Grooving Through 1980s Lagos and Livy Ekemezie’s “Friday Night”

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Livy Ekemezie

Throughout the 1970s, Nigeria’s population healed from the trauma of a bloody civil war in local nightclubs and dancehalls. The gritty axe lines, dirty amps and fiery psychedelia of afro-rock pathfinders like The Funkees, Blo and Monomono sounded like both the end of the world and the crack and boom of a nation rising from the ashes. Still, there was one question these bands could never answer: how do you strut your stuff like Rick James?

By the 1980s, Nigeria’s music scene was recast. Oil-fueled economic growth, coupled with a relatively stable democratic government following a series of dictatorships, altered the nation’s DNA. The youth had cash in their pockets, and style was a priority. The crackle and pop of VHS technology brought slick new music video-ready outfits. Out went the bellbottoms; in came the leather jackets, sharp suits and Michael Jackson curls.

Afro-rock and traditional highlife music had been distinctly west African in execution. In their place came brash new forms of pop, boogie, funk and disco that lifted its stylistic direction directly from the US. The music of natty R&B groups like Cameo and Midnight Express became sacred doctrine. Artists like Nkono Telles, Tony Essien and ex-Funkees man Jake Sollo followed their groovy manifesto. Synthesizers and drum machines were the new weapons to make hips sway. Dancehalls stopped booking live bands; instead they wanted the electronic groove of studio recordings.

Nigeria’s largest city had been a breeding ground for afro-rock and afrobeat music in the 1970s. By the turn of the decade, the sounds had changed but the city was still buzzing. Businessmen with little passion for music took money from other ventures and put it toward the music industry in the hope of producing hit records and reaping the financial reward.

“You had a lot of people from other countries that came to Lagos because there was the studios, the labels, the pressing plants—there was everything in Lagos,” says Temitope Kogbe, co-founder of the Odion Livingstone label. “You had a lot of transborder inflows from Cameroon and Ghana—people coming in to work in Lagos. It made the music so much more interesting.”

A dedicated crate digger, Kogbe has long helped European labels license old African music as reissues of classic tracks started streaming out of the region at the turn of the 20th century. It was only recently, though, that a friend of Kogbe suggested that instead of helping foreign companies, he should funnel his knowledge and connections into his own enterprise. Working with famed producer Odion Iruoje, the pair’s Lagos-based Odion Livingstone label is believed to be one of the only Nigerian imprints to specialize in new and back catalogue African music. Its debut release is Friday Night, a full-length that sounds distinctly like the nation and era from which it sprouted, with a swagger that would’ve made Dick Griffey, founder of the influential California funk label SOLAR Records, weak at the knees.

“There was a disco-funk scene that was happening, but it was very collaborative. It was small labels, all trying to put out bigger funk hits,” Kogbe says of Nigeria in the early ’80s. “The sound was boogie-funk. A more direct, more funky variety of funk. It didn’t sound like American funk. It was a bit of a heavier experience than American funk. [Nigerian artists] went heavy on the synths, they went heavy on bass lines, the vocals were wacky, but everything was so funky.”

Hoping to break his way into the scene was Livy Ekemezie, a kid from the southern Nigeria port town of Port Harcourt, who grew up listening to Kool & the Gang and The Whispers. Released in 1983, his one and only album Friday Night—recently reissued on new label Odion Livingstone—distills the era’s electro odyssey. It’s seven uptown disco grooves, complete with funky guitar licks, shake-your-ass drum beats, catchy melodies, cute lyricism and basslines that slap really, really hard.

“We were all trying to make something good,” Ekemezie tells me over the phone during his first ever interview, I’m told, with a publication outside of Nigeria. “Trying to make good lyrics, to make the music acceptable, both commercially and otherwise. I was a very young man then. I think I made the right journey for that time. I was out to come up with something good, which I feel I did as much as I could.”

Ekemezie was fresh out of high school with only a tape recorder to his name when the urge to make an album began to tug at him. Melodies would come to him in his sleep, which he’d later preserve on the analogue device. Ekemezie’s father, a singer, encouraged him to pursue music as a hobby, not a career, but the message wouldn’t stick. Instead, Livy traveled to Lagos dressed as a hippy and with a demo tape in his pocket. Forget funding the recording of an album, the young guitarist didn’t have enough cash on his hip to get around. To save money, he started sleeping under a bridge.

Can’t Knock The Hustle

Friday Night was made possible by Ekemezie’s unwavering enterprise. As an unknown kid from out of town, he arrived in Lagos with an improbable ambition—to break into the music industry by cramming all his ideas into an album. In another universe, Levy gives up on the dream, returns to Port Harcourt with his melodies still embedded into a dirty homemade cassette tape, and ‘80s Nigeria is less funky place. If you want to cut great records, sometimes your hustling instincts need to be as sharp as your musicianship.

