Category: Uncategorized

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. 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. 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 indispensable 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. LISTEN


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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 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 details 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.” (Due to a manufacturing issue, several songs are reversed in the running order for all copies I’ve seen.)

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 four 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, my favorites being “My Own People,” “Papa Was So Good,” and “Something (Love)’s Missing.” 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.