An elder gentleman from Lagos broke it down for me once. “Fela is a religion,” he said with reverence. “Some people went to church. We went to Fela.” Unlike the Chinese guy I met on the same trip who equated Mao to Jesus, Afrobeat was dogma a whiteboy could get with—ask anyone in a “Music Is a Weapon” tee. While the reigning viewpoint remains of that monotheistic sort, Soundway’s two-disc set, Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6, and its follow-up, Nigeria Disco Funk Special: The Sound of the Underground Lagos Dancefloor 1974-79, suggest that in the halcyon first half of that decade (after the end of the Nigerian civil war), there was once a pantheon.
Not that set-compiler Miles Cleret aimed for anything so lofty. Instead, a dearth of classic Nigerian music in the new century (aside from Fela Kuti’s ubiquitous, monolithic Afrobeat and King Sunny Ade’s Juju) warranted “a snapshot of some of the thousands of forgotten recordings . . . These were years of new-found optimism and self-belief . . . Nigeria’s name becoming synonymous with corruption, overcrowding, and embezzlement were yet to come.” Making no attempt to be either willfully obscure or all-encompassing (and when it comes to the sprawl of Lagos, how could you?), Modern Highlife simply captures the sound of joy, and the sound of a nightlife flush with newfound oil revenues. Sung either in Edo, Ibo, Igbo, Isoko, Kalabari, Kwale, pidgin English, or Yoruba, the music itself is similarly a melting pot. A fan of adventurous American music from that same era might glean Funkadelic, Santana, or soul jazz—while others will hear how the young bands were both paying respect to the recently deceased Jim Rex Lawson’s brand of highlife while also digging Fela’s new style—but the ecstatic is evident at nearly every turnaround. Never-remembered acts abound with the most resplendent names: How could groups named the Funkees, Popular Cooper & His All Beats Band, or Dan Satch & His Atomic 8 Dance Band of Aba fail to excite? (As a writer, I particularly appreciate an Afrobeat band called Semicolon.)
At a single disc, Disco Funk Special inevitably winds up overshadowed. Coming from the latter half of the decade, as corruption and political squalor crashed that high of oil wealth, such joy is tempered. It doesn’t help that the music continually tips its hand to (and never quite gets out from under) its American funk inspirations. A horn-hammering inspirational update of “God Bless the Child” to “You’ve Gotta Help Yourself” smacks of forced positivism, just like when you listen to Christian rock stations. (That might just be my ability to understand pidgin English better than Igbo, though.) Only Asiko Rock Group’s homage to “Lagos City” flashes both the ebullient and insidious aspects of their hometown: With its flanged cymbals and robo-menace, it seemingly anticipates the Bar-Kays’ stone-cold tablet “Holy Ghost.”