Music review: New albums from Bongos Ikwue and Teni
By Bill Friskics-Warren,
With the revolutionary afrobeat of the late Fela Kuti and the hypnotic juju of King Sunny Ade at the forefront, Nigerian popular music has basked in the international limelight since the 1970s and ’80s, when it captured the imaginations of everyone from Paul Simon to Talking Heads. Today it remains in ascendance with “Fela!,” the hit Broadway musical that runs locally through Feb. 10 at Sidney Harman Hall — and with two new releases from two generations of Nigerian singer-songwriters who have links to Fela and who bear witness to the durability and elasticity of the nation’s music.
Certainly the most overdue of the two recordings is “Wulu Wulu,” the first release outside Nigeria from 70-year-old singer-songwriter Bongos Ikwue, a contemporary of Fela’s during his mid-’70s heyday. Stylistically omnivorous, Ikwue’s politically charged music draws equally on African folk and American soul, as well as many other styles, including Ghanaian highlife, Congolese rumba, country, reggae, funk and rock. Earthy and lyrical, his sandy tenor at times evokes the euphonious gospel phrasing of Bobby Womack and Sam Cooke, at others the relaxed conversational delivery of Bill Withers and James Taylor.
Ikwue’s record opens with the violin-sweetened “Kongo Soldier,” where over a buoyant Afro-Caribbean groove he offers his droll observations about the wisdom of deploying armed military personnel as peacekeeping forces. “Agbambo” and the title track follow, the former steeped in West African highlife, the latter’s South African township jive galvanized by the strutting horns and crisscrossing guitar work of Ikwue’s current band, Double X. “Mustapha and Christopha,” an elegiac ballad, is tenderness itself, its deep-rooted empathy all but belying its trenchant commentary on the religious strife that divides Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria.
Sung both in English and in Ikwue’s native Idoma dialect, other lyrics range from heartfelt professions of love (“Tell My Girl”) to cautionary tales about the seductions and pitfalls of urban life (the bluesy afrobeat of “City Woman”). In “Ochombolo,” over fervent call-and-response, he urges his fellow Africans to strive for self-sufficiency instead of relying on foreign aid.
Although by no means flawless — grating rock guitar mars “Obide”; ill-fitting New Age touches detract from “Kongo Soldier” — “Wulu Wulu” is an inspiring, openhearted record. The overall impression it leaves is that of a sagacious elder in full possession of his art — a man who has seen much, asked life’s crucial questions and found a renewable medium with which to explore them.
Perhaps even more expansive musically than Ikwue’s new record is “Afrodisiac,” the full-length debut from singer-songwriter Teni, the London-born daughter of a Nigerian chieftain. Fusing West African afrobeat with American blues, funk and jazz, the singer describes her music as “afrosoul,” and it’s certainly an apt characterization of her album, a prophetic record that reveals debts to sources ranging from Nina Simone, Fela and Sade to Motown, dub reggae and contemporary neo-soul.
Though raised in England, Teni later spent a decade in Africa, where she performed with a latter-day installment of Fela’s Egypt 80 and witnessed the poverty and injustice that would greatly politicize her music. “Stop the fighting and heal the land/ We need to find the strength to stand,” she cries, spurred on by the bracing polyrhythms of “Africa,” her album’s closer. Over the vamping funk of “Lionheart,” she asserts, “You cannot hold me down / I always wear the crown,” echoed by unrelenting horn choruses that sound like resistance itself.
Songs such as “Revolution” and “Wilderness” likewise have political overtones and correspondingly militant grooves from Teni’s band, Afro-Renaissance. Interpersonal relationships get their due on her album, as well. When she pines for an absent loved one in “When Will I See You,” the sense of physical absence in her throaty alto is palpable.
Unlike Ikwue, Teni may be at the outset — as opposed to the twilight — of her career, but she shares an unmistakable self-possession with her senior Nigerian counterpart, one befitting not just the daughter of a tribal chief, but also an inheritor of an imperious musical innovator like Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Friskics-Warren is a freelance writer.