Guitar Boy Superstar is one of those retrospective compilations that, like the albums in Samy ben Redjeb’s Analog Africa series, is made by someone who loves the music deeply and wants you to love it too. Miles Cleret’s booklet notes radiate genuine awe.
“The word ‘superstar’ only really fits a handful of artists and performers … Victor Uwaifo is perhaps one of the most dynamic and charismatic artists you are likely to meet anywhere in the world … his life is punctuated with so many achievements that for him [the music on this album] was only one of the steps towards a greater vision …”
The awe is so baldly stated that the temptation is to discount it, particularly when you’re looking at it in tandem with Uwaifo’s website, its gallery of photographs showing the man himself flexing naked slabs of proud torso, or the page at Nigeria-arts.net which boasts that, “Victor Uwaifo’s wealth of experience is unlimited,” and credits him with the invention of the double-neck guitar. It even congratulates him on books he has written but not had published.
Listen to the album though, and you can hear that there really is something here worth respecting. Guitar Boy is an overview of Uwaifo’s ekassa period, falling between the bestselling highlife singles that made him famous in the 1960s, and a swing towards more reggae- and disco-oriented sounds that affected him at the end of the 1970s and on into the ‘80s. In its original incarnation, ekassa was coronation music, performed only when the Benin empire crowned a new king. Uwaifo sexed it up, added electrified guitar to the traditional drums, and shot to the top of the charts.
“I decided that it was crazy that the ekassa music could only be heard a few times every generation, maybe less,” he clarified for Cleret. “I took the dance as the basis of the new style and added modern highlife instruments and put many of our traditional Benin fables and folklore to the music.” Here he was building on earlier successes he’d had with dance band reworkings of traditional stories and melodies. He’d already earned the first of his twelve Nigerian Gold Disc awards for “Joromi”, a musical retelling of an anecdote about a fabulously powerful, perhaps mythical, wrestler. The songs on Guitar Boy all lead back likewise to regional culture, the lyrics referring to a local style of cloth, to witch doctors, to the area’s kings and gods.
The sound of this pop-ekassa sits on a borderline between the tightness of West Africa’s acoustic dance bands and the loose-limbed rock that had filtered into the country from the Anglosphere. The guitars shift from the gem-hard precision of the highlife and rumba guitarists to a more insolent, softer, teasing sound, the soggy-stringed psyche-boing and wakka-wakka bwow of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The old Cuban influence is still present, now combined with other foreign influences, newer ones. “Agho” starts with the blunt charge of funk-rock chords and carries on into a combination of rock and highlife before closing with a quotation from the Champs’ “Tequila”. Bursts of jazz swing by in other songs. The way Uwaifo presents himself when he sings in English on “Mother Witch— Shu’husu’hu” seems to owe something to black American performers of the same era: his voice has a hip roll and swing that sounds more American than UK-based, never mind the position of Britain in its role as Nigeria’s ex-colonial power.
The tracks Cleret has chosen make the point that Uwaifo’s range went beyond the dance music that he is known for in the West. He has included “Iye Iye Oh”, a tender rendering of a story about an independent orphan, along with the atypical “West African Safari” instrumental, a B-side released only in Ghana. There is also “Happy Day from Me to You”, a song that sounds like the lovechild of highlife and the Osmonds, regarding its audience with the solemn-eyed devotion of a basset hound. It’s a pity that the time frame the album adheres to doesn’t allow for the inclusion of “Joromi”, or 1965’s “Guitar Boy and Mamiwata” with its wonderful wolf-whistle guitar, but the man has had such a long and varied career that it would be difficult to come up with a one-disc retrospective that could do justice to it. You’d need two, at least.