This week’s 10 of the best focuses on our Tony Allen-inspired Gateways series, in collaboration with Boiler Room, to look at when disco took over west Africa
- What is Gateways? And why does Nigerian music matter?
- See the rest of our series Gateways – Tony Allen and Nigeria here
1. The Sahara All Stars – Take Your Soul
With Nigeria being the most populous country in Africa (not to mention the seventh in the world) and Lagos being a truly international city, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many dancefloor-orientated genres – Afrobeat, Afrofunk and Afrodisco – flourished there in the 1970s and 80s. Despite its bloody colonial history (the country became independent from British rule in 1960) and terrible dictatorships after 1970, there was still rich cultural exchange between Nigeria and the UK. One of the country’s most celebrated sons, Fela Kuti, learned his chops playing in London jazz clubs in the mid-60s. Likewise, heavyweight British musicians such as Ginger Baker and Paul McCartney fell in love with the musical culture of the west African nation, and for good reason: Nigeria is internationally famed for its adoption of highlife and its homegrown Afrobeat. But the creative club scene and cultural preference for live music over DJs meant local disco bands tended to be in demand. Every town had at least one world-class band, and this bunch of talented all-rounders were from Jos, in the middle belt of the country. The Sahara All Stars were as happy playing reggae as they were jamming out long Afrobeat numbers and cutting crisp disco funk tracks, as Take Your Soul shows. Their second album, Sahara All Stars of Jos, came out in 1976 on Nigeria EMI, but for those who don’t fancy paying ridiculous prices, it is available on the essential Soundway compilation Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound of the Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79.
2. Joni Haastrup – Greetings
Joni Haastrup was born in Sierra Leone, but he grew up among Nigerian royalty and made his name – to a certain extent at least – on the dancefloors of his adopted country. The qualifier is necessary, because despite being one of the most important musicians involved in the country’s highlife, rock, Afrobeat and disco scenes, he has remained relatively unknown. Perhaps it is understandable given that he recorded under a bewildering number of aliases and spent a lot of his career collaborating with other musicians and playing second fiddle in their bands. He was a member of the Ginger Baker groups Salt and Air Force; he provided the vocals on the first ever Afrobeat album, Orlando Julius’s Super Afro Soul, and he worked with Fela Kuti on other crucial releases. However, despite his own recordings being reissued, including the killer 1978 album Wake Up Your Mind, his music has not gripped the UK Afro record-buying public’s attention in the same way as Fela or, more recently, William Onyeabor have. Perhaps that will change. He features heavily on an excellent new soul jazz compilation Nigeria Soul Fever: Afrofunk, Disco And Boogie: West African Disco Mayhem! which is due out later this month. And this killer slo-mo disco track from 1978 also features on the indispensable introductory compilation Nigeria 70 – Funky Lagos.
3. Orlando Julius – Disco Hi-Life
It just doesn’t get much better than this. Orlando Julius came from Nigeria and had a solid grounding in many African musical styles and cultures, but he was also a true internationalist. He was a regular collaborator with the Detroit soul powerhouse Lamont Dozier, for example, and this adaptability left him well positioned to pull off this exquisitely balanced hybrid of languid disco and serotonin-drenched highlife in 1979. This unbeatably upbeat and sun-dappled floorfiller has undergone something of a revival over recent years (and deservedly so) after Hot Casa reissued the EP in 2014. Orlando remains a prodigiously talented musician, as his recent album Jaiyede Afro, recorded with London based spiritual jazz/Afro funk orchestra the Heliocentrics proves.
4. Mixed Grill – A Brand New Wayo
I fail to see how anything that mixes Afrobeat, disco, reggae, funk and a selection of tasty grilled meats could be anything other than fantastic, and this record genuinely is amazing. Recorded in Lagos but mixed and mastered at Abbey Road, with an international release on Decca, Mixed Grill’s 1979 album A Cry for Peace and Love was obviously made with one eye on crossover potential. But even if they were aiming at an American audience, you can’t mistake where those drums come from. According to the sleevenotes, the keyboards on this LP were played by Lemmy. One would presume it’s not the same one.
5. Arakatula – Wake Up Africa
In Nigeria, it has always been hard to ignore the heavily politicised and radical overtones that suffuse popular dance music. After suffering a terrible civil war that killed three million people in three years, and a police state giving way to a military dictatorship, working-class and middle-class Nigerians were not just worn out after the 1970 coup but also bitterly angry that they were seeing no benefits whatsoever from the discovery of huge oilfields or their country’s membership of Opec. The gulf between the rich and poor could not have been wider. And it was in this atmosphere that the charismatic and rich-voiced Arakatula released the low-slung, agitated prop disco banger Wake Up Africa in 1979 – it features on the forthcoming soul jazz compilation Nigerian Soul Fever.
