May 17, 2016
While the Western world revelled in the Summer of Love, Nigeria was in the throes of civil war. The bloodshed and destruction of the years between 1967 and 1970 may have left lasting scars but the rock scene that flourished as a result would go some way to heal the traumas of the conflict, create a new image of Nigeria and propel Fela Kuti to worldwide stardom.
One of the bands to emerge from this rubble was The Hykkers, but like many of their contemporaries, their sound was all but unrecognisable. Out went the “jangly guitars and bright harmonies” associated with more traditional forms of highlife and in came “funk, fuzz and fury”, the sound of anger and liberation culled from US superstars like James brown and Jimi Hendrix.
Forging a creative existence in the country’s war-torn eastern region, the Hykkers, the Funkees and others trod a fine line between voicing the distress of the nation and providing its tonic – a dancing cure for a young population that had just witnessed the unimaginable horrors of war.
While the music can – and should – be able to stand alone without this context, to tell the full story of Nigeria’s burgeoning rock scene at the start of the 1970’s, releasing a compilation on its own was not enough. Released as a double book and album project – with volume two dropping at the end of May – Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock is a vivid document of a complex and creative time in the nation’s history, and one which, due to the rarity of its records and the dominance of Fela Kuti, has been under represented for too long.
We spoke to Eothen Alapatt of Now-Again records and the book’s author Uchenna Ikonne to get an insight into one of the year’s most fascinating reissue projects.
What is it about Nigerian music from the ’60s and ’70s that fascinates you and how did this project come about?
Eothen: I’m fascinated by the confluence of two of America’s greatest innovations – funk and rock music – and indigenous music from all regions of the world. In Nigeria, where there was a well staffed, trained recording industry established early on after the advent of the 78 shellac disc, we see and hear a marked improvement in recording quality and enthusiastic fusions of different music styles, from the world and from within Nigeria, happening through the late 1960s when the Nigerian Civil War took place.
What did the Nigerian music scene look like before the Civil War? And why do you think the country’s musical heritage was more active than its neighbouring countries?
Uchenna: Prior to the Civil War, the Nigerian music economy was robust, especially in major urban centres like Lagos, Ibadan, Onitsha, Enugu, Port Harcourt and Kaduna. There existed what seemed like an endless array of nightclubs, and fun-seekers spent entire nights crawling from one spot to the next until the sun came out. The most essential mode of consuming music was the live experience; recordings were more or less advertisements for various bands. After the war, though, records became increasingly important even though they didn’t completely supplant live music until much later.
Ghana had a highly energetic music scene too, as did the Republic of Benin and Cameroon, but Nigeria’s seemed a little bit more exciting than most of them. Perhaps because Nigeria is bigger and more culturally diverse, so there was a rich miscellany of styles and sounds. I guess it also helped that Nigeria was wealthier than most of its neighbours also. That’s what contributed to the ballooning of the recording industry; Nigeria had enough people who could afford to buy record players.
Eothen: This also coincided with the spread of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix’s music, amongst others, and this was a huge deal in Nigeria, where groups adopted techniques and forms from those two masters but also brought their own innovations and fusions into the music. The rise of afro beat, Nigerian rock and funk and the latter day sound of highlife are some examples of what occurred in the late 1960s and through the mid 1970s. These are unique musical genres that were scenes into and of themselves and sound like nothing else on the planet.
What were the hallmarks of Nigerian rock as opposed to the funk / soul sound? And what records (western or otherwise) were influential in creating it?
Uchenna: The primary distinctive feature of Nigerian afro-rock was usually in the rhythmic foundation. Frequently Nigerian rock would be built around a 6/8 clave, the sort of complex rhythm that most would probably associate with Afro-Cuban music. Whereas the meter for straight funk or soul would likely be the more conventional 4/4.
If I were to attempt to isolate the influences that contributed most to the Nigerian rock aesthetic, I’d say James Brown, Santana, maybe some UK rock steady and reggae too. Oh yeah, and of course the Beatles. I’m not sure how much of the Beatles’ actual sound informs what you hear in Nigerian rock, but the group was still highly inspirational to the extent that they demonstrated rock’s power to transform society.
