[12 June 2008]
A decade on from its late ‘90s resurgence, the original sound of ‘70s Afro-funk still no go die. If the dedication of one-man missions like Analog Africa, the rise and rise of Miles Cleret’s Soundway and the imminent re-emergence of Strut (whose own Nigeria 70 remains the benchmark for any would-be archivist, and where Joni Haastrup’s Greetings was first resuscitated) is anything to go by, it’s in as rude health as its ever been, at least outside of Africa. Even Hollywood got in on the Afro act with The Last King of Scotland soundtrack. Since Strut folded in 2003, Soundway has done a handsome job of filling the gap, having kicked off with the excellent Ghana Soundz back in 2002.
Several comps and countless we-are-not-worthy reviews later, Cleret’s label is flourishing to the extent he can release two records at the same time: a roundup of Nigeria’s ‘70s rock scene, Nigeria Rock Special, and this mid-late ‘70s trawl through EMI Nigeria and Decca’s Afrodesia imprint, the kind of vaults which, like Nigeria’s oil wells, beg the question of what we’re all going to do when they finally run dry. For the vinyl junkie, then, to whom vintage tropical funk grooves are worth their weight in black gold, this isn’t quite Brent crude quality, but it does offer decent mileage for the money.
In contrast to the self-assertiveness of T-Fire’s “Will of the People” (cut in the election year of 1979), most of the ‘70s saw Nigeria under military rule, even if it was awash with oil money. Most of these tracks then, are rooted, in best ‘70s tradition, in the escapist utopia of the dancefloor rather than the socio-political crucible of Kuti-style Afrobeat. And if there ain’t much disco per se (although the dubiously named S-Job Movement finish the record off with a sequinned, seven-minute, synth-stringed monster dating to 1977, not quite Dan Boadi’s “Money Is the Root of Evil”, but getting there), there’s at least a disco aesthetic, an acrid-sweaty hedonism which even 30 years later makes you want to give away all your wordly goods, catch the first plane south and make like a chicken on a hot corrugated iron roof.
Cleret’s sleevenotes make the most of it, a seductive nostalgia for an über-funk milieu imaginable only through the music, setting a scene of James Brown and BT Express imports shuttled in by plane in time for the weekend, wrestling for space alongside homegrown adaptations which often transcended the blueprint. Unusually for an Afro comp, the emphasis is on one city—Lagos—but that doesn’t mean it’s one-dimensional. And leaving out Lagos totem Fela Kuti might have been a wrong move, but with so much Kuti material having made its way onto other compilations, it’s easily understandable.
It means there’s room for unapologetic oscurities like Jay-U Experience, a man with a chest wig as prominent as his JBs fixation, and a keen understanding of US funk’s Afro-trance roots. “Some More” keeps at it for a full seven minutes, with cowbell so relentless it races by in what feels like two, all the while extemporising spacey, smog-evaporating guitar, and idly scratching a percussive itch akin to an agitated woodpecker. Just as obscure but equally intense is the Asiko Rock Group’s “Lagos City”, an aural billboard for an urban nightmare Kuti forever defined as “Upside Down”, roaming the nightclubs and the slums in an imported pimpmobile hotwired to Herbie Hancock keyboards. Though absent himself, the shadow of Kuti makes itself felt over the organ-wheeling, gridlock funk of “Ijere”, from the memorably named Dr. Adolf Ahanotu; almost impossible to believe this was cut – according to the notes – in 1985.
If the name Voices of Darkness conjures some wicked voodoo-funk, the result is a disappointingly generic “Soul Makossa” take-off. A couple of more familiar names are the aforementioned Haastrup and Bongos Ikwue, the latter now in his mid-‘60s and recently making something of a domestic comeback. Here he works wonders with Billie Holiday’s “God Save the Child”, cut just before he went country. Purists mightn’t agree, but the unmistakable, bluesy lathe of his vocal works as a nice counter to what is largely a collection of extended instrumentals, even if he only sings a few bars.
Overall then, this is maybe not as strong as some of Cleret’s other labours-of-love, but good enough to justify its compilation, and suggestive of the fact that as long as Afro-funk archeologists keep digging deep enough, they’ll keep finding the goods. While Cleret and company probably deserve medals, the music deserves to be danced to all over again..and again…and again.