Singer/guitarist Danie Ian (pronounced "eye-AN") is perhaps one of the most tragically undersung heroes in the annals of Nigerian popular music. A founder of not one but two of the most seminal bands of the rock era, his lack of greater renown is an unfortunate accident of timing: His career peak just happened to have coincided with an epoch that history has simultaneously judged to be a golden age and a lost era.
In 1966, as Nigeria shuffled toward its sixth anniversary as an independent nation, its fragile democracy was displaced by two military coups in rapid succession, simmering ethnic rivalries boiled over into fult-tilt carnage, and Nigeria would greet the next decade as a country at war with itself. It's safe to say the honeymoon was over.
Apparently, 1966 was also the year that Daniel Ian Mbaezue formed his first pop group, The Spades (some accounts give the year as 1968)--which would go on to be one of the most influential bands of in Nigeria's embattled Eastern Region, and eventually one of the most beloved bands in the country as a whole--albeit without him.
Mbaezue was born in the village of Umuezeawala, outside of the town of Ihiala in present-day Anambra State. Daniel showed an early propensity for music, playing flute and drums in his primary school band, leading the school choir at Abbott Boys Secondary School and remaining active in school music activities at Holy Ghost College in Owerri, Imo State, from which he received his Higher Studies Certificate in 1964.
In 1965, he returned to Ihiala to teach at his alma mater Abbott Boys, but his interest in music continued. During those turbulent times, the buoyant optimism and aspirations to elegance represented by dance band highlife had lost a bit of its luster and the new youth generation had turned more towards "beat" music--funk, soul and rock & roll. Where once a youths interested in music sought to learn the trumpet and join a highlife orchestra, they now picket up guitars and formed rock bands like The Blue Knights, The Cyclops, The Strangers, Hykkers International, The Soul Assembly and The Clusters. Mbaezue reports that he bought a guitar with his very first paycheck and shortly thereafter assembled The Spades.
In May 1967, the governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared that the region had seceded from the Nigerian federation and would effectively be known as the independent nation of Biafra. Nigeria promptly dedicated all its military resources to crushing Biafra and re-annexing the oil-rich land it stood on. Biafra soon became a blockaded teritory, with Nigeria barring food and medical supplies into the region, leading to an estimated one million Biafran casualties, with a good percentage of those being civilians that succumbed to starvation and disease.
Through all that, though, Biafra managed to maintain a fairly vibrant music scene. Little is remembered about most of the wartime bands, as for obvious reasons they got few opportunities to record. And of the few recordings that were made, few survived the devastation. (One With Comb & Razor reader once described to me driving through the ravaged city of Onitsha shortly after The War and seeing a long stretch of a major road littered with broken 45s.) As such, we know little about bands like The Figures and The Spades that played in Biafra, chiefly entertaining the young soldiers. Perhaps because of this reputation for lifting the spirits of combatants in the war zone, by 1968 The Spades had become known as The Airforce Wings.
When The War ended in 1970, Airforce Wings became simply "The Wings" and soared even higher, their achy-hearted rock and pop serving as a salve for the battered souls of the country's youth. But The Wings' postwar success was achieved not behind charismatic frontman Dan Ian but with new lead singer Emeka Jonathan "Spud Nathan" Udensi; Ian had been lured over to The Strangers in late 1970 and in 1971 moved to Lagos to join Sonny Okosuns' Paperback Limited. Ian's spell with Okosuns was similarly short, and by 1972 he had formed the band with which he is most associated: Wrinkar Experience.
Not much is known about the group (which was active for only six months between 1972 and 1973) and I've never seen a photo so I'm not sure about the composition of its membership. All I can say for certain is that the lineup included Ian on guitar and lead vocals, Cameroonians Edjo'o Jacques Racine and Ginger Forcha (on bass and guitar/organ respectively). Ian seems to have been the primary songwriter, penning the two singles for which the band is best known: "Fuel for Love" and "Money to Burn."
Wrinkar Experience - "Fuel for Love"
Wrinkar Experience - "Money to Burn"
I'm sure we're all familiar with these songs, as well as with "Fuel for Love"'s B-side:
Wrinkar Experience - "Soundway"
(The B-side of "Money to Burn" was "Ballad of a Sad Young Woman." I don't have that, but here's a snippet.)
