Off­beat sounds borne from vi­o­lence and war in 1970s Nige­ria

Out of the tur­moil of the Nige­rian Civil War emerged psy­che­delic rock. James McNair takes a jour­ney through Uchenna Ikonne’s com­pre­hen­sive his­tory of the mu­sic that helped to heal a nation

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - James McNair writes for Mojo mag­a­zine and The In­de­pen­dent.

Dis­cussing the 1967-1970 Civil War that in­ad­ver­tently shaped Nige­ria’s unique strain of 70s rock mu­sic, Uchenna Ikonne re­minds us that com­bat was largely con­fined to the coun­try’s eastern re­gion. He also notes that it was sub­ject to “a fire­wall of gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda that de­nied the coun­try was at war at all”. Those in the western and north­ern re­gions, the au­thor writes, were “vir­tu­ally un­aware that while they [danced] the Mashed Potato at soul mu­sic ex­trav­a­gan­zas, fed­eral Nige­rian troops were mas­sacring mil­lions of their coun­try­men or en­forc­ing sanctions that led to ram­pant star­va­tion…”

Up to three mil­lion peo­ple died in the war which ended Bi­afra’s brief se­ces­sion from Nige­ria. But even dur­ing the cap­ture of Port Har­court, the cru­cial city that Nige­rian Fed­eral forces re­gained in May 1968, lo­cal bands played on.

One of Ikonne’s many in­ter­vie­wees is Renny Pearl of The Fig­ures, a group whose un­der-the-radar gig cir­cuit took in makeshift hos­pi­tals and refugee camps. When the bombs and gun­fire even­tu­ally stopped, Pearl slung his acous­tic gui­tar over his shoul­der and ven­tured out to see if the war had in­deed ended. He was soon am­bushed by the 13th Bri­gade of the 3rd Marine Com­man­dos, who took him for a flee­ing com­bat­ant. “I showed them my gui­tar and told them, ‘I’m not a soldier, I’m a mu­si­cian’,” Pearl re­lates.

Af­ter he and a mis­cel­lany of other re­main­ing mu­si­cians staged an im­promptu gig for the sol­diers, the Bri­gade com­man­der dubbed Pearl’s makeshift act The Ac­tions, put them on salary, and made them the 13th Bri­gade’s of­fi­cial band.

They later be­came the first East Nige­rian rock group to record at EMI Africa’s La­gos studios, but when the army ap­pro­pri­ated their prof­its and wanted to con­script the band as sol­diers, The Ac­tions opted to dis­solve the group and re­turn their forces-owned in­stru­ments.

Though it largely con­cen­trates on rock mu­sic made in the decade af­ter the Nige­rian Civil War, Wake

Up You!, the first of two paired vol­umes by elo­quent Nige­rian mu­si­col­o­gist Uchenna Ikonne, is full of such fas­ci­nat­ing de­tails.

It also has scores of ar­rest­ing pho­to­graphs – guns and ammo oc­ca­sion­ally loom as large as gui­tars and amps – and comes with a won­der­ful, 18-track CD com­pi­la­tion fea­tur­ing many of the bands dis­cussed. The au­thor is good on how cel­e­brated Nige­rian su­per­star Fela Kuti’s late 1960s re­jec­tion of “pure High­life” mu­sic (his new “Afrobeat” sound also in­cor­po­rated R&B and Latin jazz el­e­ments) helped to pave the way for the leaner, meaner sound of “Afro Rock”, a genre pi­o­neered by bands such as The Hykkers, who were Bi­afran trans­plants to La­gos.

As the 70s got un­der way, there was an au­di­ble, psy­che­delic-sound­ing fury in Afro Rock songs such as Grace­ful Bird by the band War­head Con­struc­tion, and although some acts dis­banded as their play­ers re­sumed the ed­u­ca­tions the civil war had de­railed, the many bands who pressed on – The Mag­nif­i­cent Ze­ni­ans; Wrinkar Ex­pe­ri­ence; The Hyrades, The Founders 15, etc. – had a new en­ergy and pur­pose. The Afro Rock band Ofo & the Black Com­pany sound par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing. Ikonne de­scribes them as “loud, freaky, the­atri­cal and spir­i­tual”, and “un­doubt­edly the strangest bunch of mu­si­cians to ever [grace] the Nige­rian mu­sic scene”.

