millions of music lovers in West Africa, the heart warming sounds of the PEACOCKS INTERNATIONAL span every big town and city.

You may believe it or not but it is no exaggeration. SAMBOLA which was first released in a single has sold nearly 50,000 pieces in Ghana and twice that figure in Nigeria.

Yet only very few of the millions of fans within 150,000 family units in Nigeria and Ghana really know who the Peacocks are. Some call them Ghanians [sic] and are ready to stake anything to argue their claims, but call them what you like, the boys are Nigerians.

That touch of the Ghanian [sic] sound in their music is a heritage of their leader Mr. Raphael Amaraebe whose musical career started in the Gold Coast.
"Call them what you will" they sez.

The title on the sleeve calls them "Peacock International," the sleeve notes has them as "Peacocks International," the label on the platter credits the record to "Raphael Amaraebe* & His Peacocks Guitar Band."

Their stripped-down Rex Lawson-meets-King Onyina-style guitar highlife, however, I will call "sublime":

Awu Adada Mi
Sambola Mama

Sorry about the noise level on these tracks, my peoples... I had to dig deep for this one. There's no year indicated on this record, but John B.'s discography tells me that it's from 1978. I must say that surprised me a bit, as I had assumed it was a little older than that--it's an EMI release, but rather than the familiar red & black EMI label, it sports the old-school black & white label with the His Master's Voice logo that I don't think I've seen on any EMI record from after 1974 or so. Oh well... Learn something every day!

The main reason I posted this, really, is for mnemonic purposes: I wanted to remind myself that the Peacocks' classic "Eddie Quansa" (b.k.a. the "Zebrudaya" theme song) appears on the new Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump compilation from the recently-back-in-business Strut Records, and I have been meaning to do a write-up on it... As well as on Analog Africa's African Scream Contest and the third installment in Soundway's Nigeria Special series, Nigeria Rock Special.

Time's been tight lately, but I'll try to get to that by this weekend.



*I should note that the Peacocks leader is also frequently credited as "Raphael Amarabem"

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

Sunday, May 11, 2008

For Leo


William Onyeabor - "When The Going Is Smooth & Good"

Sorry it's not really the best quality... Every copy of this record I own has play problems on this particular song, so there's some rough patches in the first 2 minutes but it's mostly smooth (& good) sailing for the remaining 10+ minutes.

Hope this makes your day, buddy!

New Boogieheads "Made in Nigeria" Part 5 up now!



It's been quite a while since our boy Obafunkie jR posted up a new show on Boogieheads Radio, and I for one have been left feenin' for his patented boogie and modern soul selections.

Well, Obafunkie is back with the latest installment of his "Made in Nigeria" series, end-to-end loaded with burning Nigerian boogie and disco tracks... many so rare that I can't even identify them!

(I know this glossy 1980s stuff isn't everybody's bag, but sit tight: in a fortnight, the sixth chapter will serve up lots of hard-edged, gritty funk and afrobeat from the 70s!)

Check it out at Boogieheads.com

Thursday, May 01, 2008

There she is... Miss Nigeria!

...Well, not really.

While Lady Julie Coker is very often hailed as the original Miss Nigeria, in truth, not only was she not the first woman to hold that title (that would be Grace Atinuke Oyelude, in 1957), she was never Miss Nigeria at all!

Lady Coker was actually crowned Miss Western Nigeria in 1958, and while she was a Miss Nigeria contestant in the same year, she came in as first runner-up to Helen Anyamaehuna (below).

Although she did not win the contest (and a contest it was in those days, rather than a "pageant"--hundreds of young ladies sent their photographs in to the Daily Times and the winner was picked by a panel) she might as well have been Miss Nigeria anyway, as she embodied the spirit and values that the title professed to represent: In 1959, at the age of 19, she became one of the first broadcasters on Nigerian television.

(Much like the Miss Nigeria thing, her status as a television pioneer is famously misconstrued. While she is widely reputed to have been the first broadcaster on Nigerian television, she was actually again a runner-up in this category: Anike Agbaje-Williams was the first woman--and the first person, period--to appear on Nigerian TV. Julie Coker was Agbaje-Williams' trainee and shortly thereafter took over when her mentor went on maternity leave.)

Julie Coker remained a constant presence on TV until the late 1980s. Along the way, she also dabbled as an actress and radio personality, and for a while was married to fellow newscaster Richard Enahoro (who in a previous life had been a popular highlife musician, playing guitar in Roy Chicago's Rhythm Dandies); on air, the pair projected an easy air of cosmopolitan glamour as the country's first power couple. For many years, Julie Coker was the most famous and admired woman in Nigeria.

So, when the Nigerian music industry mushroomed in the 1970s, it made sense for her to parlay her celebrity into a recording career, especially as female performers were rare at the time.

Her first album, Ere Yon (Sweet Songs) was released in 1977. Stalwart producer Odion Iruoje helmed the sessions at EMI Studios in Lagos, with ace players such as guitarist James Eyefia, bassist Kenneth Okulolo (of Monomono fame) and Johnny Wood (of S-Job Movement and Sonny Okosuns' Ozziddi). The material, as was the vogue for female singers at the time, is composed of rootsy arrangements of folk songs drawn from Coker's Itsekiri background.

Acccording to the sleeve notes, the title track "refers to the legend of the water spirit that usually comes out during festivals in the riverine areas to listen to songs and music of the inhabitants," while the song "Elelemi" is described as "a folksong which young maidens chant as they play on moonlit nights dancing around in circles like a maypole dance."

"Ere Yon"

"Elelemi"

By 1981, the status of women in the music business was rapidly changing. Eighties ladies like Dora Ifudu, Oby Onyioha and Onyeka Onwenu were appearing on the scene, their flashy, unapologetically pop poses standing in stark contrast to Julie Coker's old-school conservatism. Coker's album Tomorrow shows her adapting to this new climate. Produced by James Eyefia, the album was recorded in the UK with a few of the usual London players (Jake Sollo, Pam Douglas, Carol Ingrams, et al) and featured Coker singing more in English over "a good blend of disco, crossover highlife and balad [sic]." "Sogio" is a remake of "Elelemi" and "Gossiper Scandal Monger" is singled out in the notes as a track that "makes for good disco dancing."

"Gossiper Scandal Monger"

"Sogio"