There’s much ado about Fela Kuti these days, and while the king of Afrobeat certainly deserves the love, he wasn’t the only Nigerian making good music in the 1970s.
Exhibit A: the Funkees, a groovy-as-hell psychedelic Afro-rock band from Eastern Nigeria who ruled the scene once upon a time.
Rock’n'roll hit big in West Africa in the 1960s as records from artists like Jimi Hendrix filtered into the region. A lot of imitation groups sprung up, but the huge success of the Ghanaian fusion group Osibisa eventually inspired local musicians to work elements from traditional music into their music for a new rock sound.
Around the same time, in 1970, drummer Ginger Baker from the band Cream came through Nigeria while on tour with a British rock band called Airforce. He was so impressed by the music scene in Lagos that he decided to come back and stay, eventually starting a band called Salt with local musicians, as well as opening a nightclub and creating the country’s first 16-track recording studio. A serious rock and roll wave proceeded to roll over Lagos.
On the other side of the country, The Funkees were formed in 1969, towards the end of Nigeria’s civil war, by members of the Army’s 12th Brigade in order to entertain fellow soldiers. A talented guitarist named Jake Solo came to lead the band, and they started to gain local fame for their mix of funk beats, Igbo drums, and distorted guitars.
Eventually, the group’s popularity landed them in London in 1973, where a vibrant black music scene happening with musicians from Jamaica, Trinidad, Nigeria, and Ghana all intermingling and making records together. In the four years they lived in London, they produced two records (Point of No Return and Now I’m A Man), as well as a load of 45rpm singles. In their album covers, the band can be seen lounging in floppy, wide brim hats and an array of hippie gear including giant necklaces, knee-high boots, and bandannas.
Eighteen of The Funkees’ tightest tracks made during the London period have recently been reissued by Soundway Records on a compilation titled Dancing Time: The Best of Eastern Nigeria’s Afro Rock Exponents 1973-77. Soundway had already featured the Funkees on their Nigeria Special comps, but decided the group needed to be revisited due to them being so damned good.
Just take a listen to the track below, “Akula Owu Onyeara”: the slinky groove, the big riffs, the wah-wah guitar, the ambling organ solo. All together, it’s very, very funkee.