Various Artists: Nigeria 70: No Wahala: Highlife, Afro-Funk and Juju, 1973-1987
Listening to this collection of Nigerian juju, funk and highlife from the ‘70s and ‘80s is a little like stepping out into the night to go stargazing. In the same way that your eyes adjust before making out the thick blanket of stars, your ears adjust to the setting before the details of this music reveal themselves— talking drums, interlocking pecked and scrubbed guitar parts, horn stabs, wobbly synth, call-andresponse vocals, rubbery bass lines, shakers, bell patterns and more. These tracks are filled with Pan-African black pride (“Black Precious Colour” and “Africa”), celebrating the cultural richness of the continent while lamenting political corruption and the exploitation of resources. Other songs, like Prince Nico Mbarga & Rocafil Jazz’s “Sickness,” probe the bare-bones grimness of illness, disease and mortality, a potent subject in a region with little access to medicine and hospitals. And then there are oddball gems like “Psychedelic Shoes,” which defy easy explication. This music is dense, almost like a textile, with woven and embedded elements, a substructural base and surface texture on top. The details of the instrumental features get piled on, with each specific part operating both on its own and plugging into the bigger sound pattern. There’s not a lot of breathing room or space in these recordings, but the components function by each player finding a particular, brief opening in which to execute a little flourish, all of which add tension and motion to the music. Try to untangle the dizzying spools of guitar lines on Rogana Ottah & His Black Heroes International’s “Let Them Say.” In keeping with the maximalist aesthetic, only one of the 12 tracks clocks in at under 5 minutes. Fans of Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé will find this collection an enticing entry point into related sounds from Nigeria. Soul, jazz and disco were all making their way into the popular sounds of West Africa during this era. The liner notes offer in-depth backstories on the musicians, many of whom have serious highlife and juju pedigrees, and their non-musical lives, in business and the military, add complexity to the stories of how these recordings fit into the larger life of the country and the region. This release, the first new installment in the Nigeria 70 series, celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Strut label, with most of these tracks receiving their first release out of Nigeria.