Musicologist and researcher, Uchenna Ikonne, in collaboration with NowAgain Records and Rappcats released the first volume of two 104-page book series with a compiled album which document the songs and stories of forgotten Nigerian rock bands and musicians who created original rock music during the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s.
Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972 – 1977 is the result of an investigation into the history of Nigerian rock music which spanned ten years in the making. The audio-visual documentary is currently being received warmly by music lovers and appreciators, some of who have been eagerly waiting for its arrival.
As musically inclined as the series is, however, its educational and cultural preservation purposes serve as the primary driving force behind its existence, and thus can neither be overlooked nor ignored by its audience. And this is one reason why Uchenna Ikonne keeps doing what he does – ensuring that the memory of Nigeria’s musical history stays alive through research and documentation.
I’ve always been a historical-minded person and just realising that this stuff was fading away… I just really felt that this era was going to disappear completely. I took it upon myself to try to chronicle it, which is what I’m doing now.
Uchenna Ikonne was born in the United States but moved to Nigerian when he was seven and remained in the country until he was 21 years old. Uchenna recalls that the era he came to really become a fan of music was in the 1980s. According to him, there was a lot going on in the Nigerian music scene at the time which he thoroughly enjoyed.
Moving back to the US, where he studied film, it occurred to him that as the years went by the era faded along with the memory. And not even his friends with whom he grew up could remember most of it. The music and history lover decided that he was going to tap into the music record collecting culture in the US, with his “good memory,”and bring obscure and amazing Nigerian music to global knowledge.
Almost two decades since discovering his ‘true path’, the Nigerian music guru shares details of Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972 – 1977 in a chat with Ventures Africa. He also shares some interesting memories and thoughts on his career which are as entertaining as they are enlightening.
Ventures Africa (VA): Can you please tell us all about your latest project Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, 1972 – 1977?
Uchenna Ikonne (UI): Wake Up you is a chronicle of rock music in Nigerian that flowered at the end of the civil war in 1970 which has really become quite a forgotten era in Nigerian music. So, what we’re trying to do is gather up some of the best releases from that genre, put them together with a very informative booklet that would completely fill out the context and basically document it for posterity. By no means is it comprehensive though. [1960/70] was one of the most productive times in the music industry in Nigeria, and hundreds of records were put out during that time. We just wanted to put out what we felt were some of the best and most representative of the era.
VA: Why did you and your team choose this particular project?
UI: Uhm… You know, that’s a good question. It’s uhm… (laughs) …well you know, I worked on a bunch of different things. In the past, the first release that I ever put out on my label – this [NowAgain] isn’t my label – was a collection of Nigerian disco music from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. So, we’re just really interested in doing projects that completely document various genres of music and this is just one in a series, essentially.
And in the future, I do intend to start putting out collections that are basically essays. I’ll also put out some stuff that looks at some of the soul music from the 1960s. There’s a mix that I put out a few years ago that still gets referenced a lot that chronicled the beginning of Hip Hop from 1981 up until 1991. Right now I’m busy trying to chart the progress of the current Nigerian Hip Hop scene.
VA: What were the challenges in compiling these records for this particular series, and how did you manage to tackle them? Because I learnt that it took about ten years to compile all of these songs that you got together for the series.
UI: The challenges inherent in compiling this series are pretty much the same for compiling any such series. The problem that we have in Nigeria is that we are not all for cultural preservation. If I were doing a project like this almost anywhere in the world, I could just walk in to a record label or a library or something and say, “Hey, I want to do something chronicling the music of the 1960s”, and they’ll say, “Oh, here’s a shelf. Go through it and pick out what you want.” In Nigeria, there’s no such thing, obviously. Even if you’re talking about the original recordings, that is the master tapes from the record labels, they’ve either been destroyed or lost.
So what you have to do is you have to find the actual record and master it from there. And you spend years searching for these records. That’s the biggest challenge. That will always be the biggest challenge when it comes to doing any kind of preservation work in Nigeria. And not only when it comes to music. Anything that has to do with history, it’s just a matter of finding the sources.
VA: Did your other projects – such as the Hip Hop one that you mentioned – take as long as this one took, or is this the longest?
UI: Everything that I do is running concurrently. But, I would say that this is probably the longest period of gestation that I’ve done on any project. When you get down to it, everything is a culmination of studies that I’ve been doing for the past 15 years or so. Especially when you consider what the original proposed release date was; we were hoping to put it out in 2010, and this is 2016. Yeah, this is probably the longest gestation period.
VA: Wake Up You! is a collection of original Nigerian rock music. But considering the fact that rock and rock and roll music were introduced to Nigeria on a significant scale by the West, how original would you say Nigerian rock music was? Also judging by the fact that it’s missing from the country’s music scene.
UI: Nigerian rock music was highly original. If we were going to be much more intensive we would probably find another name to call it. The fact that it was called rock music doesn’t mean that [Nigerian artists] were copying and pasting what was going on in the West. It’s much like what we call hip hop in Nigeria today, which really doesn’t sound like anything from America. It’s really a mixture of a bunch of different things. It’s got some reggae, some Latin and Caribbean influences. There are lot of things that go into what we call hip hop.
‘Same thing with rock. Although they started with the basic template following the Beatles and Elvis and whatever else was going on abroad, they came to integrate a lot more indigenous elements. They came to take a lot of different approaches to articulate themselves, so that by the end of the day it really didn’t sound like anything that was in the United Kingdom or America.
VA: Do you think that Nigerian rock music can be revived, and how do you think that this can be achieved?
