Play That Funkee Music

During the 1960s and 1970s Nigeria, and more specifically Lagos, its creative hub, was producing some of the greatest West African bands. Groups such as Blo and MonoMono were creating heavy psych-rock music, in the vein of Santana and Hendrix, but putting a distinctive African stamp on it that made it dance floor friendly. With the arrival of The Funkees, hailing from Aba, in South East Nigeria, Lagos’s dominance was no longer a given.

The band was formed in the early 70s, towards the end on the Nigerian Civil War and after a few changes in line up, they settled with Jake Solo (Guitar), Harry Mosco (Guitar), Chyke Madu (Drums), Danny Heibs (Bass), Mohammed Ahidjo (Vocals) and Sonny Akpan (Congas). In 1973 the band’s popularity sky-rocketed and they were invited to London to record and perform. They played in several clubs in London, notably Ronnie Scott’sand recorded their first LP, Point of No Return, for Amba Records.

Point of no Return LP

Point of no Return LP

Things started to turn sour and after a few years Jake Solo left the band to join Afro super-group, Osibisa. The Funkees recorded a final LP, Now I’m a Man, in London and returned to release it in Nigeria on EMI in 1976.

Now I'm a Man LP

Now I’m a Man LP

Today’s selections are two tracks from the first album, that were re-released a year later by Black Magic records on a 7inch single. Abraka is a highly charged instrumental featuring Sollo’s wah-wah guitar licks and great percussion. My personal favourite is Ole, one of the great songs by the band. Everything comes together perfectly; it’s smooth, the guitar is to die for, the drum break is out of this world and its so Funkee!

Abraka

Ole

Record details:
The Funkees – Abraka / Ole (1975) – Black Magic (BM 114)

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Thanks to 45cat for the label scan – it is a far better quality than my photo of the label

Soundway Records have released a lovely retrospective on the band, collecting the best tracks from their two LPs and 45s, that I highly recommend picking up.

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You’re Who?

Sometimes music can be confusing*. Especially when bands release versions of songs that are not strict covers and rename the song!

In 1971 Fela Kuti released Who’re You? a raw early Afrobeat track, with subtle horns and driving percussion. It is actually one of the early releases of Africa 70, Fela’s band initially named as Nigeria 70, and it sowed the seeds that were to later blossom into the fully fledged, intricately arranged compositions that made up the classic Fela cuts of the mid to late 1970’s.

Afro National, a band from Freetown, Sierra Leone, released an incredible version of this song two years later as Mr Who You Be; playfully renaming the track and confusing me in the process, as I was sure it was a Fela track I had heard before. I love their version, which strips back the horns, speeds up the drums and injects a breath of fresh air into the song. Mr. Who You Be

The band released several LP’s and singles, mainly of Highlife and Calypso songs and only a few Afrobeat tracks, some with the voice of Patricia Koroma.

Record Details:
Afro National – Dem Kick / Mr. Who You Be (1973) – Afro National (Record No. 2)
BsideAside

*Music and record collecting can also be magical, as digger extraordinaire, Duncan Brooker, demonstrates in this interview, where he discusses his efforts to track down the band.

UPDATE:
The plot thickens….
There appears to be a rare early Fela Kuti & Koola Lobitos single “Mr. Who Are You” that could have been the song that Afro National were referencing. This song was supposedly very popular in the whole of West Africa and could explain why it was released by Afro National in Sierra Leone.

Another theory is that “Mr. Who Are You” is an early version of “Who’re You?”, the song Fela recorded with African 70 in 1971. The problem is I have not heard this early version and nor would it appear have many others! Afro National’s “Mr. Who Be You” does bear some similarities to “Who’re You?” but it is definitely not a straight cover.

It therefore appears that both these theories have weight and that there is a lost Fela single that was popular in West Africa, which may have evolved into the later “Who’re You?”

Watch this space!

Thanks to Uchenna Ikonne for this further information.

Runaway Band

IN the forest there is a giant tree called by the Yorubas the “Iroko,” which is shunned by all people, for in it lives the spirit of an old man who prowls about at night with a little torch and frightens travellers.

Anyone who sees the Iroko-man face to face goes mad and speedily dies.

Seeing the thick branches and mighty trunk of the Iroko, woodcutters are often tempted to cut the tree down and make use of the wood, but this is very unlucky, as it rouses the displeasure of the Iroko-man and brings misfortune on the woodcutter and all his family.

In any house which contains furniture made of Iroko-wood, there can be heard at night strange groaning and creaking noises; it is the spirit of the Iroko, imprisoned in the wood, who longs to wander about again through the forest with his little torch.

Yoruba Legends – M.I. Ogumefu

Iroko Tree

Interest in African music in the West really took off in the 70’s when Ginger Baker of Cream heard some Nigerian music on the radio whilst visiting fellow drummer Guy Warren in Ghana. Ginger decided to relocate to Lagos and check out the scene for a while. He went on to set up the Batakota (ARC) recording studios near the airport.

Artists like Santana and Jimi Hendrix were starting to take off in Nigeria and local bands imitated the sounds they were hearing, Blues and Psychedelic Rock, and fused it with African rhythms to create a new style. Baker was keen to get these emerging bands to record at his new state of the art studio.

