This is the full version of article originally commissioned by Farafina Magazine
The term Afro-Funk was popularised (and arguably invented) by the enigmatic Tony Allen, Fela’s drummer and creative partner, to symbolise the style he practiced in the mid to late 90s. Afro-Funk has over the years had various definitions; however, I will attempt a simple definition: Afro-Funk is a fusion of Funk music infused with African rhythms and melodies. To properly understand the term Afro-Funk one must look at its component parts. While African rhythms and melodies probably don’t require any explanation, Funk, on the other hand, has a more complex profile.
“Funk” is defined in the dictionary as “a strong odour”. Colloquially, the word has its origins in its use by African-American musicians to describe a more syncopated or rhythmic beat pattern. The word in this context is reputed to have first been used by Earl Palmer, the New Orleans drummer, who was part of Little Richard’s Band in the 1950s. Ironically to musicologists, the syncopated and danceable rhythmic pattern which Funk embodied had its origins in West African traditional music, which in itself found its way into expression in African-American Spiritual/Gospel forms and work chants, eventually evolving into more contemporary Soul, Jazz and R&B forms. Funk is however an amalgam of all these forms, with the underlying West African rhythmic base.
Upon Little Richard’s sabbatical from secular music into the gospel form, there was a mass migration of a large number of his sidemen, including the aforementioned Earl Palmer, into the stable of an emerging superstar of R&B—James Brown. James Brown was instrumental in popularising Funk music as a genre, actively pushing Funk into the global consciousness. His first hits employing the 1-2-3-4 downbeat pattern were “Out of Sight” (1964) and “Papa’s got a Brand New Bag” (1965), followed by “Get Up (Sex Machine)”. Another pioneer of Funk was the phenomenal Sly and the Family Stone, whose hits “Sing a Simple Song”, “Thank You (For Letting Me Be Myself)” and “It’s a Family Affair”, became quintessential poster tunes of Funk music. Particular mention must be made of Larry Graham, bass guitarist for Sly and the Family Stone, who revolutionised the slap-bass style which became a staple of Funk and R&B.
Funk evolved progressively over the years: the 1970s was the P-Funk era, revolutionised by George Clinton with his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, followed by Bootsy Collins (who incidentally was James Brown’s bassist). Withthe 1980s came the stripped-down Funk era popularised by Rick James, Prince, Cameo, The Gap Band, Dazz Band, One Way, and a whole host of other bands with the same central rhythmic driving pattern incorporated with West African genetic origins. Then came the 1990s and 2000s with Funk’s re-incorporation into popular music which cut across ethnic barriers (“Travelling without Motion”, which was one of the biggest selling Funk albums of this period, was from the all-white English band Jamiroquai).
Several variants of Funk emerged in the 70s and 80s. One of these styles was Electro-Funk/Hip-Hop, which was pioneered by acts such as Afrika Bambataa, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and The Sugarhill Gang. Jazz Funk was another popular variant which emerged in the early 70s through the effort of the pianists Herbie Hancock and Bob James, vibraphonist Roy Ayers, and many others.
The key principle behind the emergence of Afro-Funk is the fusion of various styles from across ethnic genres. Nigerian contemporary music as a musical form was characterised by the fusion of Western and local elements which can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century when the first popular recordings were released. Artistes like Justus Domingo and Irewolede Denge sang in Yoruba while using Western instruments such as the guitar and banjo. These early styles, infused with an African rhythm section, evolved into the Juju music of Tunde King and Ayinde Bakare in the 1930s.
Aside from the obvious fusion engendered by the use of Western instruments, there was the tendency for African musicians in the early and mid-20th century to assimilate Western styles. Even credible performers like Irewolede Denge and Dickson Oludaiye fell into this trap, as can be noted when one listens to their earliest recordings. In “Orin Asape Eko” (1929), the singing style adopted—even though it was sung in the Yoruba languaget—was so heavily influenced by 1920s American Ragtime and Swing Jazz tunes- to be almost Jolsonesque in delivery.
