Livian Stokes details the lost decade of Nigerian psychedelic rock, its key figures, and the dark political turmoil that influenced it.
Imagine swarms of young men in bell bottoms and women in colorful printed dresses and long dangly earrings dancing to a thrumming bassline and a raging guitar solo. The drums enrapture the crowds with a steady beat and the lyrics are raw. This could easily be any club in Los Angeles or San Francisco, but it’s actually Lagos, Nigeria in the 1970s. As Americans boogied to Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, James Brown, and The Velvet Underground, Nigerians had their own version of psychedelia that came from a heritage of spirituality, traditional music, political discontent, and the inevitable impact of the American flower power movement. During the mere decade between the late 1960s and 1970s, Nigeria experienced an explosion of musical culture in the form of chaotic, charged, raw psychedelic rock music that came out of a brutal civil war and pent up political frustrations. The music of 1970s Lagos is distinct, complex rhythm usually associated with Afro-Cuban music, but put into Nigerian funk rock (Spice 2016). Musicians drew inspiration from Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and James Brown, especially for the sound of guitars. External influences also came into consideration as Nigerian psychedelia evolved. Many Nigerian bands were inspired by The Beatles and took up the same setup of guitar, bass, and drums (Kogbe 2018). They took heavy inspiration from Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos, and the funk of James Brown and Otis Redding. During its brief decade of popularity, Nigerian psychedelia evolved to become funkier and deeper, drawing the ears of youth (Uchenna Ikonne, NPR, 2016). The Nigerian psychedelia revolution came and went, becoming quickly forgotten as sounds changed and tastes evolved to the mainstream (Ikonne, 2016).
Yet more recently, music fanatics such as Mr. Odion Iruoje, ex-resident producer at EMI records and Temi Kogbe, a collector of vintage African records, are attempting to rediscover and preserve this ephemeral golden age of music. Together, they have set up Odion Livingstone, a start-up which works to re-release and collect the vintage, lost records of Nigerian bands from the 1960s to 1980s. It is because of initiatives like Odion Livingstone that African music is becoming more widespread on platforms such as Spotify, and there is a greater recognition and appreciation for the unique and distinct sound of African psychedelia.
Against the backdrop of civil war
The context of the political turmoil that surrounded the rise and fall of Nigerian rock music is important for a better understanding of where the sound comes from. In 1967, the eastern Republic of Biafra seceded from Nigeria following a build-up of political turmoil (Nwaubani 2020). Igbos–the minority ethnic group–fled from all over Nigeria to Biafra to escape pogroms and destruction from the Nigerian army (Kogbe 2018). Nigeria declared war on Biafra, putting the inexperienced, new republic up against the established Nigerian government. The Biafrans suffered from starvation and brutal attacks from the Nigerian army for three years. In 1970, the Republic of Biafra surrendered to Nigeria (Nwaubani 2020).
Previous to the secession, the popular reigning music was Nigerian highlife, which was rhythmic, dancing music that had originated from Ghana in West Africa (Kogbe 2017). Popular highlife artists include Oliver de Couque and Victor Olaiya. However, highlife represented Nigerian nationalism and unity, which had been suddenly disrupted in 1967, and therefore left a void in the music scene (Eothen, NPR, 2016). The musicians remaining in Nigeria took on a more soulful, contemplative sound in contrast to highlife (Eothen 2016). At the same time, the Igbo musicians fled to Biafra during the war and endured life in a brutal combat zone. Their sound drastically transformed into a rugged, raw, incomplete sound as the musicians struggled to find instruments and played as soldiers (Ikonne, NPR, 2016). Popular rock bands were sometimes conscripted (on both the Nigerian and Biafran sides) to keep up morale among soldiers, as well as to keep more politically-charged bands subdued (Ikonne 2016).
When these musicians returned to Lagos, they entirely transformed the Nigerian rock scene. They brought back a raw, chaotic, heavy, and grungy sound that conveyed the experience of war while at the same time attempted to ease the pain they had endured, giving the genre a more psychedelic and experimental sound (Kogbe 2018). Music was an escape from the civil war, a humanitarian crisis the likes of which has not been seen since World War II, and rock music became a simple pleasure that people looked forward to in order to escape (Ikonne 2016). After the war ended, the music continued to be a messy, funky mix as the country healed from an unsatisfying war, reentered international politics, and joined the flower power movement of the 60s (Eothen 2016). This mixture of identities and movements led to interesting, expressive music.
