Beat Street Records

Lagos: All Routes 2LP

Honest Jons

The period stretching from the mid-1960s through the early 1980s is often considered the ‘golden age’ of African popular music. Concurrently with the rise of popular music as a worldwide phenomenon, African popular music had its beginnings in the early decades of the 20th century, as radio broadcasting and sound recording facilities were gradually established by the colonial powers. By the end of World War II, European companies such as EMI, Gallo and Decca were starting to establish large-scale operations in the colonial territories. But African popular music really began to flower in the years of nationalist struggle and independence. With the winds of political change blowing in the air, popular music became extremely important as a component of the cultural life of newly or soon-to-be independent nations. Produced and consumed largely independently of local ethnic musical traditions — however much it may have drawn on them — popular music was seen as a powerful expression of newly national identity. The enthusiasm, idealism, and optimism that can be felt in the music of this era reflect the optimism and idealism of independence.

Symbolically, the challenge was for musicians not only to entertain, but to provide a uniquely African inflection of concepts such as the nation state, modernity, the city, and technology. Stylistically, the challenge was twofold — to modernize folk, classical and traditional genres on one hand, and to Africanize foreign genres on the other. Out of these two intertwined projects emerged African popular music. The equation worked itself out in as many different ways as there were locations, but Nigeria was undeniably a particularly creative setting. With a large population, an extremely diverse (and often turbulent) cultural mix, and such strong cultural traditions, it is no surprise that Nigeria would emerge as a most dynamic source of popular music. The discovery of petroleum deposits in the Niger River Delta in the 1940s and the oil boom that eventually followed in the late 1960s was the final catalyst in the ascension of Nigeria’s capital city of Lagos as the powerhouse of the Anglophone West African music industry.

In Nigerian pidgin English, ‘chop-up’ makes figurative reference to a bountiful feast. ‘Lagos All Routes’ refers to the fact that while the music on these collection originates from various parts of Nigeria, it is inevitably filtered through the urban prism of Lagos, which literally exploded with music during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

The bulk of the music here [on both Lagos Chop Up and Lagos All Routes] falls within the style known as highlife, a pan-ethnic style of dance music native to Anglophone West Africa. The roots of highlife are held to be in colonial-era Ghana, and its early development was marked by two streams — dance-band highlife (an African adaptation of European swing and ballroom music) and guitar-band highlife (based in the ‘palmwine’ style of folk and street guitar music). The two styles eventually fused in the 1940s, absorbing along the way local African folk tunes and the music of marching brass bands. The founder of modern highlife is considered to be the Ghanaian trumpeter/saxophonist/bandleader E.T. Mensah. Mensah was enormously popular throughout West Africa, and his Nigerian tours planted the seeds of Nigeria’s own highlife scene, spearheaded by guitarist Bobby Benson. Out of Benson’s band came a generation of Nigerian bandleaders including the Cool Cats, led by trumpeter/vocalist Victor Olaiya, the so-called ‘Evil Genius’ of highlife. Olaiya’s bands in turn spawned many influential Nigerian musicians including Fela Kuti, Victor Uwaifo, Tony Allen, Peter King, Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, Eddie Okonta, and others. Moonlight Highlife and Omelebele are two of Olaiya’s most popular songs: the former — with its quaint trumpet solo (reminiscent of Louis Armstrong) and plaintive horn background — shows Olaiya’s roots in the older, Ghanaian style of highlife; while Omelebele augurs the increasing influence of American soul and R and B. Similarly, the Harbours Band’s Da Wa Lohun (God Answer Us) and the Traveller’s Lodge Atomic Eight’s track Ikut Asana Edem are fine examples of the trumpet-led style of highlife. The Atomic Eight band was based in the eastern town of Aba and featured a front line of talented horn players including the multi-instrumentalist wind player Raymond Barber and trumpeter Babatunde Williams, who would go on to play a central role in Fela Kuti’s Afrika 70. Their passages of collective improvisation reflect roots in the coastal brass band traditions of Nigeria and Ghana, and the more distant influence of New Orleans.

