January 12, 2017
Soundway’s new compilation refocusses the story of disco.
“What was the meaning of these slick, glossy confections? Did they have any meaning at all? Could they even be considered “African music,” or just (as one critic dismissively put it) shallow “phonetic disco” mindlessly aping western models? Did they represent African creativity of an abject void of it?”
In his liner notes to Soundway’s sparkling new collection of Nigerian dance floor music, Uchenna Ikonne strikes at the heart of a question which has plagued the label for some time. How do you approach the music made during one of the country’s most creative (and economically) fertile eras for what it was, rather than what it should have been?
From ballroom highlife to the post-Civil War psych rock scene to Fela’s afro-centric leadership, Nigerian music in the preceding decades had undergone rapid, and often enforced change. No surprise then that it took just a few years for the “gritty textures, deep minor-key inflections… invocations of quintessentially African rhythmic sensibility” of Kuti’s afro-beat to say less to the upwardly mobile young Nigerians of the early ’80s than it had to their elders.
And don’t forget, the ’80s happened in Nigeria too – a period of oil-fuelled economic prosperity – where US culture (films, music videos, records) flooded into the major cities. Salsoul, Sugar Hill and SOLAR dominated the FM airwaves, while new studio technology ushered in a totally new sound that lent itself to boogie’s plastic sheen.
Through the records that were made in this time, as Ikonne writes, “we glimpse a vision of Nigerian youth that is cosmopolitan, optimistic, sexy, hip, prosperous, romantic, glamourous, witty, ambitious – a sharp contrast from the pathos-ridden images commonly trafficked to represent life in Africa.” Charges of being both “inauthentically African” or cod-boogie seem to miss the point entirely. Lagos was doing it, and it sounded funky as hell.
To set this straight we spoke to Soundway boss Miles Cleret about the compilation and how it should refigure our understanding of both Nigeria and the worldwide disco and boogie phenomenon it took part in.
In the literature that accompanied the release, there is a big focus on shifting understanding of the disco / boogie / funk genre away from the US. This must be something you think about a lot with Soundway’s far-reaching reissues?
Not only with disco but with all forms of music, it’s just had an extremely western-centric angle to the way these things are written about. It is understandable because the USA was without doubt the epicentre, but I don’t think you can say now that the epicentre of electronic music is purely within European or North American places. It’s exactly the same thing that happened and has always happened. Musical ideas travel and you can’t contain something as big as funk or disco or jazz or house, and people from different places have their own take on it.
This wasn’t purely just a one-way exchange either, was it?
Disco is a pretty hybrid thing which came out of cities (and the suburbs of) New York and Philadelphia, where the influence of Latin music and soca and calypso had a much bigger effect.
While soul and funk had grown much more out of RnB, disco had this extra element, it was very much coming from Puerto Rico and Trinidad and bits of African music. Especially in the way the rhythm sections evolved, it was a much more hybrid musical form.
To be completely purist about it misses the point, and if you listen to some of the stuff that was being played at Studio 54 it was Manu Dibango’s ‘New Bell’ and tracks like that, which came from outside of the US as much as from within it.
It’s certainly something you hear in the instrumentation – even the reliance on the conga drum in the early ’80s New York stuff, that’s not necessarily an instrument that has emerged purely from the North American tradition.
In terms of this kind of musical exchange, we know that artists in Lagos were receiving records from the US, but were the records made there resonating at all in the US?
I think not really. I think places like Trinidad and Puerto Rico had a much stronger connection to New York than Africa did at that time. There were much bigger Latin and Caribbean populations in the late ’70s and early ’80s than there were African populations in NYC. There were some records that would have travelled that way for sure, there was the African Music Centre in Brooklyn that used to press its own editions of some African music and there were a few famous shops selling African records in NYC.
So what did the scene look like back in Lagos? How did it emerge?
As with all musical scenes it was a new generation wanting to do something different and put their own mark on the music scene. Plus there were technological advances coming along, suddenly music videos were being made. There had been an onslaught of foreign music into Nigeria and other parts of West Africa during the ’70s but I think it just accelerated massively in the early ’80s.
Also Nigeria was going through quite a boom economically at that time, so there was money around. There were nightclubs and there were people out there making money and spending money. It was very symbolic of that time – dressing up, going out, looking good.
The style, as well as the music, seemed very US-focussed.
