Japanese Kayōkyoku Women Vocalists 1960s-70s

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Western influences in Japanese pop music can be found starting 100 years ago. Jazz journeyed back over the Pacific on steamers by citizens traveling abroad, first in sheet music form, and then as 78s. It was a woman singer named Sumako Matsui who got it all going, in 1914, with a shellac side called “Katyûsya No Uta” which sold an unheard-of 20,000 copies. It was the beginning of a genre called ryûkôka (‘fashionable songs’). The trend continued into the 1920s as the recording industry matured and began cross-marketing music and cinema, with Chiyako Sato’s title track from the film “Tokyo March” so successful, it caused one critic to worry that “the taste of the citizens of Tokyo will become depraved beyond salvation.” As in the West, patriarchal fears of feminine empowerment were palpable as modernity and capitalism upended traditional gender roles. Japan’s militarist expansion from 1936-45 resulted in the banning of western music, but America’s postwar occupation brought Kasagi Sizuko’s runaway hit “Tôkyô Boogie-Woogie” whose lyrics incorporated words like ukiuki (‘buoyant’) and zukizuki (‘throbbing’) to rhyme with boogie-woogie.

Television and radio were key to the dissemination of imported rockabilly and surf music. The Ventures visit in 1962 is often referenced as a key moment in Japan on par with The Beatles landing at JFK in America. Japanese kids went wild for this new sound, dubbed ereki bûmu (‘elec boom’). Post-British Invasion, it became gurûpu saunzu (‘group sounds’), with vocal harmony and beats taking center stage. Although women were absent from these bands, they continued to be driving forces in enka and kayōkyoku, the two genres that had diverged from ryûkôka. Enka was ballad-centric, traditionalist, and has been compared to the Blues due to its melancholic tone. Kayōkyoku (‘pop songs’) borrowed heavily from western melody. Just as in the West, masculine attitudes surrounding rock music continued to dominate the discourse and define the parameters of what was worthy or authentic. As much as it was used to describe, Kayōkyoku was used to deride those who sang commercialized material written by others.

The Girl Group explosion that began in 1963 in the U.S. never really caught on in Japan. There were a few duet teams–The Peanuts, Jun & Nene–but most women artists were solo acts until the early J-pop era. Oddly, very few covered any of the U.S. Girl Group hits so common in other Asian states, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Japanese teen women singers were more likely to cover “adultish” crossover acts like Connie Francis than The Chiffons. Almost all of the top artists worked with original material, written for them by songwriting teams, much like a Brill-Building arrangement. Western covers were often album filler, with few appearing as 7″ releases. One exception to this is Italian singer Mina, who was hugely influential among artists like The Peanuts, Kayoko Moriyama, Maria Anzai, and Mieko Hirota, all of whom recorded and released Japanese-language versions of her songs as singles.

Biographical information in English is limited. Japanese name order has been flipped to reflect Western conventions.


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Hibari Misora

Without question, Misora is the most famous woman singer in the history of postwar Japanese pop music. Due to the fact that she was a child star, had yakuza mob connections, and embraced kitschy stage attire, she has been called the Japanese equivalent of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Elvis Presley. Her first recordings mimicked rival Shizuko Kasagi’s colonialist boogie music, but the 1950 release of “Echigo Shishi No Uta” introduced a new synthesis of East and West that silenced her early critics and put her on the path to superstardom. She recorded thousands of songs in a variety of genres, mainly in the enka style. Her biggest kayōkyoku hit came out on Columbia in 1967, an A-side called “Makkana Taiyō” (Deep Red Sun), where she is backed by Jacky Yoshikawa & His Blue Comets, one of the best Group Sounds bands. LISTEN


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Jun Mayuzumi

Mayuzumi was massively famous and had a great vocal range and dynamic stage presence, spending the majority of her career recording for Capitol Japan. Her debut 7″ release “Hallelujah” from 1967 unleashed a flood of remarkable sides: “Otome No Inori”; “Angel Love” b/w “Black Room”; “Something Feelin’ And It’s Saturday Night”; “First Heartache”; and “Among the Clouds” b/w “Dreamin’,” a B-side that starts ingeniously with a fake skip. No other kayōkyoku house band could compare to Mayuzumi’s, at least with regard to the consistency of their swinging percussive beats (see this rare live TV performance of “Angel Love”). In the early 70s, she would switch to Phillips and gradually shift her sound towards ballads as the decade wore on. Since most are already familiar with the brilliant “Black Room,” listen to what she does with this kicking version of the traditional Japanese song “Yagi Bushi” from her 1969 LP Recital, recorded live at Tokyo’s Sankei Hall, with Akira Ishikawa on drums. LISTEN


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Akiko Wada

Another Japanese superstar of mixed Korean ancestry (like Hibari Misora), Wada’s deep bluesy sound is immediately distinguishable from all of her kayōkyoku peers. In terms of her chesty voice, and also being embraced early on by the LGBTQ community, she could be called Japan’s equivalent of Britain’s Dusty Springfield or Yugoslavia’s Beti Đorđević. Like them, Wada excelled at big power ballad numbers and could easily match the volume of her supporting orchestras, while always managing to swing her phrasing in a soulful way. She also starred in films, famously playing a biker gang girl, along with Meiko Kaji, in Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss, from 1970, in which she sings a portion of her famed flip-side to “In The Pouring Rain,” a B-side jammer called “Boy & Girl.” For us, it rarely gets better than the vibrato acrobatics, subsonic trombones, and tastefully sprinkled fuzz featured on this 1971 single on RCA, “Sotsugyou Sasete Yo.” LISTEN


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Yumi & Emi Ito (The Peanuts)

Twin sisters Yumi and Emi Ito are best known in the U.S. for their role in the 1961 Toho film Mothra, where they play humanoid anti-nuclear activist fairies who ride on the head of a giant radioactive moth and control it with song. Their repertoire is more varied and international than most singers on this list; attempts at U.S. marketing fell flat, but they were popular in Germany and Austria’s schlager scene. As for their LPs, 1970’s Feelin’ Good: New Dimension of the Peanuts is their pop-psych songbook, with super covers of “Spinning Wheel,” “And I Love Her,” and “Moanin’.” They appeared constantly on Japanese television variety shows until their early retirement from the industry in 1975. Although many solo singers double-tracked their voices, the Itos achieved that by default, sometimes even double-tracking their backing vocals which could create a cavernous choir sound. “The Woman of Tokyo” is probably their best known single, a shimmering spacey example of late 60s orchestral pop. But we are uploading a fave B-side called “Happy’s Coming” that features some cool vocal counterpoint. LISTEN


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Chiyo Okumura

Writing of enka at the time and defending it against charges of vulgarity, Hiroyuki Itsuki said it was “like the sound of groaning coming from someone who is being oppressed, discriminated, and trampled on; someone who is suffering under that weight and yet is attempting to resist it with their whole body. That song is needed by people who don’t belong to a large organization, religion, or other forms of solidarity–people who are dispersed and alone.” Such is the sound of Chiyo Okumura, who fluctuates between smoky subtlety and a high-pitched assertive vibrato that borders on the emotionality of enka. Her first teenage releases covered French singer Sylvie Vartan, but she had better success in 1967 with a song called “Kitaguni No Aoi Sora,” a vocal rendition of the Ventures song “Hokkaido Skies.” After that, she really hit her stride with a string of supreme singles, including “Namidairo No Koi,” “Koigurui,” and “Koi No Dorei.” Her LPs, all on Toshiba, are less interesting in terms of non-single offerings. Our hands-down favorite is her 1969 A-side groover “Koi Dorobo,” a 45 which never leaves our DJ crate. It can also be found on pretty much all of her LPs. LISTEN


