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'Wake Up You!' Explores The Transitional, Post-War Rock 'N' Roll Of Nigeria

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'Wake Up You!' Explores The Transitional, Post-War Rock 'N' Roll Of Nigeria

Music Interviews

'Wake Up You!' Explores The Transitional, Post-War Rock 'N' Roll Of Nigeria

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk rock 'n' roll for a few minutes. If you came of age during the 1960s, chances are you think about rock as the music of youth, of rebellion, of fighting the establishment. But in Nigeria, which was in the middle of a civil war, rock was one of the ways people expressed their politics.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPTEETH AFROFUNK BIG BAND SONG, "FOGO FOGO")

MARTIN: You might've heard about activist artists like Fela Ransome Kuti, who rebuked abusive government practices through song. But what you might not know is that warring governments also understood the power of rock. Some military administrators went so far as to conscript popular rock bands both to keep up their soldiers' morale and to pacify angry civilians. That fascinating history is the subject of a new book series called "Wake Up You!" The author is Uchenna Ikonne. He is a music producer and historian. And he's with us now from WBUR in Boston. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

UCHENNA IKONNE: Thanks a lot for having me.

MARTIN: So how did the Nigerian rock scene get started?

IKONNE: Well, the scene got started in the early 1960s, actually, when "Rock Around The Clock" showed in Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK")

BILLY HALEY AND HIS COMETS: (Singing) One, two, 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock, rock. Five, six, 7 o'clock, 8 o'clock, rock.

IKONNE: That was the first introduction to rock 'n' roll, as it was for many people around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK")

BILLY HALEY AND HIS COMETS: (Singing) We're going to rock around the clock tonight.

IKONNE: But at the time, rock 'n' roll was seen more as a passing fad rather than a genre that was expected to have any kind of permanence. As the decade proceeded, a lot of young people got together to dance to foreign rock 'n' roll records, usually those by Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and later by the Beatles. And soon enough, they decided to form their own bands.

MARTIN: Would you mind talking a little about Fela? He's a - for a lot of people, he's perhaps the main musical figure that they might be acquainted with.

IKONNE: Yeah. Fela is often associated with a proudly and aggressively pro-African stance. But that's not the way he was always perceived on the Nigerian music scene. In his early days, in fact, he was rejected by the mainstream because his music seemed too forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SE E TUN DE")

FELA RANSOME KUTI: (Singing in foreign language).

IKONNE: He had come back from England with the idea of jazz music in the mold of Miles Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SE E TUN DE")

KUTI: (Singing in foreign language).

IKONNE: So the first audience that accepted Fela at this time was the kids who were listening to rock 'n' roll music because they themselves felt like outcasts due to their love of this foreign music.

MARTIN: So then how did rock 'n roll start to change as the war years went on?

IKONNE: When rock 'n' roll first came about, it seemed kind of ridiculous to most people. It seemed like these young Africans were awkwardly aping foreign artists who were white, who were themselves copying black Americans. So something seemed to be lost in translation. But one thing that changed during the war was the popularity of soul music. And there was something about soul music that seemed to speak to young Africans on a very deep level. So the music became funkier, it became deeper.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HYKKERS SONG, "I WANT A BREAK THRU'")

IKONNE: And that gave the rockers the opportunity to occupy the center stage in the culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HYKKERS SONG, "I WANT A BREAK THRU'")

MARTIN: One of the things that - the fascinating things that I learned from your book is that people on both sides of the conflict actually had their own dedicated bands or they had their own kind of musical following.

IKONNE: Yes. You know, during the war, the soldiers had to be entertained, so both the Nigerian and the Biafran armies found out that it was in the best interest to conscript musical groups entertain the soldiers and keep their morale up. These groups also gave a lot of young people the opportunity to avoid being drafted to the combat zone. If you could pick up a guitar, there's a chance that maybe you could be an army musician and be in less risk of being killed. So a lot people flocked toward those bands if they could play at all.

MARTIN: How do you think that affected the music scene after the war?

IKONNE: Well, it affected the kind of music that was popular. After the war, all of a sudden people seemed to have a taste for this music that was fractured and loud and sort of dissonant.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARHEAD CONSTRICTION SONG, "GRACEFUL BIRD")

IKONNE: You can hear that, for example, on tracks such as "Graceful Bird" by Warhead Constriction, which was a band of high-schoolers.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARHEAD CONSTRICTION SONG, "GRACEFUL BIRD")

WARHEAD CONSTRICTION: (Singing) Look at the way things are now, coming to do away. Woman, don't you put your head down, come into the wave.

IKONNE: You can also hear the same thing in the music of The Hykkers, such as "In The Jungle."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE JUNGLE")

THE HYKKERS: (Singing) Better take a trip in the jungle. Toss your high-heeled shoes because you won't need them. You've got to find a lot this in there. You don't know -

IKONNE: They were just showing a new heaviness, a new sense of fury and fuzz to the music that sort of reflected the sense of confusion and the aftermath of the violence of the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IN THE JUNGLE")

THE HYKKERS: (Singing) Jungle life is good for you. Jungle life, just what I like.

MARTIN: Uchenna, one of the things I was wondering is that given that, you know, rock is so important to the Nigerian story, did any of these artists gain fame elsewhere in the world?

IKONNE: Several of them tried. They weren't able to do it. It was difficult. At the time, I'm not sure that the Western audience was ready to accept them. Things are a lot easier now due to the Internet. People are used to listening to music from all over the world. Back then, Western record labels really did not know what to do with African artists. They would fall in love with them for the African sound and then take them over to London or New York and then really not know how to market them. They'd end up trying to scrub all the Africanness (ph) away from them and turn them into something else.

MARTIN: Why is the subtitle of the book "The Rise And Fall Of Nigerian Rock?"

IKONNE: Because the music did not really sustain itself. By the middle of the 1970s, it had already started fading. By the end of the '70s, it was mostly gone. And not only did it disappear, it disappeared from the collective memory in many ways. I think the country just kind of grew out of it, decided to move in a different direction culturally, and that whole period just turns out be a weird interstitial period that isn't exactly the '70s and isn't the '60s either. It was just a period of transition.

MARTIN: Uchenna Ikonne. He's a DJ and music producer, and he's the author of a book series called "Wake Up You! The Rise And Fall Of Nigerian Rock." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

IKONNE: Thanks a lot for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) I've brought back.

MARTIN: And before we let you go today, we'd like to mark the passing of a musical giant from the world of contemporary African music. Papa Wemba, known to many as the king of Congolese rumba, has died at the age of 66 in the Ivory Coast. For more than four decades, Papa Wemba helped to popularize Congolese rumba and, working with international starts like Peter Gabriel, he helped to make it one of the most well-known musical genres in Africa. So we end the program today with his song "Yolele."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOLELE")

PAPA WEMBA: (Singing in foreign language).

MARTIN: For Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're also going to leave you with one more taste of poetry. We've been asking our listeners to tweet us poems. Early in the program, when we spoke with poet Ocean Vuong, we asked him to select one of his favorites. He chose one written by @Cecconi140.

OCEAN VUONG: (Reading) You're wrong about scars. They're not where you got hurt. They're the places you healed.

MARTIN: You can keep sending us Twitter poems at hashtag #NPRpoetry. You can follow us on Twitter at @npratc or follow me @NPRMichel. We are back next weekend. Thank you for listening, and we hope you have a great week.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOLELE")

PAPA WEMBA: (Singing in foreign language).

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