Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!




Whoa! I just realized today is Halloween, and to mark the occasion, here's the only thing I could come up with that approaches being an "African Halloween song." From the Congo via Nairobi, here's Orchestre Les Mangalepa (above) and "Dracula" (ASL 2250N, circa 1983):

Orchestre Les Mangalepa - Dracula Pts. 1 & 2


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Digital Ethiopia Pt. 1




Back in the '80s Ethiopian music was extremely hard to come by outside of Ethiopia. Mahmoud Ahmed's brilliant Ere Mela Mela was released on LP by the Belgian label Crammed Discs around 1985, and later in the decade the exile singer Aster Aweke released Aster, recorded in the UK with mainly non-Ethiopian backup musicians. That was just about it, unless you were lucky enough to know Ethiopians who could supply you with scratchy, poorly dubbed cassettes from the motherland.

All that changed in the '90s when political change opened the country up. A fine collection of traditional and modern music, Music From Ethiopia (Caprice CAP 21432) came out in 1992, and within a few years the incredible Ethiopiques series opened the world's ears to the classic sounds of "Swingin' Addis" from the '60s and early '70s.

When it became possible for Ethiopian musicians to travel freely it was only natural that they would gravitate to U.S. recording studios, and in the last 15 years there has arisen a robust market in CDs made here. For the most part these are "under the radar" - not available through the usual "World Music
™" outlets like Sterns. The main issue I have with these American recordings is the overwhelming use of synthesizers. That said, many of these productions are surprisingly sophisticated, a far cry from the rinky-dink keyboards and drum machines of much contemporary African music.

Let's listen to some of these
recordings from "Digital Ethiopia." This is Part One of a two-part post.

I became familiar with Tilahun Gessesse through Ethiopian friends in the '80s. A brilliant and passionate singer, Gessesse got his start during the 1950s with the Hager Fikr Theater and later moved on to the Imperial Bodyguard Band. I didn't want to like his debut US release, the 2-CD set Tilahun Gessesse in the US (Ethio-Groove MCD-1181, 1992). Its slick production, presenting the great maestro in "crooner" mode, varies greatly from the raw, unbridled sound of his Ethiopian recordings, but damn if it didn't grow on me - what a singer! At this point I'd rate
Tilahun Gessesse in the US one of my fave African recordings. Here are two songs from the 27-track setlist, and I promise that sometime in the future I will post some of Tilahun's wonderful Ethiopian recordings:

Tilahun Gessesse - Melelayet Mot New

Tilahun Gessesse - Ewedish Nebere

Menelik Wossenachew is another old-timer who was a member of the Haile Sellasie I Theatre Orchestra and the Ras Band back in the 1960s and had a number of hits including "Fiqir Bastergwami," "Fiqir Ayaregim" and "Sukuar Sukuar." You can hear one of his early recordings here. I really enjoyed his CD Gash Jembere! (Ethio-Grooves EG95-2, 1995), especially this, the title track:

Menelik Wossenachew - Gash Jembere!

And I just had to include this peculiar but very enjoyable, almost "country-western" tune from the same CD. Check out the wonderful tenor sax solo by Moges Habte:

Menelik Wossenechew - Yeayne Tesfa

The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, although they have been historically subordinated by the dominant Amhara. One of the most popular Oromo musicians back in the '80s was Mohammed Tawil, who now apparently lives in the US. You can see a video by him here. Here's a tune from his 1997 CD Changes (Tawil Production):

Mohammed Tawil - Si-Si



In all of Africa, American-style "jazz" music (as opposed to the various "jazz" groups that play local styles) has taken root in only two countries, South Africa and Ethiopia. That jazz has caught on at all in the latter country is due mainly to the efforts of one man, the pianist and vibraphonist Mulatu Astatqé. His "Ethio-Jazz" style, combining the results of ten years studying and playing music in London and New York with Ethiopian tradition, is brilliantly showcased in the CD Ethiopiques 4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale 1969-1974 (Buda Musique 82964-2). Serendipitously, this record was the basis for the soundtrack of the 2005 movie Broken Flowers, directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray.

