Spiritual guitar music

A post that takes a warm, nostalgic trip through an aspect of West Africa's rich musical heritage: Nigerian highlife.

Orlando Owob on the cover of one of his albums (not the one cited in the text).

They just don’t make ‘em like they used to, at least when it comes to Nigerian highlife. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate. Whatever the case, people get riled up when they’re talking about the issue. As for me, give me Victor Uwaifo or give me Wizkid – I dig them both.

Celestine Ukwu – “Ilu Abu Chi” (1974): Nominally highlife, but Celestine Ukwu’s 1974 album with his Philosophers Band Ilu Abu Chi deserves its own analytic category. Rarely, if ever, has more spiritual guitar music been made.

Tunde Nightingale –“Unknown” (Early 1970s): With one of the highest registers you’ll ever hear, Tunde Nightingale, the “man with the golden voice,” made some of the most sublime highlife of the early independence era. Supposedly he kept a Nightingale in his home. This cut is from the early 1970s – let us know if you have any more info on it.

Rex Lawson – “Sawale” (late 1960s): Socially engaged highlife from one of the Igboland’s fiercest advocates. Upon being detained by the Nigerian military during the Biafra War, he defended the politics of his music, saying he wrote his songs to “uplift the rebels.” No doubt about that – one of his albums was titled “Hail Biafra.”

Dr. Orlando Owoh & His Omimah Band – “Yabomisa Jawale/Wa Jo” (1970). Originally a carpenter, Orlando Owoh thankfully decided to pick up a guitar at some point. This side, with its gradual inclusion of Yoruba talking drums, feels like a bridge between highlife and juju, but with a raucousness that sometimes gets lost in even the best juju. For those of you in the middle of the winter blues, let these harmonies ease your soul.

Finally, Fela Kuti’s “Just Like That” (1989): Okay, this ain’t highlife, and it ain’t from the early independence era, but too often our Fela worship is limited to his high-period output from Shakara (1972) to Zombie (1977). This, one of his last releases, makes it clear his genius never waned even as his output slowed.

Further Reading

What’s happening in South Africa?

After unrest in July and municipal elections in November, it’s clear South Africa is in the midst of a serious social, economic and political crisis. What are the roots of it? Listen to this episode of AIAC Talk to find out.