Friday, August 31, 2007

Sir Victor Uwaifo - Greatest Hits Vol. 1

Just decided to drop something right quick before the weekend since I haven't had time to post anything the past couple of days. Since Victor Uwaifo's name has come up quick a bit lately, I figured I'd throw up some more of his stuff and this is the only thing I have on hand right now in a ready digital format.

I bought this CD a few years ago from a street vendor in Aba, but I never actually listened to it until this morning. Having done that, I'd say that "Greatest Hits" might be a slight overstatement. Don't get me wrong: it's got some great tunes (as well as some miserable dreck from the 80s) but all in all, it's a pretty conservative compilation and not at all representative of his most accomplished and experimental work.

But then again, who's to say that "accomplished and experimental work" necessarily equals "greatest hits"? Still, I think he has a lot more popular--and better--work than what's what's collected here.

Shit... What am I doing? I'm supposed to be making you want to listen to it, aren't I?

Alright... It's a good collection, really. I ain't mad at it at all. I just wish it had more stuff on it. Well, I'll try to see if there's a Vol. 2.



Hmmm... I'm listening to the CD again as I type this and I just realized that there's some weird skipping sound at about 5:20 on track 1, "Guitar Boy." If anybody else hears it and is bothered by it, let me know and I'll re-post that track separately. (Fortunately, it's one of his most popular songs so I've got it on a bunch of different compilations.)

Update: Here's "Guitar Boy"... I aspologize for the DivShare, but I had already uploaded this like a month ago; I think that was before Div started acting screwy, too. Anyway, I tested the link and it DLed in like 3 seconds, so we should be good.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The things one finds on YouTube...

Well, this is kinda interesting. To me, anyway. Kinda.

Considering that I've previously expressed dismay over the lousy preservation treatment that's been accorded a lot of old Nigerian movies and TV shows, it kinda makes me happy to see stuff like this.

I don't know where they got this from... For all I know, it could have been ripped from the iNollywood site, in which case it's probably ancient history to the folks who use their service. I don't use their service, so it's new to me:

Basi and Company debuted in 1985, the brainchild of author and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa, then hot off the success of his self-published Civil War novel Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English and collection of poems Songs in a Time of War. Basi was much lighter fare, though; a sitcom centered around a loveable trickster named Basi (or Mr. B) who comes to Lagos with dreams of becoming a millionaire but ends up living in a one-room flat surrounded by a colorful characters like his dimwitted sidekick Alali, Dandy the bartender and the golddigging Segi, all of whom he drags into his weekly moneymaking schemes while trying to stay one step ahead of his flamboyant landlady, "Madam the Madam."

Basi and Company was more than just a hit show--although it certainly was that; it was almost definitely the most popular television program to ever hit the Nigerian airwaves at that point and even gained followings in other African countries--it was an all-over marketing phenomenon. You had Basi T-shirts, Basi books, Basi hats, and the national popularity of buzz phrases like "If you want to be a millionaire, think like a millionaire!" "It's just a matter of CASH!" "I'm hungry, Mr. B!" and "Come in if you're handsome and rich!"

Looking back on it now, I'd say a large part of the show's success could be attributed to Saro-Wiwa's skillful use of certain mind-control techniques long employed by British and American TV comedies, namely the laugh track (this was the first Nigerian show to feature one) and characterization by way of punchy catchphrases that are repeated at least once per episode, though often much, much more (a.k.a. The Ever-Popular "Are You 'Avin' a Larf?" Effect).

That much aside, it was pretty well put-together (at first, anyway). I won't claim to have been a major fan of the show (I could probably count the number of full episodes I watched on one hand and still have enough fingers left over to stroke my goatee and thumb my nose--I mostly gave up on watching NTA network shows when my own favorites Second Chance and The Bala Miller Show were unceremoniously yanked off the air in '85) but the few times I checked it out, it seemed pretty entertaining, and its broad lambaste of the mid-1980s Nigerian get-rich-quick mentality really resonated with the audience.

Based on the ads at the beginning, I'm going to guess that this episode is from 1988--not a particularly enriching point in Basi and Company's run, really. You see, the part of Mr. B was originated by Albert Egbe, who I always thought was much too old for the role (he must have been in his late 30s if not early 40s) but was an incredibly engaging and likeable performer who brought the character wonderfully to life. In 1987, Egbe exited the show over money disputes with Saro-Wiwa; considering that Egbe's likeness was so intractably associated with the character, it looked like there was no way for Basi and Company to continue without him. But somehow, Saro-Wiwa reeled in young up-and-comer Zulu Adigwe to fill Basi's cap and T-shirt and soldiered on. This was universally accepted as the show's shark-jumping moment.

