Musical Vitality Wanes : In Nigeria, Only the Beat Goes On

Times Staff Writer

As Art Alade took his place at the piano in the basement club known as Art’s Place, the ratio of musicians to audience members gave him pause: There were three sidemen on stage behind him and four people at the tables in front.

The percussionist led Alade into a jazz-accented Yoruba tune. It was the kind of thing Lagos was once famous for, a traditional rhythm blending with a piano style reminiscent of Earl (Fatha) Hines. The scattered guests swayed to the music, mouthing and echoing the familiar lyrics. When the music ended, Alade stepped off the stage.

“We’re just trying to keep our heads above water,” he said.

Discotheque Scene

Another Lagos Saturday night. Across town, in a multistoried building sporting a neon sign that reads “Night Shift,” the seats were filled with Nigeria’s elite, their gold jewelry and studded bangles glinting off the mirrored walls, while outside there were more parking attendants than there were paying guests in Alade’s club. The computer-controlled curtain peeled away from a thrust stage at one end to reveal Lagos’ current pop-music heartthrob, Mike Okri, lip-syncing the hit tune from his first album.

These are the two extremes in what was once Africa’s most vital musical center. Taken together, they all but define the challenges facing Nigerian music: On the one side, economic hardship, and on the other, Western-style commercialism.

In the last few years most of the live-music clubs have disappeared from this city whose night life was once a byword. Springing up to replace many of them are discotheques like Night Shift, where the recorded music adds nothing to overhead, thanks to Nigeria’s lax copyright and royalty laws.


Stars of Renown

The decline in Nigerian music is all the more startling because this country once gave the world its best taste of African rhythm and its greatest variety. Among the enduring stars it sent on to world renown are Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an obstreperous instrumental genius and political gadfly, and King Sunny Ade, a master of the percussive polyrhythms that give Nigerian music the air of always having so much going on.

For a time, there was no place in Africa where artistic innovation was as exciting as in Lagos. Part of the reason was the sheer vitality of Nigerian culture. Every traditional rite had its associated musical form.

“In every sphere of our life, music is important,” says Alade. “Naming ceremonies, marriages, burials. . . .”

Today, however, Nigerian music’s stature as an influential art form is in peril and by far the greatest threat to it is the country’s dismal economy. Under a government-decreed austerity program, the currency has been devalued by more than 50% in the last three years. The price of necessities, not to mention luxuries, has soared, stripping even middle-class Nigerians of their discretionary income and keeping them out of the clubs.

As purchasing power has plummeted, the crime rate has soared. Fretful Nigerians have deserted the streets and highways after dark. For a club scene in which the action seldom starts until 2 a.m. or later, that is a blow.

“In the ‘60s and ‘70s we didn’t have armed robbers, people afraid for their safety,” says Chief Ebenezer Obey, a baby-faced, soft-spoken innovator whose canvas is juju music, a highly popular party music relying on the extended repetition of guitar and drum phrases and lyrics focusing, as one commentator recently put it, on “religion, money, jealousy.”

That’s from the audience’s standpoint. Seen from the musicians’ angle, the picture is even grimmer. Instruments are virtually unaffordable even for established professionals, who often have to borrow theirs. The fall of the naira, the Nigerian currency, has compounded difficulties traceable back to 1978, when musical instruments were classed as luxury items--along with champagne, for instance--that were banned imports.

So students have nothing on which to practice. Working drummers can’t even get drumsticks and guitar players can’t replace their strings.

“We manage, manage, manage,” says John Medua, Art Alade’s guitar man. “When friends come back from the U.K., I might get one or two packets of strings, and I conserve them for a long, long time.”

All these elements work more against live music than against disco.

Copyright Campaign

“The clubs have moved into disco, because they can get away with not paying copyright fees,” says Tony Okoroji, a producer for EMI (Nigeria) who for two years as president of the Professional Musicians Assn. of Nigeria has led a fight to secure stronger copyright protection.

Meanwhile, he says, an audience that hears more Western pop than ever before has become fed up with the slapdash nature of much Nigerian live music.

“Taste is getting more sophisticated. No one wants to go to a cheap concert with lousy instruments and an old PA system.”

There are many people here who believe that Nigeria’s influence on African music peaked with Fela and Sunny Ade and, as they age, is waning. The two still tour Europe and North America from time to time--Sunny Ade played Los Angeles’ Greek Theater on Friday night--and they still draw respectable crowds, but to Western cognoscenti the leading African musician today is the Senegalese Youssou N’Dour.

In its heyday, the greatest stars of Nigerian music were those who were most innovative. They would rework each traditional form and meld it with some other influence such as soul music, or jazz, or the tight, almost filigreed guitar lines of Zairian pop. The indigenous styles themselves were sometimes mixed together to create something new.

Nigeria’s Distinct Sound

Yet whatever emerged was always distinctly Nigerian. Many have tried to identify that element, mostly by invoking the inescapable drumbeat of this music. For example, Ebenezer Obey had the brainstorm of adding Yoruba “talking drums” to his juju band, their odd hollow sound adding a new texture to the music. He expanded his band even further, at one point traveling with a 30-piece orchestra.

Meanwhile, Fela used his exceptional skill as a saxophone player and arranger to impose American jazz over the drive of a Nigerian and Ghanaian dance music called “highlife.” The result was Afro-beat, probably the most influential Nigerian musical ever.

