Soundway Records, a label that has already made estimable excursions into Ghanaian funk with its Ghana Soundz series, takes a great leap forward into exploring the popular recordings of Africa with a wide batch of compilations devoted to the many subsets of Nigeria’s rich music history in the ’70s.
The time period is fascinating, because the nation was shocked by the simultaneous close of a nearly three-year civil war and influx of capital through oil production. Amid this flurry was an explosion of cultural directions as local and international, past and modern forms collided with each other. One of three compilations in this batch is Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues. As compilation producer Miles Cleret writes in the liner notes, it is not meant to be a complete survey–a gargantuan task that would be near impossible–but a tiny snapshot of Nigerian popular culture.
As such, the collection does not represent so much as highlight popular and obscure recordings from this period. Western record connoisseurs may be familiar with the Afrobeat/funk-style tracks, like the Funkees’ "Akula Owu Onyeara." Mono Mono’s "Ema Kowa Iasa Ile Wa" may also ring familiar stylistically and aesthetically as a skillful, Santana-like blend of music genres: socio-sloganeering in the band’s Yoruba native tongue while rock guitar solos give way to Afrobeat breakdowns. Those versed in highlife will likely recognize one of the genre’s longtime stars Sir Victor Uwaifo, who is captured here in a transition period as he runs the traditional court music form of his native Benin through a more modern highlife style to create the regal "Osalobua Rekpama."
However, many of the highlights of the compilation’s highlights are the one-off tracks. Because recording studios generally existed only in larger cities, a band’s recorded legacy largely depended on whether they made it into town or not. Post Harcourt’s Harbours Band was well established in the highlife circuit, but they evidently seldom made it into the studio given the dearth of recordings. "Koma Mosi" is thus a welcome document of the group’s existence, as well as a wonderful example of the talent brewing in the nation’s deep corners.
As such, the breadth of recordings included provides a nugget for everyone: Semicolon’s self-praising 4/4 stomper "Nekwaha Semi Colon" provides an easy transition between genre-bending rock and dance-floor hip-shaker. Uwaifo’s self-described rival Collins Oke Elaiho contributes the upbeat "Simini-Yaya," which should peak the ear of rocksteady fans. And dusty groove nuts will be delighted to hear the scratchy blues funk of the Hykkers’ "I Want a Break Thru." Though no single narrative can be applied to such a diverse collection of music, the compilation in combination with the other two related sets, Nigeria Disco Funk Special and Nigeria Rock Special, provide a welcome introduction to the richness of this moment in local Nigerian music history.