One night in 1967 while hanging out at Bar Beach in Lagos, Sir Victor Uwaifo met a mermaid. “Suddenly, I observed a figure coming towards me, and before I knew it the figure was right before me,” Uwaifo told an interviewer in 2014. “I screamed,” Uwaifo admitted. But the mermaid meant him no harm. For you see, in a sort of aquatic equivalent of the time Schoolboy Q accidentally met the boyfriend of a woman he was sleeping with, Uwaifo ran into her, she’s a fan (goddamn). “I just thought the mermaid loved music, otherwise it would have harmed me.”
Victor Uwaifo – sorry that’s Sir Victor Uwaifo – is something of a towering figure in Nigerian music, especially if you ask Victor Uwaifo – his website refers to him as “the music superstar and living legend” because fuck yeah. You can’t really begrudge the guy an ego: he had the first gold record in Africa in 1966,* he was appointed a Member of the Order of the Niger – the first professional musician in Nigeria to receive the award, in your face Fela Kuti – and he invented an 18-string double-necked “magic guitar” that he can “rotate 360 degrees at the speed of sound” which I hope to god is not a translation error.
In an event that should be treated as front-page news – or at least merit a full-page ad – Strut Records has released the first Nigeria 70 compilation in eight years. The inaugural Nigeria 70 – Funky Lagos, released in 2001 – is a seminal part of the revitalization of western African music abroad. It features the first Western appearances of both William Onyeabor – who counts David Byrne as one of his biggest champions – and Nigerian rock gods MonoMono- one of my personal favorites.
This installment of the series – subtitled No Wahala, which is Nigerian slang for “no big deal” – focuses on the intersection between the musics of Nigeria and Benin, personified by Uwaifo. Uwaifo came up as a high school bandleader in Lagos with fellow Nigerian luminaries Segun Bucknor and Victor Olaiya – dubbed “The Evil Genius of Highlife.” When American soul was particularly popular in Lagos, Uwaifo pioneered a new dance called “shadow,” before returning to ekassa, a more traditional form of Beninese music.
No Wahala, which covers highlife, juju, and afro-funk from 1973 1987, includes a track from Uwaifo’s ekassa period – a spicy flute-assisted number called “Iziegbe.” Also present: the chiming guitars of highlife on Prince Nic Mbarga’s “Sickness” and block rocking afro-funk from Felixson Ngasia on “Black Precious Color.” Don Bruce’s “Kinuye,” where arpeggiated guitars give way to a steady-like-a-train rhythm, is the midpoint between the two genres and my favorite thing here.
Uwaifo, to borrow a phrase from The Style Boyz, never stopped never stopping: he performed at the UN Golden Jubilee Celebration; he’s a trustee at the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, where he mentors young musicians; and he got a masters from the University of Benin in 1994. Along the way, he also invented a guitar with a keyboard embedded in it and a sports car that he still drives. Most importantly though, he found time to create a sculptural representation of that selfsame mermaid. That way, he can always remember the advice she gave him that night: “If you see mammy water, never you run away.”
*I think. Depending on which source you consult, Uwaifo either got the first “golden record” for “Nigeria, West Africa and Africa” presented to him by Philips, West Africa, or he won the first gold disc award in Africa.