Picking the Grievous Bones of Disaffection

Every poet is in search of something. This “thing” – sometimes called a poetics – describes the philosophical criteria and aesthetic codes that connect a poet’s discourse to meaning and life. Yeats, in his later years, pursued to track reality and its imperfections; Heaney sought a “clarification of life….a stay against confusion”; and Jay Wright, that impossibly brilliant “black African-American” poet, incessantly distills mythologies of being from metaphysics of identity. For Dami Ajayi, a poet who has invested as much passion and consistency on emotional experiences as on somatic exposures, “affection” – in its vari-bodied manifestation – forms the nucleus of his poetic quest. Whether he is writing about intrigues of love or the entanglements of the sublimely erotic, Ajayi’ style and sensibility reflect in active response to all sorts of romantic stimulus, making his contemplations, in many ways, a quest after what may be called an affective ideal.

In a recent conversation Ajayi describes his motivation as “a re-imagination of affection as a living thing, a moving thing, a verb”. The reader of his two previous collections of poems, Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body is a Country, will no doubt be well familiar with this thematic position. She may also be aware that the poet’s preoccupation with, and persistent articulation of, the shifting terrains of human sensual connections is governed by a certain sense of involvement; that an implacable will to self-disclosure forms the con-text upon which the text of his experiences is exhibited. Ajayi’s style and sensibility provoke rehearsal and performance of self as an article of truth.

One may recall that he once wrote that “my Id is playwright”. For a poet, who is also a practicing psychiatrist, invoking an artistic profile both Freudian and Shakespearean, cannot be considered out of context by any means. And for a poet who stages affective interplays of human (dis)connections around dramatic emotions like desire, affection, love, loss and grief, associating his “Id” – the unconscious part of the psyche, the source of primitive and instinctive impulses and drives– to performance in a book of poems, may be considered a most self-referential act. Thus Ajayi further confesses to practicing his “…male vulnerability on the page as a prelude to living it in person” because, as he sees it, there is a fallacious belief in the society which encourages a dissociation of maleness and romance:

As you know, our ideal of masculinity is that brash macho thing that is as rigid as the muscle in front of your nightclub or worse, an unyielding wall without history or feeling. But I assure you men cry.

The sense of “prelude” to experience that Ajayi mentions appears to be, but cannot be taken, as a priori; for even before the dramatic, confessional strains of Affection and Other Accidents, the poet has been known through previous collections to have consistently centralized himself as the doppelganger in the multilateral spectacles of human emotional and physical entanglements that he presents before us.

Despite all of this, the raw, visceral rendering of his latest collection, Affection and Other Accidents, even to his most perceptive readers, may appear as an audacious testing of the very limits of self-revelation. If the tenacious propensity for immersive self-reflection that seems to form some kind of thematic umbilical cord in Clinical Blues and A Woman’s Body is a Country may be considered some sort of “prelude” to the actual experience for the poet, the unfiltered cogitation in Affection and Other Accidents reads very much like a reel of realism, a posteriori. In Affection and Other Accidents, it seems things have been taken beyond the poet’s familiar acts of self-insertion to the certitude of the confessional, where disclosure and catharsis seem to equate, even if what is brought to light are dark matters of trauma scoured from the rigor mortis of a love effectively immolated.

Affection and Other Accidents is where the poet’s act of “practicing vulnerability” finds a most heightened articulation of love’s complexities and contradictions. We see this in the intensity and intimacy of emotions inclemently laid down on the pages.

The “Introit” sees the poet-persona swearing in a most Nigerian of ways, to bare it all:

Bless up

to the variations of diarrhoea

to which I now say amen

The prose sequence, “Affection and Other Accidents”, whose title names the whole collection is alternatively a stark portrayal, a questioning critique and a mordant post-mortem, of a failed love affair. These passages throb with an autobiographical explosion, oozy with pungent episodes and emotional inquests. They are a woven mesh of anger, loss, sadness and disappointment, moving in episodes, taking the reader through five cities in which the gradual, but foretold, collapse of the love affair between the poet and his lover is enacted. The sense of “complainant” reminds us a little about the figure of what is known in Latin poetry as exclusus amator, the “excluded lover”, bemoaning the fate of devotion gone awry, of affection out of kilter.

The story begins in Lagos, as the soon-to-be estranged lover, on the eve of a departure for a journey, affirms her affection for the complainant:

Then you delivered an intimate speech about us, about getting engaged, about your missing engagement ring, about your unfaltering devotion to me & our aisle-bound affection & somehow, somehow, I found myself again kinking one knee, asking for your hand in marriage again.

But this is neither the first proposal nor the first ring. There had been an unexplained loss of engagement ring which had necessitated the repetitive events and locations of the anxious marriage proposal. The unusual occurrence of multiple proposals, it will turn out, presages an inauspicious love journey whose significance will become legible when the affectionate moments and momentum quickly turn foul and hostile on a train journey in Berlin:

But in that train car, your voice was rising & rising. The other passengers were becoming uncomfortable… One hour into that conversation, sleep-deprived & anxiety-stricken, I began to have a panic attack. My heart pounding against my chest, I wanted to do two things. One was to get off & never see you again. Two was to call my mother & apologise for being rude to her when she began to ask questions about Denmark.

Things hardly fall apart in a sudden heap. In the story, things did not fall apart in a single moment in Berlin or Cologne; the seeds of discord arrive through doubt and suspicion and, tellingly, on the bank of contemporary technology:

You read my private messages to friends & acquaintances, quizzed me about other people’s life choices, sometimes punished me for those choices. There were exes that lingered & loitered, this confirmed your brazing suspicions, even when I said to you that I have shut those doors, you continued to probe & poke old wounds, willing them to bleed.