6. Tee Mac – Hit Hit
Tee Mac Omatshola Iseli lived an unusual life by any standards. Born into Nigerian royalty in 1948, he was packed off to Zurich at an early age after his father – a successful businessman and diplomat – was assassinated at work. However traumatic it was, the move would prove fruitful for Tee Mac because it brought him under the influence and tutelage of Jean-Pierre Rampal, a brilliant and internationally respected flautist. After 14 years studying the instrument, the 22-year-old Tee Mac returned to Lagos, where he formed a series of heavyweight psychedelic Afro-rock bands including Tee Mac and Afro Collection and the amazingly named Tee Mac and the Backing Band. The former outfit featured Berkley Jones on lead guitar, Joni Haastrup on keyboards, Friday Puzzo on congas and for a short time, Ginger Baker on drums, before Baker absconded with all the musicians bar Tee Mac to form his own group, Salt. The flute-playing prodigy wasn’t fazed and recorded an 18m-selling single called Fly Robin Fly under the pseudonym Levay, which set him up financially for life. He then served a stint as Shirley Bassey’s arranger and bandleader before relaunching himself as a disco musician with the Party Fever LP in 1976. Keeping abreast of dancefloor fashions, he adopted a slick boogie style for 1980’s stunning Hit Hit – which clearly would have been as suitable for Manhattan’s Studio 54 as it was in his own Black Pussycat club in Yaba. As much as Tee Mac was a great band leader and flautist, his real secret weapon in the Nigerian boogie period was his powerhouse lead vocalist, Marjorie Bares, who carries this track effortlessly across a heaving, underlit dancefloor. Tee Mac remains a successful businessman and one of the most in-demand and highly paid flautists in the world. Hit Hit is taken from the album Night Illusion, which is reissued by Soul Jazz on 16 September.
7. Eno Louis – Hot Love
Eno Louis was a resident member of Fela Kuti’s Republic of Kalakuta compound until a notoriously vicious army attack in 1977 caused him to flee to America. Confusingly, he didn’t record his highly collectible Living in USA album until 1982, when he was back in Nigeria. The track Move! features his early experiments with the emergent rap scene, but Hot Love showcases his more disco boogie-leaning sensibilities.
8. Odion Iruoje – Identify With Your Root (Which One You De?)
The self-styled “sound president” teamed up with Akika Omodele in 1983 to write the lyrics for this roots-conscious piece of disco-rap, directed at the African global diaspora. This glorious slice of ultra freshness spreads a positive message to African men and women the world over via rhyme schemes that paint Iruoje as the Nigerian Funky 4 + 1 or Sugarhill Gang. Except it should be pointed out that there can’t be too many old school US rap jams featuring a masterly, lengthy talking-drum breakdown. Again, the album this track is taken from, Down to Earth, could have reasonably been described as rarer than the original copy of the Bible until recently, but those good folk at Soundway are reissuing it on vinyl later this month.
9. Tony Allen – NEPA (Never Expect Power Always)
Tony Allen … Performing in 1988. Photograph: Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Tony Allen, as much as the charismatic Fela and Orlando Julius, was responsible for the Afrobeat sound. He was lionised – along with Klaus Dinger of Neu! and Clyde Stubblefield of James Brown’s band – by Brian Eno for inventing one of the three most important drum beats of the late 20th century. Fela claimed Allen’s ability to play four separate rhythms simultaneously made him feel like he had a quartet of drummers in his band rather than just one. Whether this 1984 Afro dancefloor staple – one of Allen’s many solo outings – is strictly disco is open to debate, but the gloriously insistent locked groove and propulsive electronic elements necessitate its inclusion.
10. William Onyeabor – When the Going Is Smooth & Good
Despite a recent, long-overdue reissue project courtesy of Luaka Bop, William Onyeabor remains something of an enigma. He was a bright kid and, so the legend goes, was sent to study in Moscow during the 1970s on a scholarship. In more recent years, Onyeabor he has been ennobled into Nigerian royalty, taken over a successful flour mill and become a born again Christian. The upshot is that he now refuses to discuss his earlier life as a musician. The facts about his career remain pleasingly opaque. Maybe he set himself up as a film-maker and invested the profits into banks and banks of synthesisers before setting himself up as a futuristic funk star. There again, maybe he didn’t. What we can say with some certainty is that by some means or other he developed a genuinely unique sound which made him more akin to an African Devo or Cerrone than Fela Kuti or Orlando Julius. His body of work features many immensely satisfying slabs of Lagosian synth funk and pulsating new wave disco, and nearly all of it remained Afrofunk’s best-kept secret for decades. Until recently, Onyeabor had steadfastly refused to allow his back catalogue to be reissued, causing prices on Discogs to eventually spiral out of control, with only a couple of tracks such as the uncontested dancefloor destroyer Body and Soul turning up regularly on officially licensed compilations. Collectors, DJs and fans had to make do with very low quality MP3s and YouTube rips until Luaka Bop wore the great man down and reissued most of his 70s and 80s material in 2013 and 2014. Good Name, Let’s Fall in Love and Atomic Bomb are all electro disco gold dust, but this lesser-known 1985 track is both unusual and perfect, coming across like some hipster’s torrid wish-fulfilment combination of John Bender, OMD, the Units, LCD Soundsystem and Ebo Taylor.