(I remember my father telling me that they actually explained Mr. B's radically changed appearance with some bizarre Doctor Who-esque plotline about Basi going to the moon and undergoing a physical metamorphosis! My dad can be a big kidder sometimes, so I was never really sure whether or not he made up that story. But considering the fact that Saro-Wiwa often novelized his teleplays and he later published a children's book called Mr. B on the Moon, I guess it's probably true.)

At this point, it was like Saro-Wiwa wasn't even trying very hard anymore. Production values nosedived as he delegated more and more. The scripts felt phoned-in. It was as if Saro-Wiwa himself was bored with the show, or maybe he was just too distracted to give it his full attention, seeing as he had accepted an appointment from President Babangida to shepherd the proposed 1990 transition to civilian rule (which didn't happen, of course).

The show limped along for a few more years, during which time Saro-Wiwa continued to expand the Basi and Company brand via a successful series of children's books, published teleplays and other spinoffs. Zulu Adigwe even released a record as Mr. B, based on the character's catchphrase (He can be seen singing the song at the beginning of this clip).

Basi and Company finally went off the air in 1990, as Ken Saro-Wiwa began to concentrate more and more on the causes for which he is best-remembered today: Campaigning against the Nigerian government's and Royal Dutch Shell's abuse and exploitation of the environment and people in the oil-producing Delta region of the country. In 1994, when Sani Abacha's government (with the tacit encouragement of Shell) detained him and eight other activists on a trumped-up murder charge, Saro-Wiwa became a cause celebre for human rights advocates the world over. After a rigged trial, Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues were hanged on November 10, 1995. In the years since, he's taken on the stature of a kind of contemporary Martin Luther King-type figure on account of his activism, so it's nice to see some of his other work out there.

Another interesting note: The opening credits list the Production Manager as "Nkem Owoh." I will assume this is the same Nkem Owoh who in recent years has achieved immense fame as a comedic actor, particular in the mega-grossing Osuofia in London films and the accompanying "I Go Chop Your Dollar" clip that generated a good deal of controversy when it appeared online a few years ago.

It was just a satirical in-character novelty song narrated from the POV of a 419er, but some of these onyibo people were piiiiiiiiiiiiiiissed... They even showed the video on 20/20 and Dateline NBC and they were practically exploding with outrage: It was bad enough that scores of innocent, honest Americans were being scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year when all they had tried to do was help a fellow human being out the pure goodness of their hearts and aid the besieged son of a deceased African dictator in laundering millions of embezzled dollars! And now these unwashed cockroaches skittering around in some podunk Third World shithole like Nigeria had the nerve to make a music video mocking them and bragging "white man, I will eat your dollars"??!!??

I think the line that really burned dem belly had to have been "419 is just a game... You are the LOSER... I am the WINNER!" (Probably "I BE THE MASTER!" too.) Chris Hanson was positively brimming with the kind of moral indignation that he's never mustered up when standing in a suburban kitchen chatting with CanIRapeUAnally312, who's insisting that even though he's just driven four hours to meet with a 13-year-old boy with condoms, KY Warming Formula and a ball gag in his glove compartment, his only intention was to caution the kid of the dangers of hooking up online!

But like I was saying: It's cool to see these old shows people preserved in some form even though my main priority right now is rescuing vintage musical performances. I'd love to see the musical numbers from Victor Uwaifo's variety shows make an appearance. I know he's got to have every single one saved... I mean, Victor Uwaifo has a friggin' museum where he's preserved his first guitar that he made from an oil can and some string when he was knee-high to a cricket and framed clippings of about every story that's ever been written about him. Considering the fact that he owned his own TV production facility back then, he's got to have all the tapes. Someone should convince him to put them joints out on DVD or something.

(Come to think of it, Saro-Wiwa was an independent producer who owned all his masters, too... And these clips look like they were taken from the masters. How did they get here? *shrug*)

Anyways, if you want to watch the rest of "The Transistor Radio," here's

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Portuguese had a word for it. (Part 2)

Before I moved to the US to continue with university college in the early 90s, my grandmother actually said to me, all serious-like, "Now you must go back to your country, where you can be happy." I said nothing and nodded sagely, but in my mind I was kinda like, "Damn, is it that serious?" I mean, don't trip: I completely considered Nigeria to be "my country," but it was pretty clear to me and most people around me that I just never seemed to completely fit in there. The idea that America was "my country" ultimately was based less on the fact that I happened to have been born there than on the perception that America was a country full of oddballs and eccentrics, so I'd probably feel right at home there.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. When I got to America, I found that regardless of whatever my birth certificate may have claimed, I was definitely a foreigner, and most people never let me forget that. Like I said before, you never really know or appreciate your country until you leave it; it seemed like I became more Nigerian with each day I lived in the US. (Actually, more than that, I found myself becoming more African, which was a bit of a new experience altogether.)