Some great African bands emerged in this era, which, whilst focusing on their core genre, still diversified into foreign-influenced form to satisfy the appetite of an audience which had a taste for diverse styles. For instance, one of E.T. Mensah’s most popular hits, “Day by Day”, was clearly influenced by Calypso rhythms. Also, combos like The Cool Cats were playing to a strong, growing audience with their fare of Jazz and Soul. So it was only a matter of time before the ever-increasing influence of Funk found disciples within the Nigerian Music scene. Worthy of note is that this era also witnesed the emergence of the great generation of Nigerian drummers- the excellent and explosive talents of Bayo Martins, Remi Kabaka, Sunmi Smart-Cole (of the Cool Cats) and Tony Allen (whose career started as part of the combo at Western Hotel in Lagos), who were to later influence the emergence and growth of the genre.
One of the first superstars of Afro-Funk in Nigeria was incidentally not Nigerian—he was Gerald Pyne (known by his stage name Geraldo Pino), the son of a Sierra Leonean lawyer settled in Nigeria, who took the country by storm in the mid-60’s with his explosive live performances. Pino became the Funk Ambassador of Nigeria and with time became one of the most popular musicians in the contemporary music scene, with a larger-than-life image to boot.
Pino’s influence was not lost on a struggling but hugely talented, classically trained trumpeter, Fela Ransome-Kuti, who had been prominent in the small UK Jazz crowd whilst still a student. Performing Highlife and Jazz tunes initially Fela eventually fused these two musical forms into a workable hybrid with his excellent band, The Koola Lobitoes. However Fela was the first to admit that Pino’s Funk Train—at the early stage—blew away the opposition, even Fela himself. The turning point however came when Fela went on his first tour of the UK in 1968 and a subsequent tour of the US in 1969, from which he came back a different man—completely radicalised, politically and musically. After his return, Fela developed his Highlife/Jazz fusion platform into a deeper, more visceral sound, by fusing Jazz with a more traditional African rhythmic pattern and the now independent musical style of Funk. The greatest examples of this new emergence are the seminal tracks “Jeun Koku” (Chop and Quench), “Funky Horn”, “Fight to Finish” and “Don’t Gag Me”. Through these recordings Fela became the flag-bearer of a genre which had slowly emerged from the winding origins of African music, exported to America during the Slave trade and refined into a new independent form—Funk—which, in the new era and as a result of the curiosity of African musicians, had found its way back to Africa, this time fused into a unit with its African musical ancestor.
Whilst Fela gave face to the new movement, his music in truth was something different—his musical form had a strong Jazz element and was in his own description more Afro-Beat than Afro-Funk—from the tunes which were being produced by young bands all around Nigeria, who started out playing covers of Rock and Roll and subsequently Soul and R&B music, and who wittingly (like Fela) or unwittingly fused those forms with African influences. Fela however gave form, direction and influence to the emerging genre; his contribution transcended Afro-Funk as a genre and is definitely beyond the limitations of an article of this breadth.
One of the earliest influences on this trend towards the new musical genre was Orlando Julius, whose early tracks “Efoye So” and “Mapami” betrayed the strong hybrid influence of Soul, Funk and Afro Rhythms; however, Pino remained the man to beat and behind him came a new generation of acts who increasingly gained prominence. In the East of the country in particular, there emerged a strong generation of bands, who cut their teeth in the Soul scene of the mid 60s but who sadly got caught up in the Nigerian Civil War but who ironically survived by playing to entertain the soldiers—who indeed were the only ones who could afford to pay the musicians. Bands that emerged during this period include the Strangers led by Bob Miga, whose track “Love Rock” was one of the biggest selling singles for EMI in 1970.Another band that was of this period was Airforce Wings, led by Dannie Ian, which became the Wings after the War and gained prominence after Ian was replaced by Emeka “Spud Nathan” Udensi. Dannie “Ian” Mbaezue later recorded one of the most popular tracks of the era “Fuel for Love” with his band Wrinkers Experience. Other bands which deserve mention are The Hykkers (Jake Sollo on Bass, Pat Finn Vocals, Emmanuel Lawson on drums etc), Cyclops and The Spades.
