I recently wrote a blog post about Nigeria’s political problems and explained the baked-in ethnic turbulence that constantly lurks in the country’s subconscious. It mostly appears in international headlines as the stomping ground of Boko Haram, an African version of the Islamic State that takes advantage of decades of neglect, poverty and terrible education. But Nigeria is more than just that: it’s also one of Africa’s cultural hotspots, with a thriving media and literary scene that draws inspiration from its multitude of cultures, religions, and relatively central location. This week, let’s take a closer look at one of the spheres of culture that Nigeria has long shined in: music.

Music has obviously always been a part of Nigerian culture, and each tribe has its own traditional style and special instruments. Gongs, flutes, lutes, harps and xylophones are among the instrument types found across Nigeria’s diverse regions. The Muslim north, with its history of emirates*, has a proud trumpeting tradition that began as a way to herald the arrival of an emir. Of course, drums are ubiquitous everywhere. Notably, the Yoruba drummer Babatunde Olatunji gained an international following in the 1960s with his record Drums of Passion, which featured Nigerian drumming mixed with American choral backing.

Most Nigerian music is more influenced by Western music and instrumentation. (Of course, since music in the Americas is heavily derived from African grooves imported with slaves, it’s sort of a loop of influence.) The British brought brass instruments, pianos, and their own drum sets, and trained Nigerians to perform in military bands. This music, along with jazz and Western pop music of the early 1900s, influenced West Africa’s most popular genre in the ’50s and ’60s, “highlife” (so-named because it was mostly enjoyed by people living the high life, that is, the rich). Although born in Ghana, it was popular in Nigeria too.

Although traditionally music in Nigeria was played only on special occasions, like weddings or religious ceremonies, the Nigerians imbibed the British predilection for enjoying music just for its own sake. By the time of independence in 1960, Lagos, had a nightlife scene where the new elite could relax and listen to professional musicians (or dance to them). Since Lagos is in the Yoruba region, that means Yoruba have been disproportionately represented among Nigeria’s musicians. Highlife, on the other hand, is mainly an Igbo thing, which meant it suffered a setback after the civil war but rebounded eventually. Here’s a highlife session by Chief Osita Steven Osadebe from the ’80s.

Apala music arose from the Yoruba Muslim community and was originally played during Ramadan (the Muslim fasting period) as a wake-up call. Most of it is “praise-singing,” or songs dedicated to some great person recently deceased. Haruna Ishola made it popular in the ’60s, but despite its roots in traditional Nigerian music, apala is still popular today — albeit updated with drum machines and rap. Here’s a classic Haruna Ishola track from 1969.

Fuji music is similar to apala, but looser and poppier. It’s also played by Yoruba Muslims but is popular in the north as well. It tends to appeal more to the poor, since all you need is a singer and some percussion. The lyrics tend to be social commentary, but some singers delve into traditional mythology and beliefs. The genre originated with Sikiru Ayinde Barrister in the ’60s, who named it after he saw a poster of Mt. Fuji in an airport. Here’s a sample album from 1988 humbly called Fuji Garbage.

Meanwhile, upper-class Lagos nightlife gravitated more towards juju music. Guitar-heavy and more jazzy, it was originally popularized by I.K. Dairo in the ’60s, who even briefly claimed international fame. Other juju heavyweights include Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, who dropped out in the ’90s to become a pastor, and Shina Peters in the ’80s. Yet the juju giant is King Sunny Ade, who also attained brief international fame in the ’80s when Island Records was looking for the next Bob Marley. The King didn’t have much staying power in the West, and juju is in eclipse today, but it’s still the preferred style of the Nigerian elite and Ade still plays today. Here’s a song from the record that made him famous, Juju Music.

The other Nigerian genre to get international recognition — mostly in Africa, but to some extent in the West as well — is Afrobeat, which is synonymous with Fela Kuti, “the Black President.” A trip to America in the ’60s exposed him to both Black Power and James Brown, and he incorporated funky bass grooves into highlife to create a new, Westernized but very African art form. Although his all-night jam sessions were legendary, Fela’s really most famous for his iconoclasm: in a very conservative country, he married 27 women (defending it as an assertion of traditional African culture) and smoked a lot of pot. Worse (for the government), he blasted Nigeria’s dictatorship, its culture of corruption and military brutality. In a classic example of government not getting the message, it punished him for the inflammatory song “Zombie” by sacking his nightclub/political compound, beating him up and killing his mother. Naturally, this just made Fela more defiant, and increased his stature and fame across Africa. Although he died in 1997, Fela’s legacy continues with his sons Seun and Femi, who still perform at his storied nightclub, the African Shrine. You can get a sense of his rambling invective and distinctive rhythm in the very song that landed him in hot water, which compares Nigerian soldiers to the unthinking undead.

No overview of Nigerian music would be complete without mentioning Prince Nico Mbarga. This guy and his band, Rocafil Jazz, combined highlife with Cameroonian and Congolese influences to create a unique sound that resonated across the African continent. His signature song, “Sweet Mother,” was Africa’s most popular song after its release in 1976 (and remains so) because it’s in English (the most common language across the continent), it combines so many musical styles, and it’s about something everyone can relate to — the self-sacrificing, loving mother.

Reggae is somewhat popular in Nigeria, if somewhat of a niche genre. Majek Fashek (heard below) was a reggae star in the ’90s, but he never achieved lasting popularity. Gospel music is also a major niche, catering to the more religious portions of Nigeria’s Christian half.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Nigerian music tends to be long-winded and pretty mellow. Singers pull a lot of their musical vocabulary from old proverbs, which Yoruba in particular is rich in. Concerts tend to become extended poetry recitals that you can dance to, with music viewed as an altered form of speaking with instrumental accompaniment.

Nonetheless, modern Nigerian music is taking on a somewhat harder edge because of the pressures of modern (especially urban) Nigerian life and the influences of African-American music, which has gotten edgier and more explicit over the last 50 years. Rap has steadily become the most popular genre, and internationally popular rappers like Ludacris and Jay-Z have performed in Nigeria. Lyrics address the daily struggles of slum-dwellers and take a more aggressive tone.

Still, Nigeria stands defiantly apart from American music. Its accent and languages are unique; it still tends to be pretty laid-back and easy-going; and the sound production, despite impressive advances over the decades, remains subpar. There are the occasional singers like Lábájá (“Somebody”; he wears a mask to disguise his true identity at all times and claims to sing for the “faceless masses”) who mash together all the genres I’ve discussed here — juju, highlife, rap, Afrobeat, funk, soul — and create something completely new. It’s an exciting, innovative stew of creativity.

As in other fields, Nigeria is a giant in music. Its music industry now churns out over 550 albums annually, record sales have tripled in the past 5 years and annual live performance revenues are around $105 million. New websites like iROKING make it really easy for anyone with a smartphone to listen to and download the latest hits. Music is deeply embedded in local culture, as in the rest of Africa. Nigerian musicians are attracting attention from richer and more famous American performers.

Whether Nigeria’s distinctive grooves can finally “break out” and attain global popularity, though, is an open question. Olatunji, Dairo, Ade and Fela all came close but never quite hit the big time. Like Nigeria in general, the opportunities and potential are mouth-watering, but it’s uncertain if the industry can take off on a global scale. Africans love dancing along to the latest Nigerian pop hits, but listeners on other continents may not respond as enthusiastically.

If you liked any of the songs I included on this post, please consider supporting the artists that bring this music to you.


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