Funk, Fury & Fela: The Birth of Afro Rock

After a bloody civil war, the Nigerian music scene exploded with the Hykkers and Fela Kuti’s Afro Family

By Uchenna Ikonne & Eothen Alapatt

Coming Back from Hell

After the war, something seemed different. The Nigerian Civil War came to an end in January 1970. After thirty months of internecine combat, an estimated three million dead and the country almost torn apart, spiritually and geographically, peace was finally back. Weapons were dropped, wounds were salved, and Nigeria was once again what it had been before: the Giant of Africa, a federation of diverse states, one nation bound in freedom, peace and unity.

Head of State Yakubu Gowon magnanimously declared that the war had ended with “no victor and no vanquished,” prohibiting all punitive actions or reprisals against the indigenes of the country’s Eastern Region who had attempted to secede as the renegade Republic of Biafra. All Nigerians were urged to return to whatever they were doing before July 1967, forget the destruction and the bloodshed that had just transpired, and get back to the lives they had lived before the world went all to hell.

One of the more encouraging signs of a resumption of normalcy was the Hykkers’ return to Lagos. As Nigeria’s first professional pop group, the band had been a favorite among young groovers in the national capital in the carefree days of the mid-1960s, an era already taking on the hazy sepia tint of nostalgia. In the popular memory, the Hykkers’ disappearance from Lagos coincided with the outbreak of war and symbolically signaled the end of the Good Old Days. Now the Hykkers were back, God was in His Heaven, happy days were here again.

But somehow it seemed different.

The post-war Hykkers: Jake Sollo, Emma Lawson, Pat Finn, Jeff Afam, Ify Jerry. 1971
Federal soldiers pose with a captured Biafran plane after reclaiming Port Harcourt, May 1968

Lead singer Pat Finn was there, still as handsome as everyone remembered. So were dapper guitarist Jeff Afam and drummer Emmanuel Lawson. Bespectacled lead guitarist Bob Miga and bassist Eddie Duke were conspicuously missing, though, replaced by some new, younger boys who appeared noticeably rough around the edges. But that wasn’t the biggest change.

In some subtle, barely perceptible manner, it was apparent that the innocence was gone. The Hykkers — the clean-cut, grinning lads who once were Lagos’ answer to the pre-Revolver Fab Four — appeared hard-bitten and surly. Gone were jangly guitars and bright harmonies; their sound was now rugged and murky, pulsing with the threat of barely-contained violence. Guitars screeched like low-flying fighter jets, basslines thrummed like trundling tank tracks. This was new music filled with funk, fuzz and fury. It was a sound that reflected a new, darker reality scarred by war, a forceful reminder to its audience that no matter how they might try to act like the preceding thirty months had never happened, they really would never be able to go home again.

The Hykkers had started out jamming together in late 1963, barely considering themselves a real band. They were just a revolving crew of young office workers and students having fun, crawling across the city, playing the latest Merseybeat hits that were popular with the younger generation, barely taken seriously in the highlife-dominated nightlife economy. “We would walk from club to club all night,” says early member Harry Juwe. “This was when the streets of Lagos were safe at night. We would be just walking — hiking — all night. When they asked us our name, we didn’t even have one… So we just said ‘We are the Hykkers.’”

The pre-war Hykkers: Felix Umoffia, Jeff Afam, Pat Finn, Bob Miga, circa 1966

The Hykkers became a sensation as the group that finally took the beat subculture out of the afternoon teen hangouts into the world of mainstream Nigerian entertainment. By January 1965, the Hykkers had become TV stars, featuring regularly on the youth-centered weekly variety program, Saturday Square. “Originally [the show’s producers] had wanted our group to be called the Saturday Squares,” Juwe remembers, “but we didn’t like that. We didn’t want our name to be so connected to the program, plus we were already becoming somewhat known as the Hykkers and so we saw no cause to change that.”

Despite their protestations that they were amateurs, playing for the fun of it, the regular TV exposure thrust the unwitting youngsters toward professionalism: they scored the opening spot for Jamaican pop star Millie Small on a national tour in 1966. Millie’s backing band was the new-wave highlife-jazz combo Fela Ransome-Kuti and Koola Lobitos. “Fela loved us so much that he told us that he was going to give us five horns,” Finn says. “With those horns, our sound changed, it became so big and loud. It was so impressive that some representatives for a nightclub in Port Harcourt called Scorpidoo approached us after the show and said they wanted us to sign an exclusive contract.” The band decamped eastwards to Port Harcourt in January 1967 for that upscale, modern cabaret, which catered to the considerable American and European expatriate community in the country’s crude-producing Eastern region.

