MonoMono / Joni Haastrup: Give the Beggar a Chance / Dawn of Awareness / Wake Up Your Mind
Taken together, these reissued afro-beat albums work as a pretty convincing whole, moving from worry to unrest to burgeoning hope, one thumping song at a time.
Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Joni Haastrup may not be the household name Fela Kuti is, but he is as indelible a part of Afro-beat and Nigerian music as the Black President is. Haastrup was the vocalist on O.J. Ekemode and his Modern Aces' 1966 album, Super Afro Soul, which was one of the early, formative Afro-beat records -- an album a then-unknown Kuti played trumpet on (before he picked up his famous saxophone). He also toured with Cream's Ginger Baker in 1971, replacing some guy named Steve Winwood, and then went on to form his own band MonoMono before moving on to his own solo work.
Soundway Records has now smartly reissued the first two MonoMono records -- 1971's Give the Beggar a Chance and 1974's The Dawn of Awareness -- and Haastrup's 1978 solo album, Wake Up Your Mind. They come on the heels of their reissue of Remi Kabaka's great Afro-jazz soundtrack Black Goddess, where Haastrup played keys, and these albums further prove that his nickname -- they called him the "Number One Soul Brother" -- suits him quite well.
These three albums are all brief -- each clocks in under 40 minutes -- but they show a heavier soul mix in Haastrup's vision of Afro-funk and rock music. If James Brown was a huge influence on Afro-beat in general, then Haastrup is his closest musical student. These are tighter compositions than Kuti's, but they still manage a similar dichotomy: they are dynamic and shifting and yet build tension and inertia on insistent repetition.
Give the Beggar a Chance is a sweet and soulful debut that highlights Haastrup's voice -- his honeyed vocals are a far cry from Kuti's gruff, spare singing and keyboard work. Playing with guitarist Jimmy Adams, bass player Baba Ken Okulolo, and percussionists Candido Obajimi and Friday Jumbo, Haastrup's work with MonoMono doesn't always feel much like the sound of a band. His vocals are mixed way high, as are his keyboards, and his larger-than-life charm nearly overwhelms the songs. Still, if you sift through the layers, the band is a tight outfit. They shift carefully, but effectively, tone and tempo throughout the record. "The World Might Fall Over" moves from Haastrup's keyboard vamps to a bright and sped-up group jam, before settling into a smoldering soul number. "Find Out", one of many strident calls to action on these albums, has a similar push and pull. The shifts are subtle, but in such relatively short compositions, they catch you off guard and keep you interested.
But if that album was a confident first step for Haastrup as leader of his own band, The Dawn of Awareness is a more cohesive and resonant sound for the band as a whole. The keys mesh with Adams's careful guitar work and leaves space for the bluesy thump of Okulolo's bass work. It's a moodier set -- recorded in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo and scandals like Watergate -- and Haastrup dials down the Brown-ian showmanship in favor of a genuine and deep anger. "Ipade Aldun", the longest song on any of these records, is a brilliant turn, insistent in its pounding beat and powerful group singing and, driven by a great solo from Adams, it is the band at its most cut-loose and impressive. It sets up the funkier space of "Make Them Realise" and the feverish shuffle of "Awareness is Wot You Need". This album takes Haastrup's raw charisma and his band's promise from the first record, balances them out and makes them both shine. It is, of these three, the finest example of Afro-funk and Afro-beat Haastrup offered, and acts as a smoother counterpoint to Kuti's larger musical furies.
Haastrup's solo record, 1978's Wake Up Your Mind, is as soulful and funky as its MonoMono predecessors, and in some cases comes off as larger than them. The horn section on "Free My People" delivers expansive, bright hooks, punctuating the drawn-out sweetness of his vocals with immediate punches of sound. As the title implies, Haastrup was still fighting for awareness, trying to bring consciousness to the people to affect change, but there's a distinctly more hopeful sound to this record. "Champions and Superstars" seems like a guileless, and even goofy, ode to football players (or soccer, if you prefer), but it's also a very real declaration of national pride. If there's worry all around these songs -- and there is, more than the MonoMono records -- Wake Up Your Mind resides in the hope of coming change and not the despair of national repression. Haastrup recorded this record in London, with what seems like more resources, and the resulting album sometimes falls prey to late '70s recording sheen. The airy keys and thin drums on the title track, or instance, sand down its fangs a bit. Overall, though, it's another solid set.
Taken together, these albums represent a musician in Joni Haastrup who distinguished himself from the other greats in Afro-beat while still remaining true to the sound. With MonoMono and by himself, he succeeded on his beautiful voice and innovative keyboard work -- think Ray Manzarek, only more playful and, you know, good -- and used them to shake the people up. In that way, these albums work as a pretty convincing whole, moving from worry to unrest to burgeoning hope, one thumping song at a time.