FEATURES Moving To The Beat: The Rise And Fall of The Funkees By Dean Van Nguyen · August 12, 2016
The Funkees. Photo by Kartel Music Group

African soul band The Funkees first took the stage in the besieged town of Nkwerre in Nigeria, during the final days of the Nigerian Civil War. Performing at Durumbu Hall in January 1970, the group’s music drowned out the sound of advancing federal forces. With terror on the horizon, locals danced away their last night on Earth.

The military assault was among the final fires in a conflict that broke out toward the end of the 1960s, as the aspirant state of Biafra sought to secede from the rest of Nigeria. The country’s borders had been sketched out by white Europeans with a pencil and a map. Few paid attention to those living in the aftermath.

Biafra represented the nationalist aspirations of the Igbo population in the east, but the breakaway led to a humanitarian disaster. Civilians starved. It was a war the Washington Post in July 1969 described with one word: Genocide.

“It is ugly and extreme, but it is the only word which fits Nigeria’s decision to stop the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other relief agencies, from flying food to Biafra,” the newspaper wrote.

Durumbu Hall survived the night. The Funkees rocked the venue until daylight, and a few days later, the war was officially over. Hauling around their instruments in the aftermath, the group shaped their sound under the tight grip of the victorious Nigerian military, suffering through execution threats and failed attempts to escape. Yet their downfall seven years later was one of rock-n-roll’s most familiar tales, full of in-fighting and industry politics.

During their brief lifespan, The Funkees moved a whole region to the rhythm of their beat. In an era when many of Nigeria’s best acts favored more formal names—think Shina Williams & His African Percussionists, or The Sahara All Stars of Jos—the band etched a groovy manifesto right into their handle.

Funkiness is an intangible quality. It’s something you have, but not something you can teach, trade, or tabulate. The Funkees had it. They were a ball of pure energy, full of smooth, psychedelic guitar riffs, infectious organ stabs, and relentless drums. Their early songs were steeped in the Igbo tradition, but with their chorus-less song structure and horn-heavy orchestration, they drew on the scintillating aspects of James Brown. The Funkees weaved the sound of a grieving nation into their grooves, crafting a rhythm for Nigeria to rebuild its future.

Chaos and Creation

The Funkees emerged during a fertile time in Nigerian music. The shadow of afrobeat deity Fela Kuti loomed over his home nation, but Orlando Julius, Monomono, BLO, The Hykkers and others blazed a creative trail through a country blighted by conflict and suffering.

“When people think about the Nigerian Civil War, or any war in Africa, they think about starving children, and people being slaughtered—and all that stuff did happen,” says Uchenna Ikonne, a Boston-based writer and DJ, who last year completed work on Wake Up You!, a two-disc compilation focused on post-war Nigerian rock. “But at the same time, people were playing music. Even in the midst of a war, life goes on, and people have to find joy one way or another.”

The genesis of the Funkees begins with Harry Mosco, a virtuoso axe man who spent the late ’60s as lead guitarist in highlife band The Music Royals. Led by the great Celestine Ukwu, the group played music that was progressive for its day, but it was Mosco—who used to stride onto the stage in tight pants and dark sunglasses—who stood out.

Mosco and Royals manager Marcel Ihekweme wanted to put together a project that would appeal to his youthful fan base. After flirting with the idea of calling the group Harry Mosco and The MGs (short of Machine Guns), The Funkees first line-up assembled with Bill Ike on lead vocals, Berkley Jones as a guitarist, Felix Umoffia on bass, Pat Moore on organs, and Chyke Madu behind the drums.

Following their debut performance in Nkwerre, the group turned themselves over to Nigerian forces and were sent to Owerri, in the heart of Igboland. The Biafran army had surrendered. As Ikonne details in the accompanying booklet to Wake Up You!, the road to the city was littered with the twisted bodies of the dead.

The Funkees’ next shows were supposed to entertain the triumphant Nigerian soldiers, and to raise the spirits of Igbo locals who feared execution. A failed attempt to flee the military’s grip and escape to Port Harcourt left the band bruised, hogtied, and awaiting death at the hands of angry officers. But their lives were spared, and they were eventually moved to Enugu to reassure ex-Biafran military and other citizens the city was safe. Later, after numerous lineup changes (a theme that would run throughout their existence), the group wound up in Aba, the city with which they’d become most closely associated.

Feel The Rhythm

Nigerian music is often framed as a Lagos-centered movement, but much of the music was born in other regions, with the Igbo east boasting its own distinct flavors.

“When you compare it to the afrobeat side and the Yoruba side in Nigeria, you had a lot of Fela offshoots,” says Quinton Scott, the founder of Strut Records, a British label that reissues African music. “The Igbo thing is just very different. It’s got a different rhythmic flow. The Funkees were also getting inspired by James Brown and Santana and all these different things. The Funkees, in Igbo culture, they were the ultimate band.”

The personnel changes continued in Aba, as members peeled away to restart their education post-war, or abscond to other parts of the country. Some members went back and forth into the band’s roster. Felix Umoffia, Johnny Keri and Mike Kollins were among those to come and go. There is no such thing as the classic Funkees line-up.

It was around this time that percussionist Sonny Akpan joined the group. His rasping congas became one of the band’s key weapons as they moved on from being a primarily U.S. and U.K. covers-based group, to penning original material that would prove the building blocks in a new-age musical revolution.

“Aba was a small heaven for The Funkees,” says Akpan, speaking from his home in London. “It wasn’t a massive city like Lagos. It’s a small city, but very lively. And they loved The Funkees.”