During a later US sojourn, Astatqé recorded Assiyo Bellema (Ethio-Grooves, 1994) with a group of mainly American musicians. While not as interesting in my opinion as his Ethiopian recordings, it has its moments. Here's a tune featuring the vocalist Teshome Mitiku:

Mulatu Astatke w. Teshome Mitiku - Wello

Tilaye Gebre also stakes his claim to the jazz idiom. His Endless Dream (Shakisso Music Productions 001, 1995) wouldn't be out of place on one of those "Smooth Jazz" radio stations, with it seamless blend of synthesizer and saxophone, but I love it nonetheless - Gebre's just too talented a musician. He too served his musical apprenticeship at the Haile Sellasse I Theatre, then graduated to the Equators and Dahlak Bands. While on a tour of the U.S. with the Walias Band, he decided to stay, and has become a sought-after session musician for acts like Aster Aweke and Mahmoud Ahmed. Here's my favorite tune from Endless Dream:

Tilaye Gebre - Yenigat Kokeb/Yelelit Berehane



If you're interested in getting some of these recordings online, I can't promise anything, but you might try AIT Records or Nahom Records. Otherwise, investigate your nearest Ethiopian restaurant or grocery store. In "Digital Ethiopia Pt. 2" I'll be posting songs by some great female singers as well as some other goodies.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Small Love and a Soft Voice




No sooner had I mentioned that I was lacking two of Nelly Uchendu's legendary recordings, Love Nwantinti (Homzy HCE 005, 1976) and Mamausa (Afrodisia DWAPS 2066, 1978), than Uchenna of With Comb and Razor mailed me copies of both that he had located in Nigeria. If that weren't enough, he also enclosed a copy of Hosanna (Homzy HCE 039, 1979), a previously-unknown-to-me gospel album by the State City Singers, a trio featuring Nelly and her sister Bridget. Thanks, Uchenna! I owe you one (or two, or three).

Not only do all of these LPs differ in "feel," they contrast interestingly to the recordings featured in my previous post. The one constant is Nelly's glorious voice, an instrument that earned her the appellation "Nigeria's Golden Voice." I'm more than happy to devote another post to this great Igbo chanteuse, who was woefully neglected outside of Nigeria during her lifetime, and is in danger of being forgotten completely now that she has departed this world.

Love Nwantinti, Uchendu's first LP, is the recording that put her on the map after some years of celebrity in her native Enugu. It is actually credited to Nelly Uchendu and pianist/organist Mike Obianwu, and what a combination it is! Love Nwantinti is one of the few African records I've heard that feature piano prominently, a very interesting effect. The liner notes state that Obianwu had 45 years of experience under his belt as of 1976. Indeed, I'm wondering if he is the uncredited pianist featured on Celestine Ukwu's classic LP True Philosophy (Philips 6361 009, 1971). Producer H.N. Nnamchi writes, ". . . As some of these evergreen tunes gradually fading away hence I called Nelly and 'Uncle' Mike Obianwu to make this evergreen, exciting, top hits into an album for me and you to own in our own individual record library. . ."

We open up with a medley of three tunes, actually part of a six-song medley that comprises Side 1 of Love Nwantinti. In "Love Nwantinti" ("Small Love"), Nelly sings "My life's journey of love ("ije love") needs just a little more time." In "Ada Eze" ("The Chief's Daughter") she beseeches her best friend, "Ada Eze, come tell me what I should do in this world. What you have in your heart is love. . ." The chorus, "onyi mu oma,' means "my best friend." Finally, in "Onye Nwulu Ozuluike" ("When Somebody Dies, They Rest"), she sings "A bus has taken Joy to Sokoto in the North ["ugwu Hausa"]. A guest has no enemies. If another animal sees a monkey jumping and tries to jump himself he will be hurt. When somebody dies, they rest":

Nelly Uchendu & Mike Obianwu - Love Nwantinti/Ada Eze/Onye Nwulu Ozuluike

"Chukwu Onye Okike" ("God Our Creator") from Side 2 of
Love Nwantinti, is basically a prayer: "God our creator, God our Lord, God who loves us, please help us. Please save us." I love the instrumental break & Obianwu's sharp piano work:

Nelly Uchendu & Mike Obianwu - Chukwu Onye Okike



Sharp-eyed readers will note that the track titles and recording information given on the label differ somewhat from the cover and titles given here (click the image to enlarge). I don't know why this is, but I have a hypothesis: After Nelly's smash debut at FESTAC '77, the original LP by "Uncle Obianwu and Nelly Uchendu" was reissued credited to Nelly Uchendu and Mike Obianwu with a new title and cover. As there were no doubt copies of the original pressing around, only the cover was reprinted. It's as good an explanation as any.