The main players of Afro-psychedelia
Ofo and the Black Company, hailing from Ibadan, revolutionized the genre with ‘Allah Wakbarr’, described as “a screaming, proto-metal orgy of ecstasy exploding around the traditional Islamic exhortation of the Creator’s greatness” by Uchenna Ikonne. The band was not Muslim, but drew inspiration from spirituality, as also seen in another song “The Book”, inspired by the Christian Bible (Ikonne, Redbull Music Academy, 2016). Drummer Larry Ifedioranma was especially inspired by a keen interest in shamanism and African traditional spiritualism (Kogbe 2018). Their shows were known to be experiences themselves, where the musicians would come on stage chanting Igbo, playing percussion, and dancing with make-up on (Kogbe 2017). Ofo and the Black company was psychedelic in terms of attire and sound, leaning towards the heavy rock genre as well (Locke 2016). Ifedioranma had been conscripted into the Nigerian army as a musician, and often played more crowd-pleasers like James Brown, but in reality he dreamed of starting a Nigerian acid-rock band inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple (Ikonne, Redbull Music Academy, 2016). Ofo and the Black Company were the pioneers who began introducing the sounds of African spirituality into their music, giving it a ‘trippy’ sound that rock bands from the United States could only create through heavy drug use (Kogbe 2018).
(The Hykkers in the 1970s. Source: The Guardian)
The Hykkers were a very popular band from Lagos, but when the war broke out they moved east and played for Biafran soldiers to improve morale (Locke 2016). They had a few popular hits, such as “I Want a Break Through” and “Deiyo Deiyo” (Kogbe 2018). The band eventually broke up after the war ended on January 15, 1971, when the band members moved to different cities.
The Funkees were another well-known band hailing from Aba but performing in Lagos. The band was signed by the prestigious EMI Nigerian record label and immediately sent to London to record, where they adopted the sound of Jimi Hendrix and began playing heavy psychedelic rock (Kogbe 2018). They were considered one of the main Afro rock bands playing in London at the time, and enjoyed performing in the underground rock scene of London. Jake Sollo, the guitarist of The Funkees, came from the small town of Ogibi-Ikenda but regardless flourished on the international music scene as a born musician, according to contemporary musicians (Kogbe 2018). His father had been the oti Iba, the traditional ‘drum-beater’ for their village during funerals and weddings, and so Jake Sollo incorporated this element of traditional African sound to his own contemporary music (Jones 2018).
Another well-known name in the genre was BLO, which consisted of three well-known musicians in the Lagos community (Kogbe 2018). According to Uchenne Iknonne, “Ginger Baker, ex-drummer with Cream, drove across the Sahara in 1970 and set up shop in Lagos … where he hosted jam sessions that included people like the Clusters, Jake [Sollo] and Jerry [Ify], Tunde Kuboye, Tee Mac, Lijadu Sisters, Joni Haastrup, etc.” These gatherings created a band called Salt, which toured through the US and Europe. When Salt ultimately broke up, BLO was formed, producing well-known , trippy, epics such as ‘Chant to Mother Earth’ and ‘We’re Out Together’ on their sensational album Chapter One, which brought a strong, Afrocentric psychedelic sound to the international scene for the first time (Kogbe 2018). Following this album, the sound of BLO changed to more generic, dancing songs, which moved out of the Afro-psychedelic scene (Kogbe 2018). Nonetheless, BLO is remembered for changing and revolutionizing the genre of African rock and psychedelia–and for having wild fans who would stay at concerts all night long (Jones 2018).
Ofege is another essential staple of Afro-psychedelic. Ofege was the result of a high school musical competition, and thus was considered too immature to record a label for some time (Melvin Ukachi Noks 2018). Ofege was of particular symbolic importance to youth culture and empowerment, representing the potential for young people to be successful as they expressed themselves (Noks 2018). Igbo youth were especially empowered by the sounds of musicians from former Biafro, who felt particularly disenchanted and unsatisfied from the civil war (Kogbe 2018). Eventually, their album Try and Love was released in 1973 with the help and collaboration of a new lead guitarist, Berkeley Jones (Noks 2018). Try and Love marked a cultural shift and empowered the youth, who were encouraged to give music a try as well. The album was played consistently on the radio waves as far as East Africa and Ghana (Locke 2016).
