James Etamobe & His All Weather Band - "Agboyabakpa" (Nigeria Special Volume 2: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6)
All good things come to an end. This is the fifth and final volume of Soundway Record’s Nigeria Special series. Yes, it says “Volume 2” on the cover, but the label has also released three marvelous sets focused on funk and disco, rock, and (as reviewed just yesterday) Afrobeat under the Nigeria Special banner. Setting aside those specialties, this CD/triple LP (the vinyl includes three extra tracks) and its even heftier predecessor survey everything else that made a certain era of Nigerian pop music great.
The 1970s were Nigeria’s golden age. Fresh out of an ugly civil war, the nation was economically ascendant and possessed with a sense of vibrant possibility. Cultural pride and a cosmopolitan awareness of what was happening musically elsewhere in Africa, the Caribbean, and the rest of the world infuse the title Nigeria Special with extra meaning; it was a special time, a special place, and the music fully exemplified that quality.
Soundway’s compilations also exercise another sort of specialness. The label, along with Analog Africa, has raised the bar of expectation for world music compilations by paying attention to the principals of practicality and pleasure. The booklets are great to look at, the annotation is not only informative but fun to read, and the mastering gets the best out of records that probably spent 30 years in less than optimum conditions before compiler Miles Cleret got his hands on them.
So why quit now? Because Soundway’s work — or at least this phase of it — is done. How many record buyers at the turn of the century knew any Nigerian names beyond Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade? Nigeria Special and a couple similarly swell albums issued by Strut have decisively changed that. Daptone’s recent reissue of Pax Nicholas’s Na Teef Know de Road of Teef points the way forward; it’s time to start digging in and re-releasing complete albums.
Volume 2 lives up to its “everything else” mandate by covering a lot of ground. You’ve got sanctification courtesy of the Don Isaac Ezekiel Combination’s rhythmically seductive setting of “The Lord’s Prayer,” and a much earthier brand of seduction from Fubura Sekibo’s “Psychedelic Baby,” whose lyric is composed of sexual boasts directed at nightclub hookers. There are extended highlife workouts like Opotopo’s hypnotic “Agboho,” with its flowing instrumental solos, and succinct singles, like Bola Johnson’s Afro-Calypso anthem “Jeka Dubu.” The rich-as-loam proliferation of percussion tones on Twins Seven-Seven’s “Totobiroko (Ogbele)” sounds like it is just one newly plugged-in bass guitar removed from pre-European contact traditions, while Joy Nwoso & Dan Satch’s stab at folkloric revival on “Egwo Umu Agbogho” is indelibly marked by the singer’s operatic training.
Cleret’s DJ chops rarely fail him when it comes to putting this mélange into a listenable sequence; although the CD starts out a little slow, it hits its stride by track three and never trips after that. The album suffers in just one respect; it can’t duplicate the “why didn’t I know about this?” sense of discovery imparted by the rest of the Nigeria Special series. We already know there’s a lot of good stuff out there we haven’t heard, and it’s time to go deep.