Unidentified pop group, Lagos. Mid 1960s.

The announcement of the Hykkers’ contract was cause for much celebration in the beat community. “It was a big deal,” says Finn. “Because when we signed that contract, we became the first professional rock group in Nigeria. We were the first group that was getting paid to play, and getting paid well! They were paying us £700 a month, which was a huge amount of money.”

The Hykkers’ abrupt exit from Lagos left a raft of bands vying for their vacated spot at the top of the pop pyramid, with the polished and highly professional Clusters emerging as the clear frontrunner. But the act that would next define the Lagos scene, however briefly, was the four-man Fractions, who had grabbed the spotlight in early 1967 after supporting the visiting Chubby Checker. Where the Hykkers had drawn most of their inspiration from Swinging London, the Fractions favored dirtier American R&B and the new sound called “soul.”

“We had been playing the Tamla-Motown sound, and we were the first group to introduce that in Lagos,” remembers Fractions bassist Cliff Agwaze. “One day I heard a record at my neighbor’s house. The song was called ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’ That blew my mind! It changed the way we thought about music.”

The Fractions’ James Brown-inspired sound, it turned out, was deep enough to change the way a lot of people in Lagos thought about music, as soul fever slowly started to spread across the city and infiltrate grown-up nightlife in a way that the beat wave never did. While the English beat sound was largely viewed as a juvenile trifle best suited to distract bored teenagers at afterschool boys and girls clubs, soul actually swept the nightclub scene and started to eclipse highlife in popularity, with patrons demanding that the highlife orchestras play recent hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and Ray Charles.

But while soul’s message of black solidarity was appealing to the music-loving public, on a larger scale the unity of the new Nigerian nation was in real peril: intense political rivalry between the Northern, Western and Eastern regions of the country led to ethnic riots in the North and West in which tens of thousands of Easterners were massacred. The Federal government’s sluggish response to the pogroms had prompted the governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, to call all Eastern indigenes across the country to return home to the safety of the Eastern region, which he declared was breaking away from Nigeria as the sovereign Republic of Biafra. This was in June 1967; by July, the country would be embroiled in civil war.

The pre-war Hykkers: Emma Lawson, Pat Finn, Jeff Afam, Bob Miga. Circa 1966

Hykking There (and Back Again)

The war had an immediate impact on the Lagos music scene — most of the major highlife bandleaders and musicians were of Eastern origin, and their mass defection from the capital drove the final nail into the coffin of highlife’s embattled status as Nigeria’s national music. The pop scene also suffered — with the Fractions amongst dozens of groups who quit Lagos to move back East — but enough soul groups emerged in the wake of the Eastern exodus to fill the void and keep Lagos jumping as Nigeria went to war with Biafra to reclaim the country’s oil-producing region.

Chief among these was a new group called the Soul Assembly, fronted by singer Segun Bucknor. The Soul Assembly’s presentation was sharp and exciting enough to land a recording contract, and they became the first act to release a record on Polydor’s Nigerian subsidiary.

At the same time, Tony Benson was firmly establishing himself as Lagos’s new Prince of Soul. The son of Nigerian showbiz pioneer Bobby Benson, Tony had cut his teeth as a multi-instrumentalist in his father’s act and later as the Hykkers’ drummer. Bobby Benson had not permitted Tony to follow the Hykkers to the East but instead installed him as the star act in his popular nightclub Caban Bamboo. On a special weekly “Soul Night,” Tony thrilled crowds with his new band, the Combo. Soon, all of the remaining dance bands in the city found themselves shifting the bulk of their repertoire from highlife to soul in order to retain their fan base.

Meanwhile, the Fractions arrived in Biafra with an incomplete roster — both bassist Agwaze and guitarist Sonny Okosun had been denied entry into the secessionist state since neither was of Eastern origin. The Biafran capital city of Enugu had its own nascent pop scene, with the top band in the city — the Postmen — having achieved what the vast majority of Lagos beats had been unable to: the Postmen had cut records. With the help of an Australian friend named Bruce Beresford — at the time a young aspiring filmmaker working with the Nigerian Film Commission in Enugu (and still twenty years away from winning an Oscar for directing Driving Miss Daisy) — the Postmen independently recorded an EP’s worth of songs, some of which Beresford featured in one of his early shorts. The Fractions grabbed Jeremiah Jiagbogu, known as “Ify Jerry,” a gangling, nineteen year-old lead guitarist who had started off in the Postman before making the rounds of other R&B bands in Enugu, and his partner Nkem “Jake Sollo” Okonkwo, himself a talented guitarist, for the bass. In no time at all, the Fractions were exploding, just as Nigeria and Biafra went to war.