Making his way around the city, Ekemezie struggled to drum up label support. He even tried to bring the project to one of the men who would later helm the reissue: “I went to various record companies, including Odion Iruoje’s office in Lagos with EMI. I met Tony Okoroji there. From that process I went, slept, and had to wait for them to get back [laughs]. I was trying to come up with these efforts. I waited for them after a while, they didn’t respond to me. So I took the bull by the horns.”

Without a lot of options, Ekemezie opted to create his album independently. He travelled to disco musician Goddy Oku’s lush Godiac 24-track recording studio in Enugu, a city in the southeast. A key component of the project fell into place when Frank Izuora, a family friend of Ekemezie, arrived at the studio. Izoura was a founding member of the band Question Mark, but had since moved to the US. As luck would have it, Izoura was on a visit to Nigeria at the time of recording, lending his axe to the record and singing lead vocals on what would become the title track. “You can say he put a kind of American sound on there,” Ekemezie says.

Recording took somewhere between nine months to a year to complete as Ekemezie tried to find the money to finance finishing the album. Operating as the singer, songwriter and a guitarist, he needed to tap friends for loans to pay for necessary session men and studio time. “I was a young person with no source of income to put the money to come up with this. That’s just how serious and how dedicated I was then, he explains. “Finance was hard. But I really enjoyed what I was doing.”

Friday Night captures the sweaty grubbiness of a late night lurch through the neon lights and lasers of a packed Lagos discotheque. The title track makes use of an analogue Moog synthesizer, a Fender Rhodes piano and a polyphonic Yamaha synthesizer, all played by talented Cameroonian keyboardist and session man Jules Elong. The result is a dense, infectious arrangement. Over the top, Izuora tries to entice his “disco lady” to get into the groove: “Girl it’s Friday night/It’s a disco night/We’re going to dance the whole night long/Until the music stops.” For a call to the floor, that’s all you need.

On “Holiday Actions”—which also appears on Soundway Records’ excellent scene-capturing compilation Doing It In Lagos (Boogie, Pop & Disco In 1980s Nigeria)—the mirror ball glitters and strobes as the rubber bass line, chirpy guitar licks and sharp sax blasts interlock. Not just a one-trick record, “I Wan’ My Bab’ Back” is lurching country ballad featuring the kind of offbeat guitar lines that would make modern day renaissance man Beck bend the knee.

But at its core, Friday Night is a bold concoction that connects the New York disco scene of the 1970s to the melodic chords and bass-heavy arrangements of post-disco boogie, and even the daring future sounds of EDM. “It sounded like disco, but almost like a house record,” says Kogbe. “For somebody to be coming up with that kind of sound, which for ‘82 was very early and very strange.”

Trying To Survive

Friday Night was pressed onto glorious blue vinyl at the pressing planet of recently-departed Nigerian music pioneer William Onyeabor. But without the financial firepower for a large roll out, the record didn’t find a wide-scale audience. After just a handful of gigs and one album, Ekemezie left the music industry.

“There wasn’t a compelling reason to continue,” explains Kogbe. “If there was a big hit it would have justified [Ekemezie getting] back onto a scheduled with his education. If he had a hit he’d of been able to say, ‘Look guys, there’s all this money over here,’ but that didn’t happen.”

Kogbe continues, “He just closed it down, which I think is a very Nigerian thing. One door closes and another door opens. People don’t spend too much time worrying why or questioning why, they move on. I think that’s a very [common] characteristic of the Nigerian. We’re not very sentimental about the life of an artist. You find a lot of people who moved on from creating art to just doing something totally different.”

Ekemezie instead went to school to improve his academics before pursuing more common career paths. He says the loss of his parents also deeply affected him and the way things have shaken out in his life. “I was trying to survive, but I had a lot of songs unrecorded.”

With the reissue of Friday Night comes an opportunity for it to find a new audience. Kogbe suspects presales alone outstripped the reach of the original release. For Ekemezie, delving back into his musical past has been a gift. “I love all of them,” he says of his fans, new and veteran. “I appreciate all of them. Especially people who took time to look for me and were able to find me. All the listeners of these songs, I owe them a lot. The kind of music we’ve got now, people don’t sit down and think about the lyrics and what they are writing about. We have to concentrate on things that have meaning, that can attract and bring us together.”

The reissue of Friday Night sees Livy Ekemezie’s legacy belatedly crystalized. Drop the needle and from the depths of its grooves you can hear the healing process. A once divided nation glued together by bass. This is music that encapsulates Nigeria’s new-age bluster. Livy, though, just wanted to you dance.

Dean Van Nguyen

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