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Tomoko Ogawa

Ogawa has been sadly neglected on contemporary anthologies, although she was prominent on girl-singer compilations back in the day on her home label Toshiba, where she was often paired with peers Jun Mayuzumi and Chiyo Okumura on joint releases. Like Miki Hirayama, she tossed in a couple of popular English-language tracks per album, her best being an electrified fuzz-laden cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” from her first LP, around 1968. She also has several great 45s that are worth tracking down. Our favorite, which we are uploading, is an obscure B-side called “Futari Ni Naritai,” a smooth eruption of cool-jazz saxophone, muted trumpet, and piano fills over periodic crashing drums and Ogawa’s soaring vocal sustains. LISTEN


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Akiko Nakamura

Akiko Nakamura recorded prolifically for the King label, mainly singles, and also starred in several films. Her first 7″ was in 1967, “Nijiiro No Mizuumi” (Rainbow-colored Lake), where she is backed by Masaaki Hirao & All Stars Wagon (she also performed this track live in a film, backed by The Jaguars; see here.) “Suna No Jujika,” or “Cross In The Sand,” followed in 1968. She continued to record up until the early 80s. Like Okumura, she was more of a singles act, and her King LPs can get repetitive, re-using past hits as filler while neglecting her best B-sides, of which she had many. To that end, we’re uploading an energetic B-side called “Koi No Magunoria” (Love’s Magnolia) from 1968. LISTEN


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Kayoko Moriyama

Japanese women singers had an affinity for their Italian contemporaries, especially Mina, whose Italdisc single “Tintarella di Luna” (Moon Tan) was covered by many, including a young Kayoko Moriyama on her early smash hit “Tsukikage No Napori.” She started on the tail end of Japan’s rockabilly/beach movie craze, her two early 10″ releases featuring covers by Western women like Connie Francis and Alma Cogan. Her biggest hit came much later, on a transcendent 1970 A-side called “Shiroichonosanba”, or “Butterfly Samba,” that came out on Toshiba and went through multiple pressings. She had one LP released around the same time, on Denon. LISTEN


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Kiyoko Itoh

Information is hard to find on Kiyoko Itoh. Her first LP was in 1969, called Ballads of Love, and a renowned collaboration with Kuni Kawachi and The Happenings Four followed, Woman At 23 Hour Love-In. She had a handful of singles before then, released on CBS. Our favorite is “When the Apple Blossoms,” a track saturated in warm tones that, like classic early Hibari Misora, creates a sonic mish-mash of “East” and “West.” She recorded this song twice, the second version being slower and jazzier. We have uploaded the original 45 A-side version, issued on Columbia in 1967. LISTEN


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Jun & Nene

Another act for which little information exists in English. The duo consisted of Jun Chiaki and Nene Sanae. Our favorite song of theirs is called “O Netsui Naka”, which is a B-side released in 1969 on King Records. It is also on their first LP, released that same year. Like The Peanuts, the vocal fill bits of their double-tracked voices could really make a song; in this one, listen for their cool overdubbed choral fades between lines, during the verses. LISTEN


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Miki Hirayama

All of Miki Hirayama’s fantastic early 45 sides–“Beautiful Yokohama”, “Noah’s Ark”, “Don’t You Know, I Love You!”–can conveniently be found on her debut LP My Beautiful Seasons, issued on Columbia in 1971. Among her great album-only cuts is her uptempo, piano-propelled cover of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which booms deeply between organ and snazzy horn blasts. Like Yuki Okazaki, she went synthy in the late 70s and continued to record and work hard into the 80s, performing on television regularly. LISTEN


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Mie Nakao

Nakao recorded a slew of groovy singles for Victor. Her first 7″ was in 1962, a cover of “Pretty Little Baby” by Connie Francis. French covers of France Gall and Sylvie Vartan followed. Like Kayoko Moriyama, she was a versatile singer and dabbled in jazz standards and also cinema. Her best pop 45 came out in 1968 and is an absolute double-header, the fuzzy powerhouse “Koi No Sharock” b/w “Sharock No. 1.” Both are essential but we are linking to the former because of that amazing overlapping chorus. LISTEN


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Linda Yamamoto

Yamamoto was brilliantly hammy. Her over-the-top stage persona was a clear forerunner of late-70s J-Pop acts like Pink Lady, and she caused a scandal with her stage outfits, with their exposed midriffs, honking bell bottoms, and overall extroverted flamboyance. Her early releases on Minoruphone are pretty run-of-the-mill, but she embraced her dancing side on the Canyon label, from 1971 onward. Since then, her career has gone through several renaissance periods and she continues to perform today. LISTEN


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Ayumi Ishida

Another superstar that enjoyed a long and prolific career, Ishida’s early sides on Victor are difficult to find, so we can’t comment on those. Her big break came in 1968, with “Blue Light Yokohama,” her first 7″ release on Columbia Japan, which went to number #1 on the pop charts. The powerful “Taiyou Wa Naiteiru” followed. She continued to record throughout the 1970s. LISTEN


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Mieko Hirota

Like Kayoko Moriyama, Hirota started her career young at the Toshiba label, covering western pop songs like “You Don’t Own Me,” “Be My Baby,” “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen,” and Mina’s “Renato.” Her most interesting work came post-1965, on the Columbia label, where she matured as a singer and grew increasingly funky, with standout LPs like Exciting R&B Vol.2. In the 70s, she moved more strictly into jazz and pop standards. From the Columbia period, her best side that we’ve heard is undoubtedly the famed flip of “Ballad of a Doll’s House,” a track called “On A Sorrowful Day.” LISTEN


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Yuko Nagisa

Melodies recorded by the Ventures were highly popular among kayōkyoku singers, with new lyrics written to be sung over the main instrumental riff, similar to how jazz bop singer Annie Ross composed lyrics to Wardell Gray’s saxophone solos in 1952. Along with Okumura’s “Hokkaido Skies,” Yuko Nagisa’s “Kyoto Doll” is probably the finest example of this trend, released on Toshiba in 1970. Primarily a singer of darker ballads, there are only a few uptempo Nagisa songs from this period. We have not heard her LPs. She subsequently released a second follow-up Ventures song, called “Reflections in a Palace Lake.” LISTEN


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Yuki Okazaki

Okazaki was a movie star. Unlike some kayōkyoku singers who struggled to find a new style in the late-70s, she switched to the disco and boogie scene very well, with the twin LPs Do You Remember Me and So Many Friends, from ’80 and ’81, still highly regarded today (see live clip here). During her earlier period, she recorded at least two LPs for Toshiba. Our favorite song from that era is the B-side of her first 7″, called “Hanabira No Namida,” a spectacular acoustic mix of voice, vibraphone, trumpet, and strings. LISTEN


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Ouyang Fei Fei

Fei Fei was a Taiwanese-Japanese singer who started her career in 1971 with a hit on Toshiba, “Ame No Midōsuji.” From there, she had continued chart success for several years, easily transitioning into the disco scene in 1978-79. We’ve only heard one of her Toshiba LPs, which is half- Japanese/half-English, containing covers of Karen Carpenter’s “Superstar” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend.” Our select pick that we are uploading is the A-side of her second 45, the torrential tarmac drama “Ame No Eapōto” (Rain Airport). LISTEN


Sources for Intro:

Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. “Twentieth-Century Popular Music in Japan.” Written by Mitsui, Tôru; edited by Robert C. Provine, Yosihiko Tokumaru and J. Lawrence Witzleben. Routledge, 2001.

Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. Michael Bourdaghs. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Tokyo Boogie-Woogie: Japan’s Pop Era and Its Discontents. Hiromu Nagahara. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Nigerian Afrobeat & Disco: The Women

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No doubt many social factors prevented women artists from being recorded in Nigeria during the emerging 1970s pop scene. One was the disreputable view of musicianship for women, the fact that it was viewed as bordering on prostitution by a traditionalist Nigerian patriarchy. By and large, women were relegated to backing vocals, often transforming good records into great ones in the process; see William Onyeabor’s “The Moon and The Sun,” The Wings’ “Someone Else Will,” or N’draman Blintch’s “Cosmic Sounds.” If they assumed a headlining role, it was often through collaborative partnerships with supportive musician spouses (Grace and Jack Ekpeyong) or through family connections in the industry (Lorine Okotie, younger sister of Kris Okotie). Via education gateways, Josephine Mokwunyei was already a young academic when she recorded her landmark Boys & Girls LP in 1979, under the moniker Joe Moks. Many point to the success of Oby Onyioha’s breakthrough I Want To Feel Your Love in 1981 as the big tipping point. From the pre-80s era, the most well-known Nigerian women singers are probably the Lijadu Sisters and Christiana Essien. Essien was a teenage T.V. star when she recorded her first LP Freedom for Anodisc in 1977. The Lijadu Sisters were perhaps culturally acceptable because harmonizing sisters often get a societal pass. By their own account, gender bias and exploitation played a role in their acrimonious split from Decca’s Nigerian subsidiary label Afrodisia, in 1980. Colonial habits die hard.

Biographical details are scarce to non-existent. We have linked to YouTube rips when possible and noted any worthy reissues.


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It’s ironic that women artists are so absent from Nigeria’s early afrobeat scene given that it was an African-American woman in California, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore), who had such a profound impact on its most renowned male figure, Fela Kuti. According to drummer Tony Allen’s autobiography, when they toured America for the first time in 1969, it was she who turned Kuti on to the importance of black nationalism, colonial history, and cannabis (Fela was straight-edge up to then). Sandra was a turning point in Kuti’s sense of political identity, the one who, in his words, “Africanized” him. After her influence, his records became sonic attacks on western dominance, augmented by Lemi Ghariokwu’s anti-imperialist art design. And it is Sandra’s voice that forms the centerpiece of our favorite Kuti side, 1976’s Upside Down, credited to “Sandra Sings With Fela & Africa 70” and recorded during her 6-month stay at Kuti’s commune, Kalakuta. LISTEN


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Some contributions by women on records headlined by men were absolutely transformative. Such is the case with the first LP from Grotto, At Last…, which was issued in 1977 by EMI Nigeria. According to its liner notes, Bola and Ukay were classmates of Grotto’s guitarist and composer Martin Amenechi, at St. Gregory’s College. During a second session of vocal overdubs in December 1976, they were invited to participate, recording over the previously laid-down men’s vocals. Bola’s classic lead on “Come Along With Me,” the album’s opener, is a mesmerizing collision of musical influences. Likewise, Ukay’s contributions to “Grottic Depression II” and “Change of Tide” helped elevate this LP to a new plateau of afropop greatness. Check out “Funk From Mother,” where both Bola and Ukay trade off lead vocals with male members of the band. Original pressings rarely surface and fetch hundreds of dollars when they do. Luckily, At Last… was just re-issued by Odion Livingstone, a Nigerian label run by Odion Iruoje, the original producer, and Temitope Kogbe, a record collector and DJ. Highly recommended. LISTEN


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Classically-trained singer Mary Afi Usuah released several beat singles for the Italian market, as Mary Afi, before returning to Nigeria to record two highly-regarded LPs. She is one of the few artists here who has received a topnotch reissue in full, courtesy of archivist and former pupil Uchenna Ikkone; all should seek out Ekpenyong Abasi, her first LP with the South Eastern State Cultural Band. She later released African Woman on Clover, which we have yet to hear. From the first record, the slow escalation of “From Me To You” is six soulful minutes of power, strength, and sadness. LISTEN


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Like Mary Afi Usuah, Joy Nwosu studied voice in an Italian conservatory, initially researching African cinema and writing a book on the topic in 1968, entitled Cinema e Africa nera. She then returned to Nigeria and began recording a mixture of her own compositions and new arrangements of folk songs, which became Azania on Afrodisia, her only LP. The A-side of a 7” single released just prior was included on an anthology called Nigerian Blues 1970-76. Nwosu later became an academic in ethnomusicology and now lives in New Jersey. LISTEN


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Christy Ogbah recorded three stellar LPs in her career that we know of: two for Duomo (pop) and a third for Mosokam (highlife), which is credited to Christy Ogbah & Her Melody Group. While best known for her westernized wall-of-fuzz dance track “Advice”–her only English-language song–Ogbah excelled at slower synth-heavy pop, sung in Ishan, that was strictly neither disco nor funk but a far more fascinating mashup. Her best songs, like “Iyiye” and “Iyebhado,” become plodding loops of multi-tracked vocals and melodic Moog accents, a sort of hypnotic boggiedrone. The 1980 LP Advice, packed side to side with deep hooks and indelible vocal phrasing, remains the most satisfying record that Duomo ever released (three tracks are on Odion Livinstone’s 2017 Duomo compilation.) Its follow-up, Iziegbe, shows Ogbah further exploring intersections of highlife and Lagos disco, melding the hybrid sounds found on her first two recordings. LISTEN


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Comb & Razor put the song “Boys & Girls” on their superb Brand New Wayo anthology, which led to its rapid spread through DJ disco sets around the world. The track was taken from Joe Moks’ LP of the same name, released on Afrodisia in 1979. Like Ogbah’s Advice, it is a synthy dance bomb from beginning to end, meticulously sequenced and arranged by Moks and Tony Okoroji, without a bad track. “Being In Love Is Being Involved,” “Closer Than Skin,” and “Insure My Love” are all particularly outstanding, and check out the country closer “Just Like Me.” Today, Dr. Mokwunyei continues her teaching and research at the University of Benin, specializing in subsects of Nigerian musicology, most recently among the Anioma and their use of a woodwind instrument called the akpele which serves as a melodic surrogate for the human voice. LISTEN


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We haven’t heard her debut Morning Prayer, but the three EMI records that followed–Don’t Treat Me Like A Fool (1979), Woman Needs Love (1979), I Need You (1980)–are all full of addictive melodies and electronic sounds. DTMLAF is arguably the best of the three (Mike Umoh on trap drums!) and includes the trancey title song, the conflict-resolution epic “For Better For Worse,” and “Give Me Your Love.” Woman Needs Love was targeted for the reggae market, being simultaneously released in Nigeria on EMI and France on Pathé. I Need You is a ballad-centric and melancholy record with great use of Moog accents, as with DTMLAF, courtesy of keyboardist Caullins Jonas. What happened to her after that recording is unclear. In 2014, the lead cut from WNL, “I’m Gonna Get You,” was bootlegged onto a 7″ by Ximeno Records, albeit in edited form. This link is to the full LP version. LISTEN


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It was South Africa’s Miriam Makeba whose beats exploded refreshingly into the European market in the 1960s, with her world hit “Pata Pata” being covered by women artists from Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and France. She became a pan-African source of pride and inspiration for women, as evidenced on the lead track “Great Miriam Makeba” from Commy Bassey’s first LP, In Solitude, released in 1978 on Clover. Bassey wrote and composed all but one song, with Original Wings guitarist Charles Effi Duke helping out with the arrangements. Although it suffers somewhat from Clover’s claustrophobic production sound, the tunes themselves are solid straight through. “Pretty Angel” and “Smiles” punctuate rhythm with silence, with Bassey’s unique drawl stringing the musical bits together, but it’s the lead on Side 2, “Looking For My Man,” that really moves. Anodisc’s Let’s Dance, released two years later, saw Bassey finding her niche in the disco scene and offers up such essential clap-heavy grooves as “Now That I’ve Found You,” “I Need Someone,” “We Want Togetherness,” and “Let’s Dance.” LISTEN


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From all accounts, Afrodisia had a bad habit of signing artists, releasing one LP, and not offering much in the way of follow-up, promotion, or helping them get established. This might have been the case with Eme Ballantyne, an obscure singer for which we can find no information. Her sole LP is called Remember Me, which came out in 1981. The piercing timbre of her double-tracked voice as it repeats “My life is like a rainbow in the sky” throughout the opening ballad “My Life” often generates questions from curious listeners when we play the record out, since her haunting phrasing somehow manages to sound both old and contemporary at the same time. Unfortunately, the only existing YouTube rip of this song was recently removed.