A guitar-oriented variant of highlife developed in Nigeria’s eastern region, which is strongly associated with the Igbo ethnic group. The most-beloved eastern bandleader was trumpeter/vocalist Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, who was actually of mixed Igbo and Calabari background. Lawson apprenticed with bandleaders such as Benson, Olaiya, and Roy Chicago before striking out on his own with a unique blend of Igbo lyrics sung over Calabari rhythms. Lawson’s four tracks are central to the development of eastern highlife, with its characteristic blend of horns and profuse guitar finger picking. A bit younger than Lawson was guitarist Sir Victor Uwaifo. A former wrestler, Uwaifo hails from Benin City (where Edo and Bini are the main languages) but his song lyrics are generally sung in Igbo or pidgin English. Uwaifo is famous for deriving the concept for his akwete rhythm from the woven cloth of the same name. His 1965 hit Joromi is his best-known song, sung in Igbo and graced with gently picked guitar. A similar fusion is achieved in Gentleman Mike Ejeagha’s reflective Onye Ori Utaba (Tobacco Thief), which features Ejeagha’s proverb-strewn vocals interspersed with his gorgeous picking; also in the Eastern Minstrels’ Selense, and in Sir Patrick Idahosa’s Eni.

The tremulous vocal delivery that marks much Igbo highlife singing is particularly apparent in Steven Amechi’s Onye Na Eli Nkwu (A Drinker) and Oliver De Coque’s Tragedy Story. Alongside Lawson, Amechi, Uwaifo and Ejeagha, De Coque was a native of eastern Nigeria, but his ogene style reflected the strong influence of Congolese music in its quick tempo and style of vocal delivery, as well as the complex guitar lines. The Congolese influence is also clear in the work of the Super Negro Bantous, another Igbo highlife band popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some musicians also sought to infuse highlife with traditional elements. Chief Umobuarie’s Ebalume and Etubom Rex Williams’ Uwa Idem Mi both replace the standard drum set with bells and other percussion, and the guitar with thumb piano and/or indigenous string instruments of some sort. Highlife aficionados might notice that the thumb piano pattern on Uwa Idem Mi was one frequently adapted to highlife guitar playing in both Nigeria and Ghana.

Afrobeat was the creation of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, the second-generation highlife musician who found the key to combining highlife, soul, funk, and jazz. Fela was not the only musician working towards this fusion, but he was by far the most inventive and successful. After a year in the U.S. in 1969-70, he returned to Nigeria with a radical formula that gradually transformed Nigerian popular music and influenced a generation of Nigeria’s popular musicians, across genres. As such, we can hear his influence on several tracks included here. The eastern-based Ikenga Super Stars were a breakaway from the band of popular Igbo singer Stephen Osita Osadebe. Their Soffry Soffry Catch Monkey is an extended dance track that combines Afrobeat and funk, and stretches out in smoking trumpet and guitar solos. The Nigeria Army Rhythm Band’s Ebawa Se (Party With Us) shows a clear debt to Fela’s early seventies arrangements (e.g. “He Miss Road”) which is not surprising as the band included several of Fela’s ex-sidemen — including bassist/saxophonist Ojo Segun Okeji, who had been a key member of Fela’s Koola Lobitos highlife band and who would later release a popular afrobeat tune of his own entitled I Like Woman. Particularly impressive is Shina Williams’s extended medley containing Ise Aje Male (Any Work Is Hard), Egbe Kegbe (Bad Company), and Emi Koni Koja Ayemi (I Know My Limits). The medley is composed solidly within Fela’s style, albeit in the traditional 12/8 meter (which Fela only used infrequently). The playing, singing, solos and horn arrangements are all first-rate and the energy level never dips as the band stokes the groove for over 13 minutes.