“The Fractions became the biggest group in Biafra,” remembers Chyke Madu, who played drums in the Biafran pop group the Figures. “They had brought a kind of energy and excitement to the stage. And they had a great manager, Tony Amadi, who promoted them so well that even in the middle of the war, when there was so much scarcity of everything, large crowds still paid good money to see the Fractions. They gave the Hykkers serious competition then.”

Segun Bucknor of the Soul Assembly. 1969.

Meanwhile, the Hykkers, for the first time in their tenure as a band, found themselves struggling. As the conflict escalated, the oil corporations withdrew their personnel from the area, and the Scorpidoo deal ended. With Biafra’s borders blockaded, the Hykkers were unable to return to Lagos. Trapped in Biafra without the benefit of their cushy nightclub residency, they had to hustle for gigs, and for significantly reduced wages. Thanks to their esteemed reputation as national television stars, the Biafran government favored the Hykkers for propaganda purposes, which kept them a step or two ahead of the Fractions’ assault as the war raged into 1968 and continued unabated into 1969.

By January 1970, however, it was clear that the Biafran resistance was crumbling. Millions of Biafrans fled the cities to escape the conquering Nigerian army, the Hykkers among them. Finally, the group was captured by the Nigerian forces, who were tickled to find the long-lost stars of Saturday Square hiding in the remote bush. The army commandeered the band to entertain the victorious troops as the war ended. But the Hykkers were restless to return to Lagos to pick up their lives where they had left off before the war.

It was agreed amongst most of the group that their primary goal should be to escape the clutches of the army — and then immediately return to Lagos. However Miga, the group’s unofficial leader, had a different view: his family had relocated to the East and he wanted to stay close to them. “This is where Bob Miga betrayed us,” Finn says. “He went and informed the division commander of our plans to abscond. So the soldiers came and seized all our musical instruments. They said we can go if we want to, but we are not taking any instruments with us.”

The Hykkers decided to leave anyway; Miga and bass player Eddie Duke were commissioned by the army to take the confiscated instruments and assemble a group to replace the departing Hykkers. With a few young recruits from the local soul group the Admirals, they formed a new band: the Strangers.

The Hykkers thus arrived in Lagos in early 1970 with no lead guitarist and no bassist. But fortunately for them their arch-rivals the Fractions had disintegrated in the last days of the war, freeing up the group’s explosive guitar-and-bass duo, Ify Jerry and Jake Sollo. But the group still had no instruments, no money and no prospects.

“We were in Lagos for months before we could even get organized enough to start playing again,” Finn says. “Eventually, it was our friend Fela who agreed to let us use his instruments to play.” Fela Ransome-Kuti himself had just returned to Lagos from a mishap-ridden, ten-month U.S. tour, which nevertheless had an evident regenerative effect on him.

Fela had always been considered a high-minded oddball on the highlife circuit; in the late 1960s he had announced that he was turning his back on highlife to focus on ‘Afro Beat,’ as he had dubbed his ambitious fusion of highlife, big-band Latin jazz and R&B. Fela’s sophisticated Afro Beat arrangements had proven too dense, too busy, too heavy for crowds prepared to sway to the leisurely meter of highlife. But in the new soul epoch, the sound of Afro Beat made sense. Furthermore, Fela had stripped down the frantic horn charts to reveal a leaner, punchier, groove-based sound that fit in perfectly with the aggressive tone of soul and rock.

The Birth of Afro Rock

Meanwhile, the reborn Hykkers were bringing the Biafran sound to Lagos for the first time, with a unique new “Afro Rock” twist, powered primarily by Ify Jerry and Jake Sollo, a duo whose rhythmic brotherhood was undercut by a razor blade of competitive tension. “You could hear them always trying to out-do each other when we played,” says Finn. “They were roommates too, and they were always fighting! When you go to their apartment, you would see everything in the room broken and scattered everywhere from the fighting.”

