So says the Yoruba proverb that inspires “E Ma S’eka” by Bola Johnson & The Easy Life Top Beats. The phrase is a prayer for good luck — a votive aspiring for existence to be bountiful and yamtastic, an ideal that even Kanye couldn’t disapprove of. And indeed, Nigerian music at the dawn of the 70s was about to enter a golden era, fueled by an oil boom, the advances of higher education, and transcendent artistry. Hence, the tile of Sweet Life, the latest compilation from crate-digging kings, Strut Records. Like its predecessors, the third volume of the Africa ’70 series is curated by the dusty-fingered Duncan Brooker, a Brit who has proven to have impeccable taste and abyssal resources in tracking down rare gems.
Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade cast a supreme shadow over Nigerian music, obscuring the depth and extreme variety of styles (Afro-Beat, Highlife, Juju). Often lumped into the broad category of African, Nigerian music operates under a singular metronome, delineated by region but always funky. It balances the gritty with the orchestral, the urban with a rural big-sky infinity. Bola Johnson is one of the Griots who never became a full-fledged great. He was born in ’47, dropped out of school at 15, and arrived in the capitol by the late 60s. A few years prior he’d been a teenage signing to the West African Phillips label, cut a few 7-inches and progressively discovered ways to merge American soul with the his highlife roots.
But his timing was off — it was difficult for him to procure instruments for his band, Fela’s rise meant Afro-Beat supplanted Highlife as the sound of Lagos, and Civil Wars raged on. He eventually turned to radio broadcasting, keeping music as a sideline till this day. Listening to “E Ma S’eka” it’s not hard to tell why — he and the Top Beats could make flute trills sound everlastingly funky, guitar lines drift like a palm wine high, and Johnson’s voice guiding the deep groove. Best enjoyed alongside this recipe.