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Carol Bridi’s synth-groover “Shake The Dust” comes from her debut LP called One Family, which was released on an indie label called Otto Records at the height of the Lagos boogie explosion, in 1984. Other standout performances include “Where You Are” and “Soul On Fire.” The crisp spacey sound owes much to the wonderful engineering and production of George Achini and Remy Njoku, who also worked with such greats as Esbee Family, Bassey Black, Christy Essien, and Oby Onyioha. LISTEN


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The lack of legit Christy Essien reissues is particularly odd given her popularity at home, and the fact that DJs have sampled her songs so heavily over the past fifteen years. She started out with the perfectly-realized Freedom in 1977 on Anodisc, our personal favorite. Patience immediately followed, before a move to the Blackspot label for Time Waits For No One. Decca then picked her up for her two most popular records, One Understanding and Give Me A Chance on Afrodisia. Her sixth release, Ever Liked My Person?, was the biggest success of her career and saw her moving towards a more polished (but less funky) AOR sound. She later became the founder and first woman president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria and was involved in social advocacy causes for women, including against female circumcision. A consummate professional whose business acumen was legendary, Essien passed away too young, in 2011. Check the swinging rhythmic groove between band and voice on “Feel So Good Sometime.” LISTEN


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Apart from her music, we know next to nothing about Doris Ebong. She recorded one colossal LP for Phonodisk in 1982, All I Need Is Your Love, produced by Tony Essien and with songwriting credits split between the two of them. Ebong’s own contributions, or the ones that she co-wrote–like the frenetic “Disco Drive” and the groundshakingly fantastic “I Won’t Let You Down”–are the album’s shoulda-been megahits that today fill dancefloors worldwide. The Shirley-Ellis-meets-Catfish-Collins instructional “Boogie Trip” is probably the best known song on the record since it earned a spot on the Lagos Disco Inferno compilation a few years back. Put on your blotter and dancing shoes! LISTEN


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Mona Finnih recorded three collaborations with former Aktion and MonoMono guitarist Jimi Lee. The first and best, EMI’s A Stroll In The Moonlight from 1980, is a wonder to behold, packed with horn-heavy tracks like Lee’s majestic funky title cut, Finnih’s “People of the World,” and her pounding tour-de-force of empowerment “I Love Myself.” In 1984, they released Almighty on Afrodisia and Eni Ma Bimo on Emona. More highlife than disco, Lee’s “Iwa Ika” is the standout from the latter, a tight swirling mass of percussion, Hawaiian guitar, saxophone accents, and multi-tracked vocals. In 2014, Voodoo Funk compiled two of her best tracks from the Moonlight LP onto a 12” release. LISTEN


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Like label-mate Christy Ogbah, Eunice Mokus Arimoku was affiliated with the early-80s Lagos club scene. Her first record was on Duomo, Onye Oni Me, while her second was self-released five years later on her own label, Unimokus Records, called I Am Glad You Are Mine. The track “Loneliness” from the latter is her big jammer, a loud echoey sprawl of voice and synth over a single looping guitar signature. From her first LP, “Ariro” is a standout, recently anthologized on the Duomo compilation from Lagos-based Odion Livingstone. LISTEN


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Onyioha’s acclaimed I Want To Feel Your Love represented the launch of a new era for women artists in Nigeria. While industry prejudices remained, a steady stream nevertheless began changing disco conventions and embracing a more mellow 80s dancefloor sound. Time, Tabansi, Phonodisk, and Taretone all began to sign and record more women artists, like Stella Monye, Lorine Okotie, Julie Coker, and Martha Ulaeto. Onyioha recorded a second LP in 1984 on Sunny Alade, entitled Break It, but its success failed to match I Want To Feel Your Love. While you can’t beat the driving force of its title song, we’re partial to “Enjoy Your Life,” the smooth swinging side closer that includes a line about “humpty dumpty stuff” that we can’t ever really make out due to the cool jabby synth pan. Check out the indispensable compilation Doing It In Lagos from Soundway for this track and others. She’s now an anthropologist; seek out the YouTube interview where she discusses the importance of the pre-Gregorian African calendar. LISTEN


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Lastly, there isn’t much we can add to the story of Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu. The talented twins toured the world and knocked out a string of flawless records during the latter half of the 70s: Danger, Mother Africa, Sunshine, and Horizon Unlimited. While Danger is usually the fan fave, be sure to check out “Set Me Free” and “Reincarnation” from Sunshine. Instead of a song, we’re linking to an incredible documentary clip from 1980 that finds them grappling with the exploitation they’ve experienced at the hands of Decca’s Afrodisia label, but also optimistic about the roles for women moving forward. “It’s only this industry that has a problem of a shortage of female artists…I wouldn’t be surprised in the next five years if we don’t have more females in this profession than men.” LISTEN

Nigerian Afrobeat: The Wings, Original Wings & Super Wings

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(We are deeply indebted to original band member Manford Best Okaro for most of the information summarized below. See his book History of the Wings for additional information.)

In 1966, civil war erupted in Nigeria. Hostilities had been building since the bloody Kano riot of 1953, and the discovery of additional oil reserves in the east reignited the conflict. The Prime Minister and his cabinet were killed in a coup by Igbo secessionists who declared themselves the breakaway Republic of Biafra. “The perpetrators brazenly looted properties, raped women and committed unfathomable atrocities under the guise of a religious uprising,” Wings guitarist Manford Best recounts in his book, History of the Wings. “This exodus led to an influx of refugees and caused untold hardship such that hunger and starvation became the orders of the day.” Young men in Biafra were expected to fight for the survival of the new republic, but the safer gig was logistical support for the military. This included bands to perform at bases and official events, and to boost overall troop morale. Hence, the Biafran Air Force created a band called BAF Wings.

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Biafran Air Force, 1967.

BAF Wings consisted of two distinct units of musicians: a popular highlife section, led by established bandleader Adolf King; and a second smaller line-up geared towards the “beat” pop music of the day. This pop band consisted of Dream Lovell (Dan Ian) on lead guitar, Gab Zani on lead vocals, Jonathan “Spud Nathan” Udensi on rhythm guitar, Arinze “Ari” Okpala on bass, and Manford Best on drums, with Frank Moses Nwandu acting as manager. The military paid for instruments, amplifiers, and a bus for transportation between assignments. The two sections continued on until the collapse, as recounted by Manford Best:

“After Christmas 1969, it became clear that Biafra was about to lose the battle. When non-stop gunfire and mortar shells started landing everywhere indiscriminately, we knew that advancing Federal soldiers had finally broken through in several sectors. As people in general including the highlife section ran for their dear lives in different directions on foot, members of the pop music section decided to converge at Azia, which was Spud Nathan’s village. Despite the fact that there was no time for a thorough movement plan, we were able to salvage two amplifiers, three microphones, loud speakers, the drumset and two guitars as we fled. Thereafter, we went to our various villages to reunite with members of our families and for them to be aware that we survived the war.”