Some young bands emerged in the late 60s in the northern part of the country. The Sunflowers—managed by Sunny Okogwu (Miriam Babangida’s older brother) and featuring the young Mike Appoh- who later emerged as a legendary Highlife saxophonist and bandleader—was one of such groups. Laolu Akins, then a prodigiously talented young drummer, was also a member of this group. Another young but extremely important band was The Moonrakers, which- also featured Mike Appoh and the awesome guitarist Frank Martins.
In Lagos a number of young bands emerged with a newly defined earthy sound. One of these was The Cutes, led by the inimitable Dom Bruce. The Cutes featured two talented guitarists: one was Jimmy Lee (who later joined Monomono) and the other Harry Jones. Another important member of the band was the ground-breaking bassist, Olu Pedro Santos, whose unique style blended the deepest Afro-Rhythms(mostly 6/8) with the purest Funk progressions—in short, Afro-Funk.
The Mebusas- featuring Raheem Oyelowo ( Trombonist- who later joined Segun Bucknor and eventually Osibisa), Jerri Jhetto- (who enjoyed a varied and exciting career both as a drummer and Bassist in several of the ground-breaking bands of the era), and Thermometers (featuring Emma Dorgu, Arakatula Owen and Olu Pedro Santos later) were young Lagos combos worthy of remembrance. But the best of the Lagos crowd was Segun Bucknor and The Assembly, whose hits “Adonrisogba Sogba”, “Poor Man No Get Brother” and “Dye Dye” were comparable in musicianship to anything available in the Soul/Funk era.
However the emergence of Afro-Funk as a pure musical genre was, in my view, crystallised with a recording by a five-member group of ex-Biafran soldiers with a young Highlife crooner at the helm. This recording was “Akula (Owu Onyeara)” by The Funkees. This band comprised of some of the most solid musicians in the East at the time. For lead vocals was Mohammed Ahidjo (former lead singer with The Atomic 8 of Aba and who sang the hit “Angelina Pay My Money”); lead guitar was Jake Sollo (formerly of the Hykkers); Harry Mosco on rhythm guitar; Sonny Akpan, congas; Billy Ike played the organ and Chike Madu the drums. The track “Akula”, according to Danny Ibe, was recorded on a four-track mixer in the most primitive of surroundings, but it still went on to become one of the most powerful tracks ever produced in Nigeria misic. “Akula”, simply put, revolutionised Afro-Funk. The track combined native Igbo rhythms in the bass line and percussions, which simultaneously displayed the classic syncopation of Funk. The more conventional Funk characteristics in the track were displayed in the Funky guitar and Hammond Organ arrangements, while the vocalisation—which was a unique concept for an African band, —was more akin to a Rock vocal performance. In short, these elements blended into a raw, tight unit.
After this track followed a whole swathe of ground-breaking recordings from other bands which further established Afro-Funk as a genre. Amongst the first was the ground-breaking album “Chapter 1” by BLO, which was released by EMI in 1974 and which featured the talented trio of Laolu Akins on drums, Berkeley Ike Jones on guitar and Mike Odumosu on bass. This band was particularly important on account of their pedigree. Berkeley Jones and Laolu Akins had, in 1971, been recruited by Ginger Baker as part of his travelling band SALT, and had toured the UK with him. The album was instrumentally one of the most advanced albums to come from a Nigerian band at the time. This album was subsequently followed by their second album “Phase 2”, with massive tracks like “Don’t Take Her Away From Me”, “Native Doctor” and “Atide”.
