Interest in African music, outside of the continent, has ebbed and flowed throughout the last several decades, typically peaking when a high-profile artist such as Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon work with African musicians, as on Gabriel’s song “In Your Eyes” and Simon’s Graceland album. Hits such as these stir people’s interest, as well as often stirring controversy over alleged cultural appropriation and other issues. The fact is though that Africa is such a large and varied continent that the phrase “African music” is meaningless. There are more than 50 countries in Africa, each with its own music scene. Calling it all “African music” is convenient but doesn’t do justice to the variety of it all.
Some music made in Africa, such as that of South Africa’s Ladysmith Black Mambazo or Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, has ridden those occasional waves of popularity to become well-known in the west. However, there is still much music from the continent that has remained relatively hidden from the rest of the world. Such is the case for Apala music, which is celebrated in a new collection, Apala: Apala Groups in Nigeria 1967-70. Although the music is more than 50 years old, this marks the first time an Apala compilation has been released outside of Nigeria.
On first listen, Apala music could seem deceptively simple since it focused almost exclusively on vocals and percussion. However, deeper listens reveal the complicated vocal interplay between a group’s leader and the rest of the group, while the complex rhythms are provided by a variety of percussion instruments from southwest Nigeria. While the style doesn’t vary much from song to song, listening to this collection of tracks can be a hypnotic, meditative effect on a listener. Sometimes the songs are prefaced by brief conversations between the group leader and another member or members.
While Apala music was indeed popular during the time covered on this compilation, it also was a political statement. Nigeria had been ruled as a colony in the British Empire from 1901 until it became independent in 1960. Apala music, which was sung in the Yoruba language and didn’t include western instrumentation, was seen as a rejection of decades of colonial rule and as a celebration of Nigeria’s new independence.
While the names of Apala’s performers are not well-known outside of Nigeria, the artist who is considered the primary Apala artist – Haruna Ishola – is well represented on the new compilation, with five of the 18 tracks being by Haruna Ishola and his Apala Group. That is as it should be, as Ishola was hugely influential in popularizing Apala within Nigeria. In fact, according to the album’s liner notes, Ishola practically became a mythological figure whose voice was believed to be so powerful that, if it wasn’t restrained, could kill someone listening to his music.
In addition to Ishola, the album is rounded out by 13 songs by several other groups, some led by women and some by men. Each group works within the percussion-and-voices style of Apala, while presenting its own subtle variations.
Apala: Apala Groups in Nigeria 1967-70 serves as a fascinating introduction to important Nigerian musical style. As such, it will be of particular interest to anyone with a fascination for solely percussion-backed singing, as well as those who are always ready to take a deeper dive into the music of Nigeria.