A ceasefire came in 1970. The country was devastated, especially the east, with civilian deaths a staggering 500,000 to 3,000,000, mainly from famine and disease. Nigeria was divided into four states, and the renowned sounds created by the funk bands of the defeated Biafran insurgency quickly began to take hold and spread across the nation. The reformed band, now simply The Wings, decided to base themselves in Enugu, the new capital of eastern Nigeria, focusing on hotels as their mainstay. If you could get steady work at a hotel, you could become a sort of house band there, building a following and making enough to live on. Any spare income earned by the band was invested back into improved equipment (synthesizers and organs were notoriously hard to maintain), and through this process, they became regulars at the Dayspring Hotel on Sunday afternoons, playing primarily pop/soul numbers by The Beatles, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Otis Redding.

A significant setback occurred when lead guitarist Dan Ian (later of Wrinkar Experience) and singer Gab Zani (later of One World) decided to leave the band, which effectively ended their tenure at the hotel. Just as the band was on the verge of splitting, their manager was approached with a fortuitous offer of a 1-year contract with 33rd Brigade Headquarters in Maiduguri. This meant a monthly salary, free housing, health care, all new musical gear, plus a new bus. The members of the band agreed that it was an amazing opportunity, despite the lack of autonomy that went along with being a military attachment; at least there was no war. They quickly grabbed two new members to flesh out the lineup: Okechukwu “Okey” Uwakwe, a lanky guitarist from a band called The Wavelengths; and Pius Dellin, a keyboard player from neighboring Kano. The band’s existing rhythm guitarist Spud Nathan, who had already been singing some highlife numbers during the band’s hotel sets, mainly to give vocalist Gab Zani a break, stepped in to lead vocals and began honing his voice.

It was now 1971 and pop music was making inroads on the African highlife scene. Fela Kuti and his drummer Tony Allen, inspired in part by Sierra Leone’s funk stars Geraldo Pino & the Heartbeats, are credited with coining the term “Afrobeat” to describe this new sound. EMI’s Nigerian subsidiary began scouting local talent to sign, as did Decca. When not performing for military functions, The Wings were free to gig around the city of Aba at will, and they quickly became a fixture in the burgeoning club scene, primarily at the Ambassador and Unicoco hotels, where they played with house band The Funkees. This led to their being signed by EMI.

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“You’ll Want Me Back” 7″, 1972

In early 1972, the band headed to Lagos and recorded their first 7” single, entitled “You’ll Want Me Back” b/w “Catch That Love.” The release sold well and brought them nationwide radio exposure for the first time. This was followed within six months by “Afam Efuna” b/w “Had I Known” on the HMV label. At this point, due to increasing opportunities and regional fame, they opted not to renew their contract with the military, which resulted in a punitive confiscation of all gear and equipment which the military had purchased, including their bus. Once more, the band was destitute and on the verge of financial ruin.

Jake Sollo and The Funkees, looking to relocate to England, arranged for the sale of their instruments to The Wings through negotiations with EMI, the label of both bands. This enabled the recording of their third and most successful single to date, in October 1973: “Someone Else Will” b/w “I’ve Been Loving You.” Former member Dan Ian played guest rhythm guitar on the track while his two sisters, Callista and Meg Mbaezue, sang backing harmony over Spud’s vocal. The band’s popularity accelerated quickly, culminating in their appearance on the premier musical program on NTA, the Nigerian Television Authority.

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Kissing You So Hard, The Wings, EMI/Capitol, 1974

For reasons unclear but purportedly to strengthen the rhythm section, additional percussionists Emma Dabro and Dandy Aduba were hired. Manford Best moved from drums to rhythm guitar, replaced by veteran highlife drummer Joel Madubuike, who is credited only as “Noel” on the back jacket of their first LP. It was with this lineup that The Wings entered EMI Studios in Lagos in April 1974 to record their first and only full-length album, Kissing You So Hard, with Pal Akalonu producing. The album was a regional success and stands today as one of the finest Nigerian pop records of all time, starting with Spud Nathan’s anthem “Single Boy” and ending with Uwakwe’s prophetic and plodding groove “Gone With The Sun.”

The production sound is cavernously weird, with bursts of guitar and organ moving up high in the mix, disappearing, then surging back; check out “Make Me Happy,” with its two distinct passages of Uwakwe’s fuzzed-out guitar and Dellin’s organ breaks, punctuated with Madubuike’s precision drum fills. On the technical aspects of the recording process, Manford Best states that “while all the instruments were being played with the singing going on, the engineer skilfully recorded all the inputs at a go.” The album’s philosophical centerpiece is Spud Nathan’s cut “But Why,” in which he bleakly describes his “struggle to exist” when “emptiness drowns his whole life.” The song’s brooding spirituality would obsess fans for years, especially in light of what was shortly to come.

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(L-R: Dandy Aduba, Spud Nathan, Pius Dellin, Okey Uwakwe, Manford Best; photo, M.Best)

December 26, 1974. The band played a gig at Mbaukwu. Stories differ as to what went down from this point forward with regard to a disagreement that night within the band. According to Best’s recent account, it was an established practice to rotate a leader monthly between the band’s core four members (Spud, Manford, Ari, and Okey). Spud was supposed to hand over leadership to Manford on December 24th, but he refused to do so for reasons unclear; the latter theorizes it was because a lucrative show was coming up in Port-Harcourt, and Spud wanted to be the one to collect and distribute the money. Tempers flared but Spud ultimately agreed to hand over control to Manford and rode with him in his newly-purchased Toyota to the next gig as a conciliatory gesture. At 4:00am, the band departed in separate vehicles to the town of their next show. Spud and Okey rode in Manford’s car and slept. What happened, according to Manford, is as follows:

“At about 6:00am, two kilometers after crossing the notorious Njaba bridge, we reached Azara-Obiato village and I was turning a corner when suddenly I saw a woman crossing the road. I tried to avoid her by swerving to the left but on seeing an oncoming vehicle swerved back to the right, lost control of the car and knocked her down in the process. The car skidded over the embankment and somersaulted in the bush resting finally on its side. The noisy impact of the crashing car and the alarming cries of the injured woman attracted villagers to the scene. They turned over the car to its normal position, forced the door open and carried Okey and I out while others rescued the woman. When I regained consciousness I stood up and heard Okey moaning and saying some indistinguishable words. I tried to help him stand up but he could not. This was because of the excruciating pain resulting from his injuries. I looked around and could not find Spud so I started shouting.”

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Manford Best’s Toyota

Spud Nathan had been thrown from the car’s window; his neck snapped. Okey, in excruciating pain and unable to stand, was placed on a bus and transported to two different hospitals, since the first lacked the expertise to handle the traumatic damage done to his spinal cord. The rest of the band, traveling in a different vehicle, would not learn of the crash until the following day. Word traveled fast throughout the region about the wreck and the circumstances behind it, feeding rumors and conjecture among fans and friends. Internally, between the bad blood from the fight beforehand, Best’s comparatively superficial injuries, and the mysterious unidentified “woman on the bridge,” suspicions arose immediately. Class rifts between the more-affluent Best and the other founding members, especially Ari Okpala, erupted. According to Best, an assassination attempt was made on his life shortly after the crash, which he attributes to either Okpala or Spud Nathan’s sister in London. Ari Okpala and the other members decided to dissolve the band for two years in honor of their dead friend.

