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Photo credit: Fela Kuti
Earlier in history, traditional Nigerian music arose from a functional purpose, often performed to mark rituals like weddings or funerals. Agriculture was functional too. Consequently, workers in fields and canoes used work songs to motivate themselves. When Northern farmers worked on each other’s farms, the host was expected to supply musicians. The musician sang praises of his client and the rest of the co-operating farmers motivating them.
Yorubas traditionally used music for socio-cultural expression. Musicians played at all sorts of social and formal events. Popular instruments used by the Yorubas are hourglass tension drums (dundun), and kettledrums (gudugudu).
In south-eastern Nigeria, the Igbos used music for celebrations, sports, leisure, and importantly by historians, to recount stories to others. The Igbo people play various folk instruments such as Zithers (obo), lutes, flutes, xylophones, lyres, slit drums, and udus. These instruments played an important role in the development of Nigerian Highlife.
The most notable instrument of the Hausa people is the Kakaki, a 2-metre long trumpet. It is a symbol of military power, important to those who value conquest. Originally used by the Songhai military, it was adopted by the rising Hausa state who dominated the western Sahel.
Over the course of the 20th century, Nigerians travelled abroad and returned home with multiple influences. Subsequently, they created Nigerian iterations of western genres, or new genres altogether. Music increasingly fused with politics and religion. People enjoyed and created music for artistic actualization or simply recreation.
By the 1920s, Yoruba music incorporated brass instruments, Islamic percussion and Brazilian techniques. Baba Tunde King pioneered the Jùjú style in the 1930s. In Yoruba, jùjú refers to something being thrown. Significantly, a member of Tunde King’s band would usually throw his tambourine in the air as part of the performance. Post World War II, Tunde Nightingale incorporated westernized pop influences into Jùjú through his S’o wa mbe style. His style became popular among socialites as it included room for praising guests at social parties. S’o wa mbe (Is it there?) is also possibly a double entendre to the beads his dancers wore on their hips.
As technology advanced in the 1950s, Jùjú music incorporated the electric guitar, accordion, and gangan talking drum. King Sunny Ade is recognized as the pioneer of electro music in Nigeria. His band played with a phalanx of electric guitars, synthesizers, and vibraphones, which created his unique sound. He became the first Nigerian to receive a Grammy Award nomination in 1983 for his album Syncro System. Today, artists like Keziah Jones make music influenced by this era of Yoruba music, which includes Sakara, Fuji and Apala..
Nigerians fell in love with Highlife when Ghanaian performers dominated the social scene and nightclubs. Ghanaians highlife often recounted daily social struggles. In contrast, Nigerian highlife, with its mundane themes, was feel-good music. Recorded and played live, the best spots to consume highlife were in clubs that had a mix of Ghanaian and Nigerian performers. Bobby Benson & The Cassandra Theatrical Party were the first popular Nigerian highlife band. But the most popular highlife song ever is ‘Sweet Mother’ by Prince Nico Mbarga. Every Nigerian knows this song.
If you love highlife, explore performers such as Victor Olaiya, Stephen Osita Osadebe, Oliver De Coque, Sonny Okosun, Victor Uwaifo, and Orlando “Dr. Ganja” Owoh, who kept highlife alive post civil-war.
Jazz started getting a strong foothold in Lagos in 1963, through the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet. The band played regularly on Monday nights at the Cool Cats Inn, which was a popular location for Jazz enthusiasts.
The popularity of the Quintet inspired many musicians including the all-star group, The Jazz Preachers, led by Art Alade. The Jazz Preachers played mainstream music compared to the Fela Ransome-Kuti Quintet but they were just as entertaining. Fela’s band changed its name to Koola Lobitos.
In the 1970s, Jazz 38 was a hotspot and became the most important jazz hub in the country. The Extended Family Jazz Band of Frances and Tunde Kuboye were the resident musicians. Artists such as Ginger Baker and James Brown visited Lagos to jam with Nigerian musicians. or to tour. Till today, the debate still rages on about who stole from who between Fela and Brown.
Fun Fact: Tunde and Frances Kuboye were friends of Gozi’s parents and Aunty Fran as she was lovingly called was Gozi’s dentist. A wonderful woman, she passed away after the death of her beloved cousin Fela
Unlike other genres, female singers popularised jazz. Outside Lagos, Maud Meyer was Port Harcourt’s jazz sweetheart. Adored by West-Africans, she popularized jazz in Eastern Nigeria. This interest in jazz set the pace for the Port Harcourt Jazz Festival. Founded in 1988 by the Port Harcourt Jazz Club, its first three years had performances by Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Jones, and Embryo. This period was pivotal in cementing jazz as a major interest in the region. In the 1980s, Yinka Davies among others was central to keeping Nigerian jazz alive.
