There are plenty of people responsible for the growing attention that’s being given to African music, particularly work from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but high on that list has to be Duncan Brooker. Along with Soundway’s Nigeria Special series, the Nigeria 70 compilations Brooker has helped put together over the past 10 years have become seminal listening not only as introductions to afro-beat, juju, and highlife, but as deep-running and satisfying collections of excellent music. These discs are representative of a larger musical culture and are brilliant in their own right.
As more music is uncovered, though, the ability to continue to curate discs that surprise and fascinate gets more challenging. Lucky for us, and Brooker, Sweet Times is up to the challenge. Focusing on juju and highlife bands from Lagos, Nigeria, it represents a time that actually was sweet, and the liner notes included here give us a clear context for this glut of new music. Nigeria was in the middle of an oil boom in the ‘70s, and the country was quickly and strongly recovering from civil war. With more disposable income for some (hardly all), people could support the college bands rising up in the country. Fela Kuti was, of course, a major force for local musicians, acting as a conduit to introduce them to western influences like funk and soul music. While the bands often channeled the big-band, horn-driven power of highlife, or the banjo- and hand-drum heavy juju traditions, Sweet Times shows these musicians stretching out and finding their own voice in new and exciting ways.
Many employ electric instruments to push their sound forward. The most obvious example comes from Admiral Dele Abiodun and His Top Hitters International. Their contribution to the disc, the 15-minute “It’s Time for Juju Music”, acts as an anchor for the whole collection. Placed in the middle of the record, it is both traditional and expansive, both western—they plead in English for us to “Shake your body!”—and local in its intricate mix of shakers and drums. But it’s that wandering organ that sticks out as both alien and revelatory. It squawks and bleats over the record, and pulls an electric guitar into its tumbling sonic world. The simple dance number takes on layers, slowly but surely, losing itself in its expansive feel. The song settles into a jam a little easier to follow in the end, but even then the guitar licks drift back and forth between tight hooks and ambling rundowns.
It’s an impressive piece, all the more impressive considering this is an edit. One can only wonder what the other five minutes held. It opens us up to all the other compelling textures on the record. We start with the bright guitar noodling of Ali Chuckwumah’s “Henrietta”, a blistering highlife number that plays insistent horn lines against the more ragged guitars. “Kinringjingbin”, by Dr. Victor Olaiya’s International All-Stars, is the song here that most closely channels James Brown, but it has a sinister rumble all its own. Songs later in the record follow its lead and tread into moodier territory. The Don Isaak Ezekiel Combination nearly steals the show with “Ire”, which takes a surf-rock riff and drags it into a rumbling funk number. Soki Ohale’s Uzzi pulls off some striking blue-light soul on “Bisi’s Beat”, breaking up dance tunes with an impressive crooner. Sini Bakare also tones down the blood and sweat vitality of juju music into something more muted but utterly beautiful on “Inu Mimo”. Bakare was the son of legend Ayinde Bakare and taught by Tunde King—reportedly the first person to use the term “juju” for this music—and his pedigree shows in this careful mix of horns, in the insistent but subdued beat, in the thumping upstroke of the guitar.
Nigeria 70: Sweet Times is full of these small revelations. If, as a whole, it seems less groundbreaking than previous compilations, that is only because Brooker and a few others have taught us well with their previous releases. We know by now just how much good music was coming out of Nigeria—and Africa as a whole—at this time, and we’ve come to learn how varied these styles became when they mixed the traditional with the contemporary, and how good the musicians were at bringing these worlds together in inventive and affecting ways. Sweet Times gives us new stuff, all previously unissued outside of Nigeria, and could serve as a starting place for the uninitiated, a next logical step for the novice, or a vital piece to even an expert’s collection. We’ve been learning the story of African music as it garners more and more attention, and this disc is a fine chapter to add to it, no matter how much you’ve already heard.