Wake Up You! The Rise & Fall of Nigerian Rock Music 1972-1977, vol. 1
02. Keep On Moving - Hygrades
03. Everybody Likes Something Good - Ify Jerry Krusade
04. In The Jungle (Instrumental) - Hygrades
05. Onye Ije - Stranger
06. Stone The Flower - Hykker
07. Baby I Need You - Funkees
08. Mother - Waves
09. Beautiful Daddy - Ofo The Black Company
10. Graceful Bird - War-head Constriction
11. Ije Udo - Magnificent Zenians
12. Never Too Late - Apostles
13. Groove The Funk - Aktion
14. Ballad of a Sad Young Woman - Wrinkar Experience
15. I Can’t Be Satisfied - Founders
16. Float - Tirogo
17. Scream Out - Question Mark
18. Tell Me - P.R.O.
When the African vinyl-digging trend peaked five or six years ago, there was a rush, mostly among American and European collectors, to press and publish retrospective compilations. From the mid/late-‘00s onward, there was a feverish proliferation of digitized vinyl on mp3-sharing blogs, many of which featured music from West Africa. One of those blogs was the popular Comb and Razor, run by Uchenna Ikonne, who’s since become the main man behind a number of Nigeria-focused projects for labels like Soundway, Luaka Bop, and Now-Again. Since the early 2010s, what some have called the “Scramble for African Vinyl” has slowed down a bit, if in part because various collectors have rendered certain vinyl-rich areas comparatively “dry.” So it says something about Now-Again that they took the better part of a decade to properly license, credit, and release what is now Wake Up You!: The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972-1977.
Where other Nigerian vinyl compilations have focused on various permutations of rock, funk, soul, and disco, Wake Up You! specifically covers the short-lived but influential period of Nigerian rock in the country’s post-Civil War era (after 1970). On 34 tracks across two volumes and two accompanying books, the compilation documents some of the musical, socioeconomic, and political trends that shaped Nigerian Afrorock.
The majority of both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 feature music from the height of Nigerian rock in the early ‘70s, before the scene started to decline. The decade saw Nigeria experiencing a petroleum-fueled post-war economic boom, which ushered in a renewed sense of optimism that proved a huge boon to the growth of the country’s music industry. And yet, as the government sought to rebuild the nation, leftover wartime trauma and unresolved tensions got swept under the rug. So it's very possible that the sense of discomfort and melancholy that had never really gotten addressed then ended up bubbling over into rock, particularly in the East, which had borne the brunt of the war as the former secessionist Republic of Biafra. The compilation reflects that reality, featuring mostly Eastern rock bands.
On Vol. 1 opener “Never Never Let Me Down” (1973), the little-known Formulars Dance Band deliver a touching number filled with nostalgic doo-wop harmonies and lyrics steeped in heartache: “Just one thing you do not know, girl,” the lead singer croons. “And that is I need you/And one more thing you do not know, girl/And that is I love you.” By contrast, War-Head Constriction’s record "Graceful Bird" (1973) ramps up into a heavy metal track with long, snarling guitar solos and piles of distortion. According to Ikonne’s liner notes, War-Head Constriction also often played with a later iteration of the band Waves, whose psychedelic “Wake Up You” (featured on Vol. 2) b/w “Mother” (on Vol. 1) is the comp’s namesake. Vol. 1’s closing track, P.R.O.’s 1976 “Tell Me,” in turn references dub by way of delay effects, hinting at the fact that towards the end of the decade, a several schoolboy and college rock bands—including teen sensations Ofege—started shifting their heavy rock sound towards "dub and militant rockers-style reggae." But even then, with the exception of Afrobeat and with the advent of disco, the public wanted something smoother and glossier, and Nigerian rock slipped more or less into darkness (related: Funkees’ cover of War’s “Slipping into Darkness” on Vol. 2).
In that way, Vol. 1 comes to a logical close. The album itself is very loosely chronological, though it doesn’t follow the arc of the accompanying book, which is an important part of the compilation. Vol. 1 sags a bit towards the middle of its 18 tracks, but it picks up again later on—perhaps not unlike the trajectory of Nigerian rock over the decades. Many of the narrative threads present on Vol. 1 are also those that run through Vol. 2, and certain bigger bands, such as The Hykkers, The Hygrades, and The Funkees, appear on both volumes. However, where Vol. 1 is generally more exuberant and brighter, Vol. 2 is more melancholy, reflecting some of the darker realities of the time.