Still, my existence felt somewhat clouded by alienation: I was an outsider in the mainstream society, and while there was a pretty sizable Nigerian community in Boston, I really didn't feel welcome among that crowd either. I'm pretty sure most of them thought I was gay. At this point, the only two groups I felt fully embraced by were Latinos and Haitians. (Do I repeat myself? Yes, technically, Haitians are Latinos, but you know what I mean.)

So I'm not particularly surprised one night, about a year and a half after my arrival, when I'm on the bus going home from work and some middle-aged Haitian guy steps up and casually strikes up a conversation with me in Kreyol like we're Port-au-Prince pallies or something. He prattles on a mile a minute for about a half a minute, before I cut him off mid-mile with a helpless shake of the head and a polite "M'pa pale kreyol."

Undeterred, he switches to English: "You fwom Afwica."

Pause: I kinda hate it when people start conversations like that because it's usually a prelude to all kinds of annoying assumptions. "Yeah," I sigh.

"I know dat! I know dat!" he exclaims. "You know how I know?"

He's obviously quite pleased with his successful deduction and wants to celebrate by verbally illuminating his logical process like Sherlock Holmes explaining the trail of clues to his dimwitted audience stand-in Watson. Why deny him the pleasure? I figure. "How?" I ask.

Basking in satisfaction, he leans in to whisper in my ear. "You wea'ing shoes." he says.


Now, based on prevailing stereotypes, I guess I'd've understood if he assumed I were African if I wasn't wearing shoes, but how does wearing shoes...?

"You wea'ing shoes," he repeats, sensing my confusion. "Not sneakers. And you wea'ing pantalon, not jeans. So I know you either Haitian or Afwican."

"How do you know I'm not just a professional?" Of course, I'm not a professional; I work in a record store. But I am a bit bothered by his stereotyping and also concerned about the degree to which my mode of dress allows me to be so easily profiled. Yes, I don't usually wear sneakers, but I don't think it has anything to do with where I'm from--I just happen to find a lot of the sneaker styles of the 90s to be immensely ugly. As for the trousers, well, I just didn't have any clean jeans to wear that day. I notice that he is similarly attired, in slacks and casual shoes, with a button-up shirt.

"Also," he continues, ignoring my question. "If you was fwom Amewica, your pants would be down here."

He gestures to a latitude just south of his buttcheeks and laughs. I laugh, too.

"You a musician?" he asks, nodding towards the big, battered hardshell guitar case sitting next to me. I just started taking lessons and I had one before work that evening.

"No, I'm just learning."

"You playing Afwican music?" he ventures excitedly.

"Nah, mostly soul like... Curtis Mayfield? And reggae." Pause. Grimace. "But my teacher keeps making learn Eagles songs."

"'Hotel California'?"

"More like 'Lyin' Eyes' and 'Take It Easy.'"

"I am a musician," he declares. "I used to be a musician. I play bass." He pronounces it like the fish. "I used to play Afwican music."

"Oh really? What kind of African music?"

"Mewengue and salsa," he proclaims proudly.

"That's not African music," I offer delicately, trying to keep the "duh" out of my voice.

"Yes, it is!" he insists. "Spanish music is Afwican music!"

Okay, thinks I. This conversation got ludicrous real quick, didn't it?

"You don't know?" he laughs, not bothering keep the "duh" out of his voice. "Spanish music come fwom Afwica. It's all the same widdim, you know? The widdim."

I thought about this exchange a few weeks later when I started hearing dance band highlife in my sleep. For several nights, voluptuous basslines scored my dreams, peppered with skeletal, off-kilter percussion patterns. One night, I woke up and was surprised to find that I still heard the music: the deep, loping bassline and lopsided percussion was actually seeping through the thin walls of my apartment. Still half asleep, I opened the door and stepped out to ascertain the source of the music--the rhythm emerged, fully dressed up with horns, flutes and guitars and it became clear that what I was hearing wasn't highlife at all, just the Puerto Ricans next door blasting salsa in the middle of the night.

Spanish music is African music, the Haitian dude had said. What did that really mean? Well, obviously I knew that the transatlantic slave trade had extended to the Caribbean and South America and as a result there was some African lineage present in the people and, by extension, the music of those regions, but I never thought too deeply about how (and why) it manifested itself. Suddenly, I was wondering why the basslines in salsa sounded like highlife and why the basic organizing rhythm pattern in much Afro-Latin music, the clave, was just about identical to a Calabar rhythm called tinkoriko and most all, why I was so damned disappointed that the sound I'd heard was not highlife?