A mollifying visit to India by the poet, where the lover now resides, proves inadequate band-aid to the already festering gash:

That was why I came to India, to see if there was any love left, anything we could work with to bring our affection back to speed. But it took only days for your hospitality to sour ….On the night before I left, we sat on opposite sides of the soft mattress thrown on the floor & argued about marital roles. We argued bitterly about marital roles. Yet my questions lingered, unanswered.

The resultant emotional unhinging and self-flagellation that follow unanswered questions seem to have been aggravated by the anxieties and discomfort of living in a new country:

I was coming apart. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. I couldn’t find my way around the tubes. I couldn’t understand what this new job entails. At night, I lay in an uncomfortable couch in southeast London, willing sleep to come, watching the ticking clock till dawn.

Passage IV is the most acutely emotional part of the narration. Laden with pathos, the passage describes a moment of personal humiliation arising from the poet’s encounter with the terror of urban living, leading to a dysphoric moment. That moment of vulnerability is further aggravated by the feeling of betrayal and disappointment in a lover whose disturbing distance makes it all lonelier:

I slid & fell on Sunderland Avenue. On the third day of work, I tripped on the underground station & fell. I sat on the floor with my overtly yellow luggage & wept. A grown man shedding tears in the Elephant & Castle underground station. I think you could have done better. Put your five-hour head start in New Delhi to good use. Ask how my day went like lovers do in those songs. I believe these things are real, that people check on their lovers even in long distance relationships.

Well, the lover will come checking on the forlorn poet spelunking in London. But this gesture, as it turns out, embeds autodestructing consideration:

You came to London to apologise without begging—& yet, I chose to accept your apology. I remember that evening in Motel One Berlin, sharing Prosecco & being merry, I knew that our affection sank that night. I remember the afternoon in the train to Cologne, I knew that our affection sank that afternoon.

In some respect, the (dis)entanglement of the lovers demonstrates the embedded contradictions and contingencies of love relation in a globalizing age. The privileges of mobility and technological connectedness proves poor buffer against love’s inherent and active maps of misdirection.

Pride and possibility cohabit uneasily, egos and memories collide in bad cheers; and at the end of the day, things remain firmly unsalvageable, as the “Interlogue 1” attests:

Three years &/four proposals later

we stand annulled/ a premarital divorce.

Passages like this, with their humorous sarcasm, demonstrate the therapeutic function of “Affection and Other Accidents”; wherein the poem is an act of grief-making as much as a cathartic moment. The reader, by the virtue of being within the earshot of the poet’s ruminations, becomes an unwitting therapy groupie.

The poems in the second segment are a familiar Ajayiesque feast, each with its own carnal distinction. There are poems concerning sensual and corporal entanglements of the sexes and there poems detailing the poet’s existential takes on urban living and contemporary human relations, and there are poems that expand on the experience of “Affection and Other Accidents”. Poems like “Queens”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Unreliable Narrator” describe in alluring details the many amorous encounters and trysts doting the experience of the poet’s bachelorhood across world capital cities. “Crucible”, “The Body Knows”, “A Poem for Raliat” and “Cancelling R Kelly” inspect affection in different trajectories. “Cancelling R Kelly”, for instance, uses an erotic setting to discourse the topical but delicate issues of consent, gender activism, justice, ideology and the impact of global movements like “Me Too” and “cancel culture” in interpersonal relations.

You disrupt pleasure to shut off the music. /You will not fuck me to a R. Kelly tune/ I slouch in awe, perplexed & wooden / with desire. I imagine politically correct /ways to put you back into my bed, in zone / to resume our Bump & Grind shenanigans.

Other poems provide more context and commentary on the turbulence of “Affection and other accidents”. “Aubade to my Greying” describes the desperate social circumstance of the bachelor-poet advancing in age: “My mother & her friends haven’t lost hope/prayers & match-making/ winks and wishing but my dreams rest on different pastures”. “Mary’s in India” is a poem contextually resonant but maliciously repurposed. Set after Dido’s song of the same title about a lonely lover, Danny, whose love interest, Mary having gone to live in India, feels abandoned. The song is from the perspective of a new lover who is nursing Danny back to love. Whereas Ajayi’s poem is from the perspective of the poet-complainant, promising the lover that she will get her comeuppance, in so many words, that losing his devotion will always be a permanent error for her, for “the sorrow /of Cupid’s broken arrow” will be eternal reminder that “love also leave scar tissues”.

`“Naked I am before you River Dun” is an interesting poem lifting linguistics and ideas from three poetic sources. There is a blending of the first line of Okigbo’s “Mother Idoto” and Gabriel Okara’s poem “The Call of River Nun” in the title. But the poem also appears to refer to the little “love accident” between the English poet, John Donne and his wife Anne Donne, in its punning game. In the poem he mocks himself as a failed lover: “Naked I am before you River Dun/ A dunce, damned, done”. Then in “A Poem for the Condemned Poet”, the poet-lover is imagined on trial, in the dock where the manacles are “adornments for affection”. But he, again, is scorned and betrayed by the lover:

Do you know this man? /I do not know this poet.

Have you ever seen him? /No, not in this lifetime.

Does he mean anything to you? /Does he mean anything at all?

That last answer may indicate how the poet perceives the lover’s attitude to him.