Fela’s other contribution to Nigerian music was a pungent political element. The subject of Fela’s lyrics could be the racist South African government, or it could be asphalt fraud in the Nigerian highway department.

Twice he has been jailed by one Nigerian regime, only to be cleared or released by a new one. In 1977, a detachment of 1,000 soldiers burned his Lagos house to the ground and assaulted most of the people they found in the compound. (The government blamed “unknown soldiers.”)

Those episodes have only made him more of a Nigerian institution, and many of his lyrics have entered the national argot: “Forty-four sitting, 99 standing” is recognized nationwide as his reference to the inhuman overcrowding on Nigeria’s dwindling bus fleet.

Political statements today? The best known “political” piece currently heard on African airwaves is an anti-AIDS anthem by the singer and bandleader Franco, who is from Zaire.

“What people are saying is there haven’t been any young musicians with the background or innovative ability to build on,” says Steve Rhodes, a prominent musician, arranger and teacher who does not entirely agree with that criticism. “There are a number of quite creative people working in the area. But the trouble I can see is there’s a great deal of mediocrity that gets public attention. Discomania’s hit us pretty hard.”

Others believe that it was the very dominance of Fela, Sunny Ade and Obey that stunted the development of new, innovative performers. When their edge became dull, so did the art.

“Fela’s become an institution, but the general attitude is he’s stagnated,” says Dean Disi, marketing director for CBS Records (Nigeria).

For some reason, Nigerian artists have stopped looking for new styles or new ways of blending the old ones.

“For juju to have remained at the top shows there’s something wrong with our society,” says club owner Tunde Kuboye. “It’s highly repetitive, not innovative, and it just hasn’t developed musically over the years. When I grew up in Lagos, we had a variety of musical styles to choose from, and juju was just one of them.”

As proprietor of Jazz 38, perhaps Lagos’ most distinctive club, Kuboye does his best to find new styles of music. Jazz 38 is a place that in the daytime does service as a clinic for Kuboye’s wife, Fran, a dentist. On Friday nights, the place is transformed. Kuboye leads the Extended Family Jazz Band from his guitar; as the night wears on, people come and go, stopping briefly to tune and warm up at the side of the stage, then stepping up to join the band.

Fran Kuboye will come up, her blue dentist’s smock stowed away, thick-rimmed eyeglasses left on a shelf, to sing a Billie Holiday standard in a soft, smoky voice that resembles Carmen MacRae’s. Occasionally the band is joined by Fran’s uncle, who sits in when he is in town; Fran’s uncle is Fela.

Venues like Jazz 38 and Art’s Place were once part of a glorious patchwork of clubs in Lagos. At its peak, every leading musician had his own club. Fela’s was the Shrine in the Lagos suburb of Ikoyi, and Sunny Ade’s was not far away. Highlife kings Victor Olaiya and Bobby Benson played at hotels that they ran on opposite sides of one of Lagos’ highways.

Today the Shrine stays open only when Fela is in town, which is not often. Sunny Ade spends most of his time playing for private parties, a favored source of income for big stars. Olaiya still plays Saturday nights at the Stadium, but Bobby Brown’s hotel was gutted by fire not long after he died in 1983, and its hulk still towers over the highway.

“When I first came here four years ago, I had a list of 100 bars to watch live music in,” says a music aficionado working in a Western embassy. “Since then, 80% of them have closed.”

Owners’ Attachment

The live-music clubs surviving in Lagos now, however modestly, tend to be the ones whose owners have a special attachment to the location as well as to the music. Just as Kuboye’s club doubles as a home and office, Alade’s is built into the house where he was born to a concert-pianist mother and a businessman father.

But there is little an individual club owner or musician can do to fend off the multiple hazards afflicting the Nigerian music scene.

Recording companies say their profit margins are stretched razor-thin by the piracy that has thrived in Nigeria’s lax environment. Lagos’ position as the recording center of Africa has slipped as its studios have failed to keep up with recording technology. Some leading performers do as much of their recording and engineering as possible in Britain to preserve a decent sound, but that can put the cost of a recording out of reach.

“It’s hard to make up in Nigerian sales for your UK expenses,” remarks Onyeka, a journalist and pop singer whose latest recording features a duet with Sunny Ade.

Players and sponsors of traditional music have lately come to feel snake-bitten by a more fundamental threat: the Jamaica-based music known as reggae.

It is not surprising to hear many experienced Nigerian musicians refer to reggae as if it were some spreading virus that needs to be isolated. They argue that the form has a relative modesty of technical demand and a poverty of melodic and rhythmic variety that work against the very qualities that best exemplify traditional Nigerian music. They fear that youngsters choosing between the flamboyant indolence of reggae or the long hours of determined practice on makeshift instruments that could turn them into a new Fela will tend to opt for the former.

Art Alade shakes his head in dismay when the subject arises.

“They even copy the hair style of the Rastafarians,” he says. “I don’t know, but I hope it’s just a flash in the pan.”

Even Nigerians in a position to profit from the trend view it with suspicion.

“That reggae found a home here is a surprise to me,” says Deaj Disi, who last month brought off a major coup by signing Nigeria’s top reggae star, Majek Fashek, for his label. “It’s not a positive development for Nigerian music, because no matter what you do to it, it’s still traceable to the West Indies.”

Disi ponders a moment the future of what was once a genuine national art form.

“The boom years,” he says, “have come and gone.”