Wake Up You! is a new compilation that collects the sounds of Nigerian rock music from 1972 to 1977. Recording during the same period that Fela Kuti was waging his afrobeat insurrection, the young bands featured on Wake Up You! created a different kind of rebellious music during this tumultuous era in their country’s history. Collected across two discs or records, and accompanied by a couple hundred pages of exhaustive liner notes that recount this largely unheard story, this project was released by Now-Again Records and put together by musicologist Uchenna Ikonne.
Ikonne was previously behind 2013’s Who is William Onyeabor? box set for Luaka Bop, and Wake Up You! was a similarly intensive process, with him beginning to work on it with Now-Again back in 2009. Born in the United States, Ikonne moved to Talaba in the eastern part of Nigeria in the 1980s when he was very young, but this was not the music of his youth and he only discovered it as a young adult. He currently lives in Boston, working as a self-employed record dealer. Here he explains how Wake Up You! came together and his goals when putting together reissues.
How do you choose which projects to do?
Most of the time I’m interested in telling the stories through these compilations, so I like opportunities that give me a chance to present a narrative that probably isn’t very clear to most people. You don’t see me getting into things that just are collections of disco songs that are there because they are cool. I like something that has some sort of through line that pulls it all together and tells some sort of story about the society that the music comes from.
What would say is the story on Wake Up You!?
The story is mostly about the generations that came with age in the wake of the Nigerian civil war in the early ’70s, and the ways in which the civil war changed the society and shaped the music.
Do you feel that’s an unknown story outside of Nigeria?
It’s an unknown story even within Nigeria. It’s not something that’s really been examined on a large and cohesive scale. You have some survivors from that era who have their own individual stories, but I don’t think anybody has ever tried to weave it together into a tapestry that explains that era.
Why do you think music is the right tapestry to tell that story?
I’m interested in popular culture in general, and music, at least traditionally, has been one of the elements of popular culture that people experience on the most personal and passionate level. I don’t know if that is still the case, I don’t think music has the same social importance that it used to, but in the past it did.
Practically, how do you tell a story through music?
Usually it’s about either looking for the information about the society, the information about the world that is conveyed through the music’s lyrics, or the more musical aspects of the records that might show the influence of one thing or another. Sometimes it’s about a particular story that might come from the artist.
Do you think people are really engaging with the bigger story? Or do you think they just put on the music and go, “This sounds cool”?
That’s out of my hands, really. It’s the case with any project you create. Once you make it and put it out to the world, you hope that it’s received in the spirit in which it was created, but you can’t control that. If nothing else, what I want to do is make sure that there is a record of these things. Because a lot of these things have not been documented, even in Nigeria; and as the years go by, obviously nobody’s getting any younger. Artists who are represented on this compilation and its liner notes, a lot of them are dropping like flies. You want to make sure their stories are preserved. It actually took a couple of years to put [Wake You Up!] together, so although in the liner notes there are interviews and artists that I cite in the present tense, a lot of them have died in the time that it took to put this together. It’s really important that we get those stories for future generations. Hopefully they find it useful, or if they don’t, at least they have the option to have this reference material available.
Before you started Wake You Up!, how much of the history were you aware of?
Maybe less than 20 percent of what I know now, so it was a complete learning experience for me.
How much of the music did you know?
Quite a lot of it. Though that was a learning experience, too. The thing with record digging of any kind of archival music, you’re always discovering new things.
How did you know this music before you decided to tell its story?
I came of age in the 1980s in Nigeria. The music we’re covering in this compilation is from the 1970s, so this was an era that I really missed. In some ways, the dregs of the era and some of the vestiges of it were still around when I was growing up, but it didn’t seem cool to me. You know how things go with cycles of cool? It’s usually about twenty years before things start looking cool again, and when I was coming up these things were probably ten years in the past, so they did not seem particularly cool to me. Some of the musicians were still around, but they were in a different incarnation, so that earlier incarnation was not something that was all that appealing to me.
I really came to know the music on a deeper level, probably like 15 years ago. When this whole Afro revival stuff happened in the wake of Fela Kuti’s death, that’s when I started digging into it seriously. Like I said, I had some vestigial knowledge of it, so I wasn’t starting from zero, but really sitting down to try to find the records and put them in their proper context, I probably started less than 10 years ago.
In 2000, MCA reissued all those Fela Kuti albums. They were great and people were freaking out over them, but I remember thinking, “This can’t be the only the Nigerian music that was being made back then.”
It was the same thing for me, really. I didn’t really grow up knowing Fela’s music that well. I mean, I was aware of him. By the time I was growing up, he was still making music, but he had become a cult musical figure and he was better known as a kind of public gadfly, troublemaker, stand-up comedian kind of person. At the same time, there was a class thing involved with his music. His music was associated with a certain kind of person—usually street toughs, radical college students, things like that. Listening to Fela’s music, especially during the years of military dictatorship, you could get arrested just for having some of his records with you, or at least harassed by the police or the army. Me, coming from a good middle class home, I was definitely not encouraged to listen to Fela in any way. I knew some of his songs, but I wasn’t into him that seriously. It was only when those reissues came out and I bought every single one of them that I really became well versed in his work. Then, just like you said, I started thinking, “What other music was going on at that time that I wasn’t really paying attention to?”
How easy or hard is to find this music in Nigeria now?
Really hard. It’s getting harder and harder as years go by. It’s never been easy, but at least in the past if you went somewhere, if you searched out old time people, you might find some guy who used to be record dealer back in the ’80s or used to be a DJ. He might have some of his old stock around. But as this music has become more popular, at least with certain niche elements in the record collecting world, more and more people have been hunting it down. The well is probably dry at this point.
Do you feel like there are records you’re missing?
Yeah, there’s always records everybody is missing. So much music was put out, and it’s not as if there are any ledgers or catalogs that we can use to know exactly what was put out. You’re constantly learning new things. That’s one of the reasons that this thing took so long to put together, because just when you think you’ve got the whole story and you think you know all the records, you’re discovering more and more things, and more pieces that you have to put together. There’ll always be something missing, always.