True to their plan, in 1976, Ari Okpala founded a new outfit called Original Wings (sometimes called Original Wings International). Of the Kissing You So Hard lineup, only Okpala on bass and the hired percussionists, Dandy Aduba and Emma Dabro, remained. Johnny Fleming, who had briefly toured with an earlier pre-1974 iteration of the band, returned to replace Pius Dellin on keyboards. With Okey Uwakwe now paralyzed, Charles Effi Duke took over on lead guitar while Jerry Demua was hired to replace Spud Nathan on lead vocals. Drummer Joel Madubuike, who had already split to join the popular funk band The Apostles, was replaced by Emma Chinaka, a.k.a. Emma China.

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Men of the People, Super Wings, Clover Sound, 1976

Meanwhile, keyboardist Pius Dellin (also excluded from the Original Wings relaunch) alerted Manford Best of the brewing betrayal by their old comrades. Furious and feeling slighted, he immediately formed a rival band called Super Wings, with Pius on keys and three other musicians: John-John Duke on bass; Johnson Hart on drums; and George Black and Jerry Boifraind on vocals/percussion. Afraid of getting beaten to the punch and wanting to stake their claim to the name, they rushed into the studio to record a new album, signing to Lagos-based label Clover Sound, run by Ben Okonkwo. The resulting LP called Men of the People was, by Manford Best’s own admission, a bit of a mess, poorly mixed and engineered (a problem plaguing many Clover records), despite some ace performances, particularly the tracks “Lonely World,” “Trust Your Woman,” and Dellin’s shimmering “Sunshine of Tomorrow.”

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Tribute to Spud Nathan, Original Wings, EMI, 1976

This mad dash to the marketplace backfired. Sales of the LP were flat, and their second-rate status was soon sealed, when, just weeks later in 1976, Ari Okpala’s Original Wings released their own LP, entitled Tribute To Spud Nathan, on Nigeria EMI, its cover sporting a photo of Spud, arms outstretched and in belled-sleeves, singing onstage at a University of Nigeria show. Starting off with the tribute song “Spud Nathan,” which acknowledged the acrimonious splintering and promised peace from this point forward, it is a meticulously crafted record from start to finish, every bit as good as its forerunner Kissing You So Hard. Inspired rhythmic standouts include “Tell Me,” “Don’t Call Me A Fool,” and “Love Is Meant For Two.” It was, by all accounts of the time, a major comeback in the Nigerian pop scene.

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My Love Is For You, Super Wings, Clover Sound, 1977

Super Wings would persevere for one more record, again on Clover and with Ben Okonkwo producing. Most of the lineup remained, sans Jerry Boifraind, who left to record his first two solo LPs for Anodisc and Love Day. Lessons were clearly learned from the rushed release of Men of the People, and 1977’s My Love Is For You is the band’s creative apex. Manford Best’s crisp, reverb-drenched riffs, mixed with Pius Dellin’s organ and new vocalist Allwell Opara’s strange warbly vibrato, make for a distinctive and powerful unifying sound throughout its nine tracks. In true competitive form, that same year also saw the release of the Original Wings LP You’ll Want Me Back, which featured a re-worked version of the first 7” release by The Wings. While a fantastic record (“Stoop To Conquer,” “Help Yourself” and “Anonymous Man” are high-energy standouts), the balance between Original Wings and Super Wings was now shifting a bit.

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Change This World, Original Wings, EMI, 1979

But it didn’t matter. The market was changing. Nigerian Disco and the spinoff scene later codified as Boogie were on the ascent. Funk bands across the country began closing up shop, with some musicians shifting increasingly into arrangement and production work. Manford Best shut down Super Wings and recorded two solo records. Original Wings released a final LP in 1979, Change This World, before Ari Okpala decided to dissolve the band permanently.

Founding lead guitarist Okey Uwakwe’s eventual death in 1977, from spinal injuries sustained in the car crash years earlier, was the sad closing coda for both outfits.

 

 

 

By the Law

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“The theme of the picture By The Law is alien to our viewer in script and essence. Considering the instances of pathology and hysteria [in the film], it is a sick phenomenon in our cinematography which harmfully affects our Soviet screen.” — A.R.K. (Association of Revolutionary Cinematography), 1926.

“We may be accused of being morbid or misanthropic, but please do not forget that our film is about the modern English middle class–surely the most inhuman of all.” — Lev Kuleshov, 1926.

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It is strange when a 92-year-old Soviet film can say so much about the contemporary world. Class violence, retribution, environmental chaos–all are active ingredients in Lev Kuleshov’s “constructivist Western” By The Law (Po Zakonu). Viewing it today, from what some geologists are calling the Great Acceleration period of the Anthropocene, is like peeking into a creepy apocalyptic window of past and future. Like Marx, the Soviets believed that capitalism would destroy humanity; and lo and behold, here we are, on the way to our own Easter-Island party, with investors buying up escape-pod properties in New Zealand to ensure that this model survives for their entrepreneurial offspring, who will presumably sell shares in the Norwegian Seed Vault.  /communist_rant

The coming of Russian film coincided with the creation of the U.S.S.R., the world’s first modern worker state. It provided the opportunity for a clean break from the literature and drama of the 19th-century, both of which the Soviet intellectuals rejected as bourgeois tools of domination controlled by the aristocracy. With 80% of the Russian population illiterate, it was believed that this new visual medium would usher in a transformative era of avant-garde modernity, offering a conduit through which the nascent nation could educate and galvanize the people. Like rail lines and power grids, film would connect the disparate corners of the Soviet together. It would create social cohesion between ethnic groups and help authorities overcome the huge communication hurdles of time and space.

But things got weird. The period of genuine openness and experimentation was over fast and in steep decline after Lenin’s death. Anything avant-garde suddenly became elite, epicurean and subject to suspicion. Film plots were required to be both entertaining (without being “too American”) and reflect deeper socialist worldviews, a concept called Socialist Realism. Many in the industry, particularly directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, struggled between these two worlds. Their continued employment and access to funding meant keeping the cultural commissars satisfied with works that met this criteria. As if it wasn’t hard enough making wheat quota subplots stimulating, the films should also be exportable abroad and appeal to international audiences.

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Kuleshov Collective practicing on a rooftop

It was within this confused climate that the Kuleshov Collective, a close-knit group of actors and technicians started by director Lev Kuleshov, set to work on a new project in 1926. (Kuleshov pioneered several techniques of early film montage theory that today would be taken for granted; one is called the Kuleshov Effect, which asserted that one shot placed beside a second can alter a human’s emotional interpretation.) The Collective’s biggest success thus far had been in 1924, with the brilliant satirical comedy The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which lampooned both American and Soviet stereotypes equally. But the group was now on shaky ground after its disastrous follow-up, when a long and confusing sci-fi film called The Death Ray was thoroughly hated by everyone. Kuleshov knew that the collective’s next project had to come in on the cheap and be a hit. While it would have been easy to fall back on the safety of West’s comedic formula, he happened across a gloomy story by American socialist writer Jack London called “The Unexpected” and decided to adapt it with screenwriter Victor Shklovsky. Finishing the script in 12 hours, they started scouting locations outside Moscow that could serve as the Yukon. They spotted the “huge and forlorn” pine tree first, near the Tsaritsino ponds. Then the Collective built a small shack on the banks of the icy Moskva River. The majority of the film would be just three actors inside this claustrophobic interior. It would be the cheapest Russian production of all time.

