Graded on a Curve: Tunji Oyelana, “A Nigerian Retrospective, 1966-79”

Tunji Oyelana is described by the folks at Soundway Records as “equal parts singer-songwriter, actor, bandleader, dramatist, comedian and academic.” Those that have been absorbing the label’s attempts to provide a clearer picture of the Nigerian music scene might recognize his name as one amongst many in an impressive field that for years was denied wider exposure by a variety of cultural circumstances. Soundway’s fresh issue of A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79, a multi-format compilation with a 3LP edition for vinyl fans, does an outstanding job of bringing Oyelana’s name out of the shadows to the front of the Nigeria’s musical class.

The uncovered musical delights from ’60s-‘80s Africa that have seen retrospective rerelease over the last dozen years or so basically present the once hidden activities of its continent as being like that of an eternal onion of an unusually delicious flavor. Layers keep getting peeled off and digested but there always seems to be more underneath. This current state of affairs sits in sharp contrast to how the situation once was; if plenty of record labels both big and small were attempting to document the traditional sounds of Africa, then the popular music that bloomed throughout its many countries and even more numerous regions was definitely subject to neglect.

Yes, there was Afrobeat, but it was a form essentially dominated in the West by the notoriety of Fela Kuti, the force of nature that’s often credited with creating the style. Part of the reason for Fela’s supremacy was due to the political and social component of his music; he was an activist, and the names of his groups, first Nigeria ’70 and then Africa ’70, reflected the growing nature of his consciousness, spreading from country to continent and then becoming one aspect of a global movement of racial empowerment.

If Fela attained a level of popularity outside of Africa, a massive amount of recording was taking place in his home country that was escaping notice outside its borders and wasn’t being taken particularly seriously by those that were profiting from its distribution. It was thought of as pop music, largely considered disposable, and certainly not treated as an artistic entity. Unfortunate, but not a surprise; here in the USA it took decades for Delta blues and Appalachian hill musicians to get the respect they so deserved. Harry Smith, a burgeoning folk scene and a bunch of studious blues rockers helped to turn the tide, a circumstance that’s different and yet analogous to the flow of documents enlightening the activities of funky Africa in the second half of last century.

Where to place Tunji Oyelana, whose work has recently been corralled by the Soundway label into the expansive 2CD/3LP/digital compilation A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79, into all of this? Well for starters, he doesn’t necessarily fit the mode of the musician whose creativity was incorrectly assessed as being of a mainly commercial nature. Early in his career he established a long relationship with the writer-playwright and future Nobel Prize winner Wolf Soyinka, joining the theatre troop 1960 Masks. This connection with Soyinka, a stridently political artist who was jailed in the ‘60s, evolved over the years and eventually produced Unlimited Liability Company, a collaboration making clear that Oyelana’s own sense of commitment was far more than just an example of youthful idealism.

So, the political orientation of Oyelana’s music can be considered similar to that of Fela’s. Indeed, while on an international tour with Soyinka’s play The Beatification of Area Boy both the author and the Oyelana were charged with treason by the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha and were forced to live in exile. But there were also musical similarities to Fela. They were artists of the Afrobeat after all, both establishing a style that combined the traditional Yoruba sounds of their homeland with highlife, jazz, and funk. It was a new, hybrid form of music, a reality that was reflected in the name of Oyelana’s backing band the Benders, a title that indicated their ability to master and mix different styles.

This stylistic diversity can certainly be credited in part to the need to meet the demands of a new, younger Nigerian audience, but it’s really not that different to what was happening in European and American art-rock circles at the time. In the case of Fela, he crossed paths with Ginger Baker, the drummer appearing on Kuti’s 1971 excellent 1971 LP Live! and the Africa ’70 leader lending his multi-instrumental talents to Baker’s Stratavarious the following year. This definitely helped to increase Fela’s international profile and lend his music credibility with Western listeners.

