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Musical Vitality Wanes : In Nigeria, Only the Beat Goes On

September 19, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

LAGOS, Nigeria — As Art Alade took his place at the piano in the basement club known as Art's Place, the ratio of musicians to audience members gave him pause: There were three sidemen on stage behind him and four people at the tables in front.

The percussionist led Alade into a jazz-accented Yoruba tune. It was the kind of thing Lagos was once famous for, a traditional rhythm blending with a piano style reminiscent of Earl (Fatha) Hines. The scattered guests swayed to the music, mouthing and echoing the familiar lyrics. When the music ended, Alade stepped off the stage.

"We're just trying to keep our heads above water," he said.

Discotheque Scene

Another Lagos Saturday night. Across town, in a multistoried building sporting a neon sign that reads "Night Shift," the seats were filled with Nigeria's elite, their gold jewelry and studded bangles glinting off the mirrored walls, while outside there were more parking attendants than there were paying guests in Alade's club. The computer-controlled curtain peeled away from a thrust stage at one end to reveal Lagos' current pop-music heartthrob, Mike Okri, lip-syncing the hit tune from his first album.

These are the two extremes in what was once Africa's most vital musical center. Taken together, they all but define the challenges facing Nigerian music: On the one side, economic hardship, and on the other, Western-style commercialism.

In the last few years most of the live-music clubs have disappeared from this city whose night life was once a byword. Springing up to replace many of them are discotheques like Night Shift, where the recorded music adds nothing to overhead, thanks to Nigeria's lax copyright and royalty laws.

Stars of Renown

The decline in Nigerian music is all the more startling because this country once gave the world its best taste of African rhythm and its greatest variety. Among the enduring stars it sent on to world renown are Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, an obstreperous instrumental genius and political gadfly, and King Sunny Ade, a master of the percussive polyrhythms that give Nigerian music the air of always having so much going on.

For a time, there was no place in Africa where artistic innovation was as exciting as in Lagos. Part of the reason was the sheer vitality of Nigerian culture. Every traditional rite had its associated musical form.

"In every sphere of our life, music is important," says Alade. "Naming ceremonies, marriages, burials. . . ."

Today, however, Nigerian music's stature as an influential art form is in peril and by far the greatest threat to it is the country's dismal economy. Under a government-decreed austerity program, the currency has been devalued by more than 50% in the last three years. The price of necessities, not to mention luxuries, has soared, stripping even middle-class Nigerians of their discretionary income and keeping them out of the clubs.

As purchasing power has plummeted, the crime rate has soared. Fretful Nigerians have deserted the streets and highways after dark. For a club scene in which the action seldom starts until 2 a.m. or later, that is a blow.

"In the '60s and '70s we didn't have armed robbers, people afraid for their safety," says Chief Ebenezer Obey, a baby-faced, soft-spoken innovator whose canvas is juju music, a highly popular party music relying on the extended repetition of guitar and drum phrases and lyrics focusing, as one commentator recently put it, on "religion, money, jealousy."

That's from the audience's standpoint. Seen from the musicians' angle, the picture is even grimmer. Instruments are virtually unaffordable even for established professionals, who often have to borrow theirs. The fall of the naira, the Nigerian currency, has compounded difficulties traceable back to 1978, when musical instruments were classed as luxury items--along with champagne, for instance--that were banned imports.

So students have nothing on which to practice. Working drummers can't even get drumsticks and guitar players can't replace their strings.

"We manage, manage, manage," says John Medua, Art Alade's guitar man. "When friends come back from the U.K., I might get one or two packets of strings, and I conserve them for a long, long time."

All these elements work more against live music than against disco.

Copyright Campaign

"The clubs have moved into disco, because they can get away with not paying copyright fees," says Tony Okoroji, a producer for EMI (Nigeria) who for two years as president of the Professional Musicians Assn. of Nigeria has led a fight to secure stronger copyright protection.

Meanwhile, he says, an audience that hears more Western pop than ever before has become fed up with the slapdash nature of much Nigerian live music.

"Taste is getting more sophisticated. No one wants to go to a cheap concert with lousy instruments and an old PA system."

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