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Bongos Ikwue & Double X - Wulu Wulu
CD Album
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Bongos Ikwue & Double X

Wulu Wulu

BIK Recording

Released: 28th January 2013 | 14 track highlife album


Nigeria in the Seventies was an amazing place. Just emerging from the trauma of civil war, the country was awash in a wave of accelerating oil revenues that seemed to give Nigeria the means to control its destiny. Musically, Nigeria was one of the most

diverse and vibrant music scenes on the planet. You could walk down the street and hear an astonishing variety of music blaring from shops and bars: highlife, juju, funk, Afrobeat, R & B, country, Indian film music, Congo sounds, reggae, rock and country, not to mention a host of traditional indigenous styles. For an American such as me, the music scene shattered any preconceptions about what the African music scene might be.

It was in Kano, Nigeria, in 1974, that I first encountered the music of Bongos Ikwue and his band, The Groovies. Entering the Magwan Waterworks Cafe with Nigerian friends, my ears picked up the loping, dulcet tones of a country song, a Jim Reeves tune if memory serves (Jim Reeves was quite popular in African and The Caribbean). As I turned the corner I was shocked to see that the pleasing country song was being played by a dashiki-clad Nigerian band. The lead singer, a trim, stylish-looking, dark-complexioned man in his thirties with liquid dark eyes, delivered the song in an effortless, smooth, resonant voice. As that song ended to warm applause, the band kicked into a familiar groove and the vocalist began singing a somewhat obscure Brook Benton song called True Confessions. I was struck by the similarity of his warm tones to those of Brook Benton. Soon the band launched a Congo-style groove and Bongos-as that was the lead singer's name-sang a sinuous, lyrical melody in a Nigerian language (I later learned it was his native Idoma). The Groovies-drummer, electric bassist, guitarist, keyboard player, congo player, saxman and trumpeter-morphed easily from hard-kicking funk to lilting highlife and Congo inflected grooves, occasionally jumping into a reggae skank. Bongos sang without histrionics, standing before the microphone and delivering the songs in a direct, soulful and heartfelt manner, the drummer harmonizing with him. The mix of music they delivered was utterly unique in the African landscape. Come to think of it, I'd never heard a band anywhere in the world deliver that sort of musical mix. Bongos was a decidedly soulful singer in the manner of Sam Cooke, The Impressions and Brook Benton but he didn't ape American soul singers. He was a singer-songwriter who mixed country music, R & B and various African styles, both popular and traditional. That made him a unique figure in African popular music. Little did I know that I was about to learn first-hand just how special an artist he was.

Bongos Ikwue was born in Otukpo, Benue State, Nigeria of Idoma ethnicity, in the east-central portion of Nigeria, on the 6th of June 1942. His father was a farmer and his mother a trader. Enamored of all types of music at an early age, he absorbed everything he heard: traditional music and folk tales of the Idoma people, a wide array of American styles including gospel, country, blues, jazz and R & B, Cuban and other Caribbean styles that could be readily heard on the radio. And of course myriad African popular styles. His parents pushed him to pursue a respectable profession and sent him off to school. Nonetheless, he began writing and singing songs and formed his first band, the Cubana Boys. While studying engineering at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, he formed another band, the UniBello Brothers, as well as a folk group; he even learned Irish songs from an expatriate lecturer. In 1967 he formed Bongos & The Groovies, which rapidly became a popular performing and recording ensemble that featured Bongos evolving an original and highly personal Nigerian pop style. Unlike other Nigerian artists, he did not pattern his music after any other artist nor did it fit any existing genre. A recording contract with EMI led to a number of hits such as Lagos, Tell My Girl, You Can't Hurry The Sunrise and Otachikpokpo and best-selling albums; his song Cock Crow at Dawn became the theme song of a popular Nigerian TV soap opera that ran into the 90's.