I had heard of Mamausa, but was unprepared for what greeted my ears after actually putting it on the turntable. Who would have thought that in 1978, after a tidal wave of soul and R&B had swept over Nigeria, people there would still be making first-rate dance-band highlife? Interesting also is the presence in the lineup of Ken Okulolo, who has been a respected purveyor of African music in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years now.

"Mamausa" seems to be a nickname, perhaps referring to someone from the North of Nigeria (the song is sometimes referred to as "Mama Hausa," and since the hard "h" sound is not usually pronounced in Igbo, this seems plausible), probably an older lady. Nelly sings to her friend, ". . . I'm so very lost, I'm so much in love. Mamausa, beautiful woman, I'm telling you I'm lost. The journey of love ("ije love" once again) has killed me":

Nelly Uchendu - Mamausa Pts. 1 & 2

On the album, "Mamausa" is actually parts 1 and 4 of a four-song medley. the track listing is: Mamausa Pt. 1/Jesu Chelum/Ugbo Ndi Oma/Mamausa Pt. 2. For convenience I've combined the two parts of the song, but if you'd like to hear the whole medley, click here.

"Okwu Di Nlo" ("A Soft Voice") from Side 2 of Mamausa, preaches the virtues of moderation: "A soft voice brings down anger. That's how a person succeeds in life. A soft voice brings peace, it brings happiness. . .":

Nelly Uchendu - Okwu Di Nlo


The final song on
Mamausa, "Kpokube Olisa," ("Call on the Lord") is another hymn. Nelly sings that today people can't even trust their own relatives: ". . . The world has changed. The world has gotten bad. Call on the Lord so we can survive":

Nelly Uchendu - Kpokube Olisa



I wanted to include a couple of tracks from Hosanna in this post, but I just haven't had time to do the necessary audio restoration (as you can tell, these records have all been much-loved and much-played!) Perhaps another time. And many thanks, as usual, to my wife Priscilla for her interpretations of these lyrics.

Discography of Nelly Uchendu

Update: Cheeku Bidani confirms my suspicions regarding the two issues of Love Nwantinti. At above right is the original cover (click to enlarge). It is currently offered on Ebay here.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Highlife Obscurities




Note: This post was updated and corrected on January 4, 2009.

Back in the early '90s I got it into my head that I would like to become a record mogul and release my own series of African discs. So on the occasion of my second visit to Nigeria in December of 1995 it seemed like a good idea to visit some record companies there to propose licensing some music to release in the U.S.

In Lagos I met with
A.J. Ejuichie of Premier Music (successor to Polygram Nigeria) and Femi Dairo of Ivory Music (successor to EMI Nigeria). They are pictured below, left and right. Executives at Leader Records and Ibukun Orisun Iye were out of town, although I purchased a lot of great music at their retail stores. Ditto for Rogers All Stars in Onitsha.



Truth be told, I have no business sense so the record company idea was basically a pipe dream. I suspect Mr. Dairo & Mr. Ejuichie realized I had no idea what I was doing although they were exceedingly friendly and gracious.
Mr. Ejuichie informed me that the rights to the entire Polygram Nigeria catalog had been licensed to a company called Mossiac Music in New York City.

Mossiac issued upwards of 30 CDs in the late '90s; not only classic highlife from the old Polygram catalog but recordings by the Oriental Brothers, Igbo traditional music, even a four-CD Best of Osadebe set! Unfortunately Mossiac went under without a trace. It seems to have had zero distribution outside of the Nigerian community, not even through Sterns! I suspect that whoever was behind the mysterious "Mossiac Music" lost serious coin. Well, better him than me!

I myself have been able to obtain only a few Mossiac releases. One of these is Rusted Highlife Vol. 1 (Mossiac Music MMCD 1812), which boldly departs from the usual fare of recent
highlife reissues to showcase some obscure but wonderful tracks from the late '60s and early '70s, when the old danceband paradigm was yielding to the harder, stripped-down guitar highlife style.

I haven't had time to sit down with Priscilla and do translations of the song lyrics. I'll try to do so and update this post later.

