Pop Music from Aba, Nigeria in the 1970s
(Author’s Note: This is a brief history I originally put together as a compendium to a collection of Nigerian Pop music I shared with friends, focusing primarily on the city of Aba. It serves as the best of my research and may not be 100% accurate. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in attaining this music or have additional info.)
To begin to grasp the breadth of joy, pride and power in these songs, it’s important to place them back in the correct cultural and political soil from which they bloomed. It goes without saying that the music of the 1960s created mind tumbling, pupil dilating and heart opening experiences for not only the people in the first world but those who further out who would hear and feel its mighty ripple. Once consumed, music travels rather like a meal through the musician. The power of the Western song structure, cemented by then as “pop”ular, had become self-evident and a media with which to bring forth the lush spectrum of one’s emotions across the world. In this collection you’ll hear James Brown soul, Beatles harmonies, Doors type organ all mashed with traditional Nigerian stylings.
At the close of the 1960s, Nigeria had reason to celebrate. The scorched country had emerged from 3 1/2 years of civil war, known as the Biafran War, which ended right at the sunrise of the 1970s (Jan 15, 1970 to be exact). Having only gained independence from England, land of the Beatles, exactly ten years before, the Nigeria that survived the war was malnourished, socially distraught and standing on shaky political ground. Under that ground, however, bubbled a key part of their future: oil. Nigeria was, and still is, very rich in oil reserves. Oil remains a means of conflict and prosperity to this day; showing its slick trails in the delayed elections of troubled president Goodluck Jonathan and the vicious kidnappings of militant group Boko Haram. In 1970, recovery and reconstruction came quickly but as it usually does (from the top down). Oil was one reason to believe the quality of life of the common Nigerian would only improve.
Throughout the civil war, particularly in the rebel state of Biafra, Nigerians had expanded the Ghanian style of music known as Highlife and took as their own. The most prominent, and most important figure in doing this was Fela Kuti who would venture to Ghana to study this sound and return to expand it into the universe called ‘Afrobeat’. His inspiring life and music deserve its own volumes and echo the turmoil that would continue through the 70s to his death in the late 90s.
The focus here is on the supporting cast, less political and built on Western pop ideals and its decoder: the English language. One central wartime band was The Spades which, likely after gaining a reputation with the soldiers they entertained, later became The Airforce Wings and then, by 1970, just The Wings. The band at one point contained Danie Ian (who went on to form The Strangers and Wrinkars Experience before enjoying a solo career that expands to this day), Manford Best and the golden voiced Spud Nathan. At the height of their fame, tragedy struck. The Wings bought a new car but before it could be properly “blessed”, Manford Best had sex with a groupie in it. That’s some bad juju. The band became upset but mended. In a gesture of forgiveness, Spud rode with Manford in the car on the way to their next show. Manford, behind the wheel, got into an accident crossing a bridge. Spud was killed. The remaining members went into a period of mourning and blamed Manford, who broke away and formed Super Wings. After 2 years, the other members re-emerged as Original Wings with the very successful album, Tribute To Spud Nathan.
Aba is one of Nigeria’s largest cities and an epicenter for music during that time. Filling the void left by The Wings, The Apostles became superstars on the strength of several hit singles. Their second LP, Black Is Beautiful, is one of the most enjoyable albums of the era: proud, assured, relaxed and extremely powerful. They proved successful into the 80s and lead singer Chyke Fussion still performs in Aba to this day. Another hugely popular band from Aba was Sweet Breeze. With the charismatic Dallas “King” Anyanwu on lead vocals and the gifted Jake Sollo, the group released several stellar records. Both Across The Desert and Advice are powerful, deeply groovy, clever and lyrically complex. Sweet Breeze would later morph into Esbee Family, an 80s disco funk band who created the fascinatingly cheeky record Chics and Chicken. Other successful bands of the era include Ofege, who flex a garagy toughness, The Lijadu Sisters, who’s sibling harmonies are unmatched, the jammy and bluesy Blo, and Black Children Sledge Funk Band.
The ease and liveliness of the actual recordings of these songs is just as important. Though they might lack in quality mp3 replication (most of these mp3s assembled have been beaten around and culled from the attics of old blog posts), the depth and luck of the moment shines through. I’m almost positive most of these songs were recorded live, in the same room. They just feel real: from vocal harmonies jumping in and out and varying, to vamping a few measures before starting a verse, to stepping on a fuzz pedal a few beats into a guitar solo to the fact that the synth player in SJOB Movement can never seem to find the right volume throughout ‘No One Cares’. One must give much respect to Pal Akalonu, who produced pretty much ALL of the Wings, Sweet Breeze and Apostles records as well as many others, for sculpting these sounds in a true, unadulterated way. It should also be noted how important the EMI record label was in capturing most of this music. Most of the top bands of the day were at some point brought or upstreamed to the label’s Nigerian branch and their power in creating quality records in good quantity helped the music survive. They also released 2 Super Hits compilations that served as a packaged introduction to many of the fledgling bands.
There are plenty of others of the time period not included: The Hygrades, The Funkees, Semi-Colon, among others. William Onyeabor, the beautifully strange, reclusive synth pop wizard of the late 70s to mid 80s (who may or may not have been funded by Russia), recently had many of his songs released by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. A most worthy collection worth investigating. Similarly, Soundways Records, focusing more on Lagos and non-English material, has crafted many stellar compilations on the period.
Where these artists’ roads diverge requires even more research. The themes of many later records points to a turn to Christianity in the 80s. The hurricane of Disco displaced some of the more traditional sounds as well. What lives on is a hell of a funky time.
Some favorites from my personal collection:
What a concert might have looked like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZrFW1jRNlw