Ultimately, it’s the performances of Aleksandra Khokhlova (as Edith) and Vladimir Fogel (as Dennin) that make By The Law so exceptional. Aleksandra Khokhlova was Kuleshov’s spouse and creative partner. Like the others in the Collective, she had starred in most of his previous films; but unlike the men, she was mercilessly mocked and insulted by critics for her angular looks and skinniness. Lev Kuleshov hit back, saying “The commercial pursuit of beauties and names is none other than hidden pornography or psycho-pathology for which there is absolutely no place in Soviet cinematography.” The best English write-up of the film belongs to American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as “H.D.”, in the 1928 issue of the film journal Close-Up. Watching the German version Söhne in a Switzerland theater, she described Khokhlova’s performance:

The gestures of this woman are angular, bird-like, claw-like, skeleton-like and hideous. She has a way of standing against a sky line that makes a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian. Beauty is too facile a word to describe this; this woman is a sort of bleak young sorceress…Her face can be termed beautiful in the same way that dawn can be termed beautiful rising across stench and fever of battle…This sort of raw picked beauty must of necessity destroy the wax and candy-box “realism” of the so much so-called film art. It must destroy in fact so much that perhaps it does “go”, as one of our party said, “too far”.

This notion of “too far”-ness echoes a similar comment made by Cinema Front critic Viktor Pertsov, as noted by scholar Denise Youngblood in her Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935. Pertsov criticized Kuleshov for not guiding the viewer to moral judgment or providing a social key with which to decode the film, which he described as “hermetically sealed.” While meant negatively, today this hermetic sealing is precisely what makes this movie so radically accessible to new viewers. Unlike other Russian films from the period, it ties itself to no historical event or revolutionary act but merely works its way through its own myopic microcosm of greed and madness, close-up by close-up, breakdown by breakdown.

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Aleksandra Khokhlova’s “hieroglyph”

Kuleshov was known for making dangerous physical demands on his actors, although the confined interior of By The Law theoretically made for safer working conditions. The shoot was carefully timed to overlap with a spring thaw and flood event. Actors would freeze, be submerged, and have off-screen airplane propellers blow snow and sleet into their faces. Kuleshov described the expereince in Fifty Years In Films:

Spring came, the ice on the river broke. We went on shooting, but suddenly it became apparent that we were having quite an unusual flood: the river water was inundating the cabin, its level steadily rising. The wet cables produced electric shocks whenever one inadvertently touched them, but Khokhlova affirmed that “electricity made her feel more intensely”. While a close shot was being made, Fogel lay bound on ice in the fire-hose rain and airplane wind for two and a half hours. (p.228-229)

Vladimir Fogel was better known for his comedic roles in hit films like Chess Fever, where his neurotic performance shows his gift for physical comedy. But today, it is his portrayal of the exploited and embittered Irishman in By The Law that stands as his highest achievement. Kuleshov wanted extreme states of being from the faces of his actors. This is why the Collective practiced incessantly using still photographs and études, trying to move beyond the cliched facial expressions so common to the stage. Truly extreme states of being, they believed, could never be attained through psychological immersion. In that sense, they rejected theater theorist Stanislavski’s approach as a mere dressing-up of canned Victorian melodrama. Actors were mechanical beings subject to the laws of science. Ana Olenina summarizes this well in her article “Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies”:

Kuleshov’s explorations were driven by his conviction that the performer must exploit the abilities of his or her body to the maximum extent and create corporeal spectacles that would strike the audience with their unusualness, dynamism, and perfection in every detail. Thus, the acting études and films created by Kuleshov’s troupe in the 1920s were marked by a clear tendency on the one hand, toward tragicomic grotesque and buffoonery, and on the other hand, toward extreme physical performances (p.300).

Although the end product was criticized for its “Americanism,” it was a big enough hit to prove the end of the Kuleshov Collective, as Fogel and others departed for the stable paychecks offered by the larger Soviet film factories. Fogel would soon play the proletariat couchsurfing homewrecker in Bed & Sofa, followed by The House on Trubnaya. Tragically, he killed himself in 1929, although likely not for the reasons stated by Kuleshov in his memoirs (because of “uninteresting work”). On the other hand, his suicide did coincide with the coming of sound film, a difficult time for all actors but especially international ones. Aleksandra Khokhlova, failing to meet Soviet beauty standards, could only get work in Kuleshov projects. Soon, she would turn to directing films herself, including an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s An Affair of the Clasps (1929), Sasha (1930), and a documentary called Toys (1931).

In closing, the score of this particular DVD restoration deserves mention. The majority of silent films have no remaining soundtrack notes with regard to what should be played during a screening. This is true for By The Law. Most restorations go the safe route and commission a solo piano score, or something orchestral from the time period that fits. Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum decided something different was needed and went with electronic composer Franz Reisecker, who had previously worked on a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin restoration. His dissonant and fractured tones work brilliantly alongside Kuleshov’s images. “I was fascinated with actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, because of her very particular expressive style, and then with the montage and Kuleshov’s highly artificial visual language,” Reisecker said in an interview. “It reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns. I went back to Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s films and developed some sounds based on the bell motif. Then there is a sequence that almost has the character of a dance track when they find gold…and despite the groove there is a hint of threat in the sound.”

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Cast/Crew shot from set of By The Law; Khokhlova in scarf, Fogel in glasses, Kuleshov center left.

Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

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“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his absolute unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his vision for the sake of a larger budget.

While the original is a classic now in its own right, a rare alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve owned it for 27 years but have never been able to tell for what purpose it was originally created, and there’s no record of its existence online. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for many scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release (for clarity, I’ll call the two versions Avenue and Workprint from here on). Calling this “Van Sant’s version” would be presumptuous, since I do not know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier and rawer Drugstore Cowboy experience, with no special effects, no sophisticated jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction, shedding the Hollywood glamour sheen for a look that’s pure street, but still saturated in tones of green.

(SPOILERS: Remainder contains details about the added scenes.)

Before I get into the specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes, and most of the dialogue therein, are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift somewhat from Van Sant’s comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.

Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I’m unsure about. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention since it’s the best music-driven montage Van Sant has ever filmed. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your home?”–there is a long silent pause of apprehension. Then, instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops from nowhere, and her duet “Águas de Março” with Antonio Carlos Jobim continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. Van Sant takes his time; nothing is rushed. Brazilian beats and alternating staccato voices are stretched lovingly over the canvas of junky culture. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting nude and covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the difference between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted William S. Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But for this “Águas de Março” sequence, it’s as if, for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, a decision was made to eliminate the dance because it offered little with regard to plot progression. Other great songs forever associated with the film, like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, are still present, albeit less prominently in the mix and as source music in apartment interiors, not incidental cues.

Apart from music, there are several noteworthy added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister arrives to bring clothing and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. The sister sequence also stands as a nice-if-brief antidote to Bob’s misogyny, and it’s too bad it wasn’t retained. In two other deleted sequences, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick establish a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here, which fits the film’s aesthetic perfectly. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from an old crime procedural. Such incidental music comes up repeatedly throughout. It injects ironic humor, which is fitting since, again, Van Sant has referred to the film as a dark comedy. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, as the film became hyperfocused on its protagonist, the decision was made to emphasize his patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.

This shaky redemption is mainly conveyed through the bookending device that both begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead and/or mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, which assigns him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the celebrated head-shot of Matt Dillon said to be modeled on Andy Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s concluding credits over yet another rehash of “Israelites,” a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood editing trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended to provide advertising fodder, why was it edited into the final release cut? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.

NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.

Arresting Power

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Portland might be at the forefront of progressive composting, but in terms of racism and police violence against people of color, it is no different than any other urban center in America. The incredible documentary Arresting Power begins with an excruciating play-by-play of the 911 calls leading up to the murder of Aaron Campbell, who, feared suicidal by his family after the death of his brother, was shot and killed as he attempted to defend himself from a police dog attack. It is only the beginning of a long string of examples, some discussed in depth (Kendra Jade, Rickie Johnson, Tony Stevenson, Keaton Otis), others noted in passing between sections, but all where police killed and attempted to justify the use of their excessive violence. As Walidah Imarisha has explored in her examination of Oregon’s racist beginnings, the state was founded as a white refuge and has a long history of exploiting minorities for labor, while not allowing them to settle permanently. The notorious Lash Law was technically on the books until 2001. In the 1920s, Oregon also had the highest per capita membership of the KKK in the nation (approximately 14,000).

