NATIVE Exclusive: Uche Ikonne talks the legacy and preservation of classic Naija music

The Nigerian music head and authority on vintage Nigerian music

When we began researching for the Roots Vol. 1: Rock, War and Funk exhibition, we did so with the worry that while we might find some material about the history of Nigerian music in the 60’s and 70’s we wouldn’t find anyone who had done the work of parsing the music and the events that inspired it. We shouldn’t have worried. Uchenna Ikonne, a Nigerian music head and authority on vintage Nigerian music had paved the path for us and created a trove of information that has become a primer for many looking into Nigerian music.

Our exhibition wouldn’t have been complete without his insight, and he was gracious enough to talk to us about his inspirations, the music and the path ahead. He is a fascinating read.

NATIVE: When we began research on the history of Nigerian music before the 80’s, we found that much of the comprehensive research done on the subject was attributed to you. The sheer scale of the work you have done is impressive. How did you become so involved in the scene and how did you get started?

U. Ikonne: Thanks so much for noticing! This work is not easy and more often than not it feels incredibly thankless. Most of the time I think I’m breaking my back to do this stuff that absolutely nobody cares about except me. So it means a lot when somebody tells me that they appreciate it, and it gives me that much more motivation to keep trucking!

You know how they say “Write the book you want to read?” That’s literally what it was for me. I was trying to do some research on Nigerian music of the seventies and eighties for a film project I was working on about ten years ago, and there were absolutely no resources available. So I had no choice but to create those resources for myself. And then much to my surprise, other people seemed to be interested in it too… and the rest, history. But I can tell you: If I had been able to walk into the library and find two or three decent books on Nigerian music on the shelves, I probably would have never done any of this.
It was a while before I started to take it seriously, though… before I realized the gravity of the responsibility that comes with documenting and chronicling all this stuff. That was when I found I was able to write “Historian” on my CV without feeling stupid and pretentious.

NATIVE: A few days ago, tweets about contemporary artists being the first to export Nigerian music started a conversation about the erasure of the successes of artists from the ’60s and ’70s. Have you experienced that kind of erasure in the course of your work and how do you think it affects the growth of the Nigerian music industry?

U. Ikonne: Nigerian popular culture is in a perpetual state of erasure. In many ways, we’re like the character in the movie “Memento”; due to anterograde amnesia, he can’t create new memories. His brain essentially reboots every five minutes, so he lives in the neverending present. In Nigeria, our collective cultural memory rarely goes back further than a decade or so at any given moment and everything before that is lost. I mean, think about the nineties Nigerian music scene… who remembers that.

But that’s a big problem. Progress is not necessarily just about making new achievements; it’s about being able to sustain them and continue to build upon them. Yeah, you created a successful business, good for you. But can you keep it going long enough to pass it on to your kids so they can expand the business and pass it on to their kids so that they can expand it more and pass it on to their kids? That’s something you don’t see a lot of in Nigeria: that transgenerational progress. That’s how you climb from 1 to 2, pass the baton to the next person who goes from 2 to 3, the next jumps from 3 to 4, and so on. For us, the first person goes from 1 to 2. And then the next person starts from 1 again and gets to 2. And then the next person might hustle hard and get from 1 to 2 to 3 and even hit 4 all on their own sweat. But then the next person after them? 1 to 2… into infinity. And that affects the music business because we’re constantly starting over from scratch and feeling happy when we get to 2.

NATIVE: I know this is a little tangential, but how do you think your own personal experiences as a researcher and documentarian affect your work?

U. Ikonne: Oh yes. My personal experience–especially as I get older–has radically shifted the way I think about concepts like time, memory, history, antiquity and storytelling. And that affects the way I work. And then the work, in turn, shapes the way I view life in general.

NATIVE: While there hasn’t been a proper Afro-rock scene in Nigeria since the ’80s, traditional rock music has thrived here, with communities and scene rising out of Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja, and Jos. Why do you think this schism happened, and in what ways do you think the rockers of today can connect with Nigeria’s afro-rock history?

