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).


Frank Partisan said...

Thank you for visiting my blog. I have admired your blog for quite awhile.

I will link to it tonight.

I saw Olatunji in person. That is my claim to fame on African music.

I have a friend who is a percussionist into afro-Cuban music, He had a chance to meet Olatunji. He dressed in traditional African garb. Out came Olatunji, dressed 100% western.

WrldServ said...

Ooooh, this is great!

Anonymous said...

Thanks - a fine selection of unfamiliar tracks, from some of the greats, as well as some real obscurities, which can be just as nice!

zim said...

Thanks for this John, I've been looking for Rusted Highlife for a while, I didn't know the story behind Mossaic, now I know why I wasn't able to find it!

The Eastern Stars in particular were great to hear for the first time.

there is some music by folks represented here (osadebe and st. augustine) available though, put out by premier records.

kreismyr said...

Magic stuff!!

Frank Partisan said...

In Minneapolis we have an all African music and DVD store, with merchandise by country.

Anonymous said...

Renegade Eye:

What store in Minneapolis has African music?

I mean besides Cheapo and Electric Fetus.

Comb & Razor said...

hmmm... i never knew anything about Mossiac, but if this compilation is any indication, it looks like they were putting out stuff that's right up my alley! too bad they disappeared... i definitely applaud their intentions!\

(wonder if they've still got those PolyGram rights...?)

the Demmy Bassey/Burstic Bassey conundrum is intriguing. "Ima Abasi" is indeed the same recording from the Ramblers album, and i suppose it makes sense for Burstic to have built his fame off of his association with the Ramblers and then gone back home a local celebrity.

Demmy Bassey might have done the same: "Abasi Do" was included on the Golden Highlife Classics compilation of King Bruce & his Black Beats (i think i might have posted it in my Calabar nostalgia post). i do recall the song being credited to someone named Bassey... i need to dig the CD out and look that up!

always great to hear some more Atomic 8, too... thanks, JB!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for these tracks. They are very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

John B:
You wrote in part: >>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 observation above confirms your musical wizardry. The late John Ikediala formed the Eastern Ministers Band right after the Civil War. Some of his music apprentices were Warrior, Kabaka, Dan Satch, Ichita, and Akwila. Upon his death, the band scattered and the quartet formed the Oriental Brothers.

Follow the link below to watch Mrs. Ikediala state what I said above in her own words

John, you are great fellow, man. Thank you for finding those oldies and availing us with them.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for confirming my suspicion concerning the Ministers/Orientals link. That video looks very interesting also. I'll have to find someone to translate it.

Are the Eastern Ministers and the Eastern Minstrels the same group, also? I have a rip of an Eastern Minstrels LP & it sound exactly like the songs by the Eastern Ministers on Rusted Highlife.

Bellemskey said...

Oh John, thanks, merci, daalu, Meka, Ose gan, Nagode..... thanks for all these tunes.... Haaa, Ashawo no be work, Abasi Do, Afrobaby, Atabla woman.... the list is endless..... Bravo John....

Anonymous said...

Hey, great stuff you have going on your blog. I wondering whether I could use two songs by the Eastern Ministers for my youtube channel?

John B. said...


Of course you may. Please credit Likembe.

David said...

Well, it's a sad day when I have to say the contributions by Chief Stephen Osadebe to an album are among the least interesting!! Or perhaps I mean, WOW what a great day, finding so much quality highlife in one place!! And what fantastic names: I love 'professional seagulls'; and the Atomic 8's 'Take your notice', what a great set of lyrics! The Eastern Ministers are a great discovery, and that trombone solo in the middle of BE Batta's 'solo hit' (is that Batta himself on the trombone?) is something isn't it?!

Fantastic post, now I am disappointed that I will never hear most of Mossiac's CDs ...

Thank you for this great set of songs.

Unknown said...

The melodious tracks is a reminder of high Life music at it's peak...when songs with meaning were written. No wonder,they[these songs]have lasted for decades. Good work!!!!