The very start of the 1978 liner notes for Grace Ekpeyong’s Morning Prayer puts it bluntly: “Although the Nigerian entertainment industry, especially the musical sector, has grown enormously over the past two decades, the incidence of outstanding female performers on the scene remains rare and isolated.” Women were often on backing vocals, transforming good records into great ones in the process; see William Onyeabor’s “The Moon and The Sun,” The Wings’ “Someone Else Will,” or anything on N’draman Blintch’s “Cosmic Sounds” record. If they assumed a headlining role, it was sometimes through collaborative partnerships with musician spouses (Grace and Jack Ekpeyong) or through family in the industry (Lorine Okotie, sister of Kris). Joe Ngozi Mokwunyei was already a young academic when she recorded her landmark Boys & Girls LP in 1979, as 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 outside of the country were 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.
Biographical details are scarce to non-existent. We have linked to the best YouTube rips we could find and noted any good reissues. We are just amateur fans so please forgive any errors, poor assumptions, or general ignorance on display. Thanks to Nigerian pop music expert Uchenne Ikonne for graciously answering our questions and for all he has done to get many of these great records re-issued.
Sandra Smith Izsadore
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. 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.
Bola Onagoruwa & Ukachi “Ukay” Ofurum
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.
Mary Afi Usuah
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 Usuah 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. “Mma Ama Mbo” is also a must hear.
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. Among its standout vocal accomplishments are “Egwu Oyoyo (Oyoyo’s Dance)” and “Ile (What the Tongue Can Do).” 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. A great 2014 interview with her can be found at Cinemafrica (this link to online journal is dead now, sorry; I wish I’d saved it now).
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 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. Songs like “Iyiye” and “Iyebhado” become plodding loops of multi-tracked vocals and melodic Moog accents, a sort of odd boggie-drone. At times, her layered voice sounds almost like a sythesizer. The 1980 LP Advice, packed side to side with deep hooks, is our fave Duomo release (its three best tracks are on Odion Livingstone’s indispensable 2017 Duomo Sounds Ltd.) Its follow-up, Iziegbe, shows Ogbah further exploring intersections of highlife and Lagos disco, melding the hybrid sounds found on her first two recordings. According to the liner notes of Duomo Sounds Ltd., she was a police officer at the time of these recordings.
Joe Ngozi Mokwunyei (Joe Moks)
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. Apart from the title song, “Being In Love Is Being Involved,” “Closer Than Skin,” and “Insure My Love” are all particularly outstanding. 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.
Grace Ekpeyong (Grace Jackson ‘E’ & The Galaxy)
Ekpeyong started off as the lead singer for an all-girl Army band called The Tranquilizer in 1975, but they broke up later that same year. She then met and married bassist Jackson Ekpeyong, with whom she assembled her fantastic backing band, The Galaxy. Her first EMI LP Morning Prayer from 1978 unfortunately lacks band credits but elements of The Galaxy already sound in place. Standout tracks are the two “think” songs closing each side, “Think of Tomorrow” and “Think of Yourself.” So many of her songs are philosophical, socio-political statements whose lyrics somehow transcend time. The three EMI records that followed throughout 1979-80–Don’t Treat Me Like a Fool, Woman Needs Love, I Need You–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 is more reggae, simultaneous released in Nigeria on EMI and France on Pathé. I Need You is ballad-centric and melancholy, with great use of Moog accents, as with DTMLAF, courtesy of keyboardist Coll. Jonas. In 2014, the lead cut from WNL, “I’m Gonna Get You,” was bootlegged onto a 7″ by Ximeno Records, albeit in edited form.
It was South Africa’s Miriam Makeba whose beats exploded refreshingly into the European market in the 1960s, with her worldwide 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 arrangements. Her voice was deeper than others on this list, with a unique drawl, both single and double-tracked. Although In Solitude suffers somewhat from Clover’s claustrophobic production sound, the performances are solid. “Pretty Angel” and “Smiles” punctuate rhythm with silence. But it’s the lead on Side 2, “Looking for My Man,” that’s the big jammer. 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.”
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” manages to sound both old and contemporary at the same time.
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.
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. 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) 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.
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 ground-shaking “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” was the mind-blowing centerpiece of the Lagos Disco Inferno compilation a few years back, which is essential listening. Willy Nfor’s exceptional bass playing graces all tracks.
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.
Eunice Mokus Arimoku
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. Her powerful multi-tracked voice propels all of these songs forward in profound ways that we can’t articulate.
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 compilation Doing It In Lagos from Soundway for this track and others. She’s now an anthropologist.
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 artists 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