A particularly important player on the scene at the time being the Swiss-Nigerian Flautist- Tee Mac Itseli- who can probably be regarded as Africa's greatest Flautist, whose Surulere Nightclub, was the hub of the burgeoning scene as propelled by his band the Afro-Collection, he later was to translate his skills to composing one of the iconic disco hits "Fly Robin Fly" with his band Silver Convention. Another important record was “Give the Beggar a Chance” by Monomono, which featured the bass heroics of Kenneth Okulolo and the vocal mastery of Joni Haastrup. Joni Haastrup in his own right was one of the most important figures in contemporary Nigerian music, on account of his other seminal Afro-Funk hits under Monomono, such as “Ipade Aladun” and the excellent “Tire Lomada Nigbehin”. it was also during this period that “Odenigbo” and “I’ve Been Loving You” was released by The Wings and also “Look at the World” by One World (One World was a splinter group formed after the breakup of The Strangers and the band showcased the excellent vocals of Sam Matthews as well as the talent of Funk guitarist Anii Hoffner. There was also “Masquerade” and “More Bread to the People” by The Aktions, which was led by Lemmy Faith and Renny on bass. Mention must also be made of Headzfunk and Akwassa, two exceptional bands which had the same personnel but co-existed simultaneously. Both bands featured Felix Odey (Feladey) on guitar and Eddie Offeyi on drums, and had to their credit a monster track in 1975 that was called “Be Yourself”.
The Afro-Funk revolution reached its peak in 1974 with the advent of what was to be Nigeria’s most popular school band ever, the awesome Ofege and their seminal album “Try and Love”. The youth band featured students of St Gregory’s College, Lagos (my alma mater).There was Melvin Anokuru on vocals, Paul Alade on bass, and also Mike Meme, Soga Benson and Dapo Olumide and the session effort of Berkeley Jones on guitar and Laolu Akins on drums. The album was produced by the great Odion Iruoje of EMI. “Try and Love” was another milestone in the Nigerian Afro-Funk story, with tracks like “Whizzy Ilabo, “Nobody fail”, “Ofege” and “Gbe Mi Lo”. Ofege’s live performances were a study in dedicated musicianship and vibrant youth culture at a time of plenty in Nigerian history: the band represented the joy and optimism of a country enjoying prosperity under the “oil boom” as well as the rebelliousness of youth. I remember my sister getting warned off ogling over pictures of the Ofege stars. Ofege were to influence a generation of high school and university Afro-Funk bands such as Tirogo, featuring a young (and exceptionally talented) Funmi Onabolu; Salty and Koku (featuring the talented Sultan Anibaba on Bass) and BAC Foundation, to name a few. I must however mention one of my personal favourites of the era- a track called "Colourful Environment" by Nigeria's virtuoso Keyboardist and Producer- Gboyega Adelaja, who released the album on his return in 1979, a truly excellent track and probably one of the best of the era.
I must also mention what may be described as the Benin “mafia”, meaning the rich storehouse of talent that Benin City produced and whose sounds promoted the new genre. In the vanguard was the genius of Victor Uwaifo, whose initial material was in the Highlife genre, but who with his “Ekassa” albums diversified into a deeper Funky sound which integrated native Benin rhythms in a fantastic blend. Notable examples of this style are “Do do do Ekassa” and “Ekayan Ekassa”. Other artistes of note were Osayomore Joseph, with the excellent “Eguae Oba”; Leo Fadaka and the Heroes, with “Blak Sound”; and my favourite, Collins Oke Elaiho and his Odoligie Nobles Band, with their influential track “Simini Yaya”.
At this juncture it should be mentioned that the common thread between all these artistes is the excellent musicianship and the faultless blend of the pure Funk instrumentation and the deep native soul rhythms of their productions, only possible on account of the ancestral affinity between Funk and West African Rhythm.
In the late 1970s up till the 1980s Nigerian Afro-Funk declined, with the big record companies preferring a more Calypso or Disco oriented beat in recordings- with the notable exception of a couple of outstanding seminal works from two artistes Kris Okotie- via the album “I need someone” and the exceptional Gbugbemi Amas- via his “Amas Grill” album- . Also, the US and UK Disco scene literally obliterated the influence of Afro-Funk, with the same record companies obtaining licences to sell these albums in Nigeria to a captive audience. Mention however must be made of an important album released in the US in 1980—which was more or less at the end of the Afro-Funk revolution in Nigeria—by the Nigerian Aleke Kanonu, which featured a young Wynton Marsalis on Flugelhorn and which had an awesome compliment of tracks like “Ngwode” and the excellent “Nwanne Nwanne”. Aleke Kanonu was a percussionist from Ukwuani in Delta State, who learned his trade from his father, who was himself a native drummer.