No such luck with Oyelana however; while he did some cross-border collaborating of his own, singing with the legendary South African jazz group The Blue Notes in ’67, and the following year with ex-Blue Note Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath, those sessions have unfortunately never seen issue, at least in legit form; they’re described on Blue Note member Mongezi Feza’s Wikipedia page as “underground recordings.”

Nearly all his international notoriety was achieved due to his association with Soyinka, and in fact I’d not heard of him at all until a few tracks bearing his name appeared on some very ear-opening comps from Strut (Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story Of 1970’s Funky Lagos), Soundway (four, but try on Nigeria Special: Modern Highlife Volume 2, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-76 on for size) and even Luaka Bop (World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s A Real Thing – The Funky Fuzzy Sounds Of West Africa) that detailed the vastness of Nigerian music from the era. What’s cool is that all were given the loving LP treatment and a couple of the Soundway volumes (like the one above) are still available in that format.

For those familiar with Fela who have yet to plunge into the expansive historical surveys listed above, Oyelana’s sound will inevitably draw a comparison to his more famous Afrobeat counterpart. And in some ways that’s not really unfair, for Oyelana’s ’71 song “Agba Lode” was certainly close in form to what Fela as doing around the same time. Listening to “Agba Lode” next to Fela’s “Jeun K’oku” really illuminates the similarity. But it’s also obvious that Oyelana wasn’t jumping on any bandwagon, and Tunji and the Benders prove distinct enough in operation in their prolific output to be credited with following their own path in the vital proliferation of the Afrobeat impulse.

A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79 is the documentation of that path, and the effort eschews a strict chronology in favor of a maximal listening experience. Three songs in and a gorgeous slice of soul-inflected funky pop “Fiya Jemi” jaunts from the speakers, the tune culled from the Voster and Smith Must Reason LP by Oyelana and the Benders that seems to have been issued sometime in the late ‘70s. And the original 45 version of “Agba Lode” doesn’t show up until near the end of the whole thing. If sacrificing an academic approach to the music might bother some listeners, they should just relax those expectations and sit back and enjoy the ride, for what’s achieved instead is a flowing survey of Oyelana’s sheer range.

“Ojo” opens the proceedings, and it’s loaded with choppy guitar and the leader’s strong, smooth voice throughout, along with killer group vocal chants of the chorus, some sweet extended organ soloing in the middle, and of course all sorts of funky locomotion. It becomes obvious that this is art music, but it’s also party music, or maybe a better way of describing it is as social music. It’s designed to get people dancing, singing along, laughing, celebrating, and even thinking about and discussing issues and affairs.

This doesn’t mean it’s not also fantastic as solitary home listening, but don’t be surprised if the sounds get you up and grooving all over your ritzy digs. And if it does, then the social function of Oyelana’s art will have been successfully forwarded through the grand nature of the recording process. Chalk another one up to the wonders of technology.

A deep funk is surely on display throughout, but unlike the often wild relentlessness of James Brown’s bands circa the ‘70s, Oyelana and the Benders distill an atmosphere that is considerably more relaxed, though it never falters into the zone of the merely mellow. The horn playing tends to the jazzy rather than the hard vamping that’s frequently utilized by heavy funk. And a song like “Ogun Adubi” largely leaves the realm of the funky to examine a unique parallel to the aforementioned Euro art-rock, a mood that’s greatly enhanced by the use of the organ.

At times the use of that instrument actually brought to my mind the UK group Traffic, though any stylistic comparison between the two is fleeting at best. The music found here ultimately owes little to Euro or American styles of the time, instead being a fascinating expression of rich, multifaceted African culture.

Only 1,000 copies of this 3LP set have been pressed, and it contains three fewer tracks and a different running order than the 2CD version. Vinyl lovers with an interest should act quick, for A Nigerian Retrospective 1966-79 shows that if Tunji Oyelana’s achievements were for years unfairly obscured, they are more than worthy of wider exposure and appreciation in the present. Thanks to Soundway what’s deserved is now a sweet reality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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