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The African Folk Soul of Bongos Ikwue

The 1970’s were an extremely fertile era for music. In America, progressive soul and funk broke new ground while London spawned the punk rock scene and Kingston, Jamaica gave the world roots reggae. In Nigeria, an extraordinarily diverse and dynamic cultural scene yielded not only Fela’s Afrobeat and juju’s peak with Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey but also myriad rock and funk groups such as BLO and The Funkees. One of the most popular singers on the Nigeria scene at that time was Bongos Ikwue, whose personalized style of African folk and American soul music made him completely unique; he drew on traditional music, highlife, reggae, Congolese styles, Afrobeat and American soul, country, funk, jazz and rock. He could be viewed as an African Bill Withers — an intimate, earthy singer-songwriter who delivers home truths with soulful, unpretentious vocals. Somehow, Bongos blended those wildly diverse musical elements in a completely organic way and did so successfully for decades, blazing a trail for African singer-songwriters at a time when the very concept of “singer-songwriter” was a novelty in the African music universe (since then such artists as Vusi Mahlesela, Rokia Traore, Richard Bona, and most recently Michael Kiwanuka have validated that concept).On February 13, 2013, Bongos Ikwue celebrates more than forty years as a recording artist with Wulu Wulu his first release outside Nigeria, which has marked his resurgence and finds him delivering — at age 70 no less! —possibly the finest recording of his career. For his many long-time Nigerian fans, this will be cause for celebration. For international audiences it may well be a revelation.

“I never retired,” says Bongos and then replies enigmatically when asked why he chose to record a new album at this point in his career. “There comes a time, there comes a time and there comes a time. I create whatever comes my way. I am proud and knowledgeable about my roots and gave sufficient time to writing songs for the people.”

Wulu Wulu opens with “Kongo Soldier”, which presents a wry reminiscence of the influx of Nigerian soldiers returning from peace-keeping duty in the Congo into Bongos’ hometown of Otukpo, delivered by Bongos’ rich baritone over a funky, Afro-Caribbean groove graced by a soaring violin solo. There follows the joyous neo-highlife groove of “Abangbo”, highlighted by a kinetic percussion breakdown, the loping South African township jive of “Wulu Wulu”, which features Bongos and his daughter echoing each other’s vocals, one in Idoma and one in English, and the mellow acoustic guitar-led “Mustapha and Christopher”, a reflection on conflicts fueled by religious differences that sounds like it could be the work of any number of America folk singers, save for the subject matter which relates to the recent violence between Muslims and Christians in Northern Nigeria. And that’s just the first four songs! Clearly Bongos Ikwue is an artist who cannot be contained in any stylistic box. Indeed he shatters the common conceptions of what an African artist could or should be. He’s as much influenced by Sam Cooke and Brook Benton as the Idoma traditional music he grew up with.

“I was born different (from other artists),” Bongos notes. “There should be no reason to play like anyone."

Wulu Wulu is the fruition of Bongos’ work with his new band, Double X, so named to suggest the intersecting elements in his music, traditional and contemporary, local and international. It contains a mix of material, re-makes of older songs from his eleven best-selling albums as well as brand-new songs. Recorded in both Nigeria and the United States, where one of his daughters attended college, the album delivers a country pop song one minute, classic reggae the next and his patented, lilting, lyrical Afro-Caribbean groove after that, all rendered with impeccable musicianship.

Bongos Ikwue was born in Otukpo, Benue State in east-central Nigeria, of Idoma ethnicity on June 6, 1942. His father was a farmer and Bongos childhood was filled with the events of simple country living. Enamored of all types of music at an early age he absorbed everything he heard: traditional music and folk tales of the Idoma people, a wide array of American styles including gospel, country, blues, jazz and R & B, Cuban and other Caribbean styles that he absorbed from the radio and his brother’s record collection, and of course myriad popular African styles. He began writing songs at an early age but his parents pushed him to pursue a respectable profession and sent him off to school. As he continued his songwriting efforts, he formed his first band, the Cubana Boys. While studying engineering at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, he formed another band, the UniBello Brothers, as well as a folk group; he even learned Irish songs from an expatriate lecturer. In 1967 he formed Bongos & The Groovies, which rapidly became a popular performing and recording ensemble that featured Bongos’ evolving original, highly personal style of Nigerian pop. He didn’t pattern his music after any artist nor did it fit any existing style. A recording contract with EMI led to numerous hits such as “Lagos”, “Tell My Girl”, “You Can’t Hurry The Sunrise” and “Otachikpokpo” and best-selling albums. His song “Cock Crow At Dawn” became the theme song of a popular Nigerian TV soap opera that ran into the Nineties. But where other Nigerian artists such as Sunny Ade, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, Sonny Okosun and OJ Ekemode saw their music released internationally and toured abroad, the only Bongos recording to be released internationally was his hit “Still Searching”, which appeared on Black Starliner, a compilation of African popular music released in the Seventies. After three decades of performing he scaled back his musical activity and devoted more time to his entrepreneurial activities, which included owning and running a furniture factory. But in the new millennium, some of his vintage hits were included on such acclaimed compilations as Nigeria 70 and Nigeria Disco Funk Special which sparked a resurgence of interest in Afro-pop from Nigeria and other West African countries. Bongos’ song “Inale” was the theme to an award-winning film produced by his daughter Keke; the soundtrack, which Bongos composed, won an award for Best Soundtrack at the 2011 African Movie Academy Awards.

Until Bongos Ikwue launches a United States tour (something he is planning), the fourteen tracks of Wulu Wulu will give American audiences an impressive tour of Bongos’ musical universe. Every track offers a different twist. The lyrics range from romantic themes to meditations on the condition and understated social commentary (“Ochombolo” asserts that Africans should not accept foreign aid but instead self-reliance), sometimes inspired by actual events, as with “Ouno”, which recounts an incident in which a girl sent by her mother to gather firewood was bitten by a snake and died. Bongos asks: “why did that little girl have to die?” What ties it all together is Bongos’ strong melodic sense and all-encompassing musicality. In a time when so much music is superficial, disposable and generic, the music on Wulu Wulu is warm, organic, diverse, delightful and filled with many small touches of inspiration. For Bongos Ikwue, the country boy whose music has ranged far and wide, his direction and inspiration remain the same, rooted in the land that formed him.

“Sadly, the Nigerian music scene has lost the Nigerian flavor in it,” Bongos says. ”I know who I am, where I have been and where I will always love to return to.”