Afro-Funk never re-emerged in Nigeria, unlike in the USA, where there was a re-emergence of its hybrid counterpart Funk in the 90s and early 2000s. However, with the re-emergence of Funk on the global landscape Nigerian Afro-Funk bands experienced a renaissance of sorts as compilation albums of their work were released in Europe. Examples of these include Duncan Brookers “Afro-Rock”, featuring Geraldo Pino, and Quinton Scott’s “Nigeria 70”, featuring a whole host of Nigerian Afro-Funk groups. Tony Allen however is the biggest face of the re-emergence of Afro-Funk (and fittingly too, being one of its most important innovative fathers). His album “Home Cooking”, produced by the British superstar Damon Albarn, was a classic study in Afro-Funk structure; as was his recent contribution to the international hit album “The Good, the bad and the Queen”. Afro-Funk also found a live stage re-emergence with the Funkees being featured as opening act for Pharaoh Saunders at the Brighton Festival in 2003 and also on their own bill at the Jazz Café in the same year (for the Jazz Cafe gig, yours truly was drafted in on lead vocals in the absence of Mohammed Ahidjo).
In addition mention must be made of the sterling contributions of a new generation of Nigerian Afro-Funk stars of which particular mention must be made of Dele Sosimi- who cut his teeth as a young Keyboardist- whilst part of the original Egypt 80 (as distinct from Africa 70) and who has stayed faithful to the cause of Afro-Beat, but diversifying into a more mainstream and indeed original Funk feel; the inimitable Keziah Jones- whose albums- “Blufunk is a fact” and more particularly “Black Orpheus” – apart from their commercial appeal, have been part of a truly serious drive by this gentleman to tap into the storehouse of musical power that Afro-Funk represents, whilst coursing an original musical direction of his own. Also Ayetoro, Harri Best, Mike Aremu (though more Gospel based in his orientation), Kola Ogunkoya, Juwon Ogungbe refreshingly back from a sabbatical, Gboyega Oyedele and a whole host of other talented and hard-working artistes, who have doggedly persisted in promoting the genre.
In 1996, a particularly important revival or re-congregation of the old Afro-Funk stars of the 60's and 70's took place in the course of the famous weekend Jam sessions initially at the private residence of Captain Emma Anyanwu and subsequently culminating in the De Captain's series (this being a venue in Ikeja Lagos) which featured a who's who of the old boys of Afro-Funk ranging from Laolu Akins to Lemmy Faith and Rennie Pearl of the Aktions, Ahmed Moore of the Strangers, Emma China of the Wings, Feladey and Eddie Offeyi of Headzfunk etc and with the central axis of a group of young professionals, with a love of music such as Captain Anyanwu, Tony Martins, George Anozie, the late Captain Ebi Okudu, Emeka Nwandu, Sultan Anibaba and yours truly amongst several others. These sessions were extremely important in that they formed a focal point for the old boys to get together, perform and be seen once again.
Mention also must be made of a number of independent labels that have in the present day continued to influence and propagate the cause- Kayode Samuel's Ekostar, Quinton Scott's Afrostrut, Miles Clerets series, Duncan Brooker's Afro-Rock, the inimitable STORM Records of Obi Asika, Olisa Adibuah and Nnamdi Eneli. Special mention should be made of two incredible bloggers who have been outstanding in propagating information on the history of Nigerian music namely WithCombandRazor and Likembe. DJ's on the European club circuit who have kept faith with propagating Afrofunk such as the aforementiond Messrs Brooker and Scott, as well a host of others like Eric Kirengera, Koichi Sakai, Rita Ray, Max Reinhardt, Catherine Plant and a long list of others. Also mention must be made of the sterling efforts of Club owner Muyiwa Majekodunmi, whose Iconic venue "Jazzville" provided a platform for several Afro-Funk veterans (Willie Bestman being an example) to ply their trade in the lean years.
