The Funkees: “Salam” (Now I’m A Man, 1976)

I recently wrote an article for a forthcoming issue of One More Robot, in which the Funkees featured prominently. It had been a little while since I’d listened to the band’s albums, and it was nice getting back to them—this band was one of the best rock groups to come out of Nigeria in the 70s, during that country’s post-Civil War musical explosion.

They formed in the eastern university and oil town of Warri, in Delta State, and the members were veterans of the Biafran Army; their connections to people who traveled abroad often gave them access to a lot of British and American records that competing bands couldn’t hear. Much in the same way that Jamaican soundsystems tried to get their hands on records no one else had, band in Nigeria would try to build unique covers into their set lists to set themselves apart, so it was a valuable resource for the band.

After a series of singles, the band upped stakes and moved to London, where they recorded two LPs. “Salam” is one of the highlights of the second one, Now I’m A Man, mixing a little bit of every ingredient that made the LP interesting into a sharp proto-disco rock song. 

The band didn’t last too long beyond this LP. Band leader and guitarist Harry Mosco became a top producer and popular solo performer on his return to Nigeria (his 1980 Afro-disco LP Peace & Harmony is worth tracking down). He passed away in March. If you’re looking to hear more Funkees but don’t want to have to track down the band’s LPs, either in real life or online, Sound Way just released an awesome overview compilation of the band called Dancing Time

The Aktion: “Groove The Funk” (Groove The Funk, 1975)

The Aktion were part of the legion of rock bands that formed in eastern Nigeria in the wake of the devastating Biafran War. At first they were the Actions, then Action 13, and finally The Aktion. The band began to come together in the very early 70s in Calabar, a city in Cross River State not far from the border with Cameroon, when leader Lemmy Faith and Essien Akpobio began playing together.

The group released at least one single under its first name, and two under its second, but by the time they were able to make an LP, they were the Aktion, with a lineup of Faith, Akpobio, Renny Pearl, Tony Essien, Felix Odey and the well-regarded session drummer Ben Alaka.

This is the title track from “Groove The Funk,” and it has rightly become widely regarded as one of the all-time best songs to come out of the eastern Nigerian funk and rock scene. The scuzzy fuzz riff, doubled vocals, “na na” breakdowns, and fantastic bridge (are they singing “funky liberal”?) add up to the sort of thing Afrofunk fans fantasize about, except these guys made it in real life.

After Groove the Funk was released, the band took a regular club gig in the city of Warri, but a military coup and subsequent curfew kept them from performing much, and consequently, from getting paid. Running out of money, the band struggled to keep it together. They made one more LP that I know of (Celebration, in 1977), and split in 1979. Akpobio opened a club and did a lot of production work in the 80s; he passed away three years ago. Faith also became a producer, and the others kept their musical careers going to varying extents. 

There is a great book to be written on the war and the East’s ensuing rock and roll decade—I hope someone who was there gets a chance to write it.

You can hear more of The Aktion here.

King Sunny Ade & His African Beats: “Ase” (Aura, 1984)

On my way home from the cat shelter tonight, I stopped for a quick dinner at Leo’s Coney Island (if you don’t know, “Coney Island” is Southeast Michigander for “diner”). I was re-reading an old David Foster Wallace essay about the adult film industry’s annual awards show, and in the next booth, two guys were engaged in a rather one-way conversation about religion. I couldn’t hear the occasional question asked by the quiet one, but the loud one seemed to be at that point in very early adulthood where one has—at last!—figured everything out.

Actually, he made a number of good points, as people who are willing to question themselves often do, and I couldn’t help liking the way he asserted that every religion is just a little piece of knowledge, and you only get anything close to a full picture when you look at all of them. That’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure how clear the full picture would be.

I have my own views on religion, but it got me thinking about music in terms I’ve actively tried to avoid for quite a few years, namely the idea of music as a whole thing. I think the idea of music as a whole thing—something that could be explored to its edges—appealed to me when I was younger and in the first acquisitive flush of fandom. The notion that you can hear it all is absurd, of course, and it’s one that slowly falls away the more you hear.

It seems plausible at the start, though, when you only know a few bands and haven’t yet seen a mile-long list of new releases for the week, and how much music could possibly have come out of all those other countries out there anyway? But then you start peeking around corners and each one reveals a dozen new corners, and you also start to realize that a lot of music happens outside the range of recording devices. Like, Baka Pygmies have been singing their mushroom gathering songs in the middle of the forest for hundreds of years, and that’s really where the notion of music as a neat body of work you can explore systematically breaks down completely.

These days, I like knowing that I’ll never hear everything, not least because new music is being made all the time. It just means I’ll never run out of corners to look around, and I’m bound to keep finding things that interest me.

The idea that you can hear everything often happens in microcosm with new discoveries—it was definitely like that with me when I first heard Fela. I figured there was a limit to the amount of great music I could hear from Nigeria. But I was so wrong. There is no limit, and at the time I didn’t even realize that the country produced musicians who were a whole lot more popular than Fela himself, and just as distinctive.

King Sunny Ade was one of those artists, one of the great juju musicians of his era, and one of the few to manage a crossover into Western markets—his crossover success is only surprising if you don’t consider the fact that songs like “Ase” play quite easily next to the Talking Heads and other stuff that was popular in the West in the early 80s. It’s actually pretty likely that was because some of that music was influenced by his own 70s recordings, and his passing fame in the US was a rare and welcome instance of a shadow influence getting his due.

Rex Williams: “You Are My Heart” (Philips West Africa 45 PK 7-9220, 1975)

Songs like this are among the many, many reasons to branch out and give pop music from around the world a try. Aside from simply broadening your horizons and making a more direct emotional connection to people you might otherwise know from news reports or stereotypes, getting yourself into music outside the usual Anglo-American sphere we’re exposed to daily in the English-speaking West can lead you to amazing gems like this one.

"You Are My Heart" is basically a hybrid of guitar highlife and Western pop balladry, a style that apparently made Rex Williams quite popular in Anglophone West Africa. The cycling rhythm guitar parts give the song a solid center, but it’s the free-floating lead guitar and melodic bass line that give the song its gripping sense of drift. The unison vocals are pretty, and they’re almost accents. There are hardly any lyrics outside the refrain, but it took me many listens to realize that.

This is what a great pop song does, ultimately: it makes you think there’s more there than there actually is. It makes you feel things well outside the actual vibrations of the sound. To put it another way, would you not want to be the person this song was written for?