U. Ikonne: Well, I guess one of the things that happened to afro-rock in Nigeria was Fela sort of displaced it. Fela was actually quite inspired by the afro-rock scene in the early days and regarded the rock bands as fellow travelers who shared his mission to shake up the Nigerian music scene and raise it to international standards. But the thing about the afro-rock groups is that they were originally inspired by American and British rock, and to an extent, they really based their image on that kind of countercultural rebel posturing. But Fela was not just posturing; he was living that rebel life IRL. He was trading blows with the police and the army, getting thrown in jail, then coming out and making a record about the whole thing. Somehow it just made him seem more “real” in that way, and he soon ate up a large portion of the afro-rock audience.

What remaining market share afro-rock had was eaten by juju, which had previously been an old-fashioned kind of music–men wearing ‘filas’ and sitting on stools while they played the accordion. Then you got a new generation of young juju players: King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Dele Abiodun, Prince Adekunle who started appropriating the imagery and apparatus of afro-rock. They dressed like rockers and used rock instruments like the electric guitar, bass, and keyboards, drum sets. By combining the modern presentation of rock with the juju foundation that the audience already knew and loved, they sort of rendered afro-rock obsolete by the mid-seventies. That is, in the southwest anyway. Bands in the east kept on rocking before they finally ran out of gas in the eighties

I’ve long wanted to see a return of rock in Nigeria. There have been various groups that have tried over the years but I just haven’t been feeling most of them. I’ve always felt one of the problems is that they just have bad role models because even in the west, rock has been dying a slow death for the last two decades. The afro-rockers of the seventies were inspired by Cream, Hendrix, Santana, Deep Purple… real balls-out hardcore shit. But what do the guys coming up in the 2000s have to look up to? Coldplay? Imagine Dragons? Nothing against those bands, of course, but… come on.

I’ve been encouraged, though: some of these recent Nigerian bands at least are starting showing the potential to rock hard, and I’ve been thinking about maybe trying to produce some of them. How can they connect with the afro-rock legacy? Well… we just have to expose them to it. I think The Native is in a position to be a great portal for that because you guys have the ear of the youth in a way not many others do.

NATIVE: Why do you think there has been so few attempts to catalog and document the history of Nigerian music from the Independence era forward?

U. Ikonne: Nobody cares, mostly. Or maybe I should say nobody cares enough. You always hear people say “We don’t have a maintenance culture in Nigeria.” And it’s true, but it doesn’t pertain only to buildings and roads and such. We don’t have it culturally either. People are fixated with the present moment but that’s just because they don’t realize that contemplating the past and the future are necessary to fully appreciate the full picture of our experience.

Think about how we listen to music: When you listen to a simple melody, you are only hearing one note at a time. And each individual note has no implicit melodic quality, right? It’s just a sound…  a noise. But when notes are heard in sequence, as we hear each new note we process it in relation to the note we heard before it and the note we are anticipating to hear after it. We’re constantly interleaving the sound we hear in the present with the sound we heard in the past, and that we will hear in the future. And that’s how a bunch of individual notes become music. And that’s the way it is with culture–or at least how it should be. Without the past and the future, the present has no real meaning, no real resonance. Did I answer the question? Why are people not documenting and cataloging? I don’t know…. I guess maybe because there’s no money to be made doing it? lol.

NATIVE: What were the biggest challenges you experienced during your years of researching Nigeria’s first ‘golden’ age?

U. Ikonne: Without a doubt, the biggest challenge is even gaining access to music. As we’ve already established, we don’t have maintenance culture. Which means we don’t have a preservation culture either. There’s no library you can go to and find the entire history of Nigerian music neatly stacked and cataloged on the shelves. Most of the record labels that produced the music are gone, and even for the ones that still exist in some form, they don’t have the music. They didn’t keep the master tapes. EMI, which was probably the most prolific of music labels in the seventies and eighties, in the nineties they actually hired a dump truck to cart away their entire library of tapes and incinerate them. Decca, the second biggest label of that era, they dubbed over their tapes. We’re talking about erasure? They literally erased thirty years of music, just like that! So that’s the toughest thing, actually finding the music because so much of it has been lost or deliberately destroyed.