Infamously, Paul McCartney and his band Wings were invited by Baker and the Nigerian government to record Band of the Run, but after recording one track McCartney switched to the rival EMI studio, set up by the UK based label to get in on the act. Ginger was (dis)credited on the LP notes for the track and he called McCartney an arsehole. Even Ginger’s friend Fela Kuti got involved and stormed EMI’s studio with a forty strong army to stop the recording session.

One of the bands to cut a single through ARC was Ifeanyi Henry & the Jaguu. Unfortunately like many of the artists that recorded at the studio, after the 45 was released they disappeared and there is no information on them. What they leave behind is a Psych Garage record about the Iroko tree. In That Iroko a lord tells his son that he will one day grow tall as “that Iroko tree was once a shrub”, and how, “You cannot sit down and get it / You cannot lie down and have it”, but have to stand tall and face life.

The ghostly organ, like the spirit of the Iroko tree, shrill brass trills and off key guitar really give the song a great psych flavour. I love it. The B side Love your Own is a nice surprise too.

“We are meant to grow my son”

Record Details:

Ifeanyi Henry & The Jaguu – That Iroko / Love Your Own (1975) – ARC Studio (ARC 1114 EP)

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Dance With Me

jupiter8vscreenshot

Continuing our trip into Nigeria and synth laden funk, today’s selection comes from Melvin Ukachi. The LP was released twice, originally as I Am OK, in Nigeria and subsequently the French press renamed it as I’m Okay I’m Alright, but the track listings are identical.

The album is produced by a legend of Nigerian music, Jake Sollo, a member of huge Nigerian bands such as The Hykkers and The Funkees. Sollo moved towards production is the 80s and also recorded several solo records before tragically being killed in a car crash in 1985 – the second motor vehicle fatality we have encountered. He is credited with playing lead guitar and Jupiter synth (pictured above), showing how heavily involved he was in the whole LP.

I love the interplay of the keys and drum machine on Come and Dance. I have been getting heavily into the 80s Boogie scene in Nigeria and in my opinion it is easily the equal of the stuff coming out of the US. It sounds fresher and less formulaic.

Dance with me!

Record Details:

Melvin Ukachi – I’m OK I’m Alright (1985) – Tamwo Records (Tam 15)

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He Came From Outer Space

Some records just grab you as they are so unique, sounding like nothing you’ve heard before. They really shouldn’t work but somehow come together and produce something wonderful that could have easily come from another planet.

William Onyeabor, a multi-talented Nigerian who set up a music and film studio in Enugu in the South East of the country, after returning from studying cinematography in Russia, produced a plethora of out of this world sounds. Onyeabor worked in film and television production for several years but in the late 70s turned his hand to music, releasing on his own Wilfilms label. He used a variety of synthesizers like Moog and Elka, as well as drum machines, to produce an Electro tinged Funk (he had clearly heard bands like Kraftwerk and Ultravox) that was so ahead of its time that today it still sounds fresh.

Today’s track is a 12 minute masterpiece that comes from his last album Anything You Sow and showcases his totally unique style and interpretation of music. The synths on this are like something from a Sci-Fi film and the backing vocals calling Higher Higher Higher… Higher threaten to launch into orbit. This is one interplanetary trip I want to take, and with Captain Onyeabor driving the ship through a galaxy of line dancing aliens, it is never going to be dull.

Buckle up!

Record Details:

William Onyeabor – Anything You Sow (1985) – Wilfilms (WLP 033)

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Akwaaba!

This is the first word I heard when I arrived in Ghana and Africa. It means “Welcome” and fittingly it is the first word I give you as I start my new blog, which I aim to update regularly, documenting my travels through African music.

Ghanaian Highlife was my first real taste of African music, specifically the tracks compiled by Soundway Records on Ghana Special; in short it blew me away and is the reason I booked a flight for Ghana at Easter in 2011. Anyway, that is another story that I am sure I will cover in the future.

Where better to start a blog on the music of the Dark Continent, as labelled by the early Victorian explorers, than with Nigeria and Africa’s best known musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who single-handedly brought African music to the world’s attention, blending Highlife, Rock, Jazz and Funk into a new sound that, although he questioned the term, came to be known as Afrobeat. Fela’s influence cannot be disputed and can clearly be seen in the dozens of imitators as well as the legacy left by his bands –  Africa 70 and Egypt 80.

The first Fela record I got was Black President and it finds him in a particularly Jazzy mood with sax solos dominating most of the album. That is not to say that the elements of Afrobeat are not there, they are, just slightly toned down – subtle West African guitar, driving drums and percussion, and repetitious call and response vocals. The major theme of the album is the purging of Africa’s land and economy by the world. Fela shows no restraint, calling them “Motherfuckers, bastard motherfuckers” (I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)).

On a side note, the incredible keyboards on I.T.T. are by, a then eighteen year old, Dele Sosimi, who later left the Egypt 80 with Fela’s son Femi to form Femi Anikulapo-Kuti and the Positive Force and later his own band, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra. The latter band play the Afriganza Festival at the Blind Tiger in Brighton on 16th March and are well worth checking out.


Record Details:

Fela Kuti – Black President (1981) – ARISTA (SPART 1167)

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