A traditional market town for the Igbo people, Aba was mostly a club-based scene in the early ’70s. People went out to cut loose, and few bands could shake the pillars like The Funkees. They were like The Beatles in the east. There was pandemonium when they walked down the street.

“What kept The Funkees going when we were in Aba was live shows,” Akpan says. “We used to play three live shows in a week. It could have been more, but we’d really come to the point where we shouldn’t kill ourselves so much. Because people loved us, they wanted to see us every second of life.”

Dancing was power in post-war Nigeria. The Funkees thought swaying hips could bring moments of catharsis, like demons were being exorcised.

“People didn’t care anymore about life. People just cared about music, and life goes on,” Akpan recalls. “People danced to feel good and happy, and started to forget about yesterday and the past. Music made people forget about injuries, death, so many things.”

Most of us will never know what it was like to dance at a Funkees live show. There’s no YouTube archive, only the memories of those who attended. Their magic rests in the clubs of Aba and the series of 7-inch records they released during that time.

“Dancing Time,” one of the few original compositions the group recorded in English, is a straight-up call to the floor. Their cover of War’s mournful “Slipping Into Darkness” reflects the band’s painful origin story. But it’s the oblique organs and relentless percussion of “Akula Owu Onyeara” that is perhaps the clearest iteration of the band’s freewheeling brilliance. Mohammad Ahidjo was the band’s lead vocalist at this point, singing to the peak of his voice, like he’s trying to reach to the back of a dancehall without a microphone.

Let Yourself Go

For four years, Aba was a cultural cradle—with new bands, labels, and nightspots popping up weekly. That all started with the popularity of The Funkees, and the band’s momentum could be felt even in the west. They packed up for London in June 1973 for a month of shows, compelled by an association of Nigerian students eager to see one of the country’s most popular acts.

Mosco, Madu, and Ike were still around, alongside Akpan, Jake Sollo on lead guitar, and Danny Heibs on bass. Ahidjo, the voice of the band’s most popular songs, was later summoned at the insistence of a London promoter.

The four-week visit eventually turned into a four-year stay. But London’s seemingly stable political climate proved toxic for a band than survived violent strife back home. According to Ikone’s Wake Up You!, the hard-drinking Bill Ike just stopped showing up for practice.

The Funkees still played the city’s most fashionable clubs; legendary British DJ and tastemaker John Peel became an ally. Leveraging that momentum, they went into the studio in 1974 to record Point of No Return and, in 1976, Now I’m A Man. Slickly produced for western ears, some say the band gave away too much of themselves on those recordings.

“They made those albums with an international audience in mind,” Ikonne says. “The music they put on those albums was very different than the music they had made previously in Nigeria. It was designed to appeal to western tastes.

“One of the things that made them popular in Eastern Nigeria in the first place was the fact that they were so unapologetically Igbo,” he adds. “After the defeat of the war, The Funkees came with this music that was very influenced by Igbo culture. A lot of the songs were in the Igbo language, and they really represented this resurgence of Igbo pride. The music they made in London, they don’t speak Igbo in any of it, and it’s not Igbo-influenced. A lot of the people in Nigeria do not really view those Funkees albums as legitimate. Some people just don’t acknowledge them at all, or they say, ‘That group in London that called themselves The Funkees’.”

The band lost their roots and eventually lost each other. Pop producer John Shroeder wanted to sign them to his label Alaska and secure a deal with Chess Records. But the offer was pulled amid fears The Funkees weren’t as united as they should be. Jake Sollo was quietly trying to cut his own deals. Ahidjo quit without explanation. Heibs left to manage a clothes shop. When I ask Akpan why he left the band, he asserts the reasons are “between me and God.” Of those who pitched up in London four years previously, only Sollo, Mosco and Madu played on Now I’m A Man. In its aftermath, Sollo joined another band, Osibasha.

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP

The Funkees in their final form returned to Nigeria in 1977 to perform at the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos. It should have been a triumphant homecoming—conquerors returning to their native land as national heroes. Instead, the weight of management issues and in-fighting finally broke the band’s back.

Strapped by financial pressures, group members were forced to sell their instruments to lay down enough cash for a return ticket to London. It was a bitter end. The band who once ignored the military at their door had to lay down their arms for good.

Akpan stayed in the music industry, working in Eddie Grant’s band for a long time and as a member of James Brown’s backing group, The JBs. Mosco enjoyed a fruitful solo career until he died in 2012. Many of the other members have either passed on, or are living off the grid. According to Scott, Ahidjo still lives somewhere in London. When approached by Strut a decade and a half ago to perform at a one-off reunion show in Brighton, he told the label head, “If you want me to do the gig, it’s going to be big money. It’s going to take a lot for me to play with those guys again.” Old scars run deep.

As for the Nigerian rock scene, it went the same way as guitar music the world over, with West Africa among the regions to fall under the glittering spell of the disco ball in the late ’70s.

Forty years have passed, and The Funkees are seldom heard in their native land. Nigeria doesn’t dwell on nostalgia like the west. There’s no classic rock magazines in Aba that deify Harry Mosco in the same way Brit publications bend the knee to Jim Morrison.

The Funkees are forever crystallized, though, in the reissues that have streamed out of the region, as well as the minds of those that were there—the people whose pain and suffering were temporarily eased by a guitar riff.

Sonny Akpan is now 68 and battling poor health. He teaches percussion, and, during our phone conversation, offers to give me a congas lesson when the strength comes back to his body.

“I’ll make you feel rhythm, man,” he promises. “I lived in rhythm, I was born in rhythm, and I was born tough, man. And I’ll die tough. What God gave me was rhythm, and I will die with it.”

Dean Van Nguyen

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