In 1976, the identical twins Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu released Danger, the first of four albums of inspired Afropop the two would record as the Lijadu Sisters. Danger, originally released on the Lagos-based label Afrodisia, is a sinuous and otherworldly take on the remarkable hybrid of Yoruban beats and raw Western funk that dominated Lagos at the time. And the album’s title track, the spirited 63-year-olds tell me when I visit the Polo Grounds Towers apartment they share, is a dangerous song.
To meet the sisters Lijadu is to realize that twins do not come any more entwined than this single-minded, identically dressed set of interlaced voices and bodies. They move together as if they’d been choreographed as they explain that “Danger” superimposes thoughts about a “mad hatter” lover over the state of Nigerian politics at the time. Taiwo: “People were protesting all over the world.”
Kehinde: “Like now.”
Taiwo: “The military and civilian government were equally corrupt. But when the military took over . . .”
Kehinde: “. . . we wanted the civilians to come back. And when they came back . . .”
Together: “Oh, no!” They begin to sing, and their voices are, as always, in unison. “What have you done with your office of power, brother? Oh, what have you done, sister?”
Surrounded by a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling thicket of mementos, the sisters angrily accuse Afrodisia’s parent company, Decca, of exploitation and outright thievery. (Knitting Factory Records, which reissued Danger this month, will release the rest of the Lijadus’ star-making oeuvre in 2012.) Decca sold 50,000 copies of Danger in three months, Kehinde says, but the company paid them only once for royalties from all four albums. They never saw a single statement of account, she claims, then accuses Afrodisia of forging the sisters’ signatures when it licensed their music to the Soul Jazz label.
“They’ve been stealing from us,” Kehinde says. “We’ve been feeding their families. Look where we live. Is this where we belong? But we’re doing fine. They want to see us in squalor? Believe me, this is not squalor.”
Born in the northern Nigerian city of Jos and christened Louisa and Rosaline, the Lijadus moved to Lagos at age two, and the city taught them resilience. Beatings for curfew violations were common during the Nigerian Civil War, at least when soldiers didn’t recognize their traveling companion and second cousin, Fela Kuti. Once successful, they toured the world with Cream drummer Ginger Baker’s Afrorock group Salt; they made their first trip to the United States with King Sunny Adé’s band in 1980. They moved to Brooklyn, Taiwo says, in order to research the herbal medicine techniques they were interested in pursuing professionally.
In 1996, Kehinde was holding a friend’s baby and walking down the hallway of the sisters’ Brooklyn apartment when she slipped on a patch of soapy water. The fall broke her pelvis and damaged her spine. Kehinde is now on the mend (“I’m dancing again”), and the pair moved to the Polo Grounds two years ago.
Both Danger and Sunshine (1978) were produced by the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Julius Adeniyi “Biddy” Wright, whose mother happened to be childhood friends with the sisters’ mother. Biddy, who died in 2000 when a generator blew up in his face, brought laid-back futuristic funk to the project. “The minute he touched that guitar, we said, ‘Yeah, that’s the person,'” Kehinde says. Where the Lijadu Sisters’ other two albums are more percussive (in the Yoruban waka style) and sung in West African languages, Danger and Sunshine are dark, languid, and socially conscious. “Cashing In” denounces government corruption. And the album’s saturnine closer, “Lord Have Mercy,” describes children starving to death in the street.
One of Danger‘s highlights, “Life’s Gone Down Low” was inspired by an international sense of economic malaise. Yet it contains an optimistic refrain, a somewhat haunting call for collective action: “But it’s not too late for me and you if we hurry.” Much to the twins’ displeasure, the rapper Nas appropriated “Life’s Gone Down Low” as the bedrock for a similarly titled track on The Prophecy Vol. 2 (The Beginning of N). “He took our song!” they exclaim in unison.