Haruna Ishola Adebayo, known to his legions of African aficionados as ‘Baba Ngani Agba’ is a still glittering presence in Nigeria’s musical firmament, despite having passed away (or “joined his ancestors” as this album’s charming, if circumlocutory, sleeve notes prefer it) in 1983. A pan-African legend whose record sold in the millions, Ishola toured all over the world gifting his distinctive apala sound (a lifting, mesmeric music constructed from talking drums, sekere rattles, agidigbo thumb pianos and agogô bells) to such unlikely beneficiaries as communist Czechoslovakia and Saudi Arabia. Placing Ninu Ese Meji in Ishola’s truly vast discography proves a stretch even for Google (my copy of the album arrived in rudimentary cassette format with – the general biographical liner notes not withstanding – every expense spared in its packaging), although somewhere between 1960 and 1980 seems likely. It matters little, as this is truly timeless music made with percussive instruments of antediluvian technology. The ineffably rural undertow they establish is never less than loquacious, to the point of hypnosis at times, the sekeres here and there leaping out of the thick rhythmic current with a whiplash effect, while Ishola and his ensemble’s chanted vocals (their celebrative spirit palpable, even if the exact meaning remains impenetrable to a non-Yoruba speaker) are crisply delivered, almost hymnal in places. Recommended to anyone who thinks West African music is the sole preserve of Afrobeat, ju ju and high life artists.
Another less celebrated Nigerian music is fuji, itself a band of sakara, apala, juju, aaro, Afro and gudugudu styles, originally derived from funeral songs which reflect the Arabic tonalities of Nigeria’s extensive Muslim population. Equality popular among both urban elites and shanty-dwellers, one of its key purveyors is Adewale Ayuba (he’s known as ‘The Ambassador of Fuji’ in Lagos, in fact) who has also won a degree of popularity in the US, partly courtesy of diversification into reggae. While the syndrums and digital effects of latter-day Jamaican productions seep into his 1999 opus Acceleration, this is essentially an album of cheaply recorded, straight ahead fuji – all frenetic snare drums, vigorous call-and-response chants and busy Yoruban rhythms topped off by Ayuba’s somewhat hectoring vocals which, to be frank, become a little wearing after a while.
Lagos is also home to Busola ‘Eleyele’ Oke whose 2004 album Asoro Ma Tase offers quite another take on Nigerian music. Granted, there’s plenty of teeming percussion, but her sonorous voice takes flight across five extended songs that are infused as much with Westernised pop as they are West African tropicalism and the Yoruban language. Catchy, if a little saccharine, it’s a pleasant if unchallenging album and it comes as no surprise to learn that Eleyele, who was partly educated in England, is something of a home frown middle-of-the-road pop star.
Somewhat harder to pin down is one Uche Nwalama (another Google-refuting mystery artist who may actually be called Uche Nwarama, whatever the evidence of the rather hastily slung together together-looking CD sleeve) who seems to hail from the largely Christian Igbunzo region of southern Nigeria. Apologies if I’m short-changing a superstar, but whatever his actual status, Uche, in tandem with the splendidly named United Brothers Band, certainly makes fine music. The two lengthy tracks of Uwa Zulu Onye unfurl with unhurried, almost drowsy fluidity, despite the obligatory percussive polyrhythms and Uche’s keening pipes, which at times recall Fela Kuti sliding effortlessly into rhapsodic falsetto.
Last on the list is a compilation, Turn By Turn, a rather more contemporary, urban offering, judging by the ubiquity of autotune effects on display across many of its 31 tracks of dance-pop and grime-infused rave-Afrique sounds. A CDR, bearing next to no information and housed in the most basic CD sleeve (courtesy of something called ‘African Entertainment’ – which might be a matter of opinion), many of its tracks simply won’t play on any of my machines. What there is to hear is as brimful of digital studio bells and whistles as it is of aural testosterone. Indeed, so aggressively do these tracks showboat that listening to them is akin to being hammered in the ear by a digitally processes assailant. The dusty inscrutability of Haruna Ishola et al never sounded so appealing.