In the twentieth century, progressive theories of translation laid emphasis not on accuracy or transparency but on collision and transformation. Following Walter Benjamin, the importance of translating became not trying to get an idea exactly across, but aiding the life of the original material by participating in its new becoming, by allowing it to turn into something else.
A similar sort of mutation is at play in Nigeria Rock Special, the third and latest installment in Soundway Records’ impressive documentation of the history of Nigeria’s jaw-droppingly vibrant musical culture in the 1970s. This series began by covering highlife-based styles, then dove into disco-funk, and culminates now in tracing the effects of Western rock’s psychedelic sonics on the native music-making population.
The liner notes spell out in detail the crosswinds that produced such a heavy stormfront of guitars, organs and beats: Ginger Baker’s collaboration there with musicians who later started their own groups, the presence of a Nigerian producer during the recording of Abbey Road in London who became EMI’s in-house man, and so on. This comp is as much marked by the hand of this producer, Odion Iruoje, who championed the Afrorock mutation as opposed to the derivative pop also popular at the time, as the hands of the energetic musical unknowns that crowded his studio.
Without a doubt, Soundway continues to do an impressive curatorial job, with detailed, insightful liner notes and killer crate-digging. The best compilation of the time period, however, is ultimately Nigeria 70, a three-CD box released by Strut in 2001 (covering similar territory as Rock Special, including Blo’s “Chant to Mother Earth” and material by Ofo the Black Company) and now out of print. If you’ve got it, you understand; if you don’t, the quality of Soundway’s three releases will ensure you won’t know what you’re missing.
Rock Special by far breathes the nastiest fire of three, marked throughout by wonky weird prog-organ intrusions, urgent group vocals, and heavy dollops of electric wah-wah. This frequency range, however, is ultimately just dressing and sides to the main course, which inarguably are the intense succulent rhythms, so seemingly perfect and unpredictable at the same time, dense and hypnotic. Combine that with the psychedelic trimmings and you have a perfect meeting of the face-melting and the ass-shaking.
While from a quality standpoint the ass-shaking beats clearly win out over the occasionally apprentice-level psych jamming, the gloriousness of such beats is that you can pretty much spew anything on top of them and it will sound cool. That’s the way of the drum. the Nigerian afro-rock subgenre is such a stylistically potent brew that it’s not at all about virtuoso performance or individual artistic innovation, but the full-force blast of a group playing out from the vibrant, abyssal artistic gash opened between two traditions.