Vol 2. begins with the story that the Hykkers replaced their “jangly guitars and bright harmonies” with “funk, fuzz and fury” after the war. What impact did the civil war have on the style of the music created in the country and the scene as a whole?
Uchenna: The most significant impact was the dissolution of the reign of highlife as Nigeria’s national music. The highlife scene represented Nigerian unity, with bands featuring musicians representing all ethnicities and all regions of the country. When most of the easterners left and migrated to Biafra, it left a void in the music scene. That void was filled by soul music, usually of a fairly glossy variety.
Meanwhile in Biafra, musicians had fewer resources and so their sound was much more dirty and rough-edged. When those musicians from Biafra re-integrated into Nigeria after the war, they brought that rugged aesthetic with them. That made for a much more gleefully grungy sound than could have ever been imagined before the war.
How important is it to understand that this music comes from a backdrop of unrest and violence? The song themes are not particularly political, and seem more about having a good time.
Uchenna: Frankly, I don’t think it’s in any way necessary to appreciate the music’s social backdrop in order to enjoy it. It’s great information to know, if you’re into that kind of thing… but most of these musicians never intended for their music to be political. Especially the musicians from the east, from the erstwhile Republic of Biafra. They had just gone through almost three years of hell during which people had lost almost everything and now were just trying to pull themselves out of the wreckage and piece their lives back together. The music was just trying to ease the pain, make people feel good about themselves again.
Eothen: After the war ended, no one could really go home again, spiritually and many times physically. And, at the same time, Nigerian’s had a chance to throw themselves into the Flower Power movement – their own version – that had taken place all over the world. Think about those two things happening at the same time, with peace finally returning, and festering wounds barely dressed, as a country tries to make sense of what just happened and thrust itself into the global economy with all of its fashion, trappings and politics. It’s no big surprise that rock was a big part of this transition. It’s a messy, ugly, funky, fun, cathartic thing. What a perfect music for that time.
With that in mind, what purpose did the records serve within communities? The book talks of bands like the Funkees being used to make people feel safe.
Uchenna: Just to let people have fun in the wake of one of the worst humanitarian tragedies the world had seen since the Second World War. And in the case of a group like the Funkees, they were truly aspirational figures. They cut an image of glamour, success and confidence in the midst of loss, poverty, devastation and demoralisation.
The Funkees seemed prepared to compromise with the military to some extent – how did that relationship develop? Compared to their most famous contemporary Fela Kuti, they were much less outspoken.
Uchenna: One of the fundamental things to understand about the psychology of Fela Kuti’s defiance of the authorities is the fact that it was, to some degree, borne out of privilege. Though he styled himself as a rebellious street tough, Fela was an upper-middle-class kid from one of the country’s most distinguished families. And at heart, he might have been a bit of a snob. The reason he was so openly contemptuous of Nigeria’s military regimes was because he thought he was smarter, better educated, of a better social class than those dumb soldiers. When he thumbed his nose at Nigeria’s head of state, General Obasanjo or one of the country’s top tycoons, M.K.O. Abiola, it was not really a David vs. Goliath scenario. Fela, Obasanjo and Abiola were all from the same town. They were all around the same age, too. Fela had gone to school with some of these guys.
So when Fela thumbed his nose at the powers-that-were, it was because he viewed them more or less as his peers. And they probably gave him a bit of a long leash for the same reason. He knew these guys. It was like ragging on your old classmate from school. He was viewed less as a threat than as an eccentric rich kid slumming it with the proles, and his family name was a protective talisman. Fela didn’t have to worry about being hungry, or homeless or even seriously hurt for a while. Now mind you, I don’t in any way want to minimise the awe-inspiring courage of Fela’s outspokenness or suggest that there were no stakes attendant to it. After all, even he did eventually push it too far, leading to the fabled attack upon his compound that resulted in the death of his mother.
