Various Artists: Nigeria Special Volume 2 / Nigeria Afrobeat Special

Various Artists
Nigeria Special Volume 2: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6

Nigerian popular music of the 1970s has played a prominent role in the release program of Soundway, the UK-based label run by vinyl archaeologist Miles Cleret that specializes in “lost and forgotten recordings from the world’s most vibrant musical cultures”. The label’s second longplayer, Afro Baby (2004), charted the evolution of the “Afro-Sound” that soundtracked a country reeling from internal conflict in the form of the recent Nigerian-Biafran War and responding to external cultural stimuli in the shape of James Brown’s affirmation of black identity. Shining a light on the lost and forgotten meant looking beyond the (by then) obvious reference point of Fela Kuti towards lesser known marvels such as the Sahara All Stars, the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination, and Dr Victor Olaiya. 2007 saw the release of Nigeria Special, a double-CD set featuring more Nigerian musical magic from the first half of the 1970s. Soundway 10 and 11, both from 2008, focused on disco/funk and psychedelic rock respectively. These collections, along with Strut’s Nigeria 70 collections, have helped to place this era of Nigerian popular music squarely in the spotlight.

Nigeria Special Volume 2, as its title suggests, is a sequel to the 2007 collection. It covers the same years (1970-76) and features some of the same groups who featured on Volume 1, though there are also plenty of “new” names. Volume 2 is a single CD, though there is also a three-record vinyl version that adds extra tracks. The “modern highlife” referred to in the album’s subtitle is represented by tracks such as “Shango Oba Omina” by Black’s Zenith and “Ibi Awo Iyi” by the Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt (one of many fine band names to be found here). The distinctive horn sounds that had showcased the influence of brass band and, later, jazz on highlife music are strongly evident here; the Seagulls track also features some cool and sweet electric guitar. “Totobiroko” by Twins Seven-Seven, meanwhile, is a clear contender for one of the compilation’s other categories, “Afro Sounds”, with its emphasis on polyrhythmic percussion and traditional chant.

There’s more beguiling electric guitar work on the Otarus’ mellow “Omohupa”, while Soundway regulars the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination offer a funked-up version of “The Lord’s Prayer” that bears some resemblance to the work of Fela Kuti, not surprising given the D.I.E members’ association with Kuti’s 1960s group the Koola Lobitos. “Agboyabakpa”, by James Etamobe & His All Weather Band, is a fascinating detour into stripped down percussion and an almost dub-like sonic treatment of the electric instruments which could easily accompany a track by the Congos. Indeed, this is very much the kind of sound that later roots reggae artists explored.

There are a number of tracks that instantly stand out on this compilation, from the beautiful marriage of highlife guitar, percussion and chanting on “Jekoyewa” by Dele Ojo & His Africana Internationals to the extended drum and bass exploration of Opotopo’s “Agboho”. Other tracks, such as the People Star’s slow-burning “Onwu Dinjo” and the Peacocks International Guitar Band’s mesmerizing “Onye Aghala Nwanneya”, reward repeated listens.

The album’s closing track is something else again. It’s credited as “Egwo Umu Agbogho” by Joy Nwoso & Dan Satch, although it should read “Egwu” and Joy Nwosu. Satch is an artist who is now fairly well-known to followers of Nigerian popular music as the leader of the Atomic 8 Dance Band (he features on Volume 1 of Nigeria Special and the recent Black Man’s Cry compilation from Now Again). Nwosu is less well known in this sphere but has a distinguished background as a composer, performer, and educator in Nigeria and, more recently, the USA. She trained in classical music in her native country and in Italy (apparently the first Nigerian woman to do so) and was an established academic and performer of folk-based classical and operatic works by the time this recording appeared. “Egwu Umu Agbogho”, with its otherworldly, operatic vocals set atop prominent bass guitar, horn lines, light percussion, and delicately snaking guitar, is unlike anything else on this album, brilliantly anticipating the kind of global fusion that would be explored by Brian Eno and David Byrne in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts the following decade.

The big star of 1970s Nigerian music was Fela Kuti. Fela honed his Afrobeat style in the Koola Lobitos, later adding a more explicitly political stance following an extended visit to the USA in 1969, where he became influenced by the Black Panther movement. On his return to Nigeria, he formed the Africa 70 group and initiated a string of releases that, over the course of the 1970s, would revolutionize African music. Nigeria Afrobeat Special focuses on the influence Kuti and his band had on other musicians in Nigeria, gathering together little known recordings in a bid to expand the Afrobeat story beyond Kuti’s still enormous shadow.

The collection is kicked off, appropriately, by Fela himself, with “Who’re You?”. The version included is that released on two sides of a 7″ single by EMI/HMV Nigeria. Here it appears as a single track, as it did at even greater length on the album Fela’s London Scene, recorded at Abbey Road. Even in abbreviated form, it is still nearly nine brilliant minutes long. Extended form is the basic template for most of the tracks on offer here, allowing for complex grooves to be set up and for various textures to be explored. Each of these excellent tracks has one or more moments where the general brilliance opens up to emphasize a particular spectacle. In “Mind Your Business”, by Saxon Lee & the Shadows International, it is the horn solos, followed a couple of minutes later by a keyboard solo. In Bongos Ikwue & The Groovies’ “Otachikpopo”, it is the trumpet, then the percussion break, then the funky duel that results as guitar and keyboard try to out-wah each other.

There’s a strong religious feel on Orlando Julius & His Afro-Sounders’ “Afro-Blues”, emphasized both by the intense, insistent organ and the “preaching” saxophone. It’s a truly righteous cut, one to which any worshippers of Fela Kuti or James Brown should make a hasty pilgrimage. If the sounds on offer here bring to mind the Christian church, those on Bob Ohiri’s “Ariwo Yaa” look to pre-Christian ritual chants, mixing them with thoroughly contemporary Afro-funk sounds to hypnotic effect.

Whatever gods are being summoned on this collection, the church of Afrobeat is well-represented by all present, whether they are thought of as disciples or originators. The album closes with what “Ole” by the Black Santiagos, whose leader Ignace de Souza (originally from Benin, later resident in Ghana and Nigeria) is claimed by some to be the true originator of Afrobeat. It’s an appropriate way to close an album that seeks to look beyond Fela Kuti while still keeping him firmly in mind.

These two compilations bear further eloquent testimony to Miles Cleret’s passion for unearthing hidden gems from the recorded past. The deep roots rock, funky sermonizing, and operatic folk-fusion make these collections as necessary as any in Soundway’s impressive catalog.

RATING 8 / 10