Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Meri Kirisimasi!

I realize that not everybody observes the yuletide (I'm not necessarily a big Christmas guy myself these days) but we all like music, no? SO in honor of the season, here are a few tracks from my baby Martha Ulaeto's 1983 LP Christmas Africana (and more).

Martha Ulaeto - "Keresimesi Odun De (Christmas Has Come)" (Yoruba)
Martha Ulaeto - "Nwa Ga Zo Uwa (The Little Redeemer)" (Igbo)
Martha Ulaeto - "Kiri-Simasi Bo Sa! (It's Christmas!)" (Ijaw)
Martha Ulaeto - "Eyen A Mana Ono Nyin (Unto Us A Child Is Born)" (Efik)
Martha Ulaeto - "Gbo Ohun Awon Angeli (Hear The Angels Singing)" (Yoruba)

Produced by classical flautist Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli, Christmas Africana offers Western standards such as "Ave Maria," "Go Tell It On The Mountain" and "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" as well as a multilingual smorgasbord of Nigerian Christmas songs such as "Keresimesi Odun De" (by noted Yoruba composer Dayo Dedeke) the Ijaw "Kiri-Simasi Bo Sa!" written by Martha's mentor, Adam Fiberesima, and "Nwa Ga Zo Uwa" (by musicologist and Radio Nigeria legend Lawrence Emeka).

"Gbo Ohun Awon Angeli" is a time-honored hymn of the Yoruba Christian canon and it has been recorded a number of times, including on the 1979 LP Black Bethlehem by famed pianist and composer Akin Euba.

Released on Euba's own BMI (Black Music International) label, the album is mostly a collaboration between Euba and Art Alade (best known as the leader of the Jazz Preachers in the 1960s and as the host of TV's Bar Beach Show in the 70s) along with a host of instrumentalists and singers (including Funmi Adams, who would enjoy moderate pop success in the 80s).

(That's Euba and Alade, seated at the keyboard at right)

Akin Euba - "Gbo Ohun Awon Angeli" (solo by Art Alade)
Akin Euba - "Keresimesi Yi Ma De O"
Akin Euba - "O Come All Ye Faithful"
Akin Euba - "The Birth of Christ" (solos by Afolabi Ajala-Browne and Funmi Adams)

Interestingly enough, Richard Bucknor--the brother of 1960s soul man Segun Bucknor--performed on both of the recordings featured above; he sang in the chorus on Black Bethlehem and played piano on the "Western" songs on Christmas Africana.

And while we're on the subject of 1960s soul men, I just learned this afternoon that the great Geraldo Pino--the man who brought soul music to Nigeria--passed away last month. Can't believe I missed that... Considering the fact that he seems to have died on the same day as Miriam Makeba, I suppose it's somewhat understandable that the news might have been overshadowed a bit.

Also today, a friend in Accra informed me that legendary drum hero Kofi Ghanaba (Guy Warren) died on Monday night. Some more info can be found HERE.

Rest in peace to both of these mighty elephants of African music.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Musique d'enfer!

Stumbled upon this on Youtube. After watching it like 12 or 16 times, I just had to share it!

I don't really expect anyone else to get the joke here, of course; most Nigerians probably know Nel Oliver primarily for the 1998 ballad "Baby Girl," but amongst my circle of friends and family, this song--or rather, this video--was a running in-joke that just got funnier and funnier with each passing year.

I mean... It was jut so priceless: exaggerated, TV commercial-style drama, overheated histrionics, naff choreography, four-for-fifty kobo Michael Jackson imitators, extreme closeups of prodigiously mustachioed lips, white-framed plastic glasses--it had been a while since we'd seen a Nigerian music video that exulted so gloriously in its unabashed early 80s-ness!

The thing is, though: this joint dropped in 1989/90, by which time it felt absurdly anachronistic. But it was still a lot of fun because it was so... Well, I can't say that we were yet familiar with the term, "camp," but I guess we recognized it when we saw it!

I later learned a lot more about Nel Oliver, though. For one thing, he's not from Nigeria at all, but from the neighboring Republic of Benin. (Which is probably why he's singing in French, duh!) (Though to be honest, I don't remember even noticing that for a long time--we thought that on the chorus he was exclaiming music funfair! rather than musique d'enfer!) And more than that, long before Angelique Kidjo ever picked up a microphone, Nel Oliver was Benin's first international superstar.