But still, compare his situation to that of the Funkees — or any other group from the east. They had survived am event that some would describe as an attempted ethnic cleansing. Their homes, their families, their entire lives had been reduced to rubble. The government declared that there were no hard feelings but the east was still under the stern surveillance of Nigerian soldiers who were ready to immediately snuff out even the slightest signs of resurgent rebellion. They could wantonly gun down anybody who even whispered the word “rebellion.” The stakes were way too high, and not worth it. And after the hell they had been through for three years, nobody wanted to go through hat again. They just wanted to get their lives back, not fight another war.
That comparison is so interesting, especially given the disparity in legacy between Fela and these acts. How far has this era of Nigerian music been overshadowed by Fela’s international appeal and rock star image?
Uchenna: Fela is one of the only figures from that era who even persists in the cultural memory of Nigeria. Part of that is due to his larger than life persona and sensational clashes with the authorities that became modern-day folktales. A large part of it has to do with his prolificness — he just has so much more work than most of the other bands. And part of that is due to his talent, vision and work ethic, but also his privilege. Fela could afford to produce and release his own records so he was never at the mercy of the labels like some of these other groups who maybe put out an album or two and then faded into obscurity when they lost their record deals.
The industry at large played a bigger role here it seems. Where were the major record pressing plants in Nigeria and how was music production affected by the war? How were records distributed and who was buying them?
Uchenna: Prior to the war the primary pressing plant in the country was RMNL — Record Manufacturers Nigeria Limited—which was jointly owned by EMI and Decca, and located in Lagos. I believe Philips had a plant in Lagos too. For these major labels, music production continued unabated throughout the war because Lagos was essentially untouched by the conflict. Many people in Lagos never fully realised the seriousness of the war because the theatre of combat was restricted to the other end of the country, the eastern region.
There were independent labels based in the east, though, and they essentially ceased to exist during the war. The largest of these indies, Nigerphone, did remain active in the early days of the conflict but it was soon demolished in an air raid. Some people believed the destruction of Nigerphone was deliberate, to stem the tide of pro-Biafra propaganda discs the label had started releasing. I’m not sure how much credence to give that theory, though!
I should mention, of course, that there were no pressing plants in the east at this time. Eastern labels pressed their records in Lagos, or in London. So I doubt Nigerphone would have been able to maintain its output as Biafra became completely barricaded.
Are the records hard to get hold of now?
Uchenna: They are extremely hard to obtain now. And since over the past 15 years they’ve become popular with certain segments of the record collecting community in the West, they’ve been mined by foreign prospectors to the point that they’re almost nonexistent in the country now… they’re all in record collections in Europe, America and Japan.
Eothen: Many of them were only ever issued on small runs of 7″ singles. In some cases, only one extant copy is in the collecting world. No one heard the majority of music on this anthology as you would have had to befriend and earn the trust of collectors the world over, and then buy the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporations archives to get the music. It took us 8 years to cull the music to use on this anthology, and it came from every corner of the world, from Lagos to London to Christchurch, New Zealand.
Does this era and these records hold cultural significance in contemporary Nigeria?
Uchenna: The cultural significance of these records in contemporary Nigeria? Probably none. Most Nigerians don’t know that this era was ever really a thing at all. Even a lot of people who lived through it, their recollections of it seem to have faded. Cultures preserve the memory of things that are important to their image of themselves in the present. Since the civil war was an issue that never satisfactorily resolved, we decided to try to forget it. And I guess with it, we also forgot this amazing music scene that flourished in its immediate aftermath.
While most era-specific compilations attempt to place the music in some historical context, Wake Up You! is more ambitious than that, where the music almost accompanies the story, rather than the other way round. What informed this decision?
Eothen: I believe that it’s my duty, as an ethically minded business man, to not only stand up for artists and their rights – and try to fairly make myself and them money from their genius – but also to tell stories before they are lost. I cannot think of a more important story to tell than that of the Nigerian Rock musicians who survived the Civil War that killed millions of their countrymen by believing in this music. People need to understand that this music isn’t novelty, and it’s so immediate and arresting because of the human lives lost in that horrible war, and the response that these musicians wrote and sang.
Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vol. 1 is out now on. Vol. 2 is due to be released by Now-Again Records on 20th May. Order it here.
Photos courtesy of Now-Again Records.