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Comb & Razor: DJ Uchenna Ikonne Speaks about Nigerian Vinyl - Pt. 2
Here's a continuation of our conversation with the founder of the legendary African music blog - Combs & Razor. If you missed our first installment, check it out here. And make sure to pick up his newly release compilation: Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983.
Q: Who would you say are your favorite artists from yesteryear?
Nigerian artists? Wow… Too many to choose from! I really like the funk-rock groups The Hygrades and The Funkees. I’m a big fan of Jake Sollo, who was a member of The Funkees before going on to become a prolific and influential producer in the 80s. I love a lot of highlife artists like Sir Victor Uwaifo, Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe, The Oriental Brothers, Dr. Victor Olaiya and Etubom Rex Williams. I used to be a big, big(!) fan of William Onyeabor too, but I must admit that my personal interactions with him have dulled my enthusiasm for his music somewhat. I guess I still dig his records, though.
Q: How about your favorite find on vinyl? Do you have any that you're particularly proud of?
I come across so many records of different types that it’s hard to isolate any particular one (or five, or ten) as my favorites. They all appeal to me for different reasons—sometimes on a sentimental level, sometimes because they’re just so rare, sometimes because they fill in the gaps of a story that I’m researching. And sometimes it’s that they just offer mindblowing music. Some recent finds I’ve been fond of include:
1. Shango Dance Band, 6th Infantry Brigade – S/T LP (EMI, 1974)
This is a pretty rare and heavy afrobeat album by this group led by Ojo Okeji, formerly a sideman in Fela’s Koola Lobitos group. There’s some similarity to Fela’s sound, but it’s a bit more relaxed and less raucous. And with song titles like “I Need Your Love” and “Women Are Great,” you know he’s got loving on his mind more than political agitation!
2. The Front Page – Sparkle In Your Eyes/Gimme Some Time 45 (Anodisc, 1975)
This is one of those records that I don’t necessarily think is musically superlative though it’s still quite enjoyable. But I was pleased to find it because it’s not all that often you come across 45s from the Anodisc label. The Front Page was a relatively obscure soul group from my hometown of Aba. I think they released just two singles, this one and another, “You Can’t Change Anything.” The group would re-record both singles with a heavier, funkier sound about a year later under the new band name The Friimen Muzik Kompany.
3. The Semi-Colon – Ndia Egbuo Ndia (Afro-Jigida) LP (EMI, 1976)
Semi-Colon is one of my favorite Nigerian music acts and this little-seen LP is considered the group’s best album. A lot of heads have mixed feelings about Semi-Colon albums because the styles usually fluctuate radically from funk to pop to rock & roll to reggae, but this one is lean, fierce psychedelic afro rock from end to end.
4. The Hygrades – Baby/Jumping Cat 45 (EMI, 1971)
Debut single from the influential eastern rock group, The Hygrades. “Baby” is a nice light pop tune, though not particularly compelling. The real winner is the wild guitar instrumental on the flip.
5. Stone-face & Life Everlasting – Love is Free/Agawalam Mba 45 (EMI, 1973)
Excellent single from former Hygrade Stoneface Iwuagwu. The a-side is a beautiful psychdelic pop rock song with beautiful vocals. The b-side? One of the heaviest, most aggressive and relentless funk tunes I’ve ever heard!
6. Charles Duke – Send Them Back/Suk Usan Idang 45 (EMI, 1973)
Two sides of groovy funk-rock from Duke, formerly of The Ceejebs. I count myself really lucky to have found this one as it’s almost completely unknown. Even Duke himself had forgotten about it when I asked him!
7. The Doves – Ewat Udem/Akan Anwan Isong Idung 45 (BEN, 1974)
The Doves were a very popular pop-rock group throughout the 1970s and early 80s, but this early work from them has a deeper, more rugged vibe. The a-side is a delightfully unruly highlife number and the other side is wiry native rock. Total gem.
8. Foundars 15 – Fire Woman LP (EMI, 1977)
Foundars 15 was one of the more sophisticated funk-rock groups of the 1970s and this is their most satisfying LP. The sound is heavy and distorted and the arrangements are audaciously complex for the time.
9. The Apostles – Down Down The Valley/Battery Rock 45 (BEN, 1973)
This was the first record by The Apostles of Aba, one of the east’s biggest groups. It was the pleasant pop of the a-side that put them on the map, but the organ-driven instrumental b-side is the real winner for me. While it’s clearly derivative of “Acid Rock” by The Funkees, it goes much further than that track. It sounds pretty futuristic by today’s standards, so I can only imagine how far-out it must have been in 1973!
10. Mary Afi Usuah & the South Eastern State Cultural Band – Ekpenyong Abasi LP (SESCULT, 1975)
Mary Afi Usuah is one of Nigeria’s unsung national treasures. She trained in opera singing in Italy and sang on the score of a couple of movies there, such as Demofilo Fidani’s spaghetti western And Now Recommend Your Soul to God. She also happened to be my music teacher for a while in the early 80s, but I didn’t know at the time that she had recorded this amazing album with highlife bandleader Dan Satch Joseph. It’s so rich and deep and spiritual, with notes of rock, jazz, traditional rhythms and European film music. Soundway included a track from this LP, “Ima Mma Nyem” on the Nigeria Special 2 compilation, so you should check that out.