“Denouement”, modelled after Walcott’s “Love after Love” and dedicated to him, speaks of hope and promise: “A time will come/ when, with a sigh,/ you will exhale”. This dream of respite is anchored on recognition of little pleasures of life, wine, music and food. It is a little surprise, that for once, and for a long distance-running lover, the warmth of a lover’s body, even if for rebound, is expunged from the inventory of convalescence. Because Dami Ajayi is also a music aficionado – who has amassed as much fame in music criticism as he has in poetry – music, in differing instantiations, makes active presence in this book. Some poems like “Youth (after Sunny Ade)”, “Mary’s in India (after Dido)”, “Life Goes down Low (after Lijadu Sisters)”, “Say It(after John Coltrane)” and “In Praise of God’s Stalker (after Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey)” are either set to music of those musicians or presented as homage to ideas from them.

To this writer however, the most successful of Ajayi’s poems are often those that meditate on ordinary things and abstract ideas, those that grapple with existential questions, amplifying the significances of voice-less things. “Covid-19” and “An Ode to a Face Mask” exemplify this tendency. The latter considers the nature and politics of the pandemic, mapping the essential ironies in the geography of rampage:

To think that Rome would be crippled again /with viral load /

& an African sun will scorch viral particles/even in churches.

The tall world order of irony /is in the black body count.

“An Ode to a Face Mask” is especially a more lyrically accomplished poem. The poem meditates on the after-life of a face mask, once crucial to human survival, but now discarded. The dark colour of the mask brings to the mind of the poet, the trampled-upon image of George Floyd, the African-American victim of white police brutality. The poet contemplates the long and painstaking process that brings the mask through usefulness to this sorry state:

How lonely it must be/ velvet-brown,

to journey from a cotton farm/ spin through textile machines,

be woven into fabric/ manhandled by a tailor

for this fate of abandonment.

But life is not fairer to a mask than to a man, the fate of both is similarly uncertain.

In “Acne Vulgaris”, another poem on the life of things, the poet, ever resourceful, manages to find artistic grandeur in blemishes: “Time has made an Enwonwu / of your post-pubertal face”. “Fall” is a really beautiful poem, containing a multitude of influences. The poem uses Yoruba conventional wisdoms to ruminate on the nature of misfortune: “A child falls prone & looks forward, / an adult falls prone & looks backward”. This is a literal translation of the Yoruba axiom, b’omode subu, a wo waju; b’agba subu a weyin wo. But there is also a popular cultural intone in the opening stanza of the poem reminiscent of both Orlando Owoh and Yinka Ayefele, two Yoruba musicians, who have enlarged the Yoruba idea of misfortune-as-falling: “The other day, / a mishap felled me”. Yet you can almost hear a faint influence of Kofi Awoonor’s “For Sika”. Of course, the idea that a fallen man is a friendless man, prone to betrayal and abandonment of kith and kin, is also axiomatic to African imaginary. Thus the poet-victim sings: “I looked at the ones I have loved / & they looked away from me”. The strength of this poem is in the way it conveys cultural atmosphere of elegy, using attributes of oral poetics like repetition and anthropomorphism:

Tell the ground where I fell / that I don’t know why I fell tell the ground that fell me /

that the lesson still eludes me./ This earth, a parch of life form, /has an even temper;/

why has it chosen to mete out anger to me? /This earth is a patch of life form /

with an even temper/ why has it chosen me for an example?

While it can be reasonably argued that the amorous poems (or “Ashawo poetry” as the poet himself refers to them) have formed some kind of psycho-sensual unconscious in Ajayi’s poetry, remarking him as a poet of epicurean recognitions – a Neruda without the revolutionary stance, so to speak– the poems about existential concerns and urban living show a poet well attuned to the changing dimensions of contemporary life.

An early review of Affection and Other Accidents has duly taken note of Ajayi’s radical experiment with form in the first segment of the text in ways that subvert both the lyrical form and the structural conventions of prose-poem. Indeed, without the qualification of his stylistic choice, the poet seems to leave us with a text that seems nebulously formed– being neither a poem nor a prose-poem. But in fairness to the poet, one can see how technically difficult it would have been to freight such a boundless weight of emotions, as portrayed “Affection and Other Accidents” , through conventional verse structure or the lapidary exigencies of the prose poem. The consolation is that what the piece lacks in lyrical constitution it makes up in arresting dramatic and rhetorical performances. “Affection and Other Accidents” explores the possibility of subversion inherent in all genres, and by so doing stands a genre of, and in, itself. Interestingly also, as a discourse of a lover’s grievance, it inter-textually recalls the affect of Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Ocol, albeit without Lawino’s first salvo.

Retro Review: Mr Eazi’s Life is Eazi: Accra to Lagos

I know Nigerian music lovers yet to forgive Mr Eazi for his tweet about Ghana’s influence over Nigerian music. Prior to this tweet, Mr Eazi’s PR was so top-notch you will think he stole a checklist from a veteran’s manual. The man arrived in style with his own slang—Zagadat! — and sartorial ensemble capped with the unlikely raffia hat. And his sound, syrupy and psychedelic, is almost something new. After a few listens, I concluded that he had run with the gems in the music of Black Magic and Burna Boy. Summarily, the phenomenon of Mr Eazi has left his industry mates uneasy till that Freudian slip.

It is confounding that Mr Eazi chose to call his first major release a mix-tape. At 14 tracks lasting over forty-eight minutes, this piece enjoys a powerful assemblage of the best producers working in Nigeria. If categorizing ‘Life is Eazi’ as a mixtape is infantile, then sub-titling it ‘Accra to Lagos’ is genius.

