Nigerian Afrobeat: The Women

No doubt many social factors prevented women artists from being recorded in Nigeria during the emerging 1970s pop scene. Chief among them was the disreputable view of musicianship for women, the fact that it was viewed as bordering on prostitution by a traditionalist Nigerian patriarchy. By and large, women were relegated to backing vocals, often transforming mediocre records into fantastic ones; think William Onyeabor’s “The Moon and The Sun” from Hypertension or The Wings’ “Someone Else Will.” If they assumed a headlining role, it was often through collaborative partnerships with supportive musician spouses (Grace and Jack Ekpeyong) or through family connections in the industry (Lorine Okotie, younger sister of Kris Okotie). Via education gateways, Josephine Mokwunyei was a young academic when she recorded her landmark Boys & Girls LP in 1979, under the moniker Joe Moks. Many point to the success of Oby Onyioha’s breakthrough on Phonodisk, I Want To Feel Your Love in 1981, as the big tipping point. From the pre-80s era, the most well-known Nigerian female singers are probably the Lijadu Sisters and Christiana Essien. Essien was already a teenage T.V. star when she recorded her first LP Freedom for Anodisc in 1977. The Lijadu Sisters were perhaps culturally acceptable because harmonizing sisters often get a societal pass. By their own account, gender bias and exploitation played a role in their acrimonious split from Decca’s Nigerian subsidiary label Afrodisia, in 1980. Colonial habits die hard.

Biographical details are scarce to non-existent. We have linked to YouTube rips when possible, but tune in bi-weekly to Center for Cassette Studies and Weekend Family Music Hour on FreeformPortland for more!

Sandra Smith Izsadore

It’s ironic that women artists are so absent from Nigeria’s early afrobeat scene given that it was an African-American woman in California, Sandra Smith (now Izsadore), who had such a profound impact on its most renowned male figure, Fela Kuti. According to drummer Tony Allen, when they toured America for the first time in 1969, it was she who turned Kuti on to the importance of black nationalism, colonial history, and cannabis. Sandra was a turning point in Kuti’s sense of political identity, the one who, in his words, “Africanized” him. After her influence, his records became sonic attacks on western dominance, augmented by Ghariokwu Lemi’s anti-imperialist art design. And it is Sandra’s voice that forms the centerpiece of our favorite Kuti side, 1976’s Upside Down, credited to “Sandra Sings With Fela & Africa 70” and recorded during her 6-month stay at Kuti’s commune, Kalakuta.  LISTEN

Mary Afi Usuah

Classically-trained singer Mary Afi Usuah released several beat singles for the Italian market, as Mary Afi, before returning to Nigeria to record two highly-regarded LPs. She is one of the few artists here who has received a topnotch reissue, courtesy of archivist and former pupil Uchenna Ikkone; all should seek out Ekpenyong Abasi, her first LP with the South Eastern State Cultural Band. She later released African Woman on Clover, which we have yet to hear. From the first record, the slow escalation of “From Me To You” is six soulful minutes of power, strength, and sadness.  LISTEN

Joy Nwosu

Like Mary Afi Usuah, Joy Nwosu studied voice in an Italian conservatory, initially researching African cinema and writing a book on the topic in 1968, entitled Cinema e Africa nera. She then returned to Nigeria and began recording a mixture of her own compositions and new arrangements of folk songs, which became Azania on Afrodisia, her only LP. The A-side of a 7” single released just prior was included on an anthology called Nigerian Blues 1970-76. Nwosu later became an academic in ethnomusicology and now lives in New Jersey.  LISTEN