In the wake of systemic police violence in Albina, a group of black activists in north Portland founded the NCCF, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, in 1967. Members of this organization (Kent Ford, Percy Hampton) went on to spearhead the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like the Oakland and Chicago chapters of the BPP, they emphasized community empowerment, self-sufficiency, and public safety within the black community, starting breakfast programs at Highland Community Church and a free health clinic on North Russell, named after Chicago BPP chairman Fred Hampton. The historical incidences described are beyond belief, but the unjustified killings all follow typical patterns of police violence: claims of non-existent weapons, fleeing black “suspects” defined as “threats”, racial profiling and the absolute debasement and lack of concern among white people in authority for black people’s lives. Great sets of interviews with Joann Hardesty (Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice & Police Reform) and non-violent protesters attacked and arrested by police during marches for Kendra Jade in 2003 reflect a culture of intimidation and violence used to squelch public dissent.

The directors–Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, Erin Yanke–scratch 16mm film at the sites of the killings just as graphite rubbings are made from gravestones. These segments are used as segues, with names of the victims shown on screen. It is an unsettling and effective method of respectfully acknowledging a list of names so abhorrently long that no single documentary could adequately cover each story and give redress to the social injustices reflected in each. The fact that filmmakers would have to pick and choose from such a long list of “justified” killings is telling and only reinforces the fact that Portland is more concerned with fulfilling the state’s historical dreams of white capitalist enclave and gentrified hi-tech playground than investing in our increasingly displaced and struggling communities of color.

Hearts and Minds

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“For twelve centuries we fought against China. For 100 years we fought the French. Then came the American invasion–500,000 of them–and it became a war of genocide.” — Father Chan Tin

“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient.” — General William Westmoreland

Throughout the late 70s-80s, Vietnam became the focal point for a broad range of American films, some dealing with combat (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War), some with aftermath (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born On the Fourth of July), others using it as a setting for adaptations (Apocalypse Now as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Then there was the deluge of POW films from 1983-86, with even Gene Hackman (Uncommon Valor) getting on the solider-of-fortune vigilante bandwagon. Within Reagan’s creepy and bankrupt culture of nationalism, the Vietnam “Prisoner of War” movement went into overdrive, fueled by a fervent anti-Communism permeating the mass media of 1984, the year of Reagan’s re-election. Newt Heisley’s flag image, created in the early 1970s, was suddenly plastered everywhere. In the midst of this, and perhaps as a reaction against it, new documentary forms were taking shape. These new filmmakers were social activists and balked at the notion of a so-called “balance” that they were constantly being accused of lacking. The first was Rafferty-Loader’s Atomic Cafe in 1982, an examination of Cold War hysteria told through an incredible collage of newsreels, educational films, and other “duck and cover” pop culture. The second was Michael Moore’s Roger & Me in 1989, his swan song to Ford and Flint. But both owe much to an earlier, lesser-known 1974 film that Moore has called “not only the best documentary I have ever seen, but maybe the best movie ever.” That film is Peter Davis’s Hearts & Minds.

The impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. policy is well known: it made conscription unsustainable, drafted soldiers being too much of a liability both on the battlefield and once returned home. Reagan’s administration realized indigenous mercenaries like the Contras could be financed, armed, and trained to terrorize their own pro-democratic activists without working-class American youth getting their hands dirty. Until the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, things went totally underground for the better part of a decade, public reaction to Vietnam being a prime reason for this shift in intervention. But until coming across Hearts & Minds, I had never seen Vietnamese villagers speaking passionately about what this war wasn’t (a fight against Communism) and was (the apex of an ongoing Western colonial war of genocide against a people fighting for independence and national unification.) Nor had I heard the view articulated so well by former-Sgt. William Marshall, who lost an arm and a leg and was furious for what his country had drafted him to do in the name of nothing. In many ways, it reminds me of Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, which serves as a compendium of human experiences across the board, the quotations around “good war” intentionally ironic. In the same vein, Hearts & Minds could be nested in the same, this being the warm-and-cuddly Lyndon Johnson phrase used to discuss what needed to be done for victory: to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people (which “people” is subject to debate).

The film, shot just as the war was winding down, is a fast-paced compilation of interviews without narration. This was a very rare approach for a documentary on war. Newsreel style was still the norm; think the BBC’s World at War series and Laurence Olivier’s refined narration. By contrast, Hearts & Minds was honest and matter-of-fact, attempting to soften the conflict for no one. It reminds the viewer that war is also about human remembrances and raw emotional experience, not large tactical arrows outlining which division went where and why. The participants run the gamut to policy makers to people on the street, both in America and Vietnam. Infamous “hawks” like Kennedy-aide Walt Rostow openly belittle and insult Davis when he asks for an honest accounting of the conflict’s origins, saying that rehashing that is “pretty goddamn pedestrian stuff at this stage of the game.” He is but one of several who openly assume that their version of the war is the only one in existence, the only one that matters, the only one scholars need concern themselves with for the historical record. Luckily, there are interviews with Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of the Pentagon Papers), Barton Osborn (CIA agent who quit and blew the whistle on covert operations), and a host of others who tossed their bureaucratic careers aside to speak out against the injustice they’d helped to sustain in some way. Alongside these are the stories of two U.S. servicemen: Randy Floyd, an air force pilot who flew 98 bombing missions; and Lt. George Coker, a returning POW who had just spent the majority of the war in captivity. Through great editing, their own perspectives unfold gradually, scene by scene, as do those of dozens of others, like Detroit-born William Marshall, and peace-activist Bobby Muller, who would go on to found the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Most intense are the scenes with the Vietnamese, all of whom spoke up despite very real dangers for doing so (the war was still going on during early filming.) There are the victims: the coffin maker, who looks over his shoulder while speaking; the two sisters, whose prolonged silence and sadness at the end of the scene pushes an intensity onto the viewer which is almost unbearable; the Catholic and the Buddhist, both aligned in their views on the Vietnamese struggle for independence; the angry, grieving father who demands an explanation of what he had ever done to Nixon for him to come there and murder his family; the man who says to a friend, after looking at the camera, “Look, they’re focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film.” Then, there is the lavish country club banquet of the South Vietnamese capitalist class, the recipients of the billions in American foreign aid pouring in, one of which makes the incredible admission that “We saw that peace was coming, whether we liked it or not.” The comment is astounding, delivered without a pause, and really says it all. U.S. corporations can be seen encroaching throughout Saigon: Sprite trucks, Coca-Cola plants, toothpaste billboards with smiling Western women, even the ridiculously out of place Bank of America. Eerily, CBS logos, intended to be a “ubiquitous eye that is watching all”, are ordered left on the bodies of Vietcong corpses by soldiers in the field as an ominous calling card.

In the end, what is so relevant and sad about Hearts & Minds today is the fact that little has changed. The fabrications for foreign invasion by American policy makers continues. Consecutive administrations still lie to keep up some modicum of popular support. The jingoistic hysteria following 9/11 was nothing new, nor was the xenophobic nationalism that accompanied it. Even General Westmoreland’s racist quote has now been uttered in a thousand variations over the past ten years, just replace “Oriental” with “Muslim.” But perhaps most telling are the prescient closing words of ex-bomber pilot and activist Randy Floyd when asked what was learned from it all: “Nothing. The military doesn’t realize that people fighting for their freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics, by adding more sophisticated knowledge. Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their power makers have exhibited.”