The Nigerian recording industry which survived the nation’s civil war was dominated in the early seventies by three Lagos based multi-national recording companies, each of which carved out an area of influence for itself. The first was Philips, which later became Phonogram and then Polygram and subsequently, Premier. The second was EMI that later transformed itself to Ivory. The third was Decca, which eventually became Afrodisia. Before this, time, Onitsha, in the eastern part of the country, had the immutable Nigerphone.
In the early 1970s, Philips could be said to be the leader in Highlife music. The likes of Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, Sir Victor Uwaifo, Celestine Ukwu, Victor Olaiya, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Bala Miller and Chris Ajilo had come out of the Nigerian civil war with their various interpretations of the Highlife sound in great demand. New names such as Paulson Kalu, Mike Ejiagha, the Eastern Minstrels, etc., also churned out great Highlife tunes from the Philips Ijora Causeway studios in Lagos. While Philips did not dabble much into the local recording of western styled pop music, it was very active in releasing in Nigeria, recordings of the new kings and queens of Black American Soul and Blues on its Polydor label.
The king of the kings was of course ‘Papa’ James Brown whose song, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and Proud!” was a call for commotion on the dance floor. The revolutionary Black consciousness appeal of “Black and Proud” hit a deep chord with a lot of young Nigerians and was reflected in the lingo and fashion of the time. “Guys” wore the Afro hair style, tight fitting shirts, bell-bottom trousers that swept the roads, locally called labu and of course, platform shoes. “Chicks” were also caught in the Afro hairdo craze but did not use as much fabric in the making of their skirts as “guys” did with their trousers. The miniskirt was the rave and with about the fabric required for 3 handkerchiefs, your skirt was ready to go! Anyone who was not dressed as a “guy” or a “chick” was a “jew man”! This was the era of the 7” 45 rpm singles on black vinyl. The different singles of James Brown such as “Sex Machine”, “Cold Sweat”, “Superbad”, “I feel Good”, “Mashed Potato Popcorn”, etc., were all instant hits.
The EMI studio at Wharf Road in Apapa was the Mecca of the young Nigerian musician who had become influenced by the wave that Black music was making in America. Some of these musicians were products of the war time pop bands that had sprung up both in Biafra and the other parts of the country. The most popular of these bands perhaps was “The Hykkers”. Another was “Marine Blossoms”. Otis Redding’s hit songs, Security and Direct Me had a major impact on the direction of these bands. So did the sounds coming out of Berry Gordy’s Tamla Motown which then was probably the most important hit music factory in the world. Motown was then ruling the world with artistes like Jackson 5, Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Four Tops, Rare Earth, etc.
The success of the single, “Love Rock” by “The Strangers” of Owerri led by Bob Miga (real name: Bob Agim) opened the gates of EMI studios to more pop bands4.“The Wings” of Aba, inspired by their leader, Spud Nathans, also had a successful single with “Someone Else Will”. Also from Aba, “The Funkees”, a group with talents like Jake Sollo, Harry Mosco, Chyke Madu and Mohammed Ahidjo scored big with “Akula”, a song with a strong African tinge.
The Strangers was to break up not long after their huge success. Many of their fans shifted their loyalty to one of the succeeding groups, “One World’ fronted by lead singers Sam Mathews and Gab Zani and guitarist, Anii Hofnar. The environment in Aba also produced another significant group called “The Apostles” led by Walton Arungwa, about the same time that Soki Ohale was thrilling everyone with his song, “Highway Mini Girl”.
If the development at EMI had appeared like it would not last, that was settled with the huge success of two successive singles by the group “Wrinkers Experience”. The two singles, “Fuel for Love” and “Money to Burn”, written by Dan Ian Mbaezue who passed on recently, were favourites of the young and old around the country for quite some time. “Wrinkers Experience” was a bit different from the other bands because it had some talented Cameroonians in its membership like the irrepressible guitarist, Ginger Forcher who may have been the forerunner of the army of great Cameroonian instrumentalists that stormed the Nigerian music industry in the 1980s. These instrumentalists include the keyboard great, Nkono Teles, Ettiene T Boy and Frankie Song, drummers like Mambo and Vincent Ekedi, guitarists like Oscar Elimbi and George Achini and bassists like Sol and Basil Barap.
Meanwhile, in Port Harcourt, the group, “Founders 15” featuring the likes of gentleman, Iyke Peters who today is a very strong Biafran political activist in the USA had a successful single in “Be My Own”.
While the Eastern pop groups were making their different hit songs, a new sound virtually exploded on the scene. Fela Ransome Kuti had finally hit it big with a new band, “The Africa 70s”, a new sound, Afro Beat, a new song, “Chop and Quench” and a new venue, “the African Shrine”. The previously unacclaimed “Highlife Jazz” artiste, Fela, whose band “Koola Lobitos” had struggled in Lagos in the shadows of the great show man, Geraldo Pino, had in every sense become born again. Geraldo Pino himself born of Sierra Leonean parents and largely influenced by the stagecraft of James Brown later moved to Port Harcourt and for a long while had residency at Crystal Park Hotel, Aba and Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt.
After a rather unsuccessful tour of America, Fela was a changed man. He gave up his trademark western suits for very tight-fitting trousers; his mid-tempo Highlife Jazz for the raunchy and heavily percussive Afro Beat; his sweet trumpet for the very aggressive electronic keyboard and later, the saxophone; his ‘You love me and I love you’ songs for the audacious and politically controversial. Fela, who never touched cigarette, became a major convert to cannabis. Fela also gave up his middle-class family lifestyle for girls and girls and girls! While Fela had countless roforofo fights with the Nigeria Police, he made many hit songs for EMI such as Shakara, Lady, I no be Gentleman, Black Man’s Cry, Open & Close, etc. and a critical moment in the evolution of Nigerian music was born. (To be continued)