Q: By the way, what are your thoughts about the musical FELA?
I've really not had the chance to see it, unfortunately. From the bits of it I have caught on the Tony Awards and elsewhere, it does seem like quite an exhilarating aural and visual experience! But I have to admit feeling a bit dismayed at the apparent lightness of its libretto. It seems to me that there isn’t much focus on storytelling beyond a few bullet points of the man’s life. I was really hoping the upcoming Steve McQueen-directed Fela biopic would deliver a more fleshed-out portrait, but I recently read that the producers had scrapped the screenplay written by Nigerian playwright Biyi Bandele and opted for a looser, more abstract, music-driven narrative approach. Which to me sounds like they might be looking to draw inspiration from the musical. And that’s okay, I guess… It seems to be a fantastic concert party and scads of fun, but I’d really love to see a well-done, sufficiently nuanced examination of Fela and, perhaps more importantly—to me, anyway—of the society that shaped him.
Q: The other day I was listening to nothing but Afro Funk on Pandora...and I found myself wondering how come we don't get this caliber of musicianship anymore. Do you think there's hope for the African music scene? Are there any contemporary artists that you listen to from back home?
Does Pandora have a good afro funk selection? I’ve never really tried programming for any of that stuff on there! I should probably check that out…
Anyway, the music industry in Nigeria is more vibrant right now than it’s been in a long time and I’m very excited about the progress that’s been made. I mean, for the first time—in my lifetime, anyway—most Nigerian youths support and identify with homegrown music more than they do stuff from overseas! That’s a pretty big deal, considering how enamored Nigerians have always been of foreign sounds.
That said, while I listen to and enjoy a lot of the contemporary Naija pop music, I really can’t say there’s too much of it that really grabs me and shakes me to the soul or dazzles me on a consistent basis. I think the reason that I’ve been unable to connect with it on a deeper level is because of, as you said, the paucity of the musicianship. And mind you, when I say “musicianship,” I don’t even necessarily mean it in the traditional sense of live instrumentation; I think there are some incredibly inventive musical things that can be done with computers and sampling and sequencing. The problem is that the basic concepts of musical construction have largely been abandoned.
Q: What sort of concepts are you talking about?
Well… Just the structure through which we create and listen to music. In the past, in appreciating a piece of music, you had any number of features you might observe. Beyond fundaments like melody, harmony and rhythm, you might listen for tone, texture, syncopation, voicing, phrasing, and so on. But now, through a gradual process of reductionism, this array of musical elements has been boiled down to the binary formula of “beat” and “lyrics.” And the lyrics are given primacy of place in the equation, with the “beat”—the actual musical component—being relegated to a background role. People dance to the “beat,” but they don’t really listen to it per se. When’s the last time you heard a commercially-released instrumental track? That idea barely makes sense now because music on its own has little value; it’s just the hodgepodge of sounds that act as a cushion for the words.
Mind you, none of this is unique to the Nigerian situation—it’s pretty much the status quo for most contemporary pop music almost anywhere in the world. And I don’t want to come off as the old geezer shaking my fist and grumbling about how these darn kids have destroyed music, because these trends were actually initiated by my generation.
To make a parallel, look at what's happened in Congolese music. The classic Congo songform was like a three-course meal: you had your lovely, melodic verse, then your lilting chorus, then you get your verse again, maybe served with a dollop of countermelody. Then you have another chorus. Then, you get the moment everyone's waiting for, the sebene. That's the breakdown section where the tempo accelerates, the rhythm changes direction and the guitars start playing hypnotic, interlocking rhythm patterns. That's the dessert portion of the meal—when all the dancers get to throw down and show out. And then maybe you’d cool done with another verse before the band hit you with another helping of sebene on the way out.
If you listen to the direction a lot of soukous music went in the 1990s, this measured sense of dynamics was largely thrown out the window. Tracks started out with the sebene and rode that sebene all the way to the end of the song. It’s like nobody had the patience to make their way through the “courses” of a song, they wanted to proceed directly to the dessert and eat only dessert. And hey, I’ve got a massive sweet tooth myself but if I eat nothing but cake and ice cream all the time, eventually I’ll get sick!
Now in Naija you don’t have the sebene, but what you have is the hook. A lot of the popular songs are really all hook. The primary concentration seems to on fabricating an insanely catchy lyrical refrain, preferably one that’s built on a trendy catchphrase, or has the potential to create a new one—“Kini Big Deal!” “Gongo Aso!” “Ginger Ur Swagger!” “Wa Wa Alright!” And if you can score a big enough hook, you barely even have to write verses.
Of course, I don't rule out the possibility that perhaps I'm too old to truly "get" it because it's not really made for me to "get." Just like the highlife generation never understood the hepcats in the 1960s because they made music that was not designed to be “got” by the old squares. I guess I’m one of those old squares myself now. While I may listen to the new music and come away disappointed because it’s not meeting my expectations of what music should be, the kids really feel that this music is expressing their unique experience and worldview, then I think that’s cool. Music should not stay in one place… It’s got to keep moving, and if that alienates some dusty old geezers, so be it. Time marches on!
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