I was homesick, I had to admit. I missed Calabar. And while I'd never considered myself a fan of it before, I missed that damn highlife music. Like it or not, it was a part of my consciousness, triggering comforting memories of rainy Calabar mornings, listening to those easygoing clave rhythms and tart, coppery horns while getting ready for school. Or hanging out on the fringes of "grownup" parties with friends, trying to get loaded on free drinks and talk to girls while the heavy-of-foot old folks shuffled to languorous rhythms, singing along to the choruses with a mix of pleasure and sadness for the good old days that seemed to get gooder the older they got. I wanted a little bit of that feeling, but I didn't have any highlife music on hand. And it was quite rare to find highlife CDs in American stores back then. The closest I could get to that feeling was through Latin music: Fania Records, new-wave salsa, old-school Cuban son... I just immersed myself in it.

(Some people found this odd, though; during one of my National Guard weekends, my squad sergeant--an African-American gentleman in his late 30s with whom I had bonded over regular discussions of early-80s R&B and "boogie" music--found some Arsenio Rodriguez and Ruben Blades tapes in my bag and sat me down for a lecture.

"Look, son," he said. "I know you wanna fuck some of these fine-ass Puerto Rican girls out here, and if I was young and single, I'd probably wanna do the same. But you gotta be yourself, man. You ain't gotta start listening to this 'La Cucaracha' shit to make these Latin girls like you. Just be yourself. You ain't gotta go to them. Let them come to you." )

So I listened to a lot of Afro-Cuban music. And I read books like Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit and Black Music of Two Worlds and The Latin Tinge (both by John Storm Roberts). I learned about how the traditional music of African slaves survived south of the US and developed into various forms of Latin American music, then was imported back home in the 1930s to inspire the creation of modern African music. Learning about the legacy of African art in the New World imbued me with a renewed understanding of African culture back home.

Not long thereafter, while re-stocking the shelves in the World Music department, I came across a CD called Money No Be Sand. My attention arrested by the pidgin title, I took a closer look: 1960s Afro-lypso, Pidgin Highlife, Afro-Soul, Afro-Rock is what the sub-title read. And it boasted liner notes by John Storm Roberts! Intrigued, I took the CD home with me.

Now, remember that the World Music establishment at this time was fairly ignorant about highlife. Most of them didn't even know what it was. If you ever heard mention of highlife, it was usually in reference to Fela, because it was generally known that his music was "a fusion of James Brown's funk, Miles Davis's jazz and traditional Nigerian highlife music (whatever that is)." I remember the trade mags struggling to find the vocabulary to even describe this compilation. Most of them settled on "nutty" and "weird and wonderful," and perhaps predictably, they gravitated towards its more familiar aspects ie the awkward but endearing attempts at Western styles: Jimi Solanke & The Junkers' Yoruba garage rock on "E Je Ka Jo," The Ramblers Dance Band's spirited take on The Tennors' reggae classic "Ride Yu Donkey," Charlotte Dada's cool and haunting Latin-inflected interpretation of The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down."

It was the more straight-ahead highlife numbers that seized my imagination, though: I think part of the reason I never fully got highlife before was because I just didn't understand the context it was coming from. Maybe because of the festering wounds of the Civil War and the crash of the initial optimism that followed independence, our parents never talked in too much detail about the Sixties. Sure, we read books that were written during that era, but I really don't think people from my generation came close to understanding the excitement of being the first generation of Africans to live fully in a world of modernity and glamour, in which they were free to shape their own destinies. Most of my age-mates thought of highlife as dusty old "traditional" music; what we didn't understand was that highlife was anything but. As the German African art scholar Ulli Beier put it in 1966:

"'Highlife' is a reaction against the austerity of traditional African life. It is a way of life that believes in pleasure, music, drinking, free love, and ostentatious spending of money. The Onitsha writers speak about this new generation: schoolboys, teachers, drivers, clerks--people who have not yet gone very far in being 'westernized', but who already find themselves in sharp opposition to traditional ways of life."

Listening to the songs on Money No Be Sand, I finally got that, and I could see for the first time how this music reflected the aspirations, the sensuality, the passion of a young generation navigating a brave new world and looking forward to the future with nothing but hope.

One thing I still couldn't put a finger on, though, was why that inherent wistfulness. That undercurrent of sadness I always heard in the music. That frayed feeling to its harmony. But once again, Latin America helped me develop the conceptual vocabulary by which to think and talk about African music.

Back when I used to watch Fantástico, I was always mesmerized by the bittersweet flavor that seemed to characterize much Brazilian music. The melodies were so pretty and lilting, but they also had a strange... incompleteness to them. Like something that was perpetually missing, creating an instability that was never fully resolved: a lingering sense of longing or sadness even when the music was upbeat (such as in this discofied Gal Costa number I used to love):

Years later, I would learn that there was a name for this wistful tension between sorrow and joy: saudade, a uniquely Lusophone concept that was famously untranslatable into English. My Cape Verdean roommate tried, though; he told me it was "homesickness... but not really." A Brazilian coworker described it as "like sadness where you're happy to be sad." Probably the most succinct definition I've come across is the one by writer A.F.G. Bell from his book, In Portugal:

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.

