World Music

Everything Scatter: A Guide to Afrobeat 
and the Music of Modern Nigeria

Nigeria has one of the richest musical histories of any country on the African continent. Considering the competition, that is really saying something. A country wracked with centuries’ worth of war, poverty, and countless other social ills, music has remained a constant unifying force, and it is the lifeblood of its peoples. For Nigerians, music is not a huge part of life—it is life. In fact, it is said that every Nigerian boy is given a drum before he learns to walk.

The evolution of Nigerian music can be traced back thousands of years, but it was its more modern forms that made the country a major player on the world music stage in the second half of the 20th century. It didn’t hurt that by this point the country already had a rich base shaped by a cross-cultural pollination dating back to the early days of colonization. Much of this occurred in the Nigerian capitol and busy port city of Lagos, where the heavily-rhythmic yoruba form dominated. Beginning in the 1900s, a plethora of musical influences, among them ragtime, calypso, meringue, blues, and even some Celtic forms, would join the mix, over time giving birth to a sound that was truly pan-global in every sense of the term.

But perhaps the most significant event in the evolution of modern Nigerian music was the arrival of highlife from neighboring Ghana in the early ’50s. A form with a resemblance to Trinidadian calypso and the American big band sound of the ’30s and ’40s, highlife would evolve and truly come into its own in Nigeria. Heavy on the brass, Nigerian highlife bands slowly began to emphasize the electric guitar, an instrument with widespread availability all over the world by the early ’60s. Vibrant, rhythmic, and extremely danceable, highlife became a major touchstone of Nigeria’s modern cultural identity, which in itself had taken on a whole new meaning following the gaining of the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1960.

Highlife continued to evolve throughout that decade, occasionally even leaving the confines of its national borders to enjoy some niche popularity in some western countries. One of its prime exporters was a young multi-instrumentalist by the name of Fela Anikulapo Ransome Kuti. In the early ’60s, Fela’s gifted musicianship landed him a spot at the prestigious Trinity College of Music in London, a city that at that time was experiencing the rumblings of a musical revolution of its own. Fela returned to Nigeria in the mid-60s and formed the band Koola Lobitos. His growing demand as an international performer would eventually bring him to Los Angeles in 1969. There he would become heavily steeped in the Black Power movement and also become exposed to the work of the soul music giants of the era, most significantly James Brown. When Fela returned to Nigeria at the end of the decade, he did so with his own musical and political agendas. Nigerian music would never be the same.

As monumental as Fela’s impact was, its downside was that it overshadowed the work of his Nigerian musical peers. While some were certainly influenced by Fela, many were innovators in their own rights. Fela might have coined the term “afrobeat” for his own music, but the term has since become synonymous with the immensely rich and diverse sounds that emanated from Nigeria in the 1970s and beyond. It has influenced artists from the Talking Heads to Vampire Weekend, and it can be heard today in the samples and beats of hip-hop and electronica and on the floors of dance clubs the world over. But as pervasive and ubiquitous as it has become, Afrobeat stands alone. It is the sound of modern Africa, but one where also can be heard the heartbeat of a culture whose history can be traced back to the birth of human civilization. Like a visit to Nigeria itself, fully exploring its music is a challenging, but rewarding, endeavor. Here are some places to begin the expedition.

Orlando Julius & His Modern Aces Super Afro Soul (2000) While Fela would become Nigeria’s most recognizable musical icon, Orlando Julius was the country’s first true pop superstar. A major purveyor of hIghlife in the mid-60s, Julius diverted from the rest of the pack by incorporating Stax and Motown influences into his sound, creating an infectious hybrid of highlife and soul. Though revered by many musicians outside of his homeland, Julius never found the massive international audience that he deserved. Fortunately, British label Strut Records sought to remedy this by reissuing this album, which highlights this fertile period of his career.

