[14 April 2009]
It seems like every week a new Afrobeat compilation hits the streets, unearthing a new set of forgotten African artists and unreleased gems. Since the death of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in 1997, a cottage industry has cropped up to show African music does not begin and end with Fela. Armies of Afro archivists continually mine and compile lost classics, releasing them on labels like Soundway and Analog Africa, and, at this point, the ethnography of Afrobeat has been documented as thoroughly as anthropologists have documented, well, Africa. And this definitely isn’t a bad thing.
One of the best of these compilations, in terms of detail, variety and scope, Nigeria 70, saw release originally in 2001 on the Afrostrut label, an imprint of the UK club and funk label Strut. Afrostrut cut its teeth by releasing four albums from ex-Fela drummer and Afrobeat trailblazer Tony Allen. Then, riding a wave of global interest in Afrobeat at the turn of the century, the label partnered with Afro archivist/obsessive Duncan Brooker to dig deep into Nigeria’s fertile 1970’s scene—a scene centered in Lagos and as ebullient as it was insidious as excess, wealth and a newfound nightlife flourished thanks to recently discovered oil revenues.
Now re-released after the original collection went out of print in 2003, Nigeria 70 is the sound of this scene and the outstanding West African artists who comprised it and often played into the wee hours of the morning. Ubiquitous national icons like Fela and King Sunny Ade are represented by previously unreleased rarities, and their songs hold no surprises as instrumentals cut from the instantly recognizable Afrobeat/Juju cloth. But what makes the compilation memorable are the lesser-known artists: the Funkees, Monomono, Ofo the Black Company and Bala Miller & the Great Music Pyrameeds of Afrika. These obscure groups often pushed West African music to the outer limits and revealed the subtle variations in regionality and influence.
Ofo The Black Company’s “Allah Wakbarr” (“Allah is Great”), a savage, psychedelic-splattered acid-rock jam, owes as much to Jimi as it owes to Fela. Replete with blistering-guitar solos and steamrolling-organ lines, the song swerves in and out of the speakers on the back of the very un-Allah chorus: “Love is me / Love is you.” Soon after, “The Quest” by Afro Cult Foundation saunters in, sounding like a lost track from an unheard Maceo Parker session, ready to be sampled by some willing hip-hop producer.
One of the most resplendently named outfits on the compilation, Bala Miller & the Great Music Pyrameeds of Afrika bounce and bob with the body-moving, Parliament-shout-out “Ikon Allah”. Horns punch the air as a slinking-synth line weaves around the rhythm and chorus in a glorious fusion of Afro, funk and spy music. And the Igbo groove of the Funkees “Dancing Time” sounds like the perfect marriage of Curtis Mayfield’s soul and the Meters’ funk, filtered through Afrobeat stylings like moonlight through a patched-roof nightclub.
Sang either in Edo, Ibo, Igbo, Isoko, Kalabari, Kwale, pidgin English or Yoruba, the music culled on Nigeria 70 is a melting pot and an intra-cultural exploration. Afrostrut’s labor of love not only documents the halcyon days of Nigeria’s innovative and optimistic music scene, but it also demonstrates what good compilations do best—transplant the listener to a time and place where the excitement is evident at every turnaround.