Is there a word for that in any African language? There should be, because I hear it in many different musics all along the West African coast and even as far down as in Congo. Is it the legacy of the Portuguese explorers and traders who, by virtue of being the first Europeans to set foot in these areas, set Africa on course to modernity (a journey that has seemed like a boon and a curse, often at the same time)? Or is it more likely some deeper, older impulse in the African psyche that recognizes pleasure and pain as two sides of the same coin, that renders songs of joy in gloomy minor keys and dirges as celebratory frolicks?

Aaaaahhh... Questions, questions. What do I know? Just listen to this music, people.

> DOWNLOAD DIVSHARE! (i hope*) <



*I know DivShare's been "acting like bra and pant" lately, but I tested this link and it downloaded at a decent rate; it came through in less than a minute.

Moving on...

And then the next morning you really feel sore.

Over the past week, I've been pretty bummed out (to say the very least) about the whole hard drive thing. I mean, I had braced myself for the worst the moment I heard the drive emitting that ominous clicking sound the weekend before last, and by last Saturday, when the body was officially committed to the ground, I thought I had already pretty much gotten all my mourning out of the way. But then when I woke up on Sunday morning, it really started to pain me. I lost all my gotdamned music, man!

Fortunately, I had backed up a lot of my data... But then, a whole lot more of it I had not. And sure enough, most of the stuff I didn't back up was the stuff that's probably hardest to find. For some reason, I tended to back up albums more than individual tracks, so the rare, random mp3s I found in odd places, the custom mixes, the exclusive tracks... Gone, baby, gone.

And then there's the hundreds of personal photos, like a thousand reference photos for TOO MUCH BEAUTIFUL WOMAN and other projects, notes, drafts, randomly recorded ideas, sketches, bookmarks, journal entries, pricey applications obtained via fortuitous or dubious means that now have to be re-acquired...

On the more immediate level, a lot of the music and pics I wanted to put up here in posts I had lined up for the near future is also gone. But what are ya gonna do? *sigh* Really, I have nobody to blame but myself... So I might as well just man up, take the L, and move on.

There. Manned up. Moving on. Moaning about it no more.

One thing, though: Please forgive if I occasionally have to bum some music from y'all... Including stuff you might have originally gotten from me. For instance, those of you with whom I traded music at that other place where we were sharing Brazilian, Congolese, Latin and Highlife music a few months ago? If you have that Giants of Danceband Highlife compilation I put up back then, hooketh thy boy up.

Moving on.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Sir Victor Uwaifo & His TitiBitis of Africa - Jackpot

Yes, I finally got my computer back today (Woo-hoo!). Yes, all my data really is gone (D'OH!).

Such is life. I no fit die.

Anyway, here's a nice album that Jon and I were discussing in the comments of the "Portuguese" post. I was able to find it somewhere while trying to re-plant the seeds of my digital music collection. I apologize in advance for the DivShare... I know it's been acting up of late but it's kinda the best I can do for now. Just to make things a little easier, I throw in supplementary Megaupload link, 'ey?





EDIT: Just realized that the tracks are mislabeled on the album sleeve and also in this file... The one that says "Ewere Noyoyo" is actually "Sakpaide Special," and vice versa. I don't want to have to re-upload these (though I probably will end up doing so later anyway because that's how obsessive I am) so please, correct that error when you download, please!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Status: Involuntary hiatus

Well, I didn't expect to still be computerless at this point in the week, but alas, I am and probably will remain so for the next few days. Nevertheless, I will try to get the second part of "The Portuguese Had a Word For It" up by tomorrow (had hoped to do it today but I couldn't squeeze in the time at work).

What really sucks is that I wanted to add some music and photos to the post but all that stuff is stuck on my hard drive (I mean, I hope it's still stuck on my hard drive! hahahaha whimper)... Thankfully I managed to upload some stuff before the crash and I have enough posts in the vault to last a few days.

In the meantime, though, I'd recommend that you check out something much cooler: John Beadle's new African music blog, Likembe.

I can remember a time not too long ago--I'm talking about maybe the mid-to-late 1990s--when there were hardly any authoritative resources or even reasonably trustworthy reference materials on African popular music. And what little there was usually was oriented mostly towards music of the "grioty" variety that was pretty big amongst the world music set back then. I can understand why, mind you... That stuff does present a rather attractive image of African music: Heroically tasteful, sufficiently exotic and un-westernized, part of a tradition stretching back several centuries, exuding an aura of dignity and regal austerity.

Next to such noble notions, my knowledge of loudly, proudly tawdry Nigerian pop music from the 1960s, 70s and 80s seemed pretty inconsequential, if not even slightly embarrassing. Frankly, I didn't even really think of it as "knowledge" per se... It was more like nostalgic trivia: hazy childhood memories of songs that very few people seemed to remember and certainly nobody I knew remotely cared about. So yeah, I didn't talk about it that much.