Unlike the pan-ethnic styles of highlife and afrobeat, juju music is strongly associated with the Yoruba ethnic group, natives of Nigeria’s southwestern region. Juju is a variant on the pan-West African tradition of palmwine finger-picked guitar playing, and is typically performed by Christian Yoruba musicians. The style has origins in the 1920s as an urban folk music. Its modern foundations were put into place by I.K. Dairo, from the late 1950s.  Within a decade King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey emerged to dominate the more recent development of juju music. Juju song lyrics typically encompass traditional Yoruba proverbs and aphorisms, excerpted Christian hymns, prayers, and Biblical verses, and verses of praise. Ensembles usually consist of guitars (and sometimes keyboards) supported by various percussion instruments. As with most Yoruba popular music, the hourglass tension drums (‘talking drums) are prominent. In the development of juju music since the 1960s, Sunny Ade has generally been considered the innovator, while Obey has positioned himself as the traditionalist. However, Obey’s two continuous tracks included here — Eyi Yato (This Is Different) and Elere Ni Wa (We Are Performers) — are surprise departures (hence the first title), with their Afro-disco rhythm and nod to afrobeat,

‘Sir Shina Adewale’ is not actually the name of an individual — rather it is a combination of the names of juju musicians Sir Shina Peters and Segun Adewale, who formed a band together after leaving the more established juju singer Prince Adekunle. Like a lot of juju from the 1970s on, the minor-key sound of Awa Ni Superstars (We Are Superstars) reflects the influence of Fela Kuti’s afrobeat, while its quick tempo also hints at the fuji-infused direction Sir Shina would take when he eventually formed his own band in 1980.

Most of the rest of the music contained here can be categorized as percussion music from the Yoruba tradition, much of it focusing on the vocals and the talking drum. Apala is one of the earliest genres of neo-traditional Yoruba dance music, with roots in the ajisaari and were music sung to rouse Muslims during the fasting period of Ramadan. It became widely popular in the 1950s and 1960s, largely due to the success of Haruna Ishola, the brilliant praise and proverb singer whose Pariboto Riboto is included here. Ambali Adedeji’s Ole Obinrin (Lazy Woman) is another apala offering, similar in style to the work of another apala great, Ayinla Omowura. It was this type of uptempo apala rhythm that put down an important foundation for fuji music, which developed in the 1970s. Like apala, fuji is generally performed by Muslim musicians but unlike the restrained apala, fuji is a raw, youthful dance music driven by the drum kit, and often heard on the streets and at parties. The dominant performers of fuji include Sikiru Ayinde Barrister, Wasiu Ayinde Barrister (aka KWAM), and Kollington Ayinla, whose ‘bata fuji’ style is represented here with the medley Alhaja Sikira Adunni and Ayinla Fuji E Ga Pupo. Omi Mo Gbo Temi (My Child, Listen to Me) unusually integrates electric piano into this drum-oriented style. Sagbeni Aragbada sings in the popular waka genre that is very similar in style to fuji, but typically sung by women. Completing the percussion offerings and bringing the collections full-circle again is Kpanlogo, by the Workers Brigade Band #1 from Ghana. During the 1960s and 1970s, there was a particularly close relationship between the music scenes in Accra and Lagos and much stylistic cross-fertilization occurred as a result. Kpanlogo, which was recorded in Lagos, is actually the name of a neo-traditional, recreational dance music in Ghana — associated with the Ga ethnic group — which developed out of dance-band highlife (hence the inclusion of guitar and triadic vocal harmonies), as musicians partially stripped away the European instrumentation in favour of the percussion.

Michael Veal


A1 –Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey & His Inter-Reformers Band Eyi Yato / Elere Ni Wa
A2 –Sir Victor Uwaifo* Joromi
A3 –Travellers Lodge Atomic 8 Ikut Asana Edem
A4 –Sagbeni Aragbada Sowambe
B1 –Super Negro Bantous Professional Super Bantous
B2 –Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson* Tom Kirisite
B3 –Ambali Adedeji Ole Obinrin
C1 –Chief Umobaurie And His Group Ebalume
C2 –Mike Ejeagha Onye Ori Utaba
C3 –Kollington Ayinla Omo Mi Gbo Temi
C4 –Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson* Nume Inye
D1 –The Harbours Band Da Wa Lohun
D2 –Haruna Ishola Pariboto Riboto
D3 –Dr Victor Olaiya* Moonlight Highlife
D4 –Sir Patrick Idahosa Eni


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