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Various Artists

Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6

Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6

(Soundway; US: 5 Feb 2008; UK: 4 Feb 2008)

Emerging from the calamity of a grisly Civil War, Nigerians had little to be proud of in 1970, and much to bemoan. The Biafran War (1967-70) had torn the country apart, led to global criticism of its incompetent leaders, and produced a famine so ghastly that it verily invented the stereotype of African malnutrition. Some 30,000 people were officially dead as a result of the fratricide, and thousands more lay uncounted, victims of starvation and disease. It was a dark, tragic time.

Such periods of reconciliation and reconstruction tend to flit between the Geminian poles of optimism and despair. And yet, the music collected on this indispensable double-disc set revels in the former, while plainly refusing the latter. Nigeria Special is a collection of joyful noises, playfully mingling the various musical genres dominant in West Africa in the period. As many “world” music aficionados are already aware, this was the golden age of Afropop (a kind of fusion between traditional and modern, country and urban, popular in many West African nations). The music itself defies easy categorization, and so tends to fall under casual descriptions like jazz-funk, Afro-soul, or other empty headlines. The real story told on this sprawling collection is the very multiplicity of sounds produced in the region in the early 1970s. Rather than simply sticking to the well-known (and most immediately accessible) urban-produced music, this set showcases the great diversity of cultural traditions, languages, and identities that comprise the Colonial creation that is Nigeria.

The Igbo, the Edo, the Kalabari—so many of whose people had just suffered terribly through the ethno-centric fighting that defined the Biafran War – are all here on glorious display, alongside the better-known music from their Yoruba countrymates. From the psycho-jazz grooves of Bola Johnson’s “Buroda Mase” to Dele Ojo’s trad-workout “Ojo Omoba” to Sir Victor Uwaifo’s Cubo-African “Osalobua Rekpama”, there is a bit of everything here. And it’s all quite extraordinary.

Boasting lengthy, fascinating liner notes exploring the recording info and cultural impact of each track, bright and impressive packaging, and a collector’s attention to detail, this is the kind of anthology one boasts about to friends. Want to become an instant armchair expert on one of the most exciting, melodic, diverse, and joyous periods in the history of pop music? Here are the crib notes.

Essential listening.


Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu

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