My entry into Bongos' musical universe came about by chance. Some Nigerian friends invited me to join them to see Bongos & The Groovies at The Central Hotel in Kano. During a break, one of them happened to mention to Bongos that I was a musician and Bongos invited me to sit on a tune. I played a blues shuffle on guitar and the Groovies fell right in. When Bongos learned that I played keyboards he invited me to join the band, as their lead guitarist had just left the band and the keyboard player/guitarist had vacated the keyboards to handle lead guitar. For a number of months I played with the group and experienced Bongos' music from the inside. Besides the pleasure of performing, I recall the enjoyment of riding with Bongos in his car on tour and having a great time singing songs by Sam Cooke, The Impressions and Brook Benton as we rode along. His knowledge of-and feel for-- R & B and country music was impressive.

A typical Bongos & The Groovies set began with the band playing without Bongos some American funk numbers-- material by James Brown's JB's, Mandrill, Kool & The Gang and others, as well as some Afrobeat, which had the effect of immediately filling the dancefloor. The Groovies at this time consisted of a trap drummer, conga player, bassist, guitarist, keyboardist, trumpet player and saxophonist. After a few numbers, Bongos would come out and lead the band into mostly original material, though he might throw an occasional old R& B or country tune in the mix. Usually wearing a dashiki and slacks or jeans and sporting a bushy Afro, Bongos sang with an easy command, straight from the heart. His songs, some in English, some in Idoma and even some in Hausa, shifted from song to song, from a Congo feel to a highlife-inflected groove, to reggae and Afro-funk or even pure balladry. The brilliance of Bongos' approach is that it appealed to all kinds of people-unlike other bands that played just one style of music. Bongos delivered something for everyone, presenting enough groove-music to keep people on the dance floor but at the same time rewarding anyone who just wanted to sit back and listen to some meaningful lyrics. Those lyrics ranged from love songs to socio-political commentary, often drawing on proverbial expressions or a story-telling mode. His classy presentation and highly literate lyrics, especially appealed to the educated elite.

Bongos' formula-a wide-ranging musical palette informed by a unique artistic vision-sustained him as a popular artist in the Nineties, at which point he became somewhat disillusioned by less attentive audiences and went on a hiatus, spending more time with his family and tending to his business interests (he had a successful furniture factory in Benue State). But the music bug would not let him go and in 2006 he returned to performing, with a new band that he named Double X, to suggest the intersecting elements in his music-traditional and contemporary, local and international. He was joined onstage by his daughters Omei and Jessica as additional vocalists. Bongos was then inspired to do a series of new recordings, both re-workings of some of his earlier songs and also new compositions. He recorded over 40 tracks, working both in Maryland and Nigeria. The fourteen tracks on this album are drawn from these new recordings, which may be the best work he's ever done as a recording artist, an amazing feat since very few artists can top or even match the work they did in their breakthrough period.

Leading off the album is Kongo Soldier, one of Bongos' social commentaries, telling the story of Nigerian peacekeeping forces coming to Otukpo after serving in the Congo. Abangbo, is a joyous invitation to dance that has a distinct highlife feel but also a kinetic energy, reminisent of the band Osibisa, that sets it apart from the more traditional laid-back highlife groove. The vibe of the music shifts again to a South African township feel for Wulul Wulu, a song based on an Idoma term for mockery, that features the gospel-tinged vocals of Bongos' daughter Omei. Mustapha and Christopher is Bongos' commentary on the sectarian religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians that have led to so much death and destruction in Nigeria over the years-the opposite of what religion should foster. Though Bongos never displayed an overt political agenda nor advocated for any particular religion, his story-telling and social commentary certainly meaningful messages. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that Bongos is a humanist, a philospher whose philosophy is rooted in everyday life.

Kankwuche is a love song (the title means to try to go back in Idoma) delivered over an easy-rolling quintessential Bongos groove. It is followed by Obide, a track that demonstrates Bongos' ability to mix diverse musicial elements; it opens with soaring, sustained rock guitar but soon kicks into a highlife-inflected groove. It is based on an old Benue women's tune the lyrics of which talk about how warm the women will feel when their men return home. The chorus features the voice of Benue village women. How Long, on the other hand, is straightforward country-pop, complete with a plaintive fiddle obligato, that could easily have been recorded by any number of American artists. Bongos tells the story of a woman who struggles to make a life out of a very meager existence.