In this interview with our friend Samy, Beninois organist Charles Rodriguez suggests that Nel Oliver was playing in Cotonou's Daho-Jazz Orchestra as early as 1958 or 59, but unless he started performing professionally while still in primary school, I seriously doubt Oliver is old enough for this to be accurate. (Besides, in the booklet to Analog Africa's excellent African Scream Contest compilation, bandleader El Rego mentions that he didn't form Daho-Jazz until 1962.)

Other accounts have Oliver starting his career in the late 60s with Ryda-Jazz, but what we can be sure of is that he made his big splash when he moved to France around 1975. His earliest releases, such as "The Trip" and "Hi-Fi Woman" were recorded with the legendary Paris-based American funk band Ice (a.k.a. The Lafayette Afro Rock Band) and Oliver soon established himself as a sturdy soul star, even becoming the first black African to run his own recording studio (the... interestingly named Spade Music) in Paris, where he recorded releases such as 1983's "I Got A Flash."

Oliver returned to Benin in 1987. In order to facilitate the development of the local music industry, he built Nel Oliver Studio in Cotonou, where he continues to record his own music as well as discovering and producing new artists. A true elder statesman with three decades of achievement under his belt... But here at With Comb & Razor, "Wadjo" will always be his magnum opus.

Musique d'enfer!

Sunday, December 21, 2008


(Someone requested The Doves' The Lord is My Shepherd in the comments, but it might be a while before I can rip that... So I hope this does the trick for now.)

Like The Apostles, The Doves (or The Doves of Calabar) were frequently invoked sans the The in their name, bestowing them with a certain ethereal aura (and potentially engendering latter-day confusion with a really deck English rock band).

Also like The Apostles, I thought they were a gospel group for a while--but I think I can get a pass on that account because most of their songs did feature a strong spiritual redolence in both music and lyrics. Harmonically and melodically, they were driven by a slightly melancholic undertow, and the vocals had a certain shrillness to them that was characteristic of the Nigerian Christian music of the time.

This is some Sunday afternoon music. Like when you'd come home from Sunday school and gobble down your lunch and run over to your best friend's house and push the doorbell, but nobody would answer. So you'd push it again and still nobody would answer. You'd know someone was home, though, because you could hear muffled voices and wah wah wah sounds coming from within.

So you'd take a deep breath and ring the bell a third time. The door would swing open and you'd instantly regret it; there's your friend's mother, still dressed in her church clothes but her eyes flaring with distinctly unChristian contempt.

Da, my friend, why are you ringing my bell anyhow! she'd spit.

You'd probably been hoping your best friend's brother, or at least the housegirl would answer the door, but his mother? Negotiating a conversation with other people's parents can be like trying to defuse a ticking bomb; trip the wrong circuit and you're blown to smithereens.

Sorry, ma! you'd quickly gulp.

Good afternoon, ma! you'd nervously add after a moment, making sure to sound off the salutation loud and clear because you remembered that the first time you met your friend's mother--when you came over to collaborate on a Geography homework project--she'd hadn't heard you greet her good afternoon and your friend later told you that his mother didn't like you because she'd felt you lacked home training.

What are you looking for! she'd bark.

You'd ask her if it was okay for your friend to come out and play, adopting that supplicating manner that parents seemed to find so satisfying. Behind her, you can see a few grownups in the parlour, drinking Champion ("The beer for winners! Have a Champ, BE a Champ!") out of dimpled-glass steins, and chortling in Annang. You notice that the wah wah wah you heard earlier comes from the TV: the day's transmission hasn't yet started and the screen beams out the vivid color bars of a test pattern, overlaid with keening, plaintive music.

He is eating! your best friend's mother snaps. Wait here on the verandah! We have guests!

So you'd sit on the verandah and wait.

After a while, your friend would come out, his hand crusted with eba and afang soup, saying Hold on let me wash my hand and come!

While you wait for him to return, it might occur to you guys have been best friends for a long time--almost two years--and he practically lives at your house. He's cool with your parents, he eats lunch at your house on schooldays, he watches CHiPs with you on Saturday afternoon, running around the living room pretending to be Ponch & Jon and jumping all up on your mom's good furniture. And yet, in all that time, you've never actually set foot in his house. (Not counting the two or three times you were allowed to sneak into the kitchen through the back door to drink a glass of ice water between backyard sessions of "Police & Thief.") You're always waiting on the verandah.

The door opens and you hear your best friend talking to his mother in Annang. Years later, when you remember this scene, you might recall that as your best friend closed the door behind him, his mother muttered something about unege--the word by which they disparagingly refer to the Igbos, a tribe that many Nigerians view as the repository of most of the world's venality and duplicity. A tribe that, coincidentally, you happen to belong to.