All that changed when I discovered the African Music Homepage.

The African pop discographies that Mr. Beadle and Prof. Endo assembled completely floored me, and at the same time validated me in a weird way. Before then, I don't recall ever having seen African popular music--and Nigerian pop in particular--documented with such painstaking attention to detail. It was a revelation to see these seemingly insignificant records that even people back home viewed as gaudy trash catalogued with the rigor and esteem one observes only amongst moldy figs and the curators Northern Soul.

All of a sudden, I felt that I was in my own way a keeper of a tradition, and that I should do what I could to preserve this legacy before it disappeared completely.

I reckoned that maybe I should write a book. Then I reckoned that maybe John should write a book, as he knows much, much more than I do.

While no plans for such a volume have been announced as yet, I'm really excited to see that he's doing the next best thing in the form of a blog. He's already been quite an encouraging presence in the African music blogosphere, chipping in at Benn Loxo and Matsuli Music, not to mention helping out round hereabouts when I've been too lazy busy to digitize records to share with you, my dear friends. So I'm pretty excited to see what he does over in his own storefront.

So run on over to Likembe and get yourself schooled. I know that's what I'm about to do (before my allotted hour on this library computer runs out!).

*John Collins' West African Pop Roots and Music Makers of West Africa are notable exceptions (hey, does anybody know what's up with his new Highlife Time, by the way? I need to get a copy of that!) and Ronnie Graham's The Da Capo Guide to Contemporary African Music was a very noble effort, as well.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Portuguese had a word for it. (Part 1)

Don't know if y'all know this, but today is Vinyl Record Day, celebrating the 130th anniversary of the Phonograph (even though technically, Edison's invention originally played wax cylinders and then shellac plates before the vinyl record came into vogue in the 1940s... but you get the idea). As a result, a lot of music blogs are running shamelessly fetishistic tributes to vinyl today and I originally intended to do the same, but alas, it looks like my hard drive seems to have imploded yesterday, taking with it my collection of vinyl cover art and label scans (not to mention like 30 gigs of music and countless photos), so while I struggle to hold back the tears over here, I'll just throw up this rambling-ass entry I wrote a few weeks ago but never posted.

(Edit: I just realized that this posted up as a Saturday, August 11 entry, so I guess I should confirm that Vinyl Record Day was actually on Sunday, August 12. I guess because I posted very early on Sunday morning, Blogger's clock interpreted it as still being Saturday. *shrug*)


I've mentioned before that Latin American music has often served as a conduit and template for my understanding of African music, and to be honest, it's always bothered me a little bit. I mean, what does that say about me? Is my mind really so colonized by The West that I can't even think about and take pride in my own cultural heritage without relating it in some way to forms that are "exotic" and even "neo-African," but still fundamentally western?

I don't think I'm really alone in this, though... After all, didn't Fela say that he never really appreciate African culture until he saw Black Americans wearing dashikis on 125th Street in Harlem? And who was the wise man who said that in order to truly understand one's country, one must leave it? I really do believe that: you need to take a few steps away in order to see the forest and not just the trees. Plus, it can exceedingly difficult to actually concentrate and get a decent perspective on African culture while actually in modern Africa; one interesting thing about living in so-called "Third World" countries is the way you're so often deluged by avalanches of cultural detritus dumped from every other corner of the globe. For instance, I'm sure that many Nigerians d'un certain age will remember when one of the most popular shows on television was a very strange German game show called Telematch:

Yes, it was just as inane as it looks from the intro, kinda like a live-action Laff-a-Lympics (which was, by the way, another pretty popular program, along with other forgettable, low-rent Hanna-Barbera fare like Clue Club).

Probably my favorite of all these bizarre imports, though, was an over-the-top variety show from Brazil called Fantástico - O Show Da Vida:

Watching Fantástico was a bit like falling through a looking-glass into a wonderland where it was always carnaval, exploding with riotous color, light and movement, somewhat frightening imagery, broad humor and probably a little more stark sexuality than most would be comfortable with in a family program. Above all that, though, the show sticks out in my mind for igniting my lifelong passion for Brazilian music via the performances by MPB icons like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania:

or former Mutante Rita Lee (who kinda scared me back in the day):

(Fantástico is actually still on TV in Brazil; I caught it a couple of times last year during the brief period that I had TV Globo in my cable package, but it was a crushing disappointment. Everything I had loved about it was gone: the freewheeling whimsy, the glorious rococo, the camp stylings, the freaky production numbers. What was left was vacuous showbiz junket interviews and "news" stories about UFOs and the face of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in a bowl of oatmeal. Turns out that sometime in the early 1990s, the format had been changed from variety show to Hard Copy-like newsmagazine. It was like having bamboo shoots shoved up under my childhood. You really can't go home again, I guess.)

