Nigerian Rock Classics

A playlist by Uchenna Ikonne

When it comes to Nigerian music, it’s doubtful that anyone can match up with Uchenna Ikonne in terms of pure knowledge. Uchenna came of age in 1980s Nigeria – a particularly fertile time for the country’s music scene – and absorbed the plethora of sounds happening around him. In 2006, he launched the Comb & Razor blog, initially as an outlet to share some of the vintage music he was planning to use in a film he was helping produce in Nigeria at the time. Much to his surprise, his writing found an audience, and Ikonne realized that his vast knowledge could be used to help put some of these tunes back into circulation.

Though he’s probably best known for his role in bringing Who Is William Onyeabor? to fruition, Ikonne has curated numerous compilations of African rock, funk, disco, boogie, psych and more. In this excerpt from his recent Headphone Highlights interview with Jeff Mao on RBMA Radio, Ikonne highlights some of his favorite Nigerian rock classics.

Wrinkar Experience - Ballad of a Sad Young Woman

Wrinkar Experience - Ballad of a Sad Young Woman (1973)

Wrinkar Experience became very popular after the war; they were one of the first Nigerian rock groups to have a major hit record. They were also the group that demonstrated that there was a future for records in this genre. Most of their popular hits were more in the pop-rock mold, but this is probably a darker entry in their repertoire.

The Funkees - Slipping Into Darkness

The Funkees - Slipping Into Darkness (1973)

The Funkees were a very popular group in Eastern Nigeria, which was the region that right until the end of the war had been called Biafra. “Slipping Into Darkness” is of course a song that was made popular by the American funk [band], War. This is their version of that song. Cover versions were definitely common live. In fact, for the first couple of years, most bands dealt almost entirely with cover versions. It took a while before they actually started developing their material.

It was almost conventional wisdom that Nigerian rock groups couldn’t write their own material. That’s one of the reasons why they weren’t taken seriously, but cover versions were always a big part of the scene. [The Funkees] keep it fairly close to the original, but there’s something about it that I feel is very uniquely Nigerian.

The Hygrades - In the Jungle

The Hygrades - In the Jungle (1972)

The Hygrades were another group from Eastern Nigeria. They were led by the guitarist, Goddy Oku, who was one of the most enigmatic figures of this period. He was a producer and a very, very skilled guitarist. In addition, he was a tinkerer who not only built his own studio, he built amplifiers, effects and instruments. So, The Hygrades were pretty much almost… I wouldn’t call it a solo project, but the group was Oku and whoever he happened to be playing with at the time. This was one of their first hits.

The Doves - Flying Bird

The Doves - Flying Bird (1975)

The Doves were also a group from Eastern Nigeria. They became extremely popular in the later part of the ’70s with a more commercial sound, but this is one of the very early records that had a very distinctly dirty garage sound. I think this song is also emblematic of some of the early material that you would find coming out of these groups in Nigeria. At the time when it was believed that they couldn’t produce [or] write their own material, a lot of them dealt in instrumentals like this.

Warhead Constriction - Graceful Bird

Warhead Constriction - Graceful Bird (Mid-’70s)

This was a group that was formed in one of the prominent Lagos high schools, St. Gregory’s College. They were all high school kids at the time that they made this record, and they inspired several of the groups from various high schools to try to record as well. One of the things that was unique about these high school bands was that because they were not professional musicians, they were not beholden to the broadly commercial tastes of the mainstream audience and they could be a little bit more radical in their musical attack. I think you hear that in this track.

The Hykkers - I Want a Break Thru

The Hykkers - I Want a Break Thru (1972)

The Hykkers were actually the first professional pop group in Nigeria. They started in the 1960s. Back then, they were a very different kind of group. They were sort of like the early Beatles. Very clean-cut, jangly guitars and harmonies. During the war they ended up on the battlefront and their membership changed. So when they came back after the war, they had a much harder, much grittier sound, and this is an example of the sort of thing that they did during that period.

The Hykkers were representative of an up-and-coming generation in the same way that Fela [Kuti] was in the 1960s. Fela was viewed as very radical. It’s interesting, because these days when we think of Fela, we think of him as being so prototypically pro-Africa. But when he first came on the scene, he was sort of viewed as being a bit more of an avatar of a foreign invasion with his inclination towards jazz and pop. So the Hykkers were in the same lane as him – they toured together and became great friends.

The Waves - Wake Up You!

The Waves - Wake Up You! (Mid-’70s)

The Waves were a group that started in the 1960s as a more conventional soul band in the Famous Flames mold. After the war, they became a lot more psychedelic. They only released one single. The record was expected to really break the psychedelic sound, but it seemed to be the tipping point that was the line in the sand for psychedelic music. The mainstream audience rejected the record and after that point it seemed that psychedelic music and rock in general started to decline, at least in Lagos.

It remained popular in the east throughout the decade, but after 1973, it started to decline a little bit in Lagos. If I were to draw one point where that started, it would be with this particular record. I think the content, is full of a certain kind of optimism that defined the era, and of course the title is great. The title expresses everything that the rock scene was trying to do in society at the time, which was just wake people up to a new way of seeing things and to a new way of listening to music.

Shango Dance Band - I Need Your Love

Shango Dance Band - I Need Your Love (1978)

This is more of a conventional Afrobeat sound, although you can hear that it’s been influenced by the emerging rock scene with its guitars. The basic rhythm is very reminiscent of Fela because it is by a musician who was a member of Fela’s band, Ojo Okeji, who was actually with him when he first started to create what we now know as Afrobeat. Okeji was the bass player in Fela’s band in the 1960s, and he played all those basslines in the very early Afrobeat records. He left Fela around 1968 and formed his own band called the Shango Dance Band.

Shadow Abraham - Babalawo

Shadow Abraham - Babalawo (1974)

This is Shadow Abraham with backing by the rock group Mono Mono. Mono Mono was a group that was very integral in creating the Afro-rock sound and trying to bring lots of indigenous African influences into rock music. This is an example of that. I’m not sure if the song itself comes from a folk source, but it definitely sounds like it does. Mono Mono were a very, very influential group during this period. They were seen as a group that would expose this sound to an international audience, so they did go abroad and they did try to “make it.” They didn’t quite get there but many of them remained in the United States after that and still play here to this day in various groups.

By Uchenna Ikonne on December 5, 2016

On a different note