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Comb & Razor: DJ Uchenna Ikonne Speaks about Nigerian Vinyl - Pt. 1
Back in the fall, we had a chance to sit down with the founder of the legendary African music blog - Combs & Razor - to tap into his infinite knowledge about the Nigerian music scene...which we thought we'd share in advance of his insane Nigerian compilation: Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983...which is set to drop May 17th.
As you'll see, our discussion was exhaustive - and you're guaranteed to discover more about Nigerian music than you ever thought existed. Just sit back, relax, and enter the world of Comb & Razor.
Q: Most of us became acquainted with your superb musical taste through your Comb & Razor blog. How long have you been collecting music and what inspired you to actually start blogging?
Thanks for the compliment! I’m always grateful and somewhat mystified when people tell me how much they appreciate my humble (and admittedly inconsistent) blogging efforts. It was something I did primarily for my own gratification, so I never expected so many people to so readily come along for the ride!
I’ve been an avid music fan since I was about nine years old but I think I only seriously started collecting records in the mid-1990s, shortly after I moved to the United States from Nigeria. At the time I was mostly collecting hip-hop, boogie and soul records that I had heard growing up in the 1970s and 80s but for whatever reason had never gotten to own. From there I started buying a lot of deep soul and funk from the 60s, as well as jazz, rock, reggae and Latin stuff. While I’d always been into a wide range of music, my tastes and knowledge were expanded exponentially by years spent working in record stores… back when we still had record stores.
My journey to music blogging was almost accidental. I started the With Comb & Razor blog as a journal documenting the production of a movie I was shooting in Nigeria. The style and content of the movie drew heavily from the last half-century of Nigerian pop culture: Drum magazine, old pulp novels and fotonovelas, forgotten TV shows, vintage fashion, and lots of highlife and pop music from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
When the production wasn’t proceeding as smoothly as we would have liked, we decided to take a break to regroup and then come back to complete the shoot. During this hiatus, just to keep the blog going, I started posting up some of the music I was planning to use on the soundtrack… just my way of trying to keep the dream of the movie alive. Plus, it was a bit of a therapeutic thing; I was so bummed out about the failing production and there was a certain comfort to be found in just immersing myself in the music of what seemed to be simpler, happier times. To my surprise, people seemed to dig it a lot and I started getting more page views than I ever did with my movie diary, so I kept doing it. I started spending more time researching the stories behind the records, and then record labels started contacting me to write liner notes for reissues, and somehow, alas, I never did get around to completing production on that movie! I intend to get back to that one of these days, though.
Q: I know your knowledge of African music is ridiculous. How did you become so knowledgeable about Nigerian music?
I came up in 1980s Nigeria, which might have been the most dynamic period in the history of the country’s music industry. The economy was pretty buoyant and there were so many labels releasing tons of music in so many different styles. Nigeria’s record market was so fertile that it drew musicians from all over Africa and beyond, so we were constantly exposed to a rich smorgasbord of sounds and I just soaked it all up.
Plus, we had a lot of good writing about the music scene in newspapers, magazines, and books. I read it all as a snot-nosed third-grader, and somehow managed to retain a good deal of it even when it seemed like the entire era and its music vanished from collective memory. It was almost like a mass amnesia fell over the populace: I would say to people “Hey, you remember this record that was a big hit in 1983? Remember how we used to rock that at parties?” The only reply I got was blank looks. They sincerely lacked any idea of what I was talking about! Years later, when I started tracking down some of the musicians, I would sometimes have to remind them of some of their records that they had completely forgotten!
Q: For those of us looking to explore Nigerian music beyond Fela, do you have any suggestions?
There’s so much Nigerian music that the mind boggles trying to access it all. Obviously, a lot of these records are quite hard to come by in the West and when they do show up on eBay or other record markets, they are prohibitively priced. That’s why I think it’s great so many labels are putting out compilations and reissues that allow a wider audience to experience this music. I’ve been concerned that most of these reissues lean a bit too heavily towards funk-oriented material at the expense of all else, but I’ve seen some encouraging diversity on more recent releases. And of course, I look forward to adding to that myself!
Q: You wrote some liner notes for a Soundway Records compilation: The World Ends: Afro Rock & Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria. How did you first become involved in this project?
I've had a relationship with Miles Cleret of Soundway Records for a number of years, as most of us in the African record digging community do know each other. He had wanted to collaborate with me on something for some time but never really found the right project until The World Ends came around. Incidentally, I was already doing a lot of research on the 1970s afro rock scene at the time, so the Soundway comp gave me a ready outlet for stuff I was already working on.
Q: Can you give us a little background about how rock inspired Nigerian artists?
