[16 April 2012]
I hadn’t heard the Lijadu Sisters before, but in the illustration on the front of one of their other rereleased albums there are two long-legged women bolting and gesturing like clock-hands in small pink shorts while an electrical wire catches fire, so I was expecting music like that, very active, very eruptive, somehow pink, and Mother Africa was a surprise, tranquil, unhurried, musically noncombative, a pair of voices rolling in harmony as though they were in church. The twins are Nigerian, Taiwo and Kehinde are their names, Fela Kuti was one of their second cousins, they name him as an influence, but his attention-getting force is not their style—his shouts, his expostulations, his blasts of saxophone.
Their lilt is part of their appeal, persistent, unrelenting, hammock-serene, the kind of West African lilt that you hear, too, in palm wine music, absolutely firm and calm, even when the singers launch into funk, as they do here with “Bayi L’ense”. The impression they give is one of women who will not be swayed from their essential selves, even if you aim a trumpet at them. All of the songs, bar one, have been adapted from Yoruba folk music, cleverly built into duets, music which swings and coils and coils, and which repeats itself not-quite-exactly, a habit of repetition common to all folk songs, not only ones from West Africa but ones from everywhere else as well, songs with refrains so that groups of friends can catch up easily, then follow along, and though we have only two singers here the album’s relaxed sound is at the core a group-relaxation, the casualness of people sitting around, singing together, enjoying themselves. The lyrics to the first song mention “nightly parties, songs, plays, and jokes”. “This is an ode to the moon,” sings their collaborator Biddy Wright, a useful figure in their career, “the all-seeing eye from heaven. We call him a thief. Oh yes. We call him a thief, with a big eye, but only fondly, for he supplies the light for our nightly parties, songs, plays, and jokes”. Wright helped with song-arrangement, he also played on all four of their main albums, and generally acted as a friend in an environment where women were rare, unless they were backing singers. Women as backing singers, yes, common, women as front-of-the-stage singers, no, unusual. Women on instruments, horrors, impossible, and so it goes.
Taiwo and Kehinde began their careers at the back and started moving to the front in 1969 when the Nigerian branch of Decca Records released their single, “Iya Mi Jowo” / “Jikele - Maweni”. “Iya Mi Jowo” was their breakthrough song, and they reworked it for Mother Africa. It is sung by a daughter who wants to know what she has done to make her mother so distant and angry. Based on a true story, says Taiwo. Their mother wasn’t speaking to them one day, and they didn’t know why, so Taiwo sat at her feet and composed this song. Mission accomplished: Mother in tears. Song a success in more ways than one. Their first full-length album, Danger, came out in 1976, and Mother Africa in 1977. Two more albums followed quickly in 1978 and 1979, and then they began to travel in the 1980s, appearing in a British documentary about Nigerian pop music, touring in the UK and US, and performing overseas with King Sunny Adé. Then, disaster, intensely unfair, vivid, blaring, glaring, when Kehinde tripped in a New York stairwell, fell, and nearly died. She reports: “Then they said I would never walk again.” Eventually she walked, but their career ended with the accident. The sisters still live together.