At the height of Wrinkar's fame, Ian left the band "in protest against exploitation." Wrinkar Experience briefly carried on without him until Forcha and Racine formed a new band, Rock Town Express.
If one were to make an assumption about Danie Ian's temperament based solely on his in-and-out relationships with various bands between 1970 and 1973, one might be tempted to view him as mercurial, territorial, perhaps a tad attention-hogging. After the Wrinkar split, Sunny Okosuns considered re-drafting Ian to sing lead vocals on his breakthrough hit "Help," but feared Ian would attempt "steal" the song by taking credit for its composition. Instead, Ian put together a new band called The Ace of Spades and recorded a handful of singles, including "Love Me Now," "Keep It Top Secret" and "Lady Gay Girl."
Danie Ian - "Lady Gay Girl"
By 1976, Ian had shortened the band's name to The Spades in tribute to his original group and released the album Chapter One: This Unspoken Love, dubbing his sound "Love-Dayrock."
Danie Ian & the Spades - "This Unspoken Love"
Danie Ian & the Spades - "Got To Stay Mine"
Danie Ian & the Spades - "I Need Somebody To Love"
The album was issued by EMI in Nigeria, but was also released on Pathe Marconi in France as simply Danie Ian & The Spades. It does not appear to have made much of an impact in either market.
In 1978, Ian ditched he Spades and teamed up with the Heads Funk rock band of Port Harcourt for Hold On Tight, an album of mostly mellow reggae-style tunes like "She's My Woman."
Dan Ian - "She's My Woman"
Apparently, the album's hit was a song that diverged from Ian's usual romantic pop format. "Uri Oma" evoked Igbo native blues and performed well in regional Igbo markets.
Dan Ian - "Uri Oma"
On the mainstream level, though, Hold On Tight mostly went unnoticed. The audience was changing; the new generation seemed more interested in new genres like disco and boogie and even the re-energized guitar highlife scene. Dan Ian's beat pop seemed to be just as much of a relic as the old school dance band highlife it had supplanted a decade earlier, a souvenir of a dark age they would rather have forgotten and memories they wished would just disappear.
And so Danie Ian did just that. He disappeared.
The former heartthrob went back to his hometown, where he was honored with the title Chief Dan Ian Mbaezue, Ezeloma Apanike of Ihiala. But music was never far from his heart. Citing the success of "Uri Oma" as an influence, he charted a new artistic direction in the world of traditional Igbo music and highlife.
In 1990, a mature and near-unrecognizable Dan Ian returned to the music scene with the LP Jide Ukpuru Oma.
Chief Dan Ian Mbaezue - Edikata Ndidi Obi Agbowasia"
Chief Dan Ian Mbaezue - "Mmiri Si N'Isi Gbaru"
And then, just like that, he was gone again.
Which brings us to the question at the top of this post, one that I have been asked several times since I started writing about Nigerian music on this blog: Whatever happened to Danie Ian?
I regret that at this time, I have no definite answer as to his activities of the last 18 years, but most people seem to be unaware of anything he did after Wrinkars, so I hope I've filled in some of the blanks at least.
As one who was not even born when "Fuel for Love" was released, I can only imagine the tremendous effect it had on the kids that came up in the shadow of The War. I can hardly think of a single song that elicits as passionate a response; you need only hum a few bars of "Fuel for Love" in the presence of any gathering of pentagenarian Biafra babies and and watch them go wild.
(The afrofunk supergroup Ariara--featuring friend of the blog Edward Keazor--recorded a lovely version of the sentimental classic.)
I believe he is alive and well, though; rumor suggests that he works as a palm wine tapper in his village, but as he's probably pushing seventy by now, I hope he's not still climbing those trees!
The last major Dan Ian sighting was in October 2006, when he traveled to Lagos for the "Legends Night" event held by the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria. As audience members requested old favorites by the likes of highlife maestros Dan Maraya Jos, Oliver De Coque and Raphael Amarabem, Dan Ian was summoned to the stage to perform "Fuel for Love."
And so he sang, and they danced like it was 1972. And for one night at least, Danie Ian got the recognition he deserved as a legend of Nigerian music.
Well... Let this be another night for him.