Like most kids around the world, Nigerian youths first encountered rock & roll via Elvis Presley, quickly followed by "the British Elvis," Cliff Richard, who was arguably even more popular in Nigeria. This was the beginning of youth culture in Nigeria. For the first time, teens and young adults had music that was aimed squarely at them and their experience, unconcerned about appealing to the adult audience. These kids called themselves “hepcats” and started forming regional fan clubs where they listened to and traded their favorite records amongst themselves Out of these fan club gatherings, the hepcats started to form rock & roll bands of their own. So you got the first wave of Nigerian pop groups like The Spiders, The Harmonaires, The Cyclops, The Hykkers, The Postmen and The Figures.
As the 1960s wore on into the 70s, these local pop groups imbibed more influence from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but the most influential foreign rock act might have been Santana. Because that group had such a strong Afro-Latin flavor to their sound, they illuminated the potential of infusing rock with African rhythms. And that led to the development of afro rock.
Q: I understand that most of the artists recording rock in Nigeria came from the eastern part of the country. Can you explain this phenomenon?
It’s true that most of the noteworthy Nigerian rock bands came from the east, but there were also plenty of groups in the southwestern metropolis of Lagos, which at that time was the country's capital. For various reasons, though, the Lagos groups tended not to last very long. I have a few theories as to why this happened.
In Lagos, rock mostly remained an underground scene patronized by university and high school students and some young adults. The mainstream, however, stayed devoted to more indigenous pop styles like juju and apala. So already, you have a gaggle of groups scuffling for the spotlight within this relatively small subculture. And while Lagos today is an enormous megacity, it was not quite as big then as it is now. Competition was fierce, and the stakes were close to all-or-nothing: If you had a major act playing a big show at one spot, just about everybody who was anybody in Lagos would be there and at venues across the city, other bands would be performing to an audience of empty seats. So musicians went to great lengths to sabotage each other’s sets and even to try to force one other out of the market altogether.
Furthermore, Lagos can be a very tough place to live for anybody, and especially so for artists. A big part of the reason that someone like Fela was able to thrive in Lagos (apart from the fact that he had a huge, forceful personality and his music was, you know, pretty brilliant) was because he was to some degree a native son; he came from a middle-class background and his family owned property in the city. So he could comfortably sit down to compose and cultivate an audience without worrying about keeping a roof over his head. For a lot of musicians who didn't have the same luxury and might have come to Lagos from other places, they had to desperately scramble to keep their heads above water. If they didn't see any significant rewards—which most didn't—sooner or later they would probably have to pack up and go back to their hometowns. Or they just disappeared into the masses of the disenfranchised in slums such as Ajegunle and Mushin and were never heard from again. And then the ones who might have been native Lagosians, if they stayed with music, ended up joining juju and highlife bands. So you find a lot of Lagos rock groups recording just one or two records and then completely dropping off the radar.
In the east, however, the scene was not concentrated in one urban center but spread over a wide network of cities and towns across the region. There was more room to breathe, and bands could ply their trade within their respective turfs without stepping on each other’s toes. There was still competition, but a lot more camaraderie. Also, it seems that people in the east, for a number of reasons, were just more into this kind of music than the folks in Lagos. Even the Lagos-based bands spent a lot of time touring eastwards because that was where the real audience was.
Q: What happened to the whole psychedelic rock scene in Nigeria? It seems to have vanished.
Well, what happened to the psychedelic rock scene in America or the UK or Germany or Mexico? It was a style that captured the zeitgeist of a particular period in history, but time marches on and people move on to the next popular sound. In Nigeria in particular, the audience began to want to ”get down” more than they wanted to “freak out” and so there was the demand for much more direct dance music like funk, disco and guitar-band highlife, then pop and reggae and Congo music and hip-hop and the wheel keeps on turning.
Q: You have some other projects coming up with Now & Again Records, as well as your own label. Would you mind giving us a sense of what to expect from you in the future?
Yeah, I’m collaborating with Egon of Now Again on a compilation of Nigerian rock and funk. This is of course a subject that’s been visited by a few compilations lately but we hope we can bring a new twist to it. I’m also working with Luaka Bop Records on an anthology of the Nigerian avant garde funk musician William Onyeabor.
In addition, you can look forward to some releases from my own Comb & Razor Sound label. The first one will probably be available in February 2011: it’s an overview of Nigerian boogie music from the 1980s with an 80-page mini-magazine featuring lots of exclusive photos and information. We have similar examinations of other genres coming after that, as well as a full-length book chronicling the development of the post-war eastern rock and pop scene. Also, more collaborations with Voodoo Funk and AfricanHipHop.com
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