UI: No, I don’t. Really. I wish I could tell you that I believe that, but I don’t. I mean, anything is possible (laughter), but looking at the current context, I don’t think so. Mainly because rock music is on the decline even in the West. And there are so many things that would have to be done in order for rock music to come back. Aesthetically, I don’t think that the youth of this generation even know how to process this kind of music.
If it were to come back, it would probably be from the next generation. Like in the next 20 years if some kids listen to the collection that we’ve put out now, and then learn to play the guitar and drum and start putting bands together. I don’t see it happening. There are so many factors economically, socially, and aesthetically that would have to be in line.
VA: Do you think that it has anything to do with the fact that, for example in Nigeria it took the Civil War to bring out that ‘monster’, so to speak, out of bands that were already existing in the country, and if you ask any person from the UK in their 40s or 50s they would say that rock music reminds them of that time when they were in school, and they were radical and rebellious… Does it necessarily have to stem from nursing a revolting spirit, or rebellion, or anger to re-inspire rock music?
UI: I don’t think it has to, but in this case it did. Rock music in Nigeria came about from the generation that grew up in the wake of independence, not the generation that came of age as Nigeria was becoming independent. The people who started getting into their teens around 1965/66 were rebellious because even though Nigeria had become independent, in many ways it felt kind of hidebound and quaint.
There are so many stories. Someone – the name would come to me – once said that the 20th century for Africa was a short century, because we achieved independence like halfway through, and we seemed behind in many ways. I think the generation that came up in the ‘60s were rebelling against that, in terms of music, sexuality, what it means to be modern, and their relationship to globalism.
VA: What do you and the Wake Up You! series’ team hope to achieve with all the documentation that you’re putting out? In terms of social relevance and impact.
UI: Cultural preservation is always hugely important to me, and that’s definitely a goal in this case. But there are other objectives too. At one point, I wanted to arouse interest in these artists, many of whom are still alive and functioning, and I was hoping that they would be able to get the glory that had been robbed from them for most of their lives. I wanted to see a revival of these acts. But it took so long to put these things out, and so most of them are really too old to make a comeback now or have passed away. So that’s probably not going to happen.
But, I would love to see people really appreciate it. Obviously, it’s mostly aimed at people abroad. But with everything that I do, I’m always most pleased when I see people in Nigeria appreciating it. Everything I do, I think that I’m doing for people in Nigeria. If I see people who were born in the ‘90s talking about these great groups from the ‘70s, I feel like I’ve done my job.
VA: But why are your projects aimed primarily at people abroad and not a Nigerian audience?
UI: There are various reasons for that. For one thing, I don’t live in Nigeria, so it’s really hard for me to dedicate all my efforts to doing things in Nigeria. Secondly, there is no audience in Nigeria. In Nigeria what we have to do is first cultivate the audience before we start giving them products like this. Here in the West, there is an audience that it interested in hearing ‘weird music’ from Africa, so we know how to market to them already.
However, if I’m going to be completely honest, the main reason is that economically it doesn’t make sense. Things are really tough in Nigeria. And right now, with the rate of exchange… I don’t know if you’ve seen this compilation, it’s a two-part compilation hard-bound 100+-page book with a CD inside it. That retails in the US at maybe $30, which is roughly N9,000 in Nigeria now. Aw, c’mon who’s going to spend N9,000 on a CD?
VA: Err, not millennials who are used to downloading free files?
UI: (laughs) Exactly! There was one time that I tried to create an edition that we would try to scale down and make economically feasible for people in Nigeria to buy. But to be fair, it ended up defeating the purpose. At the end of the day I’m not just trying to sell the music to people, I really want them to read the book and understand the story and the history. And I just don’t know how to do that in a way that would be economically conducive for Nigerians yet.
I used to have a blog – and I will have one again shortly – in which I tried to share the same kind of information, and I put plenty of free mixes there that people would access, with hopes that they would do so. But for a product like this, I don’t know how you can produce it in Nigeria and sell it to break even at the least, let alone make profit.
VA: Fair enough. One last thing, can you give us a little background about how you ventured into this music documenting career?
UI: I’ve always been interested in music and, I don’t know, I’m just a person with a good memory. That’s the thing about me. The era that I came to really become a fan of music was the 1980s. There was a lot going on in the Nigerian music scene at that time, and I enjoyed most of it.
Years went by, the era faded, and in some strange way, the memory of it faded as well. Like it seemed to be gone from our collective memory. Nobody remembered it, nobody wrote about it. Even some of the artists from the industry who continued and were relatively well-known also kind of buried that era, as they never spoke about that time.
After Fela died in 1997, Universal Records in France reissued his entire catalogue. And that’s when people started knowing about Fela which brings us to where we are today with Fela as a global icon. But that started in 1999 when his music was reissued. That event got people knowing that there were other interesting stuff happening in Nigeria, and suddenly, everybody wanted to find Nigerian records. Nigerian records became popular on the collecting circuit, but nobody knew the context.
Then I wandered in like, “I know that record, I listened to it as a kid”, and I became the only person who knew this stuff and could put it into context and I gained a reputation for that. Where was I going with this story again?
Well, I’ve always been a historical-minded person and just realising that this stuff was fading away… I took it upon myself to try to chronicle it, which is what I’m doing now. In a lot of media, you’ll see Wake Up You! described as a book that I wrote. It’s not a book, it’s a compilation that is accompanied by a long essay that just happened to be packaged in hard cover format.
But I am actually writing a book. It’s a three-volume book of Nigerian music history from the 1940s up until the 1980s. That’s a long term project that I’m working on. I’m hoping that the first volume would be out next year. At the same time recently I started working on A Nigerian History of Hip Hop, so that might be the fourth volume.