Monday, May 01, 2006

La La La... Who's Not Listening?

Recently, a woman from Ohio wrote to the British "Guardian" newspaper to criticise a music journalist who hadn't liked Jamie Foxx's new CD. The journalist had found it bland, derivative, modern rnb, and made disparaging comparisons with Ray Charles. The critic reposted: "I have long believed that caucasian people just cannot understand our music." Apparently melanin has a proven scientific link to a 'funky' gene, and activates key polyrhythmic receptors in the brain... and apparently I come from somewhere on the Russian steppes and eat borscht...

However, sometimes, I wonder myself. Here is a track from Segun Bucknor and The Assembly, soon to become The Revolution, a popular band in 60s Nigeria. They started out playing covers of all kinds of pop music, taking on British rnb and American soul. Bucknor particularly admired Wilson Pickett, amongst others, and had spent several years studying at Columbia University in NYC, and brought this experience back with him to Nigeria. "Back in those days," he recalls in an interview with the Nigeria 70 research team ,"everybody was trying to be more Elvis than Elvis!" The band moved towards incorporating more local highlife and juju rhythms into their music, but still liked to retain their other influences, to see what would happen. Great admirers of Fela Kuti, they too began to explore political themes, in their most famous song "Son of January 15th", being the date of the coup which set off the Biafran War. Segun began to shave his head and wear chains and other costumery in a nod to the African culture of ancient Egypt. However, it would be hard for anybody to maintain an outspoken political stance when confronted by an invasion of the stage by disgruntled army colonels who wanted to make some musical criticism.

Apparently, for some critics, though, Segun Bucknor just wasn't trying hard enough! This is what BBC journalist Bren O'Callaghan has to say in comparison to Fela Kuti: "Bucknor, on the other hand, was one of the rank and file, a journeyman who was trying to eke out a living in Nigeria as a popular musician, and who was beholden to local record labels and the demands of the marketplace ... Bucknor can't really be faulted for not having Kuti's unique combination of bravery and megalomania ... However, when Bucknor narrows his focus to personal relationships ("La La La," "That's the Time," "Love and Affection," "You Killing Me"), his music loses some of its conviction, and he sounds more like an American soul singer looking for a chart hit. "La La La" (which is inexplicably presented in three rather similar versions) is certainly funky enough, but it sounds like a manufactured cross between Otis Redding's "Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa (Sad Song)" and Toots Hibbert's "Funky Kingston." The band still cooks, and Bucknor is always in good voice, but these pieces lack the personal stamp of songs like "Sorrow, Sorrow, Sorrow" and "Son of January 15th."

Well, I am sure that Segun Bucknor is grateful for that! Sometimes, people just don't think. Segun Bucknor was living in a country just recovering from a ravaging war. Is it not just possible that he, and other people, would just sometimes like to hear some nice music and have some fun? So what if it doesn't sound like 'authentic' african music to a musicologist? Has it broken some kind of rule? Is musical fusion forbidden to Africans (at least those not called Fela Kuti)? SO what if it isn't earnest and political? Does Bob Marley get this kind of criticism for singing Three Little Birds? This is as real as it gets!

Segun Bucknor & The Assembly - La La La (Polydor 7" 2068037)

Buy it on the Strut Records Cd "Segun Bucknor: Poor Man Get No Brother" (you can even get a VINYL copy of it!), or find it on the compilation Nigera 70 also by Strut Records. I think this has been discontinued, so see if you can find a second-hand copy - it is a great intro to Nigerian music, and I have used its authoritative booklet to find most of the details in this report.


Jamal O said...

I love FELA but Segun Bucknor is the shit as well.

They are two different people with two different approaches.

I am very inspired by their nourishing music

Rob Whatman said...

Hi Jamal! I agree 100%!

I did this as one of my first posts for this blog, because I wanted to set a wider boundary for the kind of music we term soul. Plus, that journalist really got on my nerves!...