Much of Vol. 2 expresses a desire for freedom and a resistance to the social and political dis-ease of post-war Nigeria. On “Life in Cannan,” Ceejebs lament the state of what could have been their promised land. Over nimble jazz keys and thick bass, lead vocalist Eyo “Crosbee” Hogan gathers his listeners around him, intoning, “Come around, people of this world/let’s get together and pray/Evil things are happening every day/Many rich are getting poor/The poor ones are dying away.” Echoing that sense of despair is The Identicals’ nearly-apocalyptic “Who Made the World,” on which they demand answers to questions they know they’ll never get, howling, “Who made the world? Who made the land? Who made the moon?” Even the love songs here ride on a sort of desperation bordering on futility: on opening number “Come Back,” band leader Theodore Nemy’s voice cracks time and time again as he begs for his “baby” to “come back.” An organ drones beneath him, sympathetic (figuratively and musically) to Nemy’s grievances.
Perhaps most clearly exemplifying the intersection of Afrorock and the politics of the time on Vol. 2 is the band Action 13, who appear on Vol. 1 as their later iteration, Aktion. On Vol. 2, their song “Set Me Free” could easily be interpreted as a protest against the band’s prison-like relationship to their then-patrons, the Nigerian military’s 13th Brigade. Many brigades of the time used bands to entertain their soldiers, boost morale, and reassure citizens, via music, that all was well. Initially, their patronage was helpful in providing a number of Eastern musicians with a living. But Action 13, like many other bands with brigade numbers affixed to their names, eventually grew frustrated, and many tried to break free to make a name for themselves independent of the military. These outside pressures, as well as labels’ jostling to sign artists with varying degrees of success, often augmented bands’ internal instabilities as well. There was a ton of back-and-forth between bands. For instance, on Vol. 2, we see Tony Grey, (former?) keyboardist of the Magnificent Zenians (Vol. 1) leading his own band, The Black 7; certain members of Afrorock pioneer Joni Haastrup’s Monomono appear here backing one Shadow Abraham; juju icon King Sunny Ade makes a surprise appearance producing The Believers’ “Life Will Move.” Trying to make sense of the bands’ relationships to each other, to regional trends, to labels, and to military involvement is like trying to make sense of a messy maze of crossed paths, dead-ends, and false starts.
But in that sense, Wake Up You!: The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972-1977 does a thorough job of conveying the angst and mutability of Nigeria’s protean post-war period. This was music that helped people, young people especially, to sort through their own identities in the wake of war, even if it was to define what they weren't. On Vol. 1, in the chorus of their track “Scram Out,” from their 1977 album Be Nice To The People, young schoolboy rockers Question Mark sing, "I want to feel free, I want to feel happy!" Which at the end of the day, through all its ups and downs, was what the movement was about.
There have been several excellent Nigerian rock and psychedelic music compilations issued by fine record labels that have gone to great lengths to assemble tapes and/or rare pressings of exemplary recordings. That said, Now Again’s Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock goes a step further: it attempts to tell this music’s entire story between 1972 and 1977 in the aftermath of the three-year civil war.
The music is contained inside a sleeve placed between the covers of a hardbound book with a narrative essay written by musicologist and researcher Uchenna Ikonne (who assembled Who Is William Onyeabor?). This first of two volumes offers 18 burning cuts released between 1972 and 1977. Well-known acts from the Hykkers and the Funkees to Ify Jerry Krusade, the Strangers, and others are represented — though the choices are not always obvious and add another layer to the already complex dimensions of the Afro-rock portrait already available. One example is the inclusion of “Stone the Flower,” the B-side of the Hykkers’ “God Gave His Only Son” single from 1972 — it’s wonderful, but nowhere near the best cut here. Arguably, that honor is split between Ofo the Black Company’s “Beautiful Daddy,” the B-side of their “Allah Wakbarr” single, and “Graceful Bird” by War-Head Constriction, both frantic psychedelic scorchers with screaming guitars, rumbling basslines, and tom-tom-heavy polyrhythms. For rock guitar freaks, the Apostles’ “Never Too Late” from 1976, deeply influenced by Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat, is another excellent choice. There are plenty of funky grooves here too, from the Motown inspiration of the Formulars Dance Band’s “Never Never Let Me Down” (1973) to the psychedelic soul in the Strangers’ Temptations-influenced “Onye Ije” (1972) and the wailing Farfisa and bubbling conga rave-up in “Groove the Funk” by Aktion (1975). There isn’t a dud in this bunch, even though the music is all over the rock and funk map.
This set’s ultimate achievement, however, doesn’t only lie in the recordings presented (all of which were officially licensed). Instead, it’s in the way they offer a soundtrack to Ikonne’s essay, which is exhaustively — even painstakingly — researched and vastly illustrated (truly amazing photographs), containing quotes from artists, label heads, managers, etc. It also offers an informed opinion near the end that many — particularly in the white world — may find shocking (though it’s tough to argue). On the other side, Ikonne’s narrative posits another thesis that contradicts some popular Nigerian historical thinking on just how lasting the cultural and artistic import of the period is. If you want to know what they are, buy it. Sure, you pick this set up just for the music and it would be worth it. But when music and visuals are combined, the story is so exhilarating, heartbreaking, and revelatory, it eclipses that intention. Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock is essential for anyone even casually interested in the era of Afro-rock.