The emergence of psych rock in Nigeria had less to do with mind-altering drugs and more to do with mind-altering circumstances. The country had been independent for only six years when, on Jan. 15, 1966, soldiers led by Majors Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna staged a coup and killed 22 top government officials. There was a countercoup led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammed and other officers from the north in July of the same year. Then things fell apart.
Members of the Igbo, a minority ethnic group, were targeted in pogroms led by the Nigerian army: houses attacked and burnt, people murdered. Millions of Igbo people fled from every part of the country to the group’s homeland in the east. The eastern Igbo-majority states eventually seceded, sparking the Biafran war, which lasted from 1967 to 1970.
The soundtrack of West Africa’s independence struggle was highlife, a syncretic mix of big band jazz and indigenous musical forms and languages. The music, played in nightclubs and hotel ballrooms, captured the excitement and aspirations of the masses as never before. But the military state–imposed curfews, ethnic violence, and subsequent war delivered the coup de grace to the genre, as musicians of Igbo extraction or from states in the east and midwest fled for fear of victimization. Some highlife musicians from were conscripted into both armies; they were the lucky ones: They entertained rather than fought.
The devastation wreaked in the east by warfare and a blockade imposed by the Nigerian government led to utter ruin. An estimated 1 million Igbo died during the conflict.
As it sometimes happens, the country experienced an explosion of youth culture—particularly in the eastern states—parallel to its humanitarian catastrophe. Afro psych rock emerged during the Biafran war.
“Highlife was old, and the youth plugged into rock and soul music from the north, south, east, and west. The east had more bands, but in the early ’70s rock was big everywhere,” says Tino Martins, rock guitarist of the groups MonoMono and C.S. Crew.
The tremors of the British Invasion and Beatlemania were felt in Nigeria. Many bands formed in the early ’60s mimicked the classic British setup of guitar, bass, and drums. The Junkers, the Hykkers, the Merchants, the Spiders, the Clusters, Soul Assembly: Most played more soul music than rock-and-roll, a la Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, and James Brown. Some, like the Lagos-based Hykkers, played more rock than funk and were very popular.
During the Biafran war, the Igbo musicians who fled east continued where they had left off. The rock-and-rollers like the Hykkers, the Wings, and Aktion 13 continued to rock-and-roll. The soul boys like the Hygrades continued their experimentations with James Brown. “Music was our way to avoid getting involved in the war. We were lucky enough to provide entertainment for the soldiers and civilians—that kept us out of action. I lost cousins and uncles, though,” says Berkley “Ike“ Jones, a guitarist and founding member of the rock group Blo.
“The most in-demand players of the postwar era—Jake, Jerry, Berkley, Feladey, Mike Kollins … were brought to Lagos from the ashes of Biafran bands. Of course, the Biafrans were probably less ‘exposed’ than Lagos kids. … Having spent three years in a blockaded combat zone, they didn’t have as much access to all the latest records and styles. This contributed to their rougher and heavier sound,” says Uchenna Ikonne, cultural historian and author.
Here is a rundown of the songs you must listen to and the history of groups you should know if you want to get into Afro psych rock.
Ofo and the Black Company was formed in Ibadan, a city in western Nigeria, which was a hotbed of music innovation. Their performances were epic theatrical displays of Afro-tinged psychedelic rock and showmanship. Decca (West Africa Recordings) signed the group to its freshly launched imprint, Afrodisia, a label aimed at the emerging youth market.
“Ofo and the Black Company delivered on the hype with their first single, ‘Allah Wakbarr,’ a screaming, proto-metal orgy of ecstasy exploding around the traditional Islamic exhortation of the Creator’s greatness. ‘Allah Wakbarr’ was …. changed the direction of popular music in the sense that Decca started looking for and signing other bands that could reproduce that sound,” says Ikonne.
Dele Olaseinde, a guitarist who joined Ofo and the Black Company later, recalls the group’s debut at the New Afrika Shrine in 1970. “They came out like shamen or masquerades chanting in Igbo and playing percussion instruments, dancing around the stage with makeup. Then Larry [Ifedioranma] got on the drums and Popo Kamson picked up his guitar, and they started rocking the whole place silly, creating heavy sounds that knocked everyone into space. Everyone that witnessed that show agrees that it was probably the most unique show they ever witnessed.”
Ofo and the Black Company were very psychedelic in both attire and sound and on the heavier end of the rock spectrum. They also did not shy away from dissonance. Their psychedelia came from Ifedioranma’s interest in different forms of spiritual and religious forms. This paved the way for other musicians (Joni Haastrup’s MonoMono, Shadow Abraham, the Identicals, Prince Twins Seven-Seven) to explore and channel traditional spirituality in popular music. The trippy quality of some Afro rock is due to an Afro-spiritual vibe, not copious drug use, as some scholars have argued.