The Fela/Hykkers double act became the hottest, hippest ticket in town, and soon expanded to include the Immortals, a dynamic soul group from Benin City, and Paperback Limited, a new Afro Rock outfit fronted by ex-Fraction Sonny Okosun. (These bands soon became known informally as Fela’s “Afro Family,” a movement their patriarch viewed as transformative in the musical and social landscape of Nigeria.)

But the Afro Family was not the only new music movement taking flight in Lagos. Fela’s friend Ginger Baker, drummer of the disbanded London rock trio Cream, had moved to town and set up shop at the Batakoto night club, where he hosted jam sessions with members of the Clusters, by then rechristened the Afro Collection. Baker was working on building a modern recording studio in Lagos, ARC (later also a record label), as well as shooting a film — Ginger Baker in Africa — that would expose Nigeria’s growing underground music scene in London. He lived in Lagos for approximately six years, in the throes of what he called Nigeria’s “flower power era” in the Beware Mr. Baker documentary, greeting Paul McCartney in his studio to record for Band on the Run, while releasing albums by the likes of the Rock Town Express.

Hykkers guitarist Jeff Aham, 1971

The steady work allowed the Hykkers to ground themselves: they bought new instruments and freed themselves from the reliance on Fela; they released their first single, the thunderous “Deiyo Deiyo (Akpunlunwobi)” b/w “I Want a Break Thru’” on HMV, indicating that the group was serious about becoming a permanent feature of the music scene. But there were rifts in the group: On one side were the veteran Hykkers, the young professionals who had played music as a lark, by now in their early thirties and buckling under the mounting pressure of adult responsibility. On the other side, Ify Jerry and Jake Sollo were still in their early twenties and firmly dedicated to music and good times. The older Hykkers seemed not to understand or particularly like some of the “freakier” aspects of the new music culture and appeared less and less interested in performing.

Pat Finn was the first to leave, hanging up his microphone to take a full time job as a television producer. Jeff Afam also wearied of the endless grind and hand-to-mouth subsistence of the musician’s life and secured a decidedly square — but more stable — position in the corporate sector. But as the departed Hykkers grew up and ascended to the buttoned-down ranks of mainstream society, the group’s young lions moved in the opposite direction, digging deeper into the psychedelic underground. Jake Sollo started hanging with Ginger Baker’s clique while Ify Jerry fell in with OFO the Black Company, a visually outlandish rock septet groomed by the Hykkers manager Eddie Roberts.

Increasingly, keeping the Hykkers going seemed like a chore from which few of its members derived joy. The tension came to a head in April 1972 when, after playing a show at Club Chicago in Lagos, the Hykkers stowed their gear at the club for the night and went home. The next morning, the club’s staff opened up to find the instruments smashed to bits.

In trying to piece together what could have transpired, the staffers recalled that Jake Sollo had come back to the club as they were closing up, claiming to have forgotten something and assuring that he would lock up behind him. A police investigation found that he had demolished the instruments himself and he was promptly arrested. Only the intervention of Sollo’s parents — who traveled to Lagos from Enugu — and Roberts’ string-pulling (his father was a former police inspector) saved Sollo from a stint in prison.

But how could an already splintered Hykkers regroup from such an incident? Band solidarity was at an all-time low, so it was decided that this was a good enough a sign as any that it was time for the Hykkers to venture off in separate directions.

Pat Finn professes ignorance of Sollo’s exact motivations but offers a theory: “I know that he had recently gotten admission to the university to study music. I think since he knew that he was leaving the group, he wanted to make sure that the Hykkers didn’t continue and become successful without him.”

The Hykkers would live on: mostly with the man who bore the blame for the group’s destruction. Even as Jake Sollo shortly moved on to join the Funkees and then the UK-based Afro Rock supergroup Osibisa, he remained the most enthusiastic cheerleader for the Hykkers legacy and re-recorded “Deiyo Deiyo” twice during his solo career in the late seventies. Reuniting with Finn in 1981 to produce Finn’s first (and only) solo LP, he floated the idea of reuniting the Hykkers.

“He was so happy to see me, and I was happy to be working with him too,” Pat Finn laughs. “But there was no way I was going to agree to be part of something like that! Not after all that I had already been through with that group!” Wistfully, he adds: “The Hykkers was something we did in the past, and I am proud of it, but let the past stay in the past.”

Excerpted from the Now-Again Records release Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vol. One, available April 15th via Rappcats and other retailers. Each volume is presented as both a hardbound book with CD in a resealable plastic sleeve, and as a double LP with a soft-cover book included in a custom-made 12″x 12″ book holder.

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