Jazzville in Lagos became the hub for young, upcoming jazz musicians. It was an influential space that enabled young jazz musicians like Funsho Ogundipe (Ayetoro), and Bisade Ologunde (Lagbaja), break out.
Afrobeat is synonymous with Fela Kuti, who created the genre with Tony Allen. It is a blend of jazz, highlife, and other styles of West-African music. It is African orchestra.
Fela’s space “Kalakuta Republic” was the epicentre for the development of Afrobeat in Nigeria. Here, he performed unreleased songs and “yabbis”, chastising military leaders and unsavoury Nigerian businessmen. Fela’s music attracted free-thinking youths to his African Shrine. His maverick and revolutionary nature made him an icon of the people. For the same reason, the government loathed him. Fela released ‘Zombie’ criticizing the government and soldiers who followed their orders blindly. It was an instant hit.
The Nigerian government recognised the importance of arts and music to the nation. So, they organised FESTAC ’77, a month-long event that involved 16,000 participants. It celebrated African culture and showcased African music and art to the world. Global artists such as Stevie Wonder and Gilberto Gil performed alongside local stars.
Fela boycotted the event. He saw the festival as a huge expense that should be paid for by the private sector, not the government. In addition, he performed simultaneously at his Shrine, attracting performers and journalists who wanted to watch his mesmeric performances away from FESTAC ’77.
In retaliation, a thousand soldiers viciously attacked Kalakuta Republic. The soldiers burnt down Fela’s home and commune, along with his studio, instruments, equipment, and master tapes. They beat him and fatally wounded his mother. Subsequently, the government cordoned the area, displacing thousands of people. Undeterred, Fela continued to use music as a weapon against the injustices he saw in Nigeria.
Femi Kuti rebuilt the Shrine in 2000, preserving his father’s legacy. Femi regularly performs at the Shrine and it is home to concerts, raves and commemorative events. It stands as a landmark for Lagos State.
A musician called ‘Tera Kota’ piqued Nigerians’ interest in African-Caribbean fusion music. Following his lead were The Mandators, Ras Kimono, and Majek Fashek. Beaches were the spot to enjoy reggae music.
Certainly, Nigerians related the leisurely mood and tropical vibe of beaches to reggae. And with all things popular, we had a festival for it: Lekki Sunsplash. It was held at the Lekki beach. Lekki Sunsplash was the precursor to beaches as a music space. Bar Beach was the Spot. It was a quiet beach during the working day that transformed into an energetic mini-festival at night and the weekends. Here, locals enjoyed a variety of music, food and recreation. However, repeated floods made Bar Beach unsafe. As a result, it was closed for safety reasons. But that did not deter Lagos revellers. You can find them at Elegushi Beach.
These days, reggae is less popular but 21st century artists like Burna Boy and Patoranking continue to incorporate Jamaican Patois into their lyrics and attract younger audiences.
Current mainstream Nigerian music is referred to as ‘Afrobeats’ or ‘Afropop’. Afrobeats is more of a descriptor of a fusion of sounds from Nigeria and Ghana. It was initially confused with Afrobeat, to the disdain of avid Afrobeat fans, who despised its trivial themes
Photo: Davido wears U.Mi-1 cardigan
Nigerians enjoy mainstream music in nightclubs, weddings, music festivals, or just from street DJs. To be in the know, even before the internet catches wind, grab a mix CD from Alaba market or street hawkers or from a local DJ. Wizkid, Burna Boy, Tiwa Savage and Davido are some of the artists leading Nigeria’s mainstream music. Themes mainly revolve around love, wealth, partying, and some of society’s vices like online fraud. Afrobeats is the new global pop music and renowned artists like Snoop Dogg, Drake and Ed Sheeran have collaborated with Nigerian artists.
Lagos comes alive in December when Nigerians in the diaspora descend on the city at Christmas time. Therefore, most of the major concerts and festivals occur at this time. There is also a budding hotspot of pop-cultural events, such as Gidi Culture Festival and Skepta’s Homecoming. in April which is auspiciously around the Easter holidays.
A younger generation of artists have carved out an alternative scene in Lagos, known as Alté. Artists like Odunsi, Santi and Lady Donli lead the way of this movement.
Like Afrobeats, Alté doesn’t describe one particular sound, but a mood of young artists experimenting with new sounds and their creativity. These artists have progressed from esoteric shows for Lagos youths to larger international audiences.
Nigerian artists continue to create innovative music, taking cues from the rich musical history before them. Music has been instrumental in forming communities of people with similar tastes. This is turn evolves that genre. U.Mi-1 wants to build a community. We believe a strong community is instrumental in the evolution of any creative art. We hope you continue to follow our journey. Let’s leave you with this thought as you groove to our playlist of Nigerian music.