No matter how wide-ranging Bongos musical influence and no matter how sophisticated he may be as an educated business person, his music and thinking is very much rooted in the simple country life he experienced growing up. Ochombolo, for instance, tells the story of a farmer stranded when heavy rains flood the only available river crossing-based on an experience from Bongos' life. He transforms the story into a parable of self-reliance, asserting that African countries should not accept aid from foreign donors. City Woman is a hard driving funk number that touches on the dangers that the city pose to a country boy.

As mentioned, Caribbean music, especially Jamaican music, is a significant part of Bongos' musical palette. Tell My Girl is an irresistibly melodic rock-steady tune, flavored with a bit of rock and soul. Bongos' entreaty to tell my girl I'm coming home, resonates with many African men who have been forced to travel to cities far from their families to find work, if not fame and fortune. Ouno is based on an actual incident, the death of a young country girl from a snake-bite, when she was sent by her mother to gather firewood. . Singing over an incongrously jaunty groove, Bongos sings the sad story of an innocent girl's death, framed by the unanswerable question: why did she have to die? Inale, on the other hand, is based on an Idoma folk tale, a story of a beautiful princess who was betrayed by a jealous slave girl. This song is the theme song from the film of the same name, a feature film produced by Bongos' daughter Keke that was nominated for five awards at the 2011 African Movie Academy Awards; the film's soundtrack, created by Bongos, won an award as Best Soundtrack. Nigeria's film industry (dubbed Nollywood) is probably second only to India in number of films produced annually.

The album closes with a funky instrumental version of Cock Crow at Dawn, a song which Bongos originally recorded in the Seventies as a vocal piece. It is a good example of Bongos' ability to re-work his songs into quite different arrangements and sounds. Cock Crow at Dawn took its name from one of Nigeria's most successful soap operas. Bongos wrote the sound track for this programme. This is an instrumental version featuring the tenor sax of Julian Siegel, a prominent performer on the London scene with various jazz awards under his belt. He has played with a host of big names, including Hermeto Pascoal and Bill Frisell.

Most artists do their best work early in their careers. Some are able to maintain a relatively high standard for many years but almost none do outstanding work late in life. On this album, Bongos demonstrates that at seventy years of age, his artistry is as vibrant as ever. Indeed, taken as a whole, this new album may be the best work he's ever done. Equally impressive is the fact that more than forty years after he began, Bongos Ikwue is still a unique-a musical artist like no other. His many Nigerian fans will be thrilled by this collection of new recordings. Meanwhile Europeans and Americans, will, by and large, be hearing Bongos msuic for the first time. It does not conform to any pre-conceptions of African music. Taken on its own terms, it is deeply satisfying, heartfelt, rooted in real life, filled with soul and simple wisdom-qualities sorely lacking on the contemporary scene.

Randall Grass

About Randall Grass - An acclaimed expert on both reggae and world music, he's lived on virtually every continent and has advanced the cause of musical diversity throughout his career. As a writer, he contributed to Spin, Beat, Musician Magazine and the New York Times; as a musician he played in bands in both North America and Africa; and as a disc jockey he hosted one of the earliest radio shows in America dedicated to reggae music. But his biggest mark has been made as the General Manager of the independent label Shanachie Records, where he helped transform a label known best for its catalog of Irish music into an indie powerhouse in reggae, jazz and, most recently, soul music. In 2006 alone, Shanachie has released albums by such classic soul artists as Maysa, Phil Perry and Ann Nesby as well as the hot UK act Hil St. Soul. Randall's appreciation for the diversity of musical styles and his belief in the commercial viability of even smaller musical niches has made Shanachie one of the independent leaders and has helped the careers of dozens of artists ignored by the major record labels. He's a true friend of soul music fans everywhere.