The legacy of Afro-Funk still endures in the consciousness of true music lovers, with seminal Afro-Funk records such as the albums of Aleke Kanonu and Ofege being sold for as much as $200.00 on collector’s sites. And as for the fact that Nigeria was the crucible wherein the melding of this high artistic form came to occur—that is a legacy for which we can all be proud.
Pioneers of Nigerian Afro-Funk- Where are they now
Geraldo Pino: Pino died in Port Harcourt in late 2008 after a brief illness,, he had held sway as King of the music scene and almost after receiving long overdue accolade in the UK with a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.
Bob Miga: Keyboardist and leader of The Strangers. Miga settled in London as a staff of the Nigeria High Commission. He recently retired from the diplomatic service and is said to be living quietly in London with his family.
Dannie “Ian” Mbaezue: Former lead singer of The Spades, The Wings and Wrinkars Experience. He explored a career as a Highlife musician after the demise of his Pop career and and is said to be a running a trading business. He was recently seen on stage in Nigeria in 2006 at a PMAN sponsored event.
Laolu Akins: After his stint with BLO Akins had a successful career as the influential A&R Manager of Sony Music. He now works as a consultant, and divides his time between the UK and Nigeria.
Mike Appoh: Appoh went on to a career as a super session-man and producer, working with diverse acts like Lenny Kravitz, The Real Thing, Onyeka Onwenu, Majek Fashek and many more. For many years he worked in the UK Civil Service until his recent retirement and currently plays infrequently, usually for charity and educational purposes.
Mohammed Ahidjo: Ahidjo’s career stands out as one of the most distinguished yet unrewarded. After providing Dan Satch and the Atomic 8 of Aba with one of their biggest hits, “Baby Pay My Money”, for which he was neither paid nor given credit on the album, he joined the Funkees, from which, after the dissolution of the band, he did not receive the requisite terminal benefits. due. He currently lives in London, where he runs a trading business.
Danny Ibe: Bassist/songwriter of The Funkees, Ibe re-trained as a lawyer and has worked as an immigration lawyer for many years. He recently released a solo album.
Joni Haastrup:- Haastrup, before joining Monomono, had toured the UK with Ginger Baker as part of his band Air force (he replaced Steve Winwood). He later returned to the UK after Monomono, working as a much sought-after session-man. He then moved to the US, where he got a band together, after he which he became a music teacher in California interspersed with a career as a super-session-man. His name can be found on the credits of some major works, such as Chris Isaaks albums in the early 90s.
Lemmy Faith: Lead Singer of The Aktions. Faith travelled to the UK in the mid 70s and remained there until he returned to Nigeria in 1996 at the behest of his brother Andy Nwani. He ran a small music studio and equipment rentals business. He died in 2007.
Felix Odey: Feladey had an extremely resilient career after his time with Headzfunk/Akwassa, emerging as part of the combo Japadodo and releasing his own solo album in 1995. He set up a successful band playing out of Mobil Eket in the late 90s and currently runs a successful business in the same area.
Eddie Offeyi: After Headzfunk/Akwassa, Offeyi joined up with Kristie Essien-Igbokwe’s Gold Train Orchestra, of which he was for many years Bandleader. Offeyi, who recently turned 60, occupies his time now as a session-man.
Sultan Anibaba: After Salty and Koku, he trained as an Architect and currently lives in the UK - running an Architecutural Consultancy.
Melvin Anokuru: After Ofege, Ukachi embarked on a modest solo career.
Dapo Olumide: Olumide later became a pilot and was MD of Virgin Nigeria
Funmi Onabolu: The former keyboardist of the boy band Tirogo is now a leading advertising and media executive on the Board of Bates
and Cosse, Lagos.