Pop Music and Cultural Resistance in Nigeria via Apala

A new Soul Jazz Records compilation presents Apala songs, created to reject colonialism and celebrate recent independence in late 1960s Nigeria.

Apala: Apala Groups in Nigeria 1967-70
Various Artists

Soul Jazz

21 February 2020

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.





Bibio Discusses 'Sleep on the Wing' and Why His Dreams Are of the Countryside

"I think even if I lived in the heart of Tokyo, I'd still make music that reminds people of the countryside because it's where my dreams often take me," says Bibio (aka Stephen Wilkinson) of his music and his new rustic EP.

Reading Pandemics

Pandemic, Hope, Defiance, and Protest in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's well known romantic tale Romeo and Juliet, written during a pandemic, has a surprisingly hopeful message about defiance and protest.


A Family Visit Turns to Guerrilla Warfare in 'The Truth'

Catherine Deneuve plays an imperious but fading actress who can't stop being cruel to the people around her in Hirokazu Koreeda's secrets- and betrayal-packed melodrama, The Truth.


The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

'Avengers: Endgame' Faces the Other Side of Loss

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our pandemic grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.