But this probably won't resonate with you for a few more years. At the moment, you're just hoping that your best friend has at least tried to explain to his mother that you actually did say good afternoon to her that day of the Geography assignment but she didn't hear you because she was busy yelling at the driver for leaving the gate open.

You'd feel your best friend's damp hand smack you on the back as he shouted Okay, let's play CI5! And then he'd run down the steps trumpeting the theme from The Professionals.

You'd watch him racing down the street, steering an imaginary Ford Capri. After a moment, you'd run after him.

In the scenario outlined above, the music playing over the test pattern on the TV in the parlour would have probably been from The Doves' I Seek To Know This World.

The Doves - "Strange Land"
The Doves - "I Shall Be Free"
The Doves - "Lawrence Rest In Peace"

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Another haunting track from Henry Pedro

It seems a lot of people really felt Henry Pedro's "Midnight Sun" above all the other songs featured on the "Naija Sounds in Country & Western Music" mix... And to think that I almost left it off because I felt it didn't blend in with the other tracks and I thought a lot of people would find it crude, naive and boring! My friends, forgive me for the gross underestimation of your commendable scope and taste!

Anyway, there are a few lovely tracks on Pedro's Tender Loving LP and I've got another one here today:

Henry Pedro - "Angel"

I'll probably put up another at some point in the future, but as a bonus, here's the isolated "Midnight Sun."

Henry Pedro - "Midnight Sun"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Down here in Sodom

As 2008 winds to a close, I think I will spend the rest of the month mostly filling overdue requests and posting up old entries from the vaults that I never published for whatever reason. This one here is for my girl Tutu who requested it in, like, January.

The 1984 release of Lamentation For Sodom by Tera Kota (nee Gboyega Femi) remains--in my mind at least--a major turning point in the direction of Nigerian pop music.

I was in Form One when the record came out. I remember sitting in the school art studio trying to stay awake through a highly abstract lecture on the terracotta sculpture of the ancient Nok civilization when the art teacher suddenly digressed and spent the rest of the period going on about this musician named Tera Kota and how awesome his album was.

I was unfamiliar with this Tera Kota fellow and considering myself a pretty hip cat, I set out to hear him. Over the Christmas break I caught the video for the album's title track on NTA 6 Aba. "Oh, it's reggae," I thought, a bit disappointed.

Now, I listened to reggae back then, but I wasn't into it like that. Of course, "raggae" had enjoyed widespread popularity in Nigeria since the late 1960s and at least since Sonny Okosuns' "Help", most Nigerian musicians routinely included a reggae cut or two on their albums.

The difference was that up until then, reggae was viewed primarily as a style of music, unburdened by any particular ideology or lifestyle. It was just a particular beat and tempo, not unlike jazz or rock & roll. Most of the Nigerian artists who specialized in reggae--Cloud 7, Iyke Peters, Yinka Abayomi and the like--and even the very popular foreign reggae artists like Honey Boy, Ginger Williams and Winston Groovy--all of them used the reggae beat as a vehicle for delivering songs featuring conventional pop subject matter ie kissing and dancing.

But roots reggae, with its militant message of righteousness, revolution and Rastafar-I (and the rampant smoking of Indian hemp that all this implied)... For me and my crew--clean-cut pop/funk/disco kids who were then gravitating towards the emerging hip-hop scene--roots was what we thought of as "senior brother music"; the kind of thing listened to mostly by people guys older than us but younger than our parents. Radical university students, Youth Corpers, the unemployed neighborhood dudes who hung out smoking cigarettes in the front of the corner shop, the more conscious-minded street touts... That was their music.

What Tera Kota did was drag this scene from the fringes and install it firmly at the center of the popular culture.

While there had been other artists like Bassey Black & the Natty Messiah or even Pazy & the Black Hippies who had made nods towards roots culture in the past, none had done it as uncompromisingly as Tera Kota, or on as large a scale. In contrast to the glamorous and decadent image of a lot of musicians during the boogie era, Tera Kota was aggressively ascetic and asexual, and projected an aura or personal purity that bordered on misogynistic. He made it abundantly clear that he did not mess with the opposite sex (whom he referred to as "Jezebels") and would not tolerate even the most casual interaction between himself and any Daughter of Eve.

Furthermore, Lamentation For Sodom was more slickly packaged than any Nigerian roots reggae before it. Producer Lemmy Jackson recorded the album in Lagos with top-of-the-line session players (including members of the Cameroonian Mighty Flames Metallik Funk Band) and then took the tracks to London for overdubs by leading lights of the UK reggae scene such as keyboardist Paget King (known for his work on records by Honey Boy, Dennis Bovell and Linton Kwesi Johnson) and the inventor of Lovers Rock, Nigerian-Scottish guitarist John Kpiaye.