Thank God for vinyl, though. Most of the records still survive because there’s got to be at least a handful of manufactured vinyl copies still out there. Finding them and acquiring them takes a tremendous investment of time, energy and money, but you always hold out hope that the records are still somewhere out there and you’ll find them eventually, even if it means digging through a landfill where they were dumped thirty years ago. But that’s the beauty of vinyl as a medium; it has durability and permanence. As a result, it’s actually easier to research music made in the vinyl era–roughly 1960 to 1993–than it is for music made before or after.

Prior to vinyl, we used records made of shellac and they were extremely fragile. Vinyl is tough. When they first introduced vinyl records in Nigeria, to convince people to make the change (and invest in buying new record players) the head of EMI would drive his car over a vinyl record to demonstrate the resilience of the format. Shellac records? They shattered into pieces if you looked at them too hard. And that’s why so much pre-1960 music is lost to us forever–all the copies of the records broke, and the record companies didn’t keep the tapes.

Music from the nineties is just as lost because the primary format was cassette tape, and people dubbed over the tapes. The compact disc was not much better. I think we’re in even more danger to lose music today now that we’re dealing almost exclusively with digital: A lot of popular music doesn’t even exist in any physical context! People listen to music on their phones, and eventually, everybody deletes it for hard drive space, if they ever actually saved it at all. All the blog links expire. The “master tape” is a wav file on somebody’s laptop, and what happens when that laptop gets stolen or crashes? A lot of music from this era is going be completely gone in a few years.

NATIVE: In what ways do you think music from this era has influenced contemporary music?

U. Ikonne: I don’t think there’s been that much direct influence on contemporary music because there hasn’t been much dialogue between the generations in that way. Sure, you get someone like Flavour who frequently resuscitates classic song forms or that collaboration 2Baba did with Victor Olaiya a few years ago. But even then, I feel those examples are a bit too superficial, a bit too over-reverent. Almost like a kind of musical virtue-signaling: “Look at me, I’m paying tribute to my elders! Aren’t I a good boy? Not like these other disrespectful youths!” The goal of those records is not to create a hot track, but to pay obeisance. Which is not a bad thing, I guess… but not particularly helpful when you want to facilitate a dynamic musical conversation.

I’ve seen people do a lot of mental gymnastics to create those bridges of influence, though. Like all the work some critics were doing to coronate WIzkid as the heir to the afrobeat legacy. I’m not hearing it. “Listen to ‘Ojuelegba’! That is the continuation of afrobeat!” I’m like, “Is it? I don’t hear it, bro.” But mind you, there’s no reason why contemporary artists have to take inspiration from the past. Obviously they are doing quite well without it. But it would be nice if they did. It might make the texture of their work all the richer.

But the first step is to make people in this generation aware of the music of the past to begin with. Yeah, people know all the big, mainstream names like Fela, KSA, Obey, Christy Essien-Igbokwe, Shina Peters, Osadebe etc. But there was so, so, so, so, SO much more going on back then beyond just that.

NATIVE: Do you see any parallels between the music being created by this generation of artists and artists of the ’60s and ‘7os?

U. Ikonne: To some degree, yeah. There’s a similarity in terms of the swagger, the celebration of youth, sex, style, glamour, and the disregard for the concerns of their elders. That’s the thing a lot of people don’t realize about the music of our parents (and grandparents): We’re so used to viewing them as these hoary, forbidding and conservative authority figures that it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t born with grey hair, that they were once young and rebellious themselves.

And it doesn’t help that most Nigerian parents tend to be reluctant to have honest conversations with their kids about their own life experiences. It’s even a challenge when I try to interview old musicians about their younger days because they edit their histories to match their current values: “Oh, we were very responsible boys. We did not smoke, we did not drink, we did not do drugs or chase girls. We just played our songs and then we went to bed by 9 pm. And then we got up the next morning and went to church.” Come on, man! I’ve seen the pics of what you guys were up to then!  I know you were balling out of control!