It's not like we spent all day rotting our brains in front of the boob tube, though... Back then, most TV stations didn't even start their daily broadcast until four in the evening. The constant distraction of crappy homegrown digital movies was as yet undreamed of and only a few folks had VCRs anyway, so to amuse ourselves, we kids spent a lot of time reading.

Crazy shit, I know... But this really happened.

Now I'm not gonna bullshit you and make like we were working our way through The Great Books in our free time; mostly it was pulpy trash like James Hadley Chase (hardboiled American crime stories as written by an ex-Royal Air Force pilot who had never even been to America) or Enid Blyton's polite and painfully English young adventurer yarns (Hullo! Well-scrubbed middle-class children foil dastardly smugglers and make it home in time for tea and sandwiches? Good old Julian, Dick and Anne, George and Timmy the dog! Hurrah!) or, for starter readers, the lightweight juvenilia of the African Reader's series.

The African Reader's Library was conceived by African Universities Press in the early 1960s to serve as, I guess, a junior broda to the groundbreaking Heinemann African Writers Series. Several of its popular titles, like Onuora Nzekwu and Michael Crowder's Eze Goes To School, or The Village School and One Week, One Trouble (both by Anezi Okoro) were typically Horatio Alger tales or picaresque stories built around the exploits of young boys (always young boys) on their rocky quest for education.

By the time I was reading them in the early 80s, these novels were around 20 years old, but I never really noticed. After all, most seven-year-olds don't really think to read the publication info on the copyright page, and aside from the occasional curious monetary references (pounds and shillings rather than naira and kobo), there wasn't much in the actual texts that made them come off as particularly dated.

I still remember the first time I encountered a scene in one of those stories that was so anachronistic and jarring to my sensibilities as to make me acutely aware that the book in my hands was a relic of distant (and bizarre) times past: It was in Nkem Nwankwo's Tales Out Of School (or maybe it was the sequel, More Tales Out Of School, I forget). In this scene, a classroom full of secondary school students in Form One or Form Two--that is, eleven and twelve-year-olds--are fooling around in class, celebrating their defiance of some evil authoritarian prefect or teacher by drumming on their desks, playing invisible horns and singing highlife songs. This scene was so shocking that I actually put the book down in bewilderment.

Highlife? I wondered. Why on earth are these kids playing "old man music"?

Yes, I really did call it that. Before I learned the proper name "highlife," I--along with my sisters and many of our peers--generally referred to it as "old man music" and associated it with two broad, sometimes overlapping images:

1) the sour, leather-skinned old coot on your street who would never return your ball when it landed in his yard, choosing instead to remind you (just in case you had forgotten his last wild-eyed rant) that he had Fought Side-by-Side With The White Man™ in the Burma Theater so that scoundrels of no caliber such as yourself could be free to make “ah bloody hell of ah noise!” He would then affect clipped British diction as he fumed about “louts and scallywags” before returning indoors (confiscated ball under his arm) to his Chief Inyang Nta Henshaw records.

2) seedy drinking parlours populated by rheumy, hairy-eared leches, rank gin fumes seeping from their pores as they feasted upon dog meat and clumsily tried to seduce bubbleheaded, barely pubescent schoolgirls. (I once asked my cousin why highlife music was so called; he explained to me with all seriousness that the appellation was meant to be ironic. I believed him since so many of the people I identified with highlife were... Well, kinda lowlifes, really.)

Now, allow me to clarify a bit here: When I say that highlife was “old man music,” my issue was not (just) that the people who listened to it were old or that it wasn’t the latest flavor of the minute blazing its way up the hit parade. After all, most of the music I was digging at the time was stuff like classic Motown, Elvis, The Beatles, The Fifth Dimension--fifteen to twenty-year-old platters extracted from my parents’ record stack (when you haven’t even been on this earth up to a decade yourself, everything is new to you).

Also, I actually did like some highlife myself. I loved the aggressively flashy and forward "Ekassa" style of Sir Victor Uwaifo, for instance, and occasionally savored the mellow ambience engendered at family celebrations in the village by the gentle, muted wah-wah groove of Osadebe and the like. For some reason, though, I never really thought of that stuff as being "highlife" at the time. I can't remember exactly what I categorized it as, but I know that when I thought "highlife"--especially living in Calabar--I was thinking about the old-school "dance band" music with its quaint horn charts and spartan "palmwine" guitar style (so named for its association with drunkenness).

I couldn't conceptualize this sound as the theme music for hot-blooded Nigerian youth any more than I could imagine that a moldy old geezer like the Ol' Solja up the street had ever been bright-eyed and lusty, or fallen in love or had hopes and dreams beyond getting his jollies off by seizing errant footballs from hapless youngsters. Something about the music sounded inherently old and evocative of a faded glamour and vitality. There was a certain note of sadness and loss in it, and a languor to even the uptempo numbers that made it the perfect soundtrack for those whose best days were definitively behind them. Which is probably why I associated it so closely with Calabar.

