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With almost 200 million people, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa . To those, millions of emigrants are to be added, those who during the years have established numerous communities especially in the suburbs of big European and American cities. The community called "naija" is a closed society, that uses it's language and merges to the cultural traditional habits. It's essence is a mix of African, ghetto expression, sensuality, slang, rhythm and ethnic pride. One of the most natural ways to express for the naija is through music.
The first singer with Nigerian blood who captured the world’s attention was Helen Folasade Adu, Sade, Nigerian father and English mother. Her first album, Diamond Life, of 1984, released on the market, became famous mostly thanks to the single Smooth Operator. Her whispering voice and her sweet melodies became a classical of new cool. It was a signal.
Other 20 years have gone by since then, and much water flowed beneath the bridges. Amongst the daughters of the great diaspora, singers and performers of Nigerian origin became numerous and aggressive. Some of them express a musical language; naija more radically, a mix of physicity, sex, rap, soul, disco, electro and terrific rhythms deriving from fuji music. Other than Lagos, the naija sound scene is alive especially in the "Bronx" of cosmopolitan cities like London and New York, but also Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.
Sola Idowu, known as Weird MC "the Rappateiner" is a hard rapper, and does not fear confrontation with her male colleagues of the naija hip hop like D'Banji, 2Face Idibia, Modenine and Ade Bantu. Born in London but mainly lived in Lagos , she played with Tony Allen, Femi Kuti and Lagbaja, stars of contemporary afro beat. Her music - appearing on compilations like Lagos Stori Plenti, includes the wild ljoya, or World 2003, the yearly compilation of Chalres Gillet of BBC, contains Palava and What are you waiting for - it is devastating hip hop, that moves from electro rhythms to Yoruba talking drums.
Ibiwunmi Omotayo Olufunke Olaiya, known as Wunmi, is the nephew of Sir Victor Olaiya, “the evil genius of highlife”, born in London from Nigerian parents, but grew up in Lagos. Wummi is known in the ambient underground dance of New York and London. Her first appearance on scene dates to 1989, the year she participated in a video of Back to Life of the famous dance group Soul II Soul.
But her debut album A.L.A. - African Leaving Abroad, was released only in 2007. Her style is a blend of electro dance, afro beat and dance music but the lyrics touch social issues, accusation and complaint.
The use of heavy lyrics amongst the young Nigerian Naija sound artists is not rare, and it is really worth mentioning. In Africa music is
traditionally a vehicle of information, an education tool and is culture, but the young naija artists, most of whom quote Fela Kuti as their main inspiration source, don't write simply texts because it is required by the tradition, but because they suffer and they are angry for the condition of their people, and because they have something to say. But - Lagbaja explains - "notwithstanding the serious circumstances as nation, we limit ourselves only to singing about serious issues and to launching the message. Our music has more dimensions than these. As always, through our work we pass from seriousness to fun . . . . life goes on".
In Nigeria the actress and singer Yinka Davies, whose real name is Elfeda Oluwabukola Olayinka Davies, is a star. Yinka becomes famous in Nigeria as vocalist of Color Band of Lagbaja. Considered similar to Nigerian Erikah Badu, her presence is fragile and it transpires a sophisticated charm, her voice is splendid and her power is not common. Notwithstanding this, in 2007 although she won the prestigious Nigerian award called " the decade's voice", success is late to arrive for her. Yinka sings in compilations Afro Night of Ekostar (together with Sikriu Ayinde Barrister) and is guest on the last "serious" work of Tony Allen - Lagos no Shaking. Look out for her on YouTube. With her extraordinary voice she can interpret almost all genres, from jazz to soul to funky to fuji music. Her albums are unfortunately only distributed in Nigeria .
Following Sade’s footsteps, two Nigerian singers, Ayo and Asa, have recently managed during the last years to go beyond the ghetto and beyond the ethnic barriers and to obtain international success. Ayo, whose real name is Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin, was born in Koln, Germany, from Nigerian father and Rumanian, rom mother. Her musical background is influenced by her pilgrimage between Paris, New York and Lagos.
Her debut album in 2006, Joyful is simple and enchanting. Acoustic melodies with some soul, blues, folk and reggae flavour, include melancholic melodies and lyrics, original and very sweet, accompanied by the guitars, Hammond , by the accordion and the mandolin. An unbelievable quality for being such a young singer - born in 1980 - also a great success with the single Down on my Knees, that placed itself in the pop international hit parade. Only a few weeks from the release of her second album, Gravity at Last and certainly we will not miss it and will talk about it in the annex of this post.
Asa was born in Paris from Nigerian parents, but when she was only two, her family returned home. So she grew up and found her musical inspiration in the urban reality of Lagos, in Fela Kuti's afro beat and Labia and in juju of King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey, but also in voices like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, the bigs of black music whose sound is homely wherever there is a black community. Her music does not sound naija, no talking drum, no impurity in her powerful voice, intense and full of soul elements. Asa is more like a Tracy Chapman or an African Joan Armatrading
Her debut album, simply called Asa of 2007, was well and happily received by the international critics. It really is nice, touchy, mature and sophisticated. Ballades, rock, reggae and soul, sung in English, pidgin and also Yoruba. Also here lyrics are full of social effort, against unfairness, and indifference.
Nneka has not yet been so lucky like Ayo and Asa, not until now. This year No Longer at Ease was released, her second CD, and her debut album of 2005, Victim of Truth was compared by the Sunday Times to Miseducation of Laurin Hill. Nneka is also very young, born in London from Nigerian father and English mother. Her music is a mix of naija, rap, funky and reggae, and her voice, sharp and metallic, reminds us of the queens of contemporary soul, Erikah Badu and Laurin Hill.
Nneka's groove is dark and electro, it uses electronics, from scratch to dub echoes to changes of rhythm and of rarefied atmospheres and hectic urban. Both the music and lyrics of their songs - in English, pidgin and joruba - are more angry and serious than those of Ayo and also of Asa, and reflect a choice of making of social issues a central intention in her work.
It is not a coincidence that her last album is explicitly thanking Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Chinua Achebe, the great nigerian writer, for the inspiration. Nneka is less inclined in searching for easy melodies to conquer the market, and this is a merit, even if the road that she is taking is harder.
Proud of their origins, the young stars of the Nigerian Diaspora about whom we have talked about are only the tip of the iceberg of a musical scene and a young lively movement lacking monotony and nihilism which seems to affect many young rich and wealthy apathetic Europeans. Nigerians define their country "the lion of Africa " and this indicates that they have a clear perception of their potential, of their resistance, of their number and their presence in the world. We will continue exploring the naija music, sure to find new surprises in the future.
Sade: "Diamond Life" (1984)
Wunmi: "A.L.A." (2007)
Ayo: "Joyfull" (2006) e Gravity at Last" (2008)
Asa: "Asa" (2007)
Nneka: "Victim of Truth" (2005) e "No Longer at Ease" (2008)
Tony Allen: "Lagos no Shake" (2006) - with Yinka Davies
AAVV: Lagos Stori Plenti (2006) - Ijoya of Weird MC and other stars of naija sound
1. Wunmi - Africa Living Abroad (da A.L.A.)
2. Tony Allen & Yinka Davies - Morose (da Lagos no Shaking
3. Weird M.C. - Ijoya (da Lagos Stori Plenti)
4. Asa - Peace (da Asa)
5. Nneka - Africans (da Victim of Truth)
6. Nneka - Confession (da Victim of Truth)
7. Ayo - Without You (da Joyfull)