The result was a Nigerian reggae album with a big, world-class sound that was the perfect soundtrack for a society in transition.

Nigeria was going through a turbulent period: the military had recently seized control of the government and instituted a repressive dictatorship, the economy was plummeting, corruption was running wild, public morale was crumbling. Roots reggae became the voice that expressed the frustration and disillusion of the people in a failing nation. And unlike the case with Fela's music, nobody got hurt--no names were named and all criticisms of the government were cloaked within Biblical imagery and rendered comfortingly ambiguous.

Femi explained his scriptural allusions and prophetic aspirations in a 1988 interview with Prime People:

All the difficulties of the average Nigerian notwithstanding, Tera Kota says Nigeria still qualifies as 'Sodom.' 'Sodom' is Tera Kota's reaction to what Jamaicans call 'Babylon'. According to him, Babylon is oppression of blacks by whites, and Sodom is "oppression of blacks by blacks, as in Nigeria." He claims that Africa is no Zion, a black paradise.

"Nigeria is still 'Sodom'. If I had the foresight to sing about Lamentation for Sodom, and four years later people are still lamenting, then people should take cognizance of my messages. What I described in Lamentation is still happening."
Thus was the new paradigm set. Right before my eyes, the students and even some of my younger teachers who had been wearing bowties and suit jackets with the sleeves rolled up and hotcombing their hair back to look like Michael Jackson all of a sudden were sporting berets and dark shades and had stopped combing their hair altogether. Reggae music was the Sound of Now. The floodgates were opened for The Mandators, Majek Fashek, Ras Kimono, Amos McRoy Jegg and scores of other Rasta reggae singers to follow and Tera Kota very quickly got lost in the stampede. He never scored another big success despite repeated attempts, but for a few months in 1984, he was the man.

Tera Kota - "Lamentation For Sodom"
Tera Kota - "Nitori Owo"
Tera Kota - "On The Run"

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Best. Band name. Ever.

The Vitamin Explosions were a moderately popular local band in Calabar when I was a kid (though I think they might have actually been based in the nearby town of Uyo).

I don't remember that much about them except for their name, though because... Da, they're called THE VITAMIN EXPLOSIONS. A name like that really stood out among the litany of local luminaries one might hear listed on the radio: Kingsley Burstic Bassey, Basco Bassey, Bassey Archibong, Bassey Black... and the Vee-tameen Ex-PLO-shun!

(Another cool name I thought was "Darlington Duke.")

Like most of the Calabar club bands of the time, the Vitamin Explosions played guitar danceband highlife and fairly perfunctory pop numbers, but once in a while they could throw in a curveball like this spacey Efik afrobeat:

Sunny Risky & the Vitamin Explosions - "Atak Mfat Eyen"

From the 1982 LP with Sunny Risky, Ikpong Owo (I know, I know... It's misspelled on the cover).

Friday, December 05, 2008

How are my links?

Are people still having trouble downloading the links, particularly Wednesday's?

Please check in here and let me know if you're still getting the "Not Available on this Server" message.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Where Naija meets Nashville...

We've talked before about the immense popularity of "sentimental" country music in Nigeria, so just for kicks I just decided to assemble a sample pack of indigenous takes on that particular sound.

Believe me, I know a lot of you are not going to be feeling this one, but just indulge me, 'kay?

(I nicked the photo above from Sea Never Dry, on recommendation by Zim. Sure, the posse of African desperadoes in the pic are Congolese and not Nigerian, but you get the general idea being conveyed, don't you? Besides, the Seydou Keita image I had up previously was Malian and much more obtuse.)

DOWNLOAD Naija Sounds in Country & Western Music

1. "Midnight Sun" - Henry Pedro
2. "Going Back To My Wife" - Emma Ogosi
3. "Baby You" - Joe Nez
4. "Concert Fever" - Dedication
5. "Ever Liked My Person?" - Christy Essien-Igbokwe
6. "Where The Wind Blows" - Eric Kol
7. "Come Right Back" - Ofege
8. "Believe In Me" - Ed Jatto
9. "I'll Put It Right Again" - Oby Onyioha
10. "Show Me A Virgin (In A Maternity Ward)" - Bongos Ikwue

EDIT: Now @ 192 kbps! Sorry... I accidentally posted a mono mix the first time.