By Geoff Stanton
When former Cream drummer Ginger Baker fled London in 1971 – leaving behind a decade of debauchery and burnt bridges – the hoary legend winched his way into a yet another remarkable chapter of history that has, until recently, largely been forgotten.
“I had to get the fuck out of London,” Baker told Rolling Stone in 2009. He wasn’t kidding – the seventies comedown compelled him to floor the jeep as far as Nigeria. “I told him there was an ocean and a desert in the way,” recalled Tony Palmer, who documented the odyssey in his film ‘Ginger Baker in Africa’. “Ginger said, ‘Great!’ He drove through the desert like he played the drums: he just put his foot down and hoped for the best”.
Four years of civil war, disease, starvation, three million dead in the Biafran conflict; Nigeria was having a comedown of its own. It was a long way from the Soho jazz clubs of 1957. But it wasn’t all bad. The oil-rich Niger promised to spill some prosperity and hope into the country on the back of a boom, and, by 1971, many Nigerians started travelling and studying abroad. Hendrix, Traffic, Santana – the blues explosion that Baker and his peers had pioneered – hit the capital in an alchemy of traditional rhythm, afrobeat and electric guitar.
Joni Haastrup had started bluesy outfit Monomono. Laolo Akins, Mike Odumosu and Berkley Jones – Nigeria’s answer to Santana – began BLO, a mix of distorted harmonies, powerful rhythm and soaring lead guitar. The Hygrades, The Wings, The Action 13 – all created an eccentric and liberating meeting point of western pop and african lore; a molten afro-blend of funk-infused psychedelia.
The marriage is gloriously personified in the flamboyant Twins Seven Seven – the man with the pink suit, flares, huge sunglasses and xylophone. Twins Seven was the last survivor in a line of seven sets of twins from the Oshogbo royal family – a region of Nigeria famous for twins. As well as being a painter Taiwo Olaiyi Sala (Twins real name) was also well known as an actor, poet and writer. His music and art were heavily rooted in Yoruba culture and mythology, and the xylophone lines and traditional rhythms create a sound that has been called “ethereal and quite unlike anything else from the time” (Soundway Records). Twins also appears in the film ‘Ginger Baker In Africa’.
Baker took up his sticks, swiftly set up shop, and established West Africa’s first 16-track recording studio. He soon became known through Nigeria as the Oyinbo (white) drummer.
Afro-rock had also reached the desks of Britain’s EMI and Decca. Odion Iruoje worked for EMI’s Nigerian office. Early on Iruoje had been sent to London to witness the recording of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. “What I liked mostly was the discipline and the teamwork,” he once romantically reflected. Iruoje was by now scouting for raw talent across Nigeria. “The bands would come into the studio, set up and within four hours we’d finished a 45. Very professional.” He continued to urge bands to incorporate traditional Jùjú and Yoruba sounds rather than simply aping western groups.
Baker meanwhile made arrangements with the Nigerian Government for ex-Beatle Paul McCartney to record at his own studio when he arrived in Lagos with Wings. But McCartney had other plans. ‘Band on The Run’ was ultimately recorded in Nigeria’s EMI studio. Baker was seriously pissed off. But the skinny ginger had some muscle to flex yet.
In the years since he had immersed himself in the scene, Baker had became involved with the irrepressible titan of Afro-funk and soul Fela Kuti – a force of nature more popular than James Brown (in Africa), bigger than Jesus, a man whose boundless energy was once invested in marrying twenty seven of his back up singers in a single service. Something Jesus could never have done.
When Tony Allen quit Fela’s group, Baker joined to record and tour. He had even joined Fela’s committee – a group that met around an African shaped table to discuss “strategies”. “We used to sit round a table the shape of Africa. Called The African Table. And I was on that committee for two years”. It was here that they discussed what could be done about the evils of a worsening domestic political situation – and possibly Paul McCartney and Wings.
Regardless, Fela called in the army. A forty-strong squad of soldiers arrived at the EMI studios and stopped the session before taking over EMI itself. Baker has his version. “I said, ‘Hey, it is Paul McCartney – we really can’t do this. But they wouldn’t have (stopped) without my intervention. Paul McCartney is an asshole, make no mistake about it.”
Nigeria’s unsung coup is corroborated by ‘company man’ Mark Lewisohn’s liner notes on the finished Wings album: “There was also some tension with the drummer Ginger Baker, formerly of Cream, who had left England for Nigeria and set up a recording venue in Ikeja. Baker wanted Paul to record all of his album at his place, ARC Studio; to keep the peace, Paul promised to go there for a day.” The session did result in one track on the album – ‘Picasso’s Last Words (Drink to Me)’ , with liner notes stating: “Pleasingly, Ginger Baker joined in the fun, playing a percussive tin of gravel on the song.”
Baker also toured Europe and the US with a litany of African musicians as part of his outfit Airforce & Salt (Friday Jumbo, the leader of Monomono was a member of Fela’s group before he joined Joni Hasstrup and bassist Kenneth Okulolo to form Monomono).
When Iruoje left EMI in 1978, the tide was turning for the worse. Oil money was being embezzled by corrupt politicians. Crime and unemployment were on the rise. The music industry (notably the single market) dried up as the money disappeared.Fela himself had also become radical. “He was talking about government, politics,” recalled Baker. “He wasn’t playing afrobeat anymore. I told Fela to first make sure he has won the international market before he can start all that.”
It got ugly. In 1977 General Obasanjo’s men, on their first wave of power, raided Fela’s house, assaulting him and fracturing his skull. They also fatally injured his grandmother before throwing Fela into prison. “That event has become a shorthand in the Nigerian press for all the oppressive acts carried out during Obasanjo’s time as head of state,” an anonymous Western diplomat said in a Wall Street Journal story. For the music, it was the end of a golden age.
“In Nigeria things very quickly slip into obscurity because people are always moving forward,” says music historian and Soundway Records owner Miles Cleret. “Nostalgia isn’t as important there as it can be here. Berkley Jones, the guitarist for BLO, is now a property developer. He hasn’t picked up a guitar in 10 years and yet he was one of the most talented guitarists in Lagos. He was a pin-up – a real star.”
“Now everyone’s trying to imitate American rap and R&B,” Iruoje said of the contemporary Nigerian scene. In the end even the biggest acts such as Ofege and BLO never found an audience outside Nigeria. Many smaller names have long been forgotten.
For a comprehensive look at the prime of 1970s Nigerian music, dig into Miles Cleret’s Soundway Records label. Cleret has exhaustively raided the far ends of the earth in his quest for exotic and lost electric sounds – tracking down DJs, distributors and collectors to source vinyl copies of singles and piece together some brilliant stories and compilations.
Ginger Baker has since been chased out of England, Nigeria, Italy and America. Those interested in his story should definitely check out an excellent article by Jay Bulger, following a month with the ginger maniac himself in his South African compound, originally written for Rolling Stone Magazine. Undeterred by violence ‘I bet you expect me to play for you now! Persistent c**t!’ Bulger, is currently finishing a live-in documentary on the man himself.