Fela Ransome Kuti & Ginger Baker Live! (1971) Cream drummer Ginger Baker was rock royalty’s earliest adopter of Nigerian music. Building a state of the art recording studio in Lagos in the early 70s, he is widely credited for introducing the music of Nigeria to western audiences. Baker and Fela met in London in the late 60s, resulting in a lifelong personal and musical friendship that would benefit both of them. This recording, made in a London club in 1970, showcases the two icons joining forces to deliver a killer set. Baker’s drumming not surprisingly sometimes gives it a more rock-like feel, making this a unique entry in Fela’s catalog.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti & Africa 70 Gentleman (1973) When confronted with the bewildering size of Fela’s catalog, many people often ask the same question: “Where should I start?”. Really, pretty much any of his studio albums released between 1971 and 1978 will make anyone a fan for life. But this album is where the template for Fela and Africa 70’s incendiary brand of afrobeat was truly established. Its title track, with Fela’s blistering sax (an instrument that he allegedly learned and mastered in just a few days following the departure of Africa 70 tenor saxophonist, Igo Chico), is worth the price of admission alone.

Peter King Shango (1974) A classically trained composer and saxophonist, Peter King is yet another criminally overlooked master of afrobeat. In the 70s, he recorded a handful of records containing a winning mix of jazz, funk, soul, blues, salsa, and, of course, rhythms from his own homeland of Nigeria. This can be heard in all its hip-shaking glory on this record, which unfortunately to date remains his only one to be reissued.

The Daktaris Soul Explosion (1998) You would never know it, but this album was actually recorded in the late-90s by a bunch of guys from Brooklyn, many who would go on to form Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra soon after its release. So convincing was its vintage sound and packaging, however, that many collectors were sure that they had stumbled upon a long lost afrobeat classic. (One of the evil geniuses behind this ruse was Gabriel Roth, eventual founder and boss of Daptone Records.) Despite the gimmickry, it’s the music that has to deliver in the end, and it does so in spades. Dedicated to Fela, the album kick-started the afrobeat revival. thereby keeping his torch ablaze while proudly carrying it into the 21st century.

Further listening: With growing interest among DJs, crate-diggers, and world music aficionados, the aughts saw an explosion of Nigerian music compilations. Strut records has done for afrobeat what Trojan Records did for reggae. Its 2000 release, Nigeria 70, provides an outstanding primer to afrobeat and its related forms. (Original pressings contained a standalone disc containing an excellent aural documentary of Nigeria’s musical history, which was unfortunately omitted from the recent reissue.) If you’re looking for highlife, seek out the Vampi Soul label’s Highlife Time, a collection with some of the best examples of the genre. Finally, the Soundway label’s in-progress “Special” series probably digs the deepest into Nigerian music of the ’60s and ’70s of any releases thus far; Nigeria Rock Special, which highlights the more psychedelia-influenced sounds of the period, is a great place to start. The music of modern Nigeria still remains a relatively untapped resource. What’s available now is only the beginning! —Richard P

Ska and Reggae’s Missing Link: 
A Guide to Rocksteady

Aside from reggae, ska was arguably Jamaica’s most important musical form, at least in terms of long-term cultural impact. Becoming ubiquitous all over the island at an astonishing speed in the early ’60s, ska grabbed hold of Jamaica’s musical consciousness like nothing had before. What’s more, despite its strange rhythms and heavily-Jamaican-accented vocals (when it wasn’t entirely instrumental), it crossed cultural boundaries almost effortlessly, making it catch on like mad in Britain and—to a lesser degree—the states.

Many Jamaican artists who eventually became international household names, among them Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff, cut their teeth as performers during ska’s reign. In 1964, Millie Small scored an international smash hit with her skanked-up cover of “My Boy Lollipop”, and soon ska was everywhere. But by 1966, it was mysteriously vanishing in one place: Jamaica. A visit to a typical Kingston dance hall around that time would reveal that things were changing. Ska was becoming more melodic, more centered on the vocalist(s), and slower. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but there are some theories. One suggests that during the summer of ’66, a brutal heatwave gripped Jamaica, forcing the musicians to slow things down on the dance floor so revelers wouldn’t collapse from heat exhaustion. Another postulates that the increasingly widespread availability of American soul records might have been a factor. (This would certainly make sense, as Stax and Motown influences can be heard all over the place on many Jamaican sides that were cut around this time.)