(Fela Kuti in 1971, Source: The Guardian)
Finally, a discussion of Nigerian rock music cannot be complete without a thorough appreciation of one of its biggest superstars: Fela Kuti. Fela Kuti began making music in the late 1960s and in his prime of the 1970s he played in the band Afrika 70 (previously Nigeria 70, later Egypt 80) (Locke 2016). Fela Kuti’s sound was dubbed ‘Afrobeat’–an offshoot of highlife, which was also a popular genre preceding Afro-psychedelia, however Fela Kuti was still a vital influence on the unique rock music of the 1970s (Locke 2016). Afrobeat was a blend of traditional highlife music and jazz–Kuti was critical of musicians who tried to imitate an American pop sound (John Dougan, Rovi). He also sang in English, which took his music to the international scene, where he influenced famous artists like Brian Eno, Miles Davis, and Vampire Weekend (Locke 2016). He also released a live performance album with former Cream drummer Ginger Baker, attesting to his international fame. Fela Kuti came from a well-off family and studied in London, but soon after returned to Nigeria to devote himself to music (Britannica). Fela Kuti is also known for being politically controversial, and incorporated political rhetoric into his music which led to trouble from government and military officials (Locke 2016). This inclination to politics came to him while on tour in the US in 1969, when Fela Kuti was exposed to the writings of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, giving rise to politically charged lyrics in pidgin English and Yoruba (Dougan). His music also matured into grooving, hypnotic waves of sound lasting for nearly an hour at a time. Fela Kuti’s audiences came from mostly poor Nigerians who resonated with his lyrics condemning military corruption and disenfranchisement (Doughan). Because of this, Fela Kuti was constantly targeted by the government. At one point, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his recording studio compound in 1977 that led to his 82-year old mother being thrown out a window and later passing away from her injuries, and Fela Kuti fractured his skull and other numerous bones (Britannica). His studio-nightclub was also set on fire and Fela Kuti lost years worth of tapes and musical instruments. Following this, Fela Kuti briefly went into exile in Ghana, but later returned and was able to tour throughout Nigeria as the political situation improved (Locke 2016). However, Kuti’s lyrics remained abrasive and critical of the Nigerian government, as well as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which can be seen most especially on his single Beasts of No Nation (Dougan). Fela Kuti died of AIDs in 1997, but his legacy has often been compared to that of Bob Marley, although Kuti never made it as big in the US market as Marley did. (Dougan)
The story of Nigerian psychedelic rock is a niche in history that may easily be forgotten if we do not take the time to tune in and enjoy its artistic merit. Temitope Kogbe accurately sums up the nature of Nigerian psychedelic:
“The emergence of psych rock in Nigeria had less to do with mind-altering drugs and more to do with mind-altering circumstances.”
Behind the frantic guitar riffs and chaotic beats is the history of a disenfranchised youth searching for meaning and healing from a sporadic civil war that ended where it started. Their music tells the story of their thoughts and emotions at the time, even if it is conveyed through grungy, trance-like instrumentations or lyrics in an unknown language. The music of the Hykkers, Ofege, and many others is more than a knock-off of American psychedelic and rock musicians–although African musicians drew inspiration from Western music, their sound is very much distinct and reminiscent of an African identity. Although American psychedelia and rock was inspired by anti-Vietnam protests and the resulting flower power movement, Nigerians experienced war themselves and saw it first-hand–their music reflects this with a raw, unrefined and unfiltered sound expressing pain, confusion, and frustration for their country. Appreciating the cultural merit of this music means recognizing the merit of African artists who have their own identities and ways of expressing themselves beyond the scope of Western influence.
Give it a listen…
Check out African psychedelia for yourself by listening to a playlist I compiled on Spotify. It includes some Nigerian high life, bands mentioned in the article, and many more Nigerian artists I didn’t touch upon, such as Semi-Colon, War-Head Construction, and the Lijadu Sisters. There’s also some ‘Zamrock’–rock music from Zambia–thrown in, such as WITCH and Amanaz, and some incredible West African funk from Mory Kente! Give it a listen for a groovy, helter-skelter trip to 1970s Africa:
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Homepage for Odion Livingstone: http://odionlivingstone.com/
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Featured Photo: A Nigerian band called Grotto, later War-Head Destruction, in 1976. Source: The Guardian