"Calabar" was what Portuguese sailors called the Efik fishing settlement they encountered on the Bight of Bonny in the 15th century (They accientally also gave the name "Calabar" to a nearby Ijaw settlement, so the Efik area became "Old Calabar" and the Ijaw "New Calabar") and developed into probably the number one port for the trade in slaves. It's estimated that for up to 30% of all Africans shipped off to the New World in chains, Calabar Beach was the last thing they saw before being tossed into the dank hold.

(A good number of those enslaved Africans ended up in Cuba, by the way. There, slaves from Calabar became known as Carabali, and were greatly feared for their fierceness in combat and their clandestine, ultra-masculine Ekpe cult, which served as the foundation for the super-secret Cuban Abakuá society, the fount of seminal Afro-Cuban musical forms such as rumba and guaguanco.)

(See? I'm doing it again!)

Oh yes, one other interesting factoid about Calabar's macabre slaving past: From it we find possibly the oldest literary work by a Nigerian writing in English, The Diary of Antera Duke, being three years in the life of an Efik chief, 18th January 1785 to 31st January 1788. Only a fragment of it survives today, but it's an intriguing read indeed; Duke records in colorful broken English the day-to-day life of a local slave kingpin: Putting on his "whiteman trousers" to chill out and drink tea with the European slavers. Venturing out on expeditions to neighboring towns and villages to round up captives to sell to the whites. Storming a local bar and decapitating its patrons as a human sacrifice to his ancestors. (Legends such as this persisted as terrifying fables during my childhood; whenever an Obong--the ceremonial paramount ruler of Calabar--died, parents wouldn't let their kids leave the house until it had been announced that he'd been safely buried, as it was rumored that the Obong's minions still beheaded random people in order to properly inter the king.)

Even after the slave trade was abolished, Calabar remained a major trading port and the British kept it as the seat of government for for the Niger Coast Protectorate, making it, in essence, the first capital of Nigeria. With its modern roads, and other amenities such as the first post office in the country, the first primary school and one of the first and best secondary schools (the legendary Hope Waddell Training Institute), Calabar became known as "the Canaan City," the land of milk and honey. Even when the Brits shifted their administrative center to Lagos in 1906, Calabar retained a certain glamour as a cultural center, especially for its music. You see, Calabar was the home of the Niger Coast Constabulary Band, a police band that played loud, John Philip Sousa-style military marches on modern brass instruments. The influence of the Niger Coast Constabulary Band propagated a strong tradition of brass orchestras in Calabar, chief amongst them the legendary Calabar Brass Band, who would parade through the main streets of town playing their Africanized take on Salvation Army music with a gaggle of revelers trailing behind them.

When Calabar's economy started to decline in the 1930s, a lot of musicians left town to resettle in more happening cities, taking with them the distinctive Calabar brass sound that would infuse a very elegant and "modern" elan (and volume) to various local folk musics that up until then were built largely around low-impact instruments like guitars and mandolins, rattles, tambourines, empty bottles and tabletops. The Calabar Brass Band relocated to Lagos, where they continued their tradition of parading across the island and, under the alias "Lagos Mozart Orchestra," recorded sides such as "Ore Mi Kini Se?" ("What Did You Do, My Friend?"):

Lagos Mozart Orchestra - "Ore Mi Kini Se?"

The Calabar sound inspired many young players to pick up horns and was integral to the development of highlife. Calabar was a place that was frequently immortalized in song and just about every highlife dance band worth their salt had a "Calabar" number or two in their repertoire.

(Incidentally, here are two, both from Ghanaian bands: Jerry Hansen's Ramblers and King Bruce & the Black Beats:

Ramblers Dance Band - "Ekombi"

King Bruce & the Black Beats - "Abasi Do"

That was all over by the time I was growing up in Calabar, though.

Over the past decade, recently-departed Cross River State governor Donald Duke has done much to sexy up the Calabar's image, promoting it as one of the most progressive, pleasant and livable cities in the country. Still, my predominant image of it is one of a provincial town full of mold-covered, colonial-style architecture (Kinda like how I imagine Old Havana, I guess). My Calabar was a ghost town, a land that time had passed by, and nothing was more symbolic of that than its hoary old horn highlife which had seemingly fallen out of favor everywhere else in the country since after the war. Calabar was a place where young people complained how "dead" it was, and dreamed of getting the hell out of soon as they were old enough.

So once I was old enough, I got the hell out.

(Alright, y'all... I said it was rambling. And you know I hate long, long entries, so I'll just cut it off here and post the rest later.)