It was a new generation, in some ways, trying to get away from that Afro-centric thing. A lot of the same guys were involved in production, like some of the members of Blo, Odion Iruoje, these guys had been around through the ’70s and been very prominent. Jake Solo had been in the band The Funkees, so he’d been around the whole time, but he was very much part of this scene as well. He spent a lot of time over in London, watching this whole thing change outside of Africa. But then there was a whole new generation of musicians and producers, people like Nkono Teles.
In some ways, some of these city boys from places like Lagos, were looking back at music form the ’70s and highlife music and afro-rock as being very old hat suddenly.
Quite aspirational then?
Definitely, it was the ’80s.
But I imagine they were keen on still bringing their own sound to these influences? It wasn’t just about mimicking the US stuff…
I’m not entirely sure about that to be honest. A lot of these younger bands were looking a lot more towards America. But this was an LP culture, the single had sort of died at this point in Nigeria, so you still got a lot of artists who would have a mixed bag on their records, which is something that happened throughout the ’70s as well. You had highlife bands who made a record where one side would be highlife and one side would be afrobeat and you still got that in the early ’80s.
I think people were really aspiring to America. The culture and the music in the early ’80s was such a bright light shining across everything, it was impossible not to look at it. It was cultural, it wasn’t just music. Suddenly in the ’80s in Nigeria you could watch American movies much more easily because of the VHS cassette, so it was a whole style thing as much as it was musical.
Was it centred around clubs in Lagos as it was the NYC? Or labels? Where were the centres and reference points for the scene?
There were a few big name DJs in Lagos at the time and the whole concept of the mobile disco and the mobile DJ, which was as much based on better technology, cheaper, better equipment than the ’70s. Uchenna goes into detail in the liner notes about how it was a few DJs pushing a sound and how it was something that the mainstream music industry in Lagos was shrugging its shoulders about. But at the same time no-one could argue with some of the numbers these records were selling. That record by Oby Onyioha ‘Enjoy Your Life’ was a massive record in Nigeria at the time and yet then other records like Peter Abdul’s are very obscure.
I think that’s interesting in relation to how we understand an era and where we ascribe value retrospectively. Is the canon purely the things that made the biggest splash at the time or can we know look back at things that were doing musically interesting things and include them even though they were overlooked at the time?
Well exactly. Records like those by Peter Abdul and Steve Monite weren’t big records but with time and quite possibly with a different generation looking upon them and people looking for more obscure records, then they stand out. It’s interesting in relation to how music is validated with time, in a way that contemporary music struggles with. As somebody who puts out old music and contemporary music it’s something that I’m always thinking about. Without doubt, music that’s made in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s is validated in a record buyer’s mind in the way that contemporary music isn’t.
Perhaps there’s a similar generational shift in the thinking of collectors as that which you describe about the musicians…
Yeah it works both ways, that’s the thing. There’s a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and Orientalism if you want, which people get very snotty and academic about, but at the end of the day, people want music that’s got something different, and that works both ways. If there’s something out there that’s different, it appeals to us as human beings. That was going on there as much as it is going on with people getting into music from other parts of the world in New York or London now.
There’s also obviously a slight problem around relegating regional scenes to the edges of the narrative.
I think if you get your knickers in a twist about something not being played at Studio 54, it’s like the experiences of all the rest of the people in the world who were dancing to music in the clubs is invalid because it was all about what was going on in one city and one place.
That’s a pretty exclusive and elitist way of looking at it, because you’re basically rubbishing everyone else’s experience of what was happening all over the world. In Beirut or Port Of Spain or Lagos, people were getting down, they were watching Michael Jackson videos and getting inspired by that to be different.
That’s the thing, these days with the technology and the way the world is connected, it’s very easy to forget that even with this influx of American culture and videos into Nigeria, it would have still been a very deeply African place and these were young kids who were desperate not to be that, they were just trying to rebel. That’s a universal thing, wherever you are in the world.
There’s bit quite a lot of interest around this music for some time now, why bring out the comp at this point?
Uchenna and I have been planning this record for three years. It’s been incredibly hard doing the licensing – there’s a lot of people that never wrote anything down, band members who fell out with each other, people who’ve passed away or disappeared. We’ve been trying to do this the right way for a long time, but I think that a lot of it has been bootlegged, and so we really wanted to put them out with their right names, their right titles and try and tell a bit of the background story.
You can understand why people want to bootleg it because it’s great music and fucking hard to find and incredibly expensive. It was just a case of trying to put together a nice collection of this stuff that if you were going to buy originals of would cost you literally thousands of pounds to buy.
Doing it in Lagos: Boogie, Pop & Disco in 1980s Nigeria is out now via Soundway records.