The Hykkers, a Lagos-based group of teenage rockers, were one of the foremost rock groups before the war broke out, according to Olaseinde. When the conflict erupted, most of the group headed to the east, and the Biafran military leaders channeled the band’s popularity in an effort to improve morale.
When the war ended on Jan. 15, 1971, most of the Hykkers returned to Lagos. But the group’s bassist, Bob Miga, and guitarist, Eddie Duke, stayed back to form the Strangers.
Luckily, the Hykkers found Jake Sollo and Ify Jerry, a bassist and guitarist renowned in the east for their creativity as members of a band called the Fractions. After Sollo and Jerry joined the Hykkers, the group scored a nationwide hit with “Deiyo Deiyo.” But Sollo’s partnership with Jerry, albeit very creative, eventually broke down.
Enter the Funkees: The band had moved to Lagos from Aba and was in the market for a flashy lead guitarist as EMI Nigeria (an offshoot of the British record label) prepared to send them to London to work on a debut album. Sollo joined up as a guitarist in the mold of guitar hero Jimi Hendrix.
In London the Funkees got heavily into psych rock, and their sound changed as they soaked in the influence of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Sollo and the Funkees became one of the major Afro rock bands in London, sharing the stage with Ofo and the Black Company and Remi Kabaka. The group split in 1976, and Sollo joined the Afro-pop supergroup Osibisa.
Jones, who befriended and sometimes jammed with Sollo in the east during the Biafran war, said the guitarist was destined for the success he found on the Nigerian and international music scene. “He was a great guitar player and a really sweet guy. He hailed from Ogidi-Ikenga in Idemili (Anambra state); even as a child he played a local flute called the oja. His dad was also into traditional music, he was the oti Iba, “drum beater,” in their village. He played weddings and funerals. So Jake Sollo had music in his veins.”
Blo was a group made up of Jones, Laolu Akins, and Mike Odumosu. They were already well-respected musicians in the Lagos rock circuit when they went to work with iconic EMI producer Odion Iruoje on their seminal first album, Chapter One.
Uchenna Ikonne explains the different forces that came together to form Blo: “Ginger Baker, ex-drummer with Cream, drove across the Sahara in 1970 and set up shop in Lagos … where he hosted jam sessions that included people like the Clusters, Jake [Sollo] and Jerry [Ify], Tunde Kuboye, Tee Mac, Lijadu Sisters, Joni Haastrup, etc.”
Those sessions gave birth to the band Salt, which played Afro psych rock and toured the U.S. and Europe. But they ultimately broke up. A few of the former Clusters players formed Blo, making a sound influenced by Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix. “All these currents added to the creation of the Afro psych rock sound,” says Ikonne.
Blo’s gatefold album featured a strong, Afrocentric cover design and the trippy sounds of “Chant to Mother Earth” and “We’re out Together.” It was an international sensation, and for many Chapter One was their introduction to African rock music. Blo changed the genre forever.
After recording Chapter One for EMI in 1973, Blo moved on to record more danceable music, much to the disappointment of their producer. “I really wish they had persevered with the Afro rock—that was their most creative phase—but they wanted to move on,” Iruoje says.
The group nevertheless continued to rise to greater heights for several more years, and Jones remembers the thrill of performing at soldout venues: “We toured a lot in those days, playing schools and stadiums. … Our craziest fans were in Mid-West, Warri, and Benin. After our concerts, they would barricade the exits and not allow us to leave till 6 in the morning of the following day.”
Ofege’s scene-shifting breakout Afro-rock album was stymied by a music manager. “When I started recording Ofege, EMI said I was ‘fooling around with kids,’” says legendary EMI producer Odion Iruoje. “There was no previous hit by a young band, so they had no references.”
Iruoje discovered Ofege at a high school battle of the bands and brought in Berkley Jones to replace the lead guitarist. Jones “enhanced the sound with his rock solos, but the manager of EMI blocked the album’s release because he felt the music was not mature enough,” Iruoje says. The album was shelved for nine months until that manager left EMI.
When a new executive started, Iruoje played him the record that would become Try and Love. That’s all it took. They made a few amendments to the cover design and released the album in 1973.
“Try and Love” was a runaway hit and took over the radio waves. It marked a real cultural shift and signaled the emergence of the youth—the new Nigeria. The album was very influential as it encouraged many young students to start bands and, more important, it showed those students’ parents that there was money to be made in music. They were a bit more lenient with their wards. The album was released by EMI in other African markets, notably Ghana and East Africa, influencing regional as well as Nigerian rock and roll.
Temi Kogbe is a vinyl digger, collector, and trader of rare West African vinyl. He lives in West Africa and runs Odion Livingstone and Livingstone Studio, two music labels dedicated to officially releasing Africa’s unearthed gems from the past.