Of course Accra to Lagos is the destination route of many aircrafts in West Africa including that which must have brought Mr Eazi back after his years of sojourn in Ghana. He left Nigeria as a young school leaver and returned as a Mechanical Engineer graduate who happens to sing. Talent over academic territory notwithstanding, what Eazi consciously did by calling this mixtape, Accra to Lagos, was to announce an invasion. Accra to Lagos is the itinerant direction of Ghanaian cultural exports en route global fame.  After Fuse ODG’s ‘Azonto’ arrived in Lagos, after a short layover, it boarded a plane to the rest of the world, to global fame ferried by our Wizkid.

This album skips most of the 2016 songs that brought Mr Eazi to limelight. The only song missed by this reviewer is ‘Skintight’ which may have been a nice fit for the fabric of this album. The album begins with ‘Leg Over’, a soccer metaphor and gambit produced by E-Kelly. This song begins a mid-tempo routine that has become customary of Mr Eazi’s sound. Expectedly, there are featured Ghanaian acts like Medikal who was competent on ‘Tilapia’ and Mugeez, one half of R2Bees, who was average on ‘Business’. The album begins to crystallize around the Masterkraft produced ‘2 People’, a paean and quasi modern fairy-tale song to a beautiful girl and her reflection in the mirror.

The Del B produced ‘Fight’ features D.J Cuppy’s voice in its opening skits and dashes the hope of Sean Tizzle’s fans hoping for a singing duet. On the eponymous ‘Accra to Lagos’, Mr Eazi addresses his uneasy struggle to stardom. ‘Detty Yasef’ features the humorous Falz and describes a nagging tendency amongst sexually liberated folks who also experiment with drugs.

If there is a musician who best embodies the sexual depravity and drug-seeking behavior of the Nigerian Millenials, it will be Mr Eazi. Mr Eazi’s music is the soundtrack to the lives of a horde of young middle-class, elitist, private-school educated, weed-loving, rophynol-popping and casual sex-indulging Nigerians. With his lean frame and beguiling looks, he might as well be the poster boy of the gap year shenanigans.

‘In the Morning’ produced by Legendury Beatz duo is a masterful sonic production even if Big Lean and Eazi drop the ball. Tekno stars as Tekno on the ordinary ‘Short Skirt’, a Maleek Berry production. Masterkraft returns much later in the album with a palm-wine number, ‘Life is Eazi’ featuring Olamide and Phyno. If this song reminds one of the ghetto gospel of ‘Fada Fada’, ‘My Baby’ produced by Kukbeat is an unforgivable rip-off of the same song.

The bonus tracks barring ‘Right Now’ are bogus but at this point, the mixtape has made its point. Any decent listener is convinced that there are still more singles from the recesses of Mr Eazi’s Ghana-Must-Go coloured agbada. Eazi who clinched the coveted Headies 2016 award for Next Rated Award has already pointed us in the direction of his trajectory: from Accra to Lagos, from singles to mixtape. The Long Playing album is probably in the offing. This  is easily one musician we will hear from for a long time.


Album Review: Show Dem Camp’s Palmwine Music Vol. 1

Show Dem Camp, the rappers, duo of Tec and Ghost, dropped their biggest hit till date, Feel Alright, in 2013. Produced by Ghanaian soundsmith, Juls, Feel Alright was an exceptional throwback song with sensual lyrics and prominent guitar picks. Genre-wise, it was doing something different: straddling sounds and generations, bringing the happy vibe of Palmwine Highlife sound with the insouciant and improvisational nature of hip-hop.

Fast forward to mid-2017 and it is surprising that SDC announced the release date of yet another project, Palmwine Music Vol 1. Their diehard fans haven’t had enough of the VOL 3 of Clone Wars dropped on the last day of last year and yet, new music has been earmarked for the radio waves.

Palmwine Music Vol 1 is an Extended Play album of seven tracks (six songs and one skit)  produced entirely by Spax and featuring  Funbi, AjeButter 2.0, Odunsi The Engine, LadiPoe, Tomi Thomas and BOJ.  BOJ does the hook on two songs, ‘Compose’ and ‘Popping Again’, the only crooner on two songs, perhaps because his chemistry with SDC has been tested and trusted since Feel Alright.

At 23 minutes, Palmwine Music is a sonic teaser, hardly lasting long enough for you to form impression. But, then again, letting music playing undisturbed for the EP’s duration means it must be some ear candy.

Palmwine Music is not entirely a new innovation. It derives a lot of its texture from palmwine highlife, a variant of highlife popular in many West African coastal towns and cities where the guitar leads the music. This kind of music is remarkable for its low to mid-tempo, positive vibes and soothing pleasure. Even Fela, a lover of brass, indulged in some Palmwine Highlife, recorded at about the peak of his career.

SDC’s Palmwine Music borrows from this Palmwine Highlife tendency. It presents itself as a coastal city easy-listening contemporary album. Imagine a sound that tries to be a sponge soaking a megacity’s stress, that lures your attention to details antithetical to stress. These details should go without saying but here is a small inventory: party, booze, beach sand, horizons, coastline, beautiful and full-bodied women and, most importantly, love and lust. SDC’s recipe comprises of catchy hooks, digital sonic production laced with exciting live instrumentation and delightful rap.

The Funbi assisted on ‘Up 2 U’ is reminiscent of Wizkid’s On Top Your Matter and SDC’s Feel Alright. Feel Alright still remains the prototype song for Palmwine Music, so that almost every song on this project is influenced by it.

It is noteworthy that every song features a crooner or two. The duo of Tec and Ghost are perhaps too hardcore to sing Palmwine hooks, hence the album has a more collaborative feel. BOJ delivers on ‘Compose’ and ‘Popping Again’ even if ‘Compose’ is magical for only it Afrobeat ambitions. On ‘She Wants More’, the status quo of evenly matched duo is upset when Ghost drops a quartet of complex rhymes. That this album is made for easy listening doesn’t mean these rappers intended to drop the ball. A serious attitude pervades the entire album and their rhymes might be a tad too heavy for feel-good music. Or perhaps we have been spoilt by Nigerian standards.

It has been seven years plus of meaningful music from the Show Dem Camp duo. Their sound and expressions draws so much from our Lagos realities and even more, gives us our realities back as mastered copies.

There is however the trivial matter of how this sound seems suited for the bourgeois, swanky, upwardly-mobile, well-adjusted, cosmopolitan Nigerian. But, in its defense, sound is not, and cannot, be exclusive; it is free in the air.

You now rocking with SDC…and if you don’t know the response to this call, you may be wrong




Album Review: On Falz’s Third LP Album, 27

On October 27, 2017, Falz clocked 27 and he celebrated his new age by dropping an album called 27. Dropping a surprise album will always be cool. It is a pity Beyoncé already immortalised this practice by lending it her name for our times.

At 17 songs (2 bonus tracks included) lasting two minutes shy of an hour, Falz put himself out on his B-Day to borrow from American Rapper Wayne’s rhymes. With Sess the Problem Kid producing 65 percent of the new album and cameo productions credits from Demsa, Studio Magic, Spax, Juls and Malik Berry, the 27 album could have bene numerically apt with 27 songs. Perhaps this will be a stretch on Falz’s concept, but no matter, 17 songs will do.

27 has the self-assuredness of a third album. Beginning with Polished, Falz adds the British accent to his arsenal of humour. His verses are the exact opposite of self-effacing. He brags about his sophistication with a promise. This song is not Kabiyesi, it is only a few paces behind it.

La Fête continues Falz’s linguistic exploitations with his florid attempt at French. At this point, it is clear Falz is having the time of his life on this album but his music isn’t. His music seems to have hit a plateau since Stories That Touch, coasting smoothly at a rather lazy pace.

Perhaps a better analogy will be to say Falz has found the perfect cocktail mix. Add Humour to real life events. Check for political correctness. Code-mix slowly. Switch if necessary. Check Sess. Wham! Music is ready.

There is a niggling itch that this album comes from a place of complacency, not compulsion. There are moments of elegance here, trust me. Every so often, Falz doles some decent couplets that quickly follow a few laugh out loud moments. Songs like Something Light (the amazing rap duet with Ycee), The Lamba Song and Get Me stand out. Surprisingly, disappointing moments are few. What abounds are moments of disapproval.

Burna Boy couldn’t save Alright. Cliché couldn’t save Child of the World. It is nice to see Sir Dauda (remember him from Aramide’s Suitcase?) assisting on two songs Boogie and Confirm but these songs move the zeitgeist sideways, not forward. And, for the umpteenth time, Falz insists on his two-ness: his ability to flow in English and Yoruba like it is some kind of lofty accomplishment.

No, sir. Proficiency in Yoruba and English has been with us since Bishop Ajayi Crowther.

Falz hardly calls himself the Bahd guy anymore but he has neither lost his lens-less eyeglasses or humour. Full marks for timely arrival, 27 is a long time coming since Stories That Touch (released 2015) but STT is a tough act to beat. That album belongs in the realm of classic sophomores. With the daring and dumbfounding energy of a panther, this LP leapt on us and we have memories of songs like Karashika (part 1 and 2), Chardonnay Music and the elegant zeitgeist-defining Soft Work.

Every creative has got a story and Falz can’t deny his middle-class upbringing. There are no struggle stories to embrace. Instead, there are stories about dualities. English and Yoruba. Lawyer and Rapper. Player and Lover. Good Kid and Street Smarts. But three albums later, these stories hardly touch.

On Sauti Sol’s Sultry Soul: Review of Live and Die in Afrika

Foreword: This was written before Wakanda became mainstream.

Kenyan music, and perhaps the entire oeuvre of East Africans, is not much popular in Nigeria but if there is interest, there is internet. For those who have visited East Africa, they swear that you will hear Wizkid screaming “your bom bom is bigger than Bombay” in the wee hours of a Friday night in Kampala. I have witnessed, in a club at Westlands, how Nigerian contemporary music is the life of the party once the club moves from the lounging mood of American Hip-Hop/Urban hits to the mood of energetic African grooves.

The evening I chose to describe, sometime in September 2015, ended with catching a glimpse of a certain Kenyan male band climbing into a SUV amid a slight pandemonium of friends and fans and paparazzi famzing. No, I am not talking about Just a Band. I mean Sauti Sol.

Sauti Sol is the Kenyan Afropop band of vocalists—Bien-Aimé Baraza, Willis Chimano and Savara Mudigi—and guitarist, Polycarp Otieno with three albums under their belts. The most recent is their self-produced Live and Die in Afrika released first for limited pre-Xmas free downloads.

To find an overarching theme for their albums, is not the forte of contemporary African musicians but I find the title of this album compelling. Live and Die in Afrika. And it is not just the live and die part—which I wholly subscribe to—it is the stylized spelling of Afrika (spelt with a K). This statement is best made with the album jacket presenting the band members as subjects in different styles of African attire that brings the model African country of Hollywood, Zamunda, to mind. On the fifteen track album, the title song exists in its own class, melding influences from African as well as Indian rhythms to the song version of a utopian Pan-African philosophy.

Other songs are best grouped as love songs and non-love songs, of course with the caveat that some non-love songs are still about women. Male bands from The Temptations all the way down to (forgive my choice, please) P-Square are obsessed with the opposite sex and rightly so.

Now, first, to the Swahili songs, because they say music is a universal language. There is a visceral response to Sauti Sol’s music to the non-Swahali speaker. Nipe Nikupe with its blend of electronic tendencies with makossa/rumba rhythms is made for dance. Ditto for Sura Yako, with its seemingly alternative gospel feel. Nishike, Nerea and, of course, Kuliko Jana (featuring Aaron Rimbui) are ballads that seem to detail longing (sexual or spiritual) and misery that pokes at the soul.

The beauty of a good album is that it strives to take a listener through different moods with different songs appealing to different situations. On this count, Sauti Soul is guilty, especially appealing to an audience that came of age at the time hip-hop was transitioning into global phenomenon and contemporary African rhythms began to flirt with jazz. The effect of this watershed was cacophonous and ambiguous and Sauti Sol seems to be its poster children.

Their music is extensively derivative, layered and carrying with it influences from urban Nairobi, bollywood, electronic music, jazz, Pan-Africanist philosophy, songs from apartheid South Africa all the way down to DruHill’s Sisqo octaves.

To listen to Live & Die in Afrika goes beyond finding respite and relevance in contemporary African music, it also means to experience Nairobi where kept women like the crisp feel of dead American statesmen on the dollar bill (listen to Dollar Dollar), where you can jump to Sambo Party without a care in the world.

And of course, no description of their music must spare the way the strings weave into the core of the music (all hail Polycarp Otieno!). Sauti Sol departs from similarities with other bands, especially those based in Nigeria, in their dexterity with actual musical instruments besides the voice. There is a strong sense of understanding music in their work ethics or how else can one explain fusing Spanish influences with the hugely successful clap rhythms of Lumidee’s Never Leave You to make a song, Shake Yo Bam Bam, for shaking Bantu backsides?

I recommend that every Nigerian listener listen to Live & Die in Afrika at least once.

On Olamide’s Lagos Nawa

Half way into Lagos Nawa, Olamide’s seventh album, he asserts that he owns Tungba after first insisting that Sunny (that is King Sunny Ade) owes the guitar, on the hook of Saysaymaley. First reaction is to ask how the Ibadan-based Yinka Aiyefele feels about this spurious claim. Second reaction is to warn Hiphop and Rap heads who had lofty expectation of great couplets in Yoruba; Baddo has disappointed us yet again with another commercial break from rap.

The last break he took was about two years when he spun the yarn of his 21-track Eyan Mayweather, his fifth album, which featured no other musician and sported an exciting eponymous opening track where he rapped eloquently the way a pugilist slams into an opponent.

Two years later, Lagos Nawa, drops into our lap customarily in November, presumably to usher us into the new year. Lagos Nawa has similarities with Eyan Mayweather that makes for interesting comparisons. Subtitled Wobey Sound, Lagos Nawa dignifies a sound that Olamide has been pushing all year long, his attempt to characterize his music when he is not spewing rap verses. In the wake of this new wave of taxonomy in the music industry, perhaps Olamide feels threatened to clarify his sound as different from the dominant Pon Pon sound.

Wobey Sound is mid-tempo, percussive and leans into Fuji with a characteristic lilt while Pon Pon is heavily percussive with complex rhythms and sparse to gibberish to non-existent lyrics. The difference and distance between both sounds might be more imagined than real but naming sounds, for the purpose of this review, is an entirely political conversation.

At 17 tracks, Lagos Nawa is four tracks short of Eyan Mayweather. Entirely produced by Young John (except Shine produced by Olamide Baddo himself), this album plays the role of pitching Olamide’s two favourite producers against each other. Recall that Pheelz produced 16 out of 21 tracks on Eyan Mayweather.  Two years later, Lagos Nawa and Eyan Mayweather has got Young John and Pheelz in an acoustic duel of sort.

The sands of time favour Young John. Olamide has been making Wobey Sound for over 2 years. Lagos Nawa also enjoys the contributions of a retinue of featured artists like Reminisce, Tiwa Savage, Timaya and Phyno when compared to Eyan Mayweather where Olamide distinctively stands alone. Expectedly, technology for making sounds has also improved.

In spite of this skew, Eyan Mayweather seems to be a more enjoyable album. Lagos Nawa, once rid of its novelty, finds its level in Olamide’s discography, down beside the debut Rap Sodi and the misogynistic Street OT.

Of course, there are moments of brilliance. Songs like Yagaga, Radio Lagos and Oro Pawpaw stand out for tenderness, sarcasm and praise-singing respectively. A fair number of the tracks simply ply the role of fillers. This is typical of every Olamide album expect The Glory which was unusually lean and tightly woven together.

It is noteworthy to reflect on the loss of chemistry between Phyno and Olamide. The liquid gold of their alliance in the earlier years has fizzled into a husk this year. It is difficult to reconcile that synergy that birthed songs like Ghostmode and Father Father has petered out into the realm of tepid keggite songs like On a Must Buzz.

 Fine Fine Girl is a dwarf where Standing Ovation towers above average. It is also sad that Olamide couldn’t remake magic with Ms. Tiwa Savage. The album ends with Wo Spiritual, on an anticlimactic note. Invariably, a slower iteration of the hugely successful Wo! leaves the average Olamide fan wishing for more.


On Somi’s Petite Afrique

The last time we heard from Somi, she had released an entire LP album about Lagos, her fifth. Called The Lagos Music Salon, it energised Lagos in unimaginable ways, giving us the most resplendent and contemporary outsider reflection of the acoustic salad that makes up that coastal West African Megacity.

Somi is back. This time she hits closer home. Even though she is African (of both Rwandan and Ugandan descent), she spent her formative years in America and currently lives in New York. She calls her latest body of work, ‘Petite Afrique’, a sonic exploration of Harlem, a place inhabited by Africans and African-Americans alike.

Somi’s diasporan texture feeds back on her music. There is a somewhat outward gaze with which she perceives things both within and without the African continent. Her choice of Jazz also endows her with an exploratory tool. If Jazz music is a refined African export forged in America, Somi’s charge is to dislocate and relocate it within the continent in both a physical and metaphorical sense.

‘Petite Afrique’ begins like ‘The Lagos Music Saloon’. She transports herself to an entry point, documenting the exact instance of her immersion that begins with arrival and greetings. ‘Disappearing Act 1’ is to ‘Petite Afrique’ what “First Kiss: Eko Oni Baje’ is to ‘The Lagos Music Saloon’.

To the business of the album, 14 songs suffice to tell the story of an African community within foreign grounds. Petite Afrique easily translates from French into ‘Little Africa’ and the rendering of the fate of such a society must embrace both highs and lows. 

Somi is unabashed in her exploring both. Her music serves to stir, turn and energise these experiences. Her mode is to string her vocals with a pastiche of borrowed sounds; Somi seeks to speak for Africa. The Aloe Blacc assisted ‘The Gentry’ is jazzy and confrontational. The song begin whensomeone says in a clear American accent, “Look what they’ve done to Harlem” and the instrumental segues in like a thrilling big band sound, emphatically high-tempo because this song is part protest, part promenade, part persuasion and part prescription. At the end of this cabaret-styled duet, the music is stripped to mere acoustics. The clap of the African conga drums outlives every other sound, ending this genuine and ingenious protest.

There are low moments as expected of an album exploring the migrant experience (Alien). There are moments of stubborn assertiveness (Let Me) but most abundantly, there are moments of feminist convictions. On ‘Blue’, Somi is running a commentary deeper than hue. She is inciting and reciting, using Jazz as a medium and energizing its iterations for what some may call a greater good.

What it means to be African-American is within the purview of black writers from Frederick Douglass through James Baldwin all the way to Ta-Nehisi Coates. But what it means to be African in America is a more urgent and visceral question that Somi seeks to answer. I imagine that Teju Cole, Emmanuel Iduma, Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Frankie Edozien, Maaza Mengiste are a biased sample of a larger population that Somi also speaks for.

 I doubt if Somi’s music has ever been this political. Not in that overt militant sense but the time dictates the need for socially conscious music especially in the wake of xenophobia, terrorism and gentrification. Somi’s music is arranged so that aspects of her vocals—prosody, inflection and cadence—become the window through which she ferries her consideration.

The interlude ‘Go Back to Your Country’ presumably features Somi listening to an elderly male émigré reflecting on how Harlem has changed over the years especially from being a black-dominated area to a place of diversity. Conclusively, they agree that Africans changed Harlem. Perhaps the depth of this summation runs deeper than Somi’s inquiry.

I wonder if the anthropological importance of Somi’s project does not override her charge to make sublime music. It seems like a steep balance to maintain, but Somi tips more often to the good side. This is not just music for the sake of clear vocals and sonorous singing. This is fifty two or so minutes of Jazz music that carries the trials, memories and testimony of a people; in Somi’s own words, ‘the skin and bone and hide.’


This Is Me: Niniola Excites with Her Afro-House Music

It has been four years since Niniola graced the reality show Project Fame and stepped into our living room and lives with the fantastic facility of her vocal cords. The journey has not been smooth and the connection between reality talent shows and reality itself is still staggering. No matter, Niniola is one of those golden voices that shine when they want to shine.

The build-up to the album has been measured, if not gradual. It did not begin in 2017. Niniola has been gracing the stage and doing energetic live music performances for some time now. She appeared at Freedom Park where Afropolitan Vibes, the former monthly but now quarterly live music concert used to hold. She was one of the few musicians who participated at King Sunny Ade’s grand 70th birthday concert December last year. In fact, she covered, rather competently, Sokoyokoto from his 1987 Jealousy album.

Fast forward one year and Niniola’s debut, This is me, falls upon us. The well-meaning but weak album title notwithstanding, one must note that the year has had lines falling in pleasant places for the diva. Like Simisola, who hails from Ondo state, Niniola also belongs to the crop of creatives who waded their way into Lagos by their heels from the hinterland. Full Name Niniola Apata is a proud indigene of Ado Ekiti which she definitely claims in the hook of Gbohun, mid-way into her album.

15 minutes short of one hour, This is me does not only feature Niniola’s vocals. She gets assists from four male musicians: Nigerian Neo-Apala Prince Terry Apala on Bale, Ugandan-based Congolese Charmant Mushaga on the Makossa-inflected Cabaret-styled Always Here, Jamaican superstar Devin Di Dakta on the dancehall-tinged You and Nigerian Patoranking on the mid-tempo sultry Hold Me.

The tracks exclusively featuring Niniola’s vocals are better realised but it is difficult to dismiss the retro and stylish nature of the gem Always Here and Terry Apala’s matchless verse on Bale. Niniola comes across strong on almost every track on the album. The album is lean and limber. It is Niniola wielding her vocal cords and staking her claim to the great Nigerian diva title.

This album courts the popular. It signposts popular trends with nods every so often but many times the music deviates away from the popular to situate itself in its niche. Niniola is unapologetically a House Musician even if she ever so lightly crosses the Rubicon into what is popular. Innovative is her ability to couch her lyrics in mellifluous Yoruba and to code-switch as often as her material demands.

In Oyin, she uses a Yoruba proverb as scaffolding to describe forlorn love. Dola is hippy and energetic spotting a simple Yoruba hook. Niniola sings more in Yoruba than she does in English and doing House music in this manner is exciting for the zeitgeist. By the time the album spools to the previously released single Maradona, which chronicles the desecration of a woman by a Lothario, the listeners would have let his/her guard down, to let the repetitive and recurring percussion and rhythms of Niniola’s self-branded Afro-House perform an incursion on their body.

You may catch Easy-sque inflections on the mid-tempo Sicker. We already know how sickness became a place-holding metaphor for ‘Wokeness’ a few years ago. This is me is that album that will pervade the house music scene. Imagine: Niniola’s music and strobe lights and cocktails and bodies willed to methodical movement. This is me already sounds like the real deal.

Quite exciting is how Niniola has been able to touch all cardinal points of her experiences as a woman, Yoruba and her cosmopolitan appeal. Of course, she got help from a slew of music producers—like Sarz, Raheem Bale, Natialo and Legendary Beatz amongst others—but the delight of her music is how she enunciates her lyrics and bends them around the thumping beat.

This is Niniola’s first and hopefully the delightful sound of what we should expect for the entire span of a prodigious career.

Simisola, The Chanteuse from Ondo Town

There is the coming-of-age album and there is the coming-to-stay album. Usually, there is an interregnum between the two, a time of experimentation and quiet transition. For Simisola Ogunleye, the Chanteuse from Ondo Town, this period was more experimental than silent.

Her coming of age album, Ogaju, a 10 track gospel album released in 2006, was produced by Samklef. Those in the know will remember Ara Ile, that delightful Funky Yoruba Gospel Song of divine adulation on heavy rotation on the makeshift campus fellowships. Those who had been converted to the discipline of listening to Nigerian sounds will, at least, remember her sophomore effort, a five track EP album Restless, best described these days as an Alternative Music Mixtape.

Between Restless, in 2012 and now, to state the obvious, five years and Chemistry, a duet album with rapper Falz has passed. Simi has moved from been an indie musician to inking a record label deal. Her silky voice has become an unmistakable household fixture in Nigerian Music.

At that core of her musicianship is a dedication to her sound and craft, to message and meaning. She embodies that Nigerian experience, especially that of the South-Western region in her ability to code-switch and energize her lyrics with Naijaspeak, harmonies and comical asides.

Simisola, her album named for herself, dropped without much warning, out of the proverbial blues, and this did not make it any less anticipated. Before its final arrival, there has been a steady stream of singles that led to its first official single, Joromi.

Joromi sounds familiar ewithout a first listen. Sir Victor Uwaifo had a 70s hits with the same name that will still sway a middle-aged crowd till date, but naming is almost where similarities with Simi’s song ends. There are no fairy tales here, and even if there is, it is a modern one: Girl meets Boy, Joromi, and is attracted. She is giving him her phone digits and instructing him to call. The song is a melodious call and response girded by a strong sense of guitars, a subtle tribute to Uwaifo’s Joromi is craftily hidden. This song updates musical influences from the 70s of Fela through the delightful languid Lagos of Lagbaja to the current contemporary wave of hip-hop fusion.

Simisola has 12 new songs with the usual bonus of previous hits, Love don’t care, Tiff and Jamb Question. It misses E No Go Funny which probably belongs on this LP. Lasting about 53 minutes, this album reflects on familiar experiences and wears Simi’s musical influences rather proudly.

Remind me, the first song, is a reflective song yoked around the Christianly maxim, ‘Love your neigbour as yourself’. Of course, Simi undertakes a loose interpretation of neigbour, subtly offering a didactic proposition to her listeners. She quickly skips to the delightful Joromi and Aimako, a remake of Chief Commander Obey’s evergreen song.

The similarities between Simisola and Adekunle Gold’s self-titled album are unmistakable. They have 15 tracks each. They are both self-titled. Both albums feature one artist, Simi in Adekunle Gold’s case and vice versa. Oscar’s production credit is unmistakable. Ditto for the alchemy of the sound and the entire album’s creative direction. Here is music that is deeply Nigerian from mannerisms to modulations.

This album hardly strays away from love: from forlorn love (Complete me), to titillating forbidden love (One Kain) to the afrobeat-tinged unpretentious and uncompromising love (Original love) to apologetic love (Take Me Back, a duet with Adekunle Gold) to dance-hall raga inflected long-suffered and tired love (Angelina).

Simisola revolves around all the dimensions of love coming full circle and the affection with which she sings theses love scenarios is heart-rending. The music also rises to the occasion, breathing delightful rhythms to the real-life situation lovers undergo.

Whenever the album strays away from love, it embodies Yoruba value and virtues. Aimasiko stands out for its exciting use of the talking drum. This song updates juju music, capitalising on nostalgia and giving it full-bodied rhythm and relevance.

Trust Simi to poke fun at the vivacity of the Yorubas. O wa nbe used to be a more nuanced conversation about waist beads and crisp notes, but these days it only marks party presence. Regardless of Simi’s mockery, the good old Yoruba party will be alright.

The album is not without flaws.  With the mid-tempo heavily percussive HipHop Hurray, the album hits a kind of nadir. It is saved from ending in an anti-climax by bonus tracks.

With Simisola, Simi has come to stay, to state the obvious again. She brings along with her an arsenal of vocal range that can hop from a love ballad to a highlife medley. If there is any vocal powerhouse that Simi can be compared to, it will be the Ego of the Lagbaja fame.

In conclusion, to merge nurture with nature, there must be something in the water at Ondo Town.