The Professional Seagulls Dance Band of Port Harcourt, led by David Bull, were formerly the Rivers Men, the backup band of highlife superstar Rex Lawson. Following his death in 1971, they struck out on their own, and scored a number of major hits, including "Afro Baby" and "Atabala Woman." An earlier posting, following the incorrect liner notes of Rusted Highlife Vol. 1, credited these tracks to Emmanuel Vita & the Eastern Stars Dance Band.
The liner notes also transpose the song titles:

Professional Seagulls Dance Band - Afro Baby (Baby Wayo)

Professional Seagulls Dance Band - Atabala Woman

The late Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe was the last great exemplar of the danceband highlife sound before his death on May 11, 2007. Here are two tracks by him that have never appeared on any of his LPs to my knowledge.

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound-Makers - Uwa Bu Egwu

Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & his Nigeria Sound-Makers - Amala

Of course, you're familiar with Dan Satch & his Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba from this post. Dan Satch Joseph (not Dan Satch Opara of the Oriental Brothers!), a former sideman in Bobby Benson's band, formed the Atomic 8 Dance Band in 1962. Although the Atomics were known to dabble in Afrobeat, "Baby Pay My Money" and "Take Your Notice" show them in classic danceband highlife mode.

Dan Satch & his Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba - Baby Pay My Money

Dan Satch & his Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba - Take Your Notice

The Eastern Ministers Guitar Band, like the Oriental Brothers and their various offshoots, hailed from the Owerri area. The Eastern Ministers had several huge hits, including "Nwa Ka Ego" and "Uwa Tutu Uwa Fufu [The World is Sweet and Painful]." The melody and guitar work of "Ihe-Chi-Nyerem," the Orientals' first record, were obviously inspired by the spare, rough-and-ready sound of "Nwa Ka Ego," recorded a couple of years earlier. The two groups' vocal styles are quite different, however.

Eastern Ministers Guitar Band - Nwa Ka Ego

Eastern Ministers Guitar Band - Enu Uwa


B.E. Batta and Emmanuel Vita of the Eastern Stars Dance Band were from Nembe in Rivers State. They had played with Rex Lawson's band before striking out on their own. It is quite possible that Warrior of the Oriental Brothers, in crafting his famous "shouting" singing style, modeled himself on Vita, who had a similarly powerful voice.

B.E. Batta & Eastern Stars Dance Band - Solo Hit (Nwaocholonwu)

B.E. Batta & Eastern Stars Dance Band - Mme Eyedi

Eastern Ministers Guitar Band - Ariri Otu Nwa

Eastern Ministers Guitar Band - Uwa Tuto Uwa Fufu

As I knew nothing about the next two artists, Demmy Bassey and Burstic Kingsley Bassey, I asked Uchenna of With Comb & Razor, who told me that Kingsley was a well-known performer at the Luna Night Club in Calabar during the 1970s. His popularity never extended much beyond the Cross River area, though. Uchenna could tell me nothing about Demmy Bassey. "Bassey," by the way, is a very common surname in the Cross River-Akwa Ibom area.

Demmy Bassey - Abisi Do

I thought "Ima Abasi" sounded familiar, so I got out my copy of The Hit Sound of the Ramblers Dance Band (Afrodisia WAPS 25) and put it on the turntable. Well well, the exact same recording shows up on side two of this hit album by the venerable Ghanaian highlife orchestra! There is no mention of Kingsley Bassey in the liner notes, although a "Len Bassey" is given songwriting credit. The lyrics, according to the notes, describe a fellow who pleads with his girlfriend, ". . . all you do is kick me about and boss me around. . . Call me no names. Just work your charms on me, darling, for I love you."

Kingsley Bassey - Ima Abasi

Trumpeter St. Augustine Awuzia was from the Igbo-speaking area west of the Niger River in present-day Delta State, and came into his own (having previously been a sideman in various Lagos highlife congregations) as a soldier in the Federal Army during the Biafran war, where he led his own band. "Ashawo No Be Work," a huge hit, addressed the many "ladies of the evening" who frequented the band's concerts. The title literally means "Prostitution is Not Work":

St. Augustine & his Rovers Band - Ashawo No Bi Work

St. Augustine & his Rovers Band - Abu Special

The late Inyang Henshaw, foremost avatar of the Efik highlife sound, pays tribute in two songs to the great musician Cardinal Rex Lawson:

Inyang Henshaw - Nkpakara Wo (Tribute to Rex Lawson 1)

Inyang Henshaw - Tribute to Rex Lawson 2



The map of eastern Nigeria below can be used to locate some of the areas mentioned in this post (click to enlarge).