Whatever the cause, ska was metamorphosing into something completely different, so much so that it needed a new name; rocksteady seems to be the one that stuck. Rocksteady’s heyday was even more short-lived than its predecessor—-really only about two years-—and by the end of 1968, things were changing again. Recording technologies on the island were improving. Rastafarianism’s influence continued to spread, prompting a more socially conscious and politically-charged aesthetic. By the end of the decade, rocksteady was no longer, and reggae prevailed. But for many connoisseurs of modern Jamaican music, rocksteady represents its high point. It’s a form that’s rich and complex, yet raw, pure, and deeply soulful. It’s a truly unique product of its place and time, but one that transcends geography and culture, and which remains timeless. Here are five shining examples.

1. Prince Buster: Fabulous Greatest Hits (1980) – Though acquiring a popularity in the UK that at its peak rivaled the Beatles’s, Prince Buster never really established a large following in the US. Tracking down his one uneven RCA release from 1967 is a worthwhile endeavor, but this 1980 British comp is where all newcomers should start. All songs here were recorded in the mid to late ’60s, and many of them would serve as the blueprint for the 2 Tone movement that swept the UK a decade or so later.

2. Desmond Dekker and the Aces Israelites (1969) “The Jamaican Smokey Robinson’s” single “Israelites” represents the only time when rocksteady cracked the US top 100. When it did, MCA rushed to cobble together this collection of songs, some of which by then were almost two years old. It’s still a fantastic showcase for some of Dekker’s best work. He’s at the top of his game here, and so is his backing band.

3. The Ethiopians Engine ’54: Let’s Ska and Rocksteady (1968) Rocksteady was the ideal vehicle for the vocal group, and as Jamaican vocal groups went, they didn’t get much better than the Ethiopians. Don’t let the “ska” in the title fool you; most of this is quintessential rocksteady, some of the best ever recorded.

4. The Upsetters The Upsetter (1969) It’s difficult to figure out to whom this album should really be credited. One should know, however, that a young Lee “Scratch” Perry produced it, and whenever this eccentric mastermind is involved, things become, well… complicated. Featuring the work of a cadre of different musicians and vocalists, it’s a surprisingly cohesive late rocksteady record, one where the organ figures more prominently than the work of others at the time. It also hints at the dub revolution, of which Perry would be a prime architect a few years later.

5. Various Artists Tighten Up: Volume 1 (1969) Music from Jamaica continued to capture the hearts and minds of young UK listeners in the late ’60s, but the record industry was slow to profit from its popularity. This Trojan Records “cash-in” comp. spawned a series that would become an institution and number well into the double digits before ending its run. Its first volume defined the musical tastes of the Skinhead movement (before it was co-opted by nationalist and racist thugs). Heavy on soul covers, a few of its tracks denote a distinct progression towards reggae, but most represent some last great moments from Rocksteady’s waning days.

Further listening: Once the digging begins, one will be amazed by how so much great music came from such a small island in such a short period of time. The UK-based Trojan Records label remains the prime importer of rocksteady for a huge portion of the non-Jamaican world. The amount of compilations it has released over the years is overwhelming, but a good place to start is its budget-priced “threefer” box set series that it began churning out at the beginning of the 2000s. The Rocksteady Rarities and Skinhead comps are particular standouts, though there are plenty more (and some are available on vinyl). Also worth mentioning are Soul Jazz Records’ numerous comps that cover this period. Though they touch on other eras, 100% Dynamite and its many sequels and offshoots give a good overview of one of rocksteady’s most important producers, Sir Coxone Dodd. –Richard P

Are we forgetting your favorite rocksteady LP? We’d love to hear your comments:

Caetano Veloso “Caetano Veloso” (1971)