That’s the reason I don’t really like when people use terms like “golden oldies” to describe vintage music. Because it evokes the image that it’s music made by and for old people. Nah, man… the music maybe be old now but it was made by kids. Kids with lives and thoughts and feelings that were not too different from those of kids today.

NATIVE: NativeMag, the organization I work with is one of a handful of West African media companies that have risen out of the need to document the ‘alte’ movement; in what ways do you think these new gen curators can better document the current movement and preserve it for future generations?

U. Ikonne: Focus on developing, acquiring and archiving audiovisual materials. That’s the fatal flaw I’ve encountered when it comes to curating music of past generations. When I first got into this, I originally wanted to make a documentary about the pop music of the seventies but I ended up having to abandon the project because it was impossible to obtain the archival video. I had interviewed a lot of survivors of the scene but I didn’t want it to one of those docs that are composed entirely of talking head shots of old people reminiscing about their youth. I wanted to be able to cut away to a period film showing them in their prime, really communicating that in-the-moment fire and funk and fun… I can talk all day about those bands, I can write a whole book about them, even play you the music. But in terms of conveying their full impact, none of that compares to being able to show you an eight-minute video clip of them actually playing. But it’s not possible because most of their performances were not filmed.

A lot of bands did perform on tv quite a bit but the tv stations eventually dubbed over the tapes or burned them. Or in some cases, they just resisted being documented. There’s a story about how some indie filmmaker traveled from America to try to make a documentary about Fela and Fela demanded something like $100,000 for the rights to film him. This was back in the eighties when a hundred stacks was a lot of money for an indie filmmaker, and he didn’t have it, of course… so the doc never happened. Osadebe had similar demands, and as a result, there is very little extant video evidence of his performance. Some artists, we don’t even have photos of them.

That doesn’t seem like a huge problem in this modern-day smartphone ecosystem where everybody’s constantly snapping and videoing everything with their mobiles. But people are constantly deleting stuff too. You need to hold on to that material. Back it up and back up the backups. And I don’t mean just candid shots and videos… invest in more high-quality, stylized and structured photoshoots and documentaries. It seems to me that many artists in the movement like Odunsi and Santi are very consciously paying attention to their visual iconography anyway, and that’s really a good thing.

But just save everything, really. Voice notes, demos, photo outtakes, invoices, concert tickets an programs, artist merchandise, magazines, archive web pages. Download videos from YouTube and save them.  You’re trying to preserve a 360-degree picture of the culture and all the people who participate in it. And history starts today.

NATIVE: In what ways do you think the industry will evolve now that current interest in Nigerian music is bringing back all the international music labels that funded the primary wave of post-independence music?

U. Ikonne: That’s hard to say. It completely depends on the parties involved. While I think it’s fantastic that the wider world is showing interest in contemporary Nigerian pop, I don’t have a ton of faith in the international corporations’ ability to market it properly. They already effectively botched the efforts to sell Wizkid and Davido to the world and really… that entire industry is crumbling day by day as is.

It’s important to remember that the global preponderance of Nigerian music happened not because of the international labels but in spite of them. They never had any interest in us before but thanks to the internet we got the music out there. It was all because of the internet that you were able to go to YouTube and see video after video of Filipino teenagers singing and dancing to 2Face’s “African Queen” or girls in Trinidad winning to D’Banj. The industry didn’t make that happen. The internet has given us an avenue to disseminate our music on our own terms, and we should concentrate on that. Of course, one advantage the traditional music labels still hold is their deep purses, and we could definitely benefit from the promotional dollars. But there’s got to be a way to arrive at an arrangement where they provide the finance and let us retain control of the product presentation.

NATIVE: Who is Uchenna Ikonne, outside of music history?

U. Ikonne: Just a regular guy trying his best to be an honest man and a good writer. Or a good man and an honest writer. Either one will do.

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