Christy Ogbah

Christy Ogbah recorded three stellar LPs in her career that we know of: two for Duomo (pop) and a third for Mosokam (highlife), which is credited to Christy Ogbah & Her Melody Group. While best known for her westernized wall-of-fuzz dance track “Advice”–her only English-language song–Ogbah excelled at slower synth-heavy pop, sung in an Edo dialect, that was neither disco nor funk. Her best songs, like “Iyiye” and “Iyebhado,” become plodding loops of multi-tracked vocals and melodic Moog accents, a sort of hypnotic boggiedrone. The 1980 LP Advice, packed side to side with deep hooks and indelible vocal phrasing, remains the most satisfying record that Duomo ever released. Its follow-up, Iziegbe, shows Ogbah further exploring intersections of highlife and Lagos disco, melding the hybrid sounds found on her first two recordings.  LISTEN

Josephine Mokwunyei (Joe Moks)

Comb & Razor wisely put the song “Boys & Girls” on their superb Brand New Wayo anthology, which led to its rapid spread through DJ disco sets around the world. The track was taken from Joe Moks’ LP of the same name, released on Afrodisia in 1979. Like Ogbah’s Advice, it is a synthy dance bomb from beginning to end, meticulously sequenced and arranged by Moks and Tony Okoroji, without a bad track. “Being In Love Is Being Involved,” “Closer Than Skin,” and “Insure My Love” are particularly outstanding, and check that cold-stop on the closing countryish ballad, “Just Like Me.” Today, Dr. Mokwunyei continues her teaching and research at the University of Benin, specializing in subsects of Nigerian musicology, most recently among the Anioma and their use of a woodwind instrument called the akpele which serves as a melodic surrogate for the human voice.  LISTEN

Grace Ekpeyong (Grace Jackson E & the Galaxy)

We haven’t heard her debut Morning Prayer, but the three EMI records that followed–Don’t Treat Me Like A Fool (1979), Woman Needs Love (1979), I Need You (1980)–are all full of addictive melodies and electronic sounds. DTMLAF is arguably the best of the three (Mike Umoh on trap drums!) and includes the trancey title song, the conflict-resolution epic “For Better For Worse,” and “Give Me Your Love.” Woman Needs Love was targeted for the reggae market, being simultaneously released in Nigeria on EMI and France on Pathé. I Need You is a ballad-centric and melancholy record with great use of Moog accents, as with DTMLAF, courtesy of keyboardist Caullins Jonas. What happened to her after that recording is unclear. In 2014, the lead cut from WNL, “I’m Gonna Get You”, was bootlegged onto a 7″ by Ximeno Records, albeit in edited form. This link is to the full LP version.  LISTEN

Commy Bassey

It was South Africa’s Miriam Makeba whose beats exploded refreshingly into the European market in the 1960s, with her world hit “Pata Pata” being covered by female artists from Italy, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and France. She became a pan-African source of pride and inspiration for women, as evidenced on the lead track “Great Miriam Makeba” from Commy Bassey’s first LP, In Solitude, released in 1978 on Clover. Bassey wrote and composed all but one song, with Original Wings guitarist Charles Effi Duke helping out with the arrangements. Although it suffers somewhat from Clover’s claustrophobic production sound, the tunes themselves are solid straight through. “Pretty Angel” and “Smiles” punctuate rhythm with silence, with Bassey’s unique drawl stringing the musical bits together, but it’s the lead on Side 2, “Looking For My Man,” that really moves. Anodisc’s Let’s Dance, released two years later, saw Bassey finding her niche in the disco scene and offers up such essential clap-heavy grooves as “Now That I’ve Found You,” “I Need Someone,” “We Want Togetherness,” and “Let’s Dance.”  LISTEN

Christiana Essien

The lack of legit Christy Essien reissues is particularly odd given her popularity at home, and the fact that DJs have sampled her songs so heavily over the past fifteen years. She started out with the perfectly-realized Freedom in 1977 on Anodisc, our personal favorite. Patience immediately followed, before a move to the Blackspot label for Time Waits For No One. Decca then picked her up for her two most popular records, One Understanding and Give Me A Chance on Afrodisia. Her sixth release, Ever Liked My Person?, was the biggest success of her career and saw her moving towards a more polished (but less funky) AOR sound. She later became the founder and first female president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria and was involved in social advocacy causes for women, including female circumcision. A consummate professional whose business acumen was legendary, Essien passed away too young, in 2011. Check the swinging rhythmic groove between band and voice on “Feel So Good Sometime.”  LISTEN