Ironically enough, Caetano Veloso’s almost entirely English language album is one of the most misunderstood of his classic 60s/70s period amongst English-speaking audiences (first place goes to Araca Azul, but that one at least gives you fair warning of its polarizability by the Caetano-in-bikini cover). Recorded while in exile in London, the album marks a dramatic musical departure from his first 2 solo outings that he would continue to explore up through 1977 or thereabouts. I must confess I don’t know too many details of Caetano’s (or Gilberto Gil’s) exile in London. It seems like a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the British, though there was probably no reason why anyone there should’ve known who he was. Apparently some Traffic members were big fans, and even helped out on Gil’s sessions but if I were George Harrison or Twink or Jimmy Page or Bill Wyman or Jack Bruce or Marc Bolan or Mike Heron and someone told me that the leading light of Brazil’s new underground rock movement was in my midst, I would totally be over there asking if he wanted to go bowling or split an appetizer or something. Or if I was Jimmy Page, I would ask if I could steal his guitar line from “Irene”.

One aspect of Veloso’s exile period is quite : he did NOT like it. The cover is amazing. Caetano looks like he’s 50, he’s cold, and you just told him a mildly offensive joke. One would assume this album is as bleak as Pink Moon but the first couple of songs might surprise you. “A Little More Blue” opens with a laidback, meandering acoustic figure that sounds a bit mellow but certainly not conducive to soul-bearing. The lyrics are about events that have made him sad, even though at the present moment “I feel a little more blue than then”. Along the way he peppers in references to his own exile and some truly vivid lyrics (“her dead mouth with red lipstick smiled”). An odd, dichotomous opener. “London, London” is for me the standout. And, oddly enough, it’s the jauntiest track, replete with playful flute like Donovan’s 67-era acoustic sides. It’s one of the most exquisitely beautiful songs I’ve ever heard concerning alienation, loneliness, and, above all, homesickness. In this respect, it can be seen as the post-traumatic counterpart to the desperate “Lost in the Paradise” from his previous album. And while I hold that song to be one of the best songs ever written, period, “London, London” offers the beautifully resigned flipside of that coin. And all this from a song whose refrain is “My eyes go looking for flying saucers in the skies”. Things start to get a bit darker with the more-produced “Maria Bethania”, a plea to his sister. “If You Hold a Stone” is an expanded, highly repetitve reworking of “Marinheiro So” from the previous album. I’m not going to pretend to know what he’s talking about here (even though it’s in English and he repeats it like 30 times) but I could listen to it all day long. The last song “Asa Branca” is the only Portuguese-language track on the album and as such it’s an emotionally powerful return to relatively familiar territory for Caetano. The song, written by Luiz Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira, is about a native farmer (presumably) of Northeastern Brazil having to leave the land and his wife during one of the droughts that often occur in that part of the country because he is unable to make a living. At the end he promises to return. Amazingly, if you really try to live inside this album, you don’t really need to know Portugese to understand what this song is saying. A haunting, ethereal way to end perhaps the most personal album in Veloso’s storied career.

This album is notable for several reason. Firstly, it marks a dramatic change in musical direction for Veloso. I’ve never heard an album with a greater sense of space. There is a lot of silence on this album and it itself is utilized almost as an additional instrument, a “symphony of silence” (mental copyright) if you will. His first solo album was lush and sprightly and full of subtle sonic experimentation. His second album made the sonic experimentation much more explicit and combined this with a panoramic feeling that made that album at times feel tense and murky (not a bad thing in this case). This album does a dramatic about-face with its spare, acoustic lines, occasional bass-and-drum backing, and lyric-centric approach. This formula would reach full fruition on Transa and continue up until 1977’s African-influenced Bicho. The second notable aspect of this album is how well Veloso’s poetry translates into English. That’s no mean feat. Gil’s more awkward English makes his equivalent album difficult to decipher emotionally but Caetano’s only slightly accented English is perfectly suited to his prose that, though economical, are undeniably evocative and effective at relating emotional depth. Certainly not a place to start for Caetano Veloso, but you should try to find yourself here if you are willing to acquire more than 3 of his albums. –Mike