From city to city, going around the Nigerian countryside looking for records. One person leads to another, leads to another, and eventually the records are unearthed from outside storage units, basements and attics, old and neglected and covered in dirt and grime. And one just hopes the record plays…
Uchenna Ikonne, founder of Comb and Razor Records, is a writer, a filmmaker and DJ. He has also made a “mini-career” as a music historian, archivist, and Nigerian pop-culture enthusiast. On his last trip to Nigeria in 2010, he went searching for Nigerian music of the 1950s-1980s: disco, boogie, and Afro-funk, even country music. “…something to turn on people because they didn’t expect it—and that’s something I always try to do,” Ikonne says, referring to his blog (combandrazor.blogspot.com) “To try and show people certain music, in fact, Nigerian pop culture, that are a bit off the beaten path.”
Finding the records is a complex process, Ikonne explains, and there is not a fixed method of going about it. Like truffle hunters searching for black truffles in southwest France, no record collector wants to give away their secrets, and Ikonne hesitated before revealing, “For me, I just ask people, really. I just ask people if they have these records, stuff like that. Go around. Different cities. There’s a strategy to it that I can’t really discuss.” He smiles devilishly. “No digger wants to give away their trade secrets to another digger who may be reading this article.”
Ikonne admits that a lot of record collectors visit Africa, more often than he is able to go, but when he does, he goes as a historian: an archivist and collector. A market exists for making a great deal of money off of these rare records, but Ikonne does not do it for commercial reasons. “I do sell records, but mostly to finance; I mean, just getting the records can be pretty expensive, so I do sell if I have a few copies. I’ll sell to finance and keep doing this.”
He hunts out these records, tracking them down through word-of-mouth, digging them out of obscure and weird places. “You get it,” he says, “and it has mold and dirt and chickenshit on it, and you have to scrape all that stuff off and scrape the sleeve. And the record itself, you have to clean it…You just try your best to get the record as pristine as you possibly can. Hopefully the audio is not damaged, but what are you going to do? It’s not like you have much choice.”
The dilemma with a lot of Nigerian and African music from the 1950s and into the 1980s is that much of it can be lost. In general, he explains, Africa does not have an adequate maintenance culture. “We don’t really have a deeply entrenched culture of preservation so many of our things and our cultural artifacts are lost, including something like records.”
Many film-recordings and television tapes have been lost, and while some television stations have maintained an extensive archive, much is missing. Most of them either got rid of the tapes through carelessness, or because of scarcity, they would shoot a new program on older tapes to conserve resources.
Unlike records which may have a print run of a couple thousand, a film-recording or a TV station tape perhaps only ever existed as one copy. It complicates tracking down and discovering these vintage recordings. Luckily, Ikonne points out, TV stations often did program exchanges, where stations sent each other the tapes. Or, as he added, “when BBC was trying to restore a lot of Dr. Who episodes from the early 1950s and a lot of them had been lost from the BBC library—I think they had a fire—a bunch of Dr. Who tapes were in Nigeria…You will find them in the oddest places. I still have hope for that. I want to try. I want to actually try and dedicate myself to actually finding that stuff.”
It is an area that is unexplored, especially by record collectors, who are primarily devote themselves to finding the rare records. And for Ikonne who admires video, visual media and vintage footage, he loves finding the tapes because it shows the artists in their prime.
“I have met a lot of these artists, the surviving ones—who are now men and women in their sixties or seventies. I want to see them when they were young and hot,” he says, “Doing their thing! So I think it’s really important for us to see that. We can hear the records, but not actually see them perform live.” Ikonne points out that it is missing something, and he adds that a lot of the collectors of these records really do not have a concept of what these performers may have looked like, especially if these artists recorded on 45s.
Finding these rare records, footage, and artifacts, Ikonne describes, “It’s like one of the most ecstatic feelings ever. I don’t even know what to compare it to…It’s like trying to imagine you’re a pirate of old and you fin the buried, hidden treasure. It’s like something that you feel like you struggled for.”
Ikonne started avidly listening to music in the 1980s, although he only began collecting seriously little more than a decade ago. But the 1980s, he says, was really a golden age.
It was a period of a lot of development for the Nigerian music industry. Studio technology made giant upgrades, making the music sound more sophisticated. “Which is something a lot of people didn’t like,” Ikonne admits. “Some people preferred the primitive sounds. So in the eighties, the music got slicker, a lot more professional” as Nigerian artists competed to break into the Western market.
“My favorite time period for music was probably the 1970s,” he says. “I mean in most genres–in terms of popular music anywhere in the world—peaked during the 1970s. It was something about that particular era that encouraged creativity. I’m not sure what it was, but there was something definitely in the air that was not there now.”
Beginning in 1979, Nigerians entered into a brief return of democracy, and these years were very crucial to Nigeria: the economy experienced a tremendous lift because of the oil boom because of and the country emerged as a major world power.
“There was this new sense of freedom and possibility because of this new democratic society. And there was this decadence to it.” Ikonne tried to capture this in his Brand New Wayo album, released in May 2011, many of the tracks from records he unearthed while on his 2010 Nigerian trip.
“I wanted to chronicle those years,” he says, then adds, “Also, like I said, these were years that I started listening to music, listening to music really seriously. So this period has special significance to me.”
No one, he says, explored this era of Nigerian music. Up until this point, music released from Nigeria has largely been heavy funk or Afro-beat. “No one had really ever done slick, glossy disco-boogie music.” An album released a year before Brand New Wayo called Nigerian Disco Inferno attempted to capture some of that sound, and it was really one of the first records to showcase Nigerian disco. But Ikonne says that the disco was heavy, rugged, and deep.
“I prefer music that is glossy and kind of poppy and light. And that was something that I wasn’t sure that people would respond to. But I was like, ‘I’ll throw it out there and see how it does.’” Ikonne smiles. “I didn’t think anyone would like it, but they did, and I’m really pleased by that. The response has been awesome. And it still continues.”
“I’m always interested in showing a different side of Africa…” Ikonne says. “I like to show the dimensions.” Now when Ikonne DJs and plays some of the Nigerian Afro-punk, disco, and funk from his youth, he says, “I play this stuff to crowds and they respond to it rapturously.”
“I think people will respond to anything if you expose them to it.”
Special Thanks to Lee Hershey.
This is the first article in a two part series.
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