Tunji Oyelana - "Ipasan" (A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79)
What might a truly African art-rock sound like? This collection poses one answer. Like Fela Kuti, Tunji Oleyana grew up in Abeokuta, a city south of Lagos with a distant history of effective resistance against European encroachment and — during the mid-20th century when he grew up — vigorous intellectual and cultural ferment. He was raised in a household that valued both musical performance and book learning, and might have settled on a legal career if he hadn’t been seduced by the stage in 1960, when he joined a theatre company called 1960 Masks. The leader of that company, Wole Soyinka, was destined to win a Nobel Prize for writings that incorporated Western structural and conceptual innovations without compromising its essential African character. He was also destined to be Oyelano’s occasional collaborator for decades; having a guy like that in your crowd raises the bar a bit.
In the ‘60s, Oyelana juggled theatrical work, university-level musical instruction, and a bit of singing for Orlando Julius. By the late ‘60s, he led a band called The Benders because of its ability to shift easily between genres, including highlife, calypso, and rock ‘n’ roll. The Benders scored a hit in 1971 with “Agba Lo De,” which shared a bass-heavy, clave-driven rhythmic approach with Fela Kuti’s “Jeun Ko Ku.” The song earned some Fela comparisons, but The Benders’ flexibility assured that they never got pigeonholed as Afrobeat copycats. More importantly, the song’s success secured additional recording opportunities. This in turn yielded a series of singles and LPs during the ‘70s and ‘80s, culminating in a joint project with Solinka called Unlimited Liability Company. Oleyano continued to be an active musician and actor until the ‘90s, when the corrupt powers that be in Nigeria grew tired of his association with truth telling. Today he lives in London, where he occasionally serenades the diners at a family-run restaurant named Emukay. Aside from three tracks on Strut’s Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos and Soundway’s Nigeria Rock Special and Nigeria Special Volume 2: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6, his music has been confined to crates and the blogosphere until now.
You can tell European and American art rock by its ambition; whether it borrows from Bach, Brecht, or Burroughs, it aspires to be something more. Stylistic versatility wasn’t so much a distinction as a necessity for anyone who wanted to be a working musician in Nigeria, but artistic ambition was another matter. The same music that we now celebrate as the product of a golden age was perceived in its time as disposable stuff, of no more cultural import than “Sugar Sugar” or “Apple Bottom Jeans.” By virtue of who he was and with whom he hung, Oyelano aimed for more. Like Fela, he had some things to say about Nigeria’s inequities; but rather than just call out the offenders, on “Which Way Africa?” he evokes a pre-industrial paradise in Yoruba before switching to English to discuss the problems of modern Nigeria. And like many other musicians of his time, his commentaries upon individual travails and current events were rooted in folk expressions. But on “Ipasan,” he layers the imagery of a harsh traditional treatment for madness (the title translates as “Whip”) with evocations of Christ-like suffering, and likewise layers traditional festive grooves with a highlife and a hot, Santana-like guitar lead.
Oyelana deftly and self-consciously mixes past and present, insular tradition and cosmopolitan consciousness, using everything at his disposal like Soyinka has done in his writing. He might not get a Nobel Prize for it, but this swell collection will draw more attention to his artistry.