Doris Ebong

Apart from her music, we know next to nothing about Doris Ebong. She recorded one colossal LP for Phonodisk in 1982, All I Need Is Your Love, produced by Tony Essien and with songwriting credits split between the two of them. Ebong’s own contributions, or the ones that she co-wrote–like the frenetic “Disco Drive” and the groundshakingly fantastic “I Won’t Let You Down”–are the album’s shoulda-been megahits that today fill dancefloors worldwide. But the Shirley-Ellis-meets-Catfish-Collins instructional “Boogie Trip” is probably the best known song on the record since it earned a spot on the Lagos Disco Inferno compilation a few years back. Put on your blotter and dancing shoes!  LISTEN

Mona Finnih

Mona Finnih recorded three collaborations with former Aktion and MonoMono guitarist Jimi Lee. The first and best, EMI’s A Stroll In The Moonlight from 1980, is a wonder to behold, packed with horn-heavy tracks like Lee’s majestic funky title cut, Finnih’s “People of the World,” and her pounding tour-de-force of empowerment “I Love Myself.” In 1984, they released Almighty on Afrodisia and Eni Ma Bimo on Emona. More highlife than disco, Lee’s “Iwa Ika” is the standout from the latter, a tight swirling mass of percussion, Hawaiian guitar, saxophone accents, and multi-tracked vocals. In 2014, Voodoo Funk compiled two of her best tracks from the Moonlight LP onto a 12” release.  LISTEN

Eunice Mokus Arimoku

Like label-mate Christy Ogbah, Eunice Mokus Arimoku recorded mainly in Igbo and was affiliated with the early-80s Lagos club scene. Her first record was on Duomo, Onye Oni Me, while her second was self-released five years later on her own label, Unimokus Records, called I Am Glad You Are Mine. The track “Loneliness” from the latter is her big jammer, a loud echoey sprawl of voice and synth over a single looping guitar signature. From her first LP, “Ariro” is a standout, recently anthologized on the Duomo comp from Lagos-based Odion Livingstone.  LISTEN

Oby Onyioha

Onyioha’s acclaimed I Want To Feel Your Love represented the launch of a new era for women artists in Nigeria. While industry prejudices remained, a steady stream of female pop artists nevertheless began changing disco conventions and embracing a more mellow 80s dancefloor sound. Time, Tabansi, Phonodisk, and Taretone all began to sign and record more women artists, like Stella Monye, Lorine Okotie, Julie Coker, and Martha Ulaeto. Onyioha recorded a second LP in 1984 on Sunny Alade, entitled Break It, but its success failed to match I Want To Feel Your Love. While you can’t beat the driving force of its title song, we’re partial to “Enjoy Your Life”, the smooth swinging side closer that includes a line about “humpty dumpty stuff” that we can’t ever really make out due to the cool jabby synth pan. She’s now an anthropologist; if you’re nerdy enough–and we hope you are–hunt down the YouTube interview where she discusses the pre-Gregorian African calendar!  LISTEN

Lijadu Sisters

Lastly, there isn’t much we can add to the story of Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu. The talented twins toured the world and knocked out a string of flawless records during the latter half of the 70s: Danger, Mother Africa, Sunshine, and Horizon Unlimited. While Danger is usually the fan fave, be sure to check out “Set Me Free” and “Reincarnation” from Sunshine. Instead of a song, we’re linking to an incredible documentary clip from 1980 that finds them grappling with the exploitation they’ve experienced at the hands of Decca’s Afrodisia label, but also optimistic about the roles for women moving forward. “It’s only this industry that has a problem of a shortage of female artists…I wouldn’t be surprised in the next five years if we don’t have more females in this profession than men.”  LISTEN

Jim Bunnelle (Center For Cassette Studies), Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour)