Nigeria

The Legend of William Onyeabor by Bukky Leo and the Black Egypt

19.03.18 

Jazz Cafe (Camden) 

Bukky Leo and the Black Egypt live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18 .Photo by Sophie Darling. 

Bukky Leo and the Black Egypt live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18 .Photo by Sophie Darling. 

Fred Schmid on baritone sax, entering the stage of Buky Leo and Black Egypt live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18. Photo by Sophie Darling 

Fred Schmid on baritone sax, entering the stage of Buky Leo and Black Egypt live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18. Photo by Sophie Darling 

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Bukky Leo, a renowned saxophonist best known for having played for years in Nigeria, his home country with Afrobeat innovator Fela Kuti after being originally spotted by afrobeats rhythm master Tony Allen. 

In 1982 Bukky came to London where he proceeded to make waves in the beginning of the acid jazz scene. In this era, Bukkys debut album hit no.1 in the rhythm and blue, dance and jazz charts. These days Bukky still tours with the likes of Tony Allen and funk and soul maestro Roy Ayers. As well as this, Bukky now tours around the top jazz venues with the Black Egypt band, an all star afrocentric band playing dedications to some of the greatest afro funk, soul and afrobeat, with such shows previously as Bukky Leo and the Black Egypt present Fela Kuti. 

Now they have come together in this stunning line-up of maestro musicians, with multitudes of recordings behind their names. Starting with the legend himself: Bukky Leo on Lead Vocals/Tenor Saxophone, Yeukai Makoni and Maxyne Ryne on backing vocal, Maurice Brown on Guitars, Kishon Khan on Keyboards and the retro Onyeabor-esc Moog Fender Rhodes, Dennis Davies on Bass, Richard Olatunde Bake on Percussions Congas and backing vocals, and  Saleem Raman on drums. The horn section: Toby Nowell on trumpet, Fred Schmid on baritone saxophone and finally Harry Brown on trumbone.

This time around the talented band are playing a tribute to the late Willam Onyeabor. (1947-2017), specifically they are naming the night: ‘The Legend of William Onyeabor’, obviously correlating to his innovative Nigerian synth based grooves, however I imagine they are referring somewhat also too the fact that the real William Onyeabor is an allusive mysterious man with legendary stories similar to that of Sixto Rodriguez, surrounding the music and fame of Onyeabor.

Up until super recently (perhaps even the changing marker may’ve been his death) if you wanted to buy one of Onyeabors famed nine self released albums between 1977 and 1985 on his personal label ‘Wilfilms’… You would struggle. Big time. The only available package of Onyeabors tunes is a 2013 compilation album released on Luaka Bop records called "Who is William Onyeabor", of which kick started an enigmatic comeback, all whilst existing in an unattainable oblivion. So much so is William Onyeabors life a mystery to all, that infact during the one gig ever organised for the guy… The audience was treated to a life size cut out of Onyeabor, only for the real human to never show! Stuff of legends. 

The musicality part of William Onyeabors legendary status comes from his innovative use of the synthizers. Born in Enugu in Nigeria, locally Onyeabor is supposedly a well known businessman and devote self proclaimed born again Christian. On top of this, he is known by the town as repectfully  “The Chief”. However in all of this, there is nothing to be said for the nine albums he produced, and near to no information on the man himself, other than that he was a man to be feared, with no-one wanting to cross the apparently, bad tempered Onyeabor. Famously Eric Welles-Nyström of Luaka Bop records was quoted to have said that in attempting to meet with Onyeabor to sign the pre-agreed contract allowing Luaka to release a complication of his songs was “one of the toughest ordeals I had ever endured in my life” and thus changed the pre-named “This is William Onyeabor” compilation to the more accurately titled “Who is William Onyeabor?”.

Onyeabors bodacious use of synthesisers was at the time unprecedented in Nigeria, and I’d take a guess in saying over also much of West Africa. Innovating an afro-techno, funk and disco genre with sometimes political lyrics, and sometimes lyrics straight from Onyeabors crazed and mysterious imagination. These synth infested tunes are catchy as hell, and amazingly good fun.

The evening as always at the jazz cafe was lit beautifully, with the seemingly small stage packed with musicians. They played the great works of William Onyeabor with immense skill. Each musician took their turning solo-ing, from beautiful jazzy solos on the sax, to the retro sounding synths on the keys by Kishon Kahn. The horn sections to the backing singers, everything fitted perfectly to William Onyeabors aesthetics. Bukky Leo reminded us of his ferociousness on the saxophone playing intense solos that had the audience gasping for the next notes. The disco drops played perfectly as half the audience danced 80’s disco style, really letting go and moving to the Nigerian beats. The other half of the demographic nodded in appreciation at the musicality of each instruments player.

Bukky Leo Live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18 Photo by Sophie Darling 

Bukky Leo Live at the Jazz Cafe 19.03.18 Photo by Sophie Darling 

The concert was split into two half with a 15 minute interval around 9:40. Upon returning for the second act, the band launched into arguably Onyeabors most popular song ‘Atomic Bomb’, from here on out the dancing flowed and the music grooved.

I particularly loved watching Bukky Leo conduct as band leader on stage, adding to the professionality of the musicians, and the supposed improvisation they were playing live, Bukky could be seen directing each section to start and stop whilst he conducted solos and jammed. 

Ending at a comfortable 11, the evening was a pleasure, it was fun and Bukky Leo and the Black Egypt truly played to perfection the works of William Onyeabor, a mysterious, yet seriously funky synth lover. 

Tony Allen

Tony Allen  @ Village Underground 09.02.18   Photo by Sophie Darling 

Tony Allen

@ Village Underground 09.02.18 

Photo by Sophie Darling 

09.02.18

Village Underground (East) 

Tony Allen and Band   @ Village Underground 09.02.18   Photo by Matt Prev   

Tony Allen and Band 

@ Village Underground 09.02.18 

Photo by Matt Prev

 

Getting off the bus in East London proved to be a freezing cold endeavour. I felt grateful my evening was consisting of standing inside a potentially very hot protected building. I made my way to the Village Underground. 

What is Afrobeat? 

It’s hard to think of genres of music originated from Africa that are well known to the average Westerner much outside of the ‘world music’ boundaries. One stands rather clear however, having been popularised and developed in the late 1970’s, ‘afrobeat’ managed to break through borders and become a well known genre globally outside of it’s insemination in Africa. 

Fela Kuti pioneered afrobeat, having studied music in England and in Africa, he wanted to distinguish the music making from Nigeria where he was from, the beautiful funky soul full music they were making, and point out it’s differences to what was happening in the West at the time, such as the soul music of James Brown.

Mixing jazz and funk with elements of Western African musical styles such as jùjú and highlife, afrobeat really focuses on complex jazz rhythms, over African percussions and famously stunningly long musical interludes showcasing stunning improvisational solo’s from an array of instruments. Noticeable, one would think somewhat immediately off the saxophone as that was Fela Kuti’s primary instrument, as well as being a multi-instrumentalist. 

Tony Allen

Reasons why it is ok to say that Tony Allen is a living legend, a pioneer of music, and a fundamental character in the musical make-up of North West Africa: Tony Allen played on the first 35 studio albums that Fela Kuti and the subsequent ‘Africa 70’ albums produced, therefore Tony Allen played a fundamental and imperative role in shaping the genre of afrobeat. Known globally as if not THE best (Damon Albarn and Brian Eno have said many times he is) drummer on Earth, Tony Allen is said to be able to play different time signatures on each limb. Tony Allen played such complex cross-rythms on Fela Kuti’s recordings that when it came to gigging, no other drummer could replace Tony. They could simple only replicate the music if Tony Allen himself was there. 

Finally it isn’t that Tony Allen played drums FOR Fela Kuti who in turn innovated the genre of afrobeat. The innovation also imperatively lies with Tony Allens rhythms: the propulsive polyrhythms new beats, inspired by the fusion of African musicality, such as the Yoruba religious musical conventions that have been borrowed and adapted, morphed even by Tony. Allen then shaped these new musicalities, moulding a new groove to match what Fela Kuti was creating with his band the Africa 70’, AKA the foundations of a new genre: afrobeat. Therefore Tony Allen surely is one of the only percussionists alive to lay claim to the innovation of an entire rhythm, beat and way of playing the drums that lent itself to the invention of afrobeat as a global, as well as locally, loved genre. 

Furthermore, not only has Tony Allen played on over 35 studio albums with Fela Kuti, he has created 17 personal solo studio albums, a further seven collaborative albums, and featured on endless albums as guest drummer. All together, Tony Allen has featured in one way or another on over seventy five studio albums, now seventy eight years old, Tony has an album for nearly every year of his life. His later material revisiting his earlier jazz routes. ‘The Source’ being his latest release (2017) is  a debut full-length album for Blue Note Records. Claiming that freedom is in full flow, Tony Allen thinks that this new album is his best work as a drummer, free of all limitations, it truly explores the freedom of what it means to be Tony Allen behind a drum kit. 

The Village Underground

The venue as always is a pleasure to go to, set in an old underground station, the bar tucks neatly under an archway, with the cloak room and toilets there immediately as you enter. Then to your left is the large hall with double high arched ceilings, the walls red brick, and the stage at the far end of the arch. The stage was set with a cross of large lights that looked like old airplane fans. In the middle of the stage there stood loud and proud the drum kit of Tony Allen, all spot lights central around this. 

I got myself a drink from the somewhat reasonably priced bar, and waited the evening ahead. The DJ was playing a mix of African high life and disco, all very funky movable songs. The audience filled the floor with casual dancing. 

Around 10pm, the lights went down and the show started. Joining Tony Allen on the stage was a sax player, trumpet, piano (set up with a rowland keys and a full grande piano, an electric guitarists and a stand up bass. Lastly Tony Allen himself comes out looking fresh faced, and energetically ready. He took up spot on the drums and we were away. 

Tony Allen and Band   @ Village Underground 09.02.18   Photo by Sophie Darling 

Tony Allen and Band 

@ Village Underground 09.02.18 

Photo by Sophie Darling 

The rest of the evening consisted of a jazz enthralled journey. Each piece jamming out for long periods of time, each embezzled with jazz solos on the sax and solos on the trumpet, and sometimes solo’s from both in sync. Furthermore, the pianist was a stunner to watch, playing the grande piano with his left hand, keeping the cyclical melodic lines going, whilst simultaneously his right hand solo’s on the keyboard. The stand up bass had solos that were beautiful, funky and encapsulating, as well as the guitarist. Each musician played perfectly, with crips, clear notes, stabbing stops and harmonious harmonies. The music was really of the highest quality. 

The framing for Tony Allens set was perfect, the lighting of the stage set the scene that something special was taking place, with Tony Allen rightfully placed as the central piece in the middle fo the stage, most spot lights highlighting his drumming throughout. Watching Tony Allen drum so freely, so easily and with such complexity was a real treat to any jazz fan. 

The audience swayed along to the jazz the whole evening long. Unable to control themselves when a suggested end fo the show came, the audience demands more more more tunes, and Tony Allen and band accept the offer. Tony Allen, in his 70’s is know for his ferocious playing of the drums, a tiring discipline, only Tony Allen who played with Fela, famous for playing all night long, or for at least 6 hours at a time, can play for hours and hours impeccably. He says he finds it hard to Finnish after only two hours. 

However in the two hours of Tony Allen played drums for myself and a room full of adoring fans in the Village Underground Allen managed to display, and prove why his legacy stands so highly regarded in the world of music. 

For many I think the evening seemed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I certainly felt honoured to have witnessed Tony Allen drumming, the greatest drummer alive, some might say. 

 

Tony Allen  @ Village Underground 09.02.18   Photo by Sophie Darling 

Tony Allen

@ Village Underground 09.02.18 

Photo by Sophie Darling