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A Brief but Loving Tribute to Soundway Records

May 12, 2010

It’s not often that I get to indulge my love for African music on this blog.  But as I trolled through the morass of muck that is RollingStone.com and Spin.com the other day, my appreciation for the music of the Motherland grew exponentially.  I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in African music, although I have learned a little bit over the years.  From Highlife to Soukous to Afrobeat, the music of Africa is rich, varied and oftentimes transcendent.  I find the different styles and combinations of African music to be so real and authentic that I can’t help but be disappointed in much of the musical output in my home country.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the current music scene in the States, and I’m one of those folks who thinks this decade is as good (and in some ways better) than the preceding decades, including the golden (and frequently over-rated) 1960’s.

So it is within this background and worldview that I pay tribute to England’s Soundway Records.  I don’t know much about how Soundway came about, or even how long it’s been around, but I owe a tremendous debt to this little record company.  Thanks to my nifty little Emusic subscription, I found some deals on a few Soundway compilations.  Each album in the series has the word “Special” in the title, and that’s an apt description of the music found within.  Each album comes from the 1970’s and covers a wide spectrum of sounds and musical textures.  Nigeria Special:  Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues 1970-6 and its companion volume Nigeria Special Volume 2 are filled with amazing songs, with everything from jazz to straight rock to blues influences noticeable everywhere.  If this kind of thing is your bag, check out this nifty review from The Guardian on Volume 1.  Nigeria Afrobeat Special:  The New Explosive Sound in 1970’s Nigeria picks up with the undisputed ruler and originator of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, who has experienced something of a renaissance here in America over the past couple of years.  This album takes the listener on an amazing trip through 11 funky tracks, each of which gives any U.S. funk band a run for its money. 

The funk continues in Nigeria Discofunk Special:  The Sound of the Underground Lagos Dance Floor 1974-79 and Nigeria Rock Special:  Psychedelic Afro-Rock & Fuzz Funk in 1970’s Nigeria.  It was while listening to the last compilation that I realized just how influential American rock and soul was on the Nigerian music scene of the time.  American blues mixed with native song structures to create a unique sound, but one that was recognizeable nontheless.  Many Afrobeat artists cited James Brown as a touchstone, even to the extent that Fela himself fancied himself the same kind of charismatic band-leader as the Godfather himself.  In Nigeria Rock Special, the guitars of Cream, Traffic and Zeppelin started to creep into the sound, while disco and 70’s dance music served to inform the stylings of Lagos Discofunk.

Although this is a gross oversimplification, it seemed that the musical influence train had come full circle.  Here was American show business, profiting off of stealing the blues from black artists and turning it into the white man’s rock and roll, which in turn made its way across the sea to the Motherland, serving to steer African artists toward the stylings of the West.  I expect that Clapton, Hendrix and Page sounded as exotic to the Nigerian ear in the 70’s as the sounds of Fela, Orchestra Baobab and Tabu Ley Rochereau sound to me now.  I expect that these artists listened to the music that I now take for granted and heard the sounds of new horizons, while I simply hear “Stairway to Heaven” for the 1,567,895th time.

It is within this reverie that I come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter where this music came from or where it originated, I freaking love listening to it.  When I listen to the Soundway Special series, I have no clue what the singers are actually singing and I can’t pronounce the titles of most of the songs I listen to.  But I am as happy as a puppy getting its tummy scratched when I listen to these 60-odd songs.  And for that I must raise my glass to Miles Cleret, Soundway owner and series originator, for having the good taste to track down these songs, many of them forgotten, just so an old Kentucky boy could marvel at their super duper awesomeness.  If I can ever put together something that gives someone anything resembling this amount of pleasure, I’ll consider my mission accomplished.

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