In recent years, no label has shown more dedication to filling in missing links of African pop history than the UK Soundway label. This small flood of titles, mostly from Ghana and Nigeria, are noteworthy in illuminating the vast, rich world of funky, rocking African urban bands that operated in the '60s and '70s. This is particularly helpful given the world's ongoing fascination with Fela Kuti, his sons, and the ever-growing afrobeat phenomenon. It is now abundantly clear that Fela's innovations did not spring from whole cloth, but rather from a world of bands intensely attuned to pop music developments in the US and UK. Sorting through this great music, it also becomes clear how Fela's sound exerted its own influence on this dynamic and fast-changing scene.
Four new titles, just out, add new pieces to the puzzle, and introduce an intriguing contemporary twist. First up, 1970s Ghanaian rockers Edzayawa with Projection One. This band eschewed love songs in favor of more probing, philosophic themes. The lead track on Projection One is called "Darkness," and it showcases the musicians' loyalty to African rhythms, in this case a smoldering, 6/8 from Southeast Ghana, home of the Ewe people. Drawn to Lagos, in part by Fela's rising surge, Edzayawa managed to infiltrate Fela's Kalakuta Republic, opening Africa 70 shows at the Shrine, along with Jani Hastrup's MonoMono (who also have 3 great Soundway releases).
That was Edzayawa's status in 1973, when they went to EMI Studio Lagos to record Projection One. We feel Fela's influence in the slow steaming intro to "Edzayawa," but where Africa 70 favors the slowly evolving groove, this band is just as apt to turn on a dime and leap into funk or rock territory, as on this track. This brief, but noteworthy, session holds up well in retrospect. Most satisfying of all is the band's creative blend of traditional and borrowed rhythms. Truth be told, there's more indigenous African rhythm in these 8 tracks than on any afrobeat release. At the same time, the session rocks. One Projection was never actually released in Ghana, though Edzayawa's leader Nana Danso eventually returned to Accra to form the legendary Pan African Orchestra.
Also from Ghana, Rob's 1977 second release Make it Fast, Make it Slow presents somewhat odder, though also interesting, fare. Rob was a minor artist in Ghana, releasing just 2 albums on the Essiebons label. This one delivers slow, funky broods spiced up by an army band brass section (Mag 2). The album's pervasive religious theme ("I've Got to See You Again, Lord," "He Shall Live in You") contrasts provocatively with the title track, a funky, James Brown inspired groove whose sexual illusions are driven home by Rob's drawn out, vocal evocation of orgasm in the intro and, especially, the outro. Wow! Fela's influence is also felt here, for example, in the determined brass onslaught and pidgin English rapping of "Not the End." By 1977, Afrobeat was well known in the region, pushing funk and rock acts to new levels of originality and self expression. One thing Rob has going for him is a good, raspy soul voice. He doesn't always use it to maximum effect, but it's a clear point of distinction. Another mark of this release is the prominence of African bell parts, a local variant on the indispensable cow bell percussion turning up in so many pop recordings at the time.
Maybe the most satisfying of these three classic titles is Dancing Time: The Best of Eastern Nigeria's Afri Rock Exponents 1973-77 by The Funkees. The CD title pretty much tells the story. But despite the goofy band title (who can hear it without thinking of The Monkees?), this is a choice set of 16 quirky, fun, highly musical dance tracks--and there are 18 of them here, making this release the best value of the four. In a word, this combo cooks, with wah-wah and chippy-chop guitars, bluesy piano riffs, bubbling bass, hot percussion breaks, and searing, joyful vocals.
There's a tenor of Afrobeat politics ("Break Through New Dub"), and also flashes of humor (the totally rocking "Dancing in the Nude") and even a prescient nod to yet-to-be-invented disco ("Dance With Me"). Little surprise that this outfit was one of few to rival MonoMono on the live scene in Lagos, nor that they were brought to the UK for a run of memorable live shows, and the recording of 2 albums before their breakup in 1977.
I've noted before that MonoMono, formed after Joni Haastrup's year in the UK working with Ginger Baker and company, shows a more convincing grasp of rock delivery, both in vocals and guitar arranging, than most of these West African rock acts. But The Funkees are similarly persuasive, coming through with energy and verve that make their sound surprisingly durable all these years later.
The fourth new Soundway offering marks a departure for the label. After establishing itself as the most determined unearthers and reissuers of classic African pop, Soundway now opens its horizons to the wave of new artists who are making contemporary dance music drawing on sounds of the past. Batida is the recording debut from Angolan/Portuguese producer DJ Mpula (Pedro Coquenao). The music includes choice samples from 1970s Angolan pop, a deep well of tasty, guitar-driven grooves that reissuers have only begun to reveal. Those classic sounds shine throughout here, but the rhythmic packaging is decidedly contemporary--fast, driving club beats often informed by Angola's influential techno-dance genre, kuduro. The promotional copy for this release flatly declares that kuduro "has no links with its country's musical heritage." None? I'd say that notion bears further investigation (stay tuned for Afropop's coming series on Angola), but what it clear from the music here is that the breathless pulse of kuduro vibes nicely with the tuneful sunniness of classic Angolan sounds. This is a standout project, guaranteed to please both fans of classic Afropop and young listeners looking for new sounds with contemporary energy, edge and production values. And that's no mean feat. Sweetening the mix are cameos by a number of young Afro-Lusaphone singers and rappers in Lisbon.
Batida's music is featured on this week's Afropop Worldwide program, "Crate-Diggers and Remixers" produced by Saxon Baird. The program deals precisely with this nexus of impulses--discovering lost sounds of the past, and making new African music for a new era. Good to know that Soundway is on the bandwagon. This is a promising wave, and one apt to deliver a long, happy ride.
- Banning Eyre