Sharp turns and bumpy backroads trace a strange path from polished funk to low-budget disco and back again.
The theme of compilation album Nigeria Soul Fever isn't really a mystery: it's Nigeria, plain, simple, and soulful. Everything here is homegrown and from the '70s and '80s. As common threads go, though, these are thin, and the compilation embraces a wide range of sounds, production values, and general quality. At times, it's jarring; the music jumps from polished funk to sunny traditional sounds and then again to low-budget disco, taking sharp turns and bumpy backroads. While each track is interesting on its own, listening to the album straight through is liable to leave a listener more than a little disoriented.
Of all the soul stars present, none shines brighter than Joni Haastrup, formerly of funk group Monomono. A good two-thirds of his solo album shows up over the course of Nigeria Soul Fever, and it's no wonder. Haastrup is Nigerian royalty both by blood (his father was a Yoruban king) and by beat, a contemporary of Fela Kuti who featured heavily in the creation of Afrobeat and took a front seat in sculpting the sounds of Afrofunk, as displayed in fine form here. Socially-conscious tracks like "Free My People" and "Wake Up Your Mind" embrace revolutionary freedom in the time of Nigeria's first military junta, while "Do the Funkro" and "Greetings" number among the most memorable and dance-ready tracks of the compilation, with heavy bass grooves and bombastic horns.
While it's easy to get stuck on Haastrup's four headlining tracks, though, there are plenty of stellar jams present on Nigeria Soul Fever by artists with less name recognition than Haastrup, but just as much soul. Nigeria's Lady of Songs, Christy Essien, shows up with the self-explanatory "You Can't Change a Man", a number with the heart of Aretha Franklin and solid, driving bass. The two Tee Mac tracks resonate, too, one an instrumental track and the other a disco-funk song featuring the powerful vocals of Marjorie Barnes. Both are laced with Tee Mac's limber flute, a final elevating touch.
Where Nigeria Soul Fever stands out as a compilation, though, is in a broader, truer definition of soul, one not limited by slick production or any specific funk sounds. More traditional juju-funk and raw disco also make up large swaths of the music. Tracks like Jimmy Sherry's hypnotic, 13-minute "Nwaeze" and Angela Starr's mid-tempo "Disco Dancing" add sunnier notes to an album of deep soul. The changes in mood and style are a strength in terms of the sheer breadth of the collection, but they also don't fit, sounding thin among the smoother, bolder Haastrup and Tee Mac tracks.
The two Benis Cletin tracks bear the brunt of this contrast. Squiggling synths, spacey organs, and minimal drumbeats back repetitive choruses. On their own, they're fun disco beats, but surrounded by more ambitious, orchestral pieces, they sound amateurish and worn out, bare-bones demo tapes that were never meant to go public.
Every song on Nigeria Soul Fever can stand on its own, whether disco, soul, Afrobeat, or some other combination -- and many combinations make an appearance here. As a full product, though, the album is less than the sum of its parts, taking a dozen and a half great things about Nigerian music and throwing the whole thing into a careless chaos.