Fronted by charis­matic lynch­pin Larry Ife­dio­ranma, and rock­ing an Afro-shamanic look, they took their name from the ofo, a sa­cred staff. This arte­fact sig­ni­fied au­thor­ity and an­ces­tral destiny for the Igbo, the in­dige­nous, cul­tur­ally-rich peo­ple of south­ern Nige­ria. It was when Love Rock – a soul­ful 1972 sin­gle by the Ow­erri, Imo state, formed band Strangers – be­came the fastest-sell­ing Nige­rian sin­gle of all time, Ikonne ex­plains, that the record la­bel wars that had long raged be­tween the African out­posts of EMI, Decca, Philips and Poly­dor went into over­drive.

Each of them sought the lion’s share of the rapidly ex­pand­ing Afro Rock mar­ket, and each of them had their dif­fer­ent strengths. EMI, for ex­am­ple, had signed the ever-in­flu­en­tial Fela Kuti to its Par­lophone (in Nige­ria, later re­named HMV) im­print. It also had a true mover and shaker on the ground in La­gos in the shape of gifted pro­ducer and record­ing en­gi­neer, Odion Iruoje, who had been trained at Lon­don’s Abbey Road studios while The Bea­tles still recorded there.

It was Decca, though, the first la­bel to build pro­fes­sional record­ing studios in West Africa, that seized the day, re­brand­ing it­self as Afro­disia. This new im­print aimed to em­body “Black con­scious­ness, un­in­hib­ited sex­u­al­ity, and a laid-back bo­hemian ethos.”

Though it was savvy enough to sign Ofo & the Black Com­pany, Ikonne ar­gues that, op­er­a­tionally at least, Afro­disia ul­ti­mately suc­cumbed to style over sub­stance. Lack­ing any real com­mit­ment to artist devel­op­ment, the im­print “bled tal­ent as artists fled to EMI”, he writes. As the book pro­gresses, we learn about other fig­ures cru­cial to the ef­fi­cacy and po­tency of Nige­rian rock. Goddy Oku, the Hy­grades mem­ber and able elec­tron­ics en­gi­neer who built gui­tar amps “for cash-strapped mu­si­cians”. Felix “Fe­ladey” Odey, the vir­tu­oso gui­tar-forhire who played on scores of Nige­rian rock records. Ofege, the psych-rock school­boys from St Gre­gory’s Col­lege, La­gos, whose de­but LP Try And Love was the big­gest-sell­ing al­bum of the era.

There is even a sec­tion on Ginger Folorunso John­son, the per­cus­sion­ist, film score com­poser and Nige­rian /Afro Rock pi­o­neer who backed The Rolling Stones on Sym­pa­thy For The Devil in Hyde Park in 1969. Oddly enough, it seems the ubiq­ui­tous Fela Kuti also played a part in the down­fall of Nige­rian rock, al­beit in­di­rectly.

Ikonne ex­plains how, in the midto-late 70s, Fela’s bo­hemian, ex­tremely al­ter­na­tive life­style made Nige­ria’s con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment feel gen­uinely threat­ened.

But when mil­i­tary head of state Oluse­gun Obasanjo im­posed pun­ish­ing taxes on the im­port of mu­si­cal in­stru­ments / equip­ment in an at­tempt to hurt Fela, he merely suc­ceeded in putting most Nige­rian rock bands out of busi­ness.

“The grunge was gone, [to be] re­placed by gloss”, notes Ikonne, but his fas­ci­nat­ing, dili­gently-re­searched book makes a com­pelling case for the worth and restora­tive power of Nige­rian rock. For those in the war-torn East of the coun­try, he sug­gests, this short-lived, all-but-for­got­ten genre was a life­line; the thing “that got them through hell”.

Courtesy Uchenna Ikonne

Main im­age: Ify Jerry, guitarist with The Hykkers, one of the bands that shaped Afro Rock in the early 1970s, per­forms in La­gos, 1970. Above: Tony Grey and The Black 7, in Warri, 1975.

Uchenna Ikonne Gingko Press Dh180

Wake Up You! (Vol.1): The Rise and Fall of Nige­rian Rock (1972-1977)

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