During the ‘00s, in the midst of the Bush/Iraq/Afghanistan years, a popular meme theorized that the Clinton years were devoid of substantial music because of the relative prosperity and good cheer of the ‘90s. The rationale was familiar: pain + struggle = a good tune. As dark as the post-9/11 shadow may have been, artists would counter with inspiring, revolutionary art. Or, at least there was lots of talk about the need for such art. Never mind the faultiness of glossing over the ‘90s as a halcyon era — multiple genocides, rise of fundamentalism, Biggie and ‘Pac — and ignore the problematic “logic” of the above equation. Good music can spring from both the best of times and the worst of times, so long as the means and incentive are present.
Nigeria 70: Sweet Times could make a case for both. The title of the third edition of Strut Records’ Nigeria 70 series nods to the boom period immediately following the nation’s overturning of colonial rule. The recently liberated nation was especially fortunate to cash in on its extensive oil reserves and receive an infusion of cash. The transition period was hardly smooth (military rule tends to do that), and the economy expanded unevenly. However, as John Collins writes in the compilation’s liner notes, “a certain class of people had more disposable income, some of which was inevitably spent on buying records and going out to see live bands.“ Nigeria 70: Sweet Times subsequently captures snippets of adventurous cultural exploration amidst a tumultuous yet hopeful period.
Fittingly, the compilation is predominantly held together by the sunny influence of highlife and juju music. The familiar shuffling rhythms and bounding guitar and horn parts take up much of the sonic space on numbers like Ali Chunkwumah & His Peace Makers International’s pleasant “Henrietta” and Sina Bakare’s gentle “Inu Mimo.” Unlike the previous compilations which stretched far and included Havens/Callier-style folk (Bongos Ikwue’s “Woman Made The Devil”) and Doors riffage (Blo’s “Chant to Mother Earth”), Nigeria 70: Sweet Times may seem comparatively tame. However, subtle nuances demonstrate a stylistic restlessness. Clever keyboard passages bridging parts of Admiral Dele Abiodun & His Top Hitters International’s “It’s Time For Juju Music” transform a conventional juju workout into a jazz-funk freak-out. Such flourishes are frequently fleeting and hardly noticeable, yet add enough spice to kick up the quality of many of the cuts.
Unsurprisingly, many of the stand-out tracks were performed by formally trained musicians. Several of the featured artists received a music education, in addition to performing extensively before forming their own groups. Zeal Onyia, whose “Idegbani” is a structural joy filled with playful stops and starts, played professionally since he was a teenager and studied music in London and Hanover. Eji Oyewole similarly studied, traveled and performed across Europe, only to return to his homeland with the driving pan-continental anthem “Unity in Africa.” While it seems unlikely that any of the songs on Nigeria 70: Sweet Times were hits in the conventional sense, the presence of these slick cuts alongside the rougher funk heard in prior volumes provides a sense of the colorful sonic tapestry characterizing Nigeria during this decade.