Sisters leave a mark on Nigeria's music sceneBy BILLIE ODIDI | Wednesday, April 18 2012 at 13:38
Nigeria emerged as a potent musical force in the late 1960s and 1970s with a rich amalgamation of influences, from highlife, jazz and big bands.
The biggest names were Juju music star King Sunny Ade, who performed with a band of more than 20 musicians and Fela Kuti, who single-handedly spread the influence of Afro beat as a genre.
Other successful Nigerian musicians in the 1970s were guitar wizard Victor Uwaifo, Prince Nico Mbarga, whose pan African hit Sweet Mother sold 13 million copies, and Sonny Okosun, who experimented with highlife and reggae and is best remembered for Fire in Soweto, an international hit in 1977.
In the male-dominated Nigerian music industry, there were a few exceptions; women who held their own and emerged as stars. Salawa Abeni, gained fame and respect in the early 1970s, raising the profile of Waka, the traditional Yoruba music style, dominated by throbbing percussions.
Abeni is still adored in Nigeria, not just for her music, but also for speaking out on social issues, like the mistreatment of women.
Also creating a huge impact at the same time was a group of identical twin sisters born in the city of Jos, Northern Nigeria. The Lijadu Sisters, Taiwo and Kehinde, were born on October 22, 1948 and got their first taste of music when their mother introduced them to the sounds of Victor Olaiya, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.
They also happened to be second cousins to Nigeria’s greatest ever musician, Fela Kuti, and the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka.
The sisters say their music always drew inspiration from the socially conscious art of their iconic relations.
“Artistes should be the voice of the world. Not just of their own people, but of the wider world, for a problem which faces one, faces all.”
They started their own song-writing at an early age and before long had been recruited as session singers. Their first hit, Iya Mi Jowo (Mother Please), written by Taiwo, was released by the Nigerian subsidiary of Decca Records in 1968.
"The music business was hard for women in Nigeria," says Taiwo.
"Back then, they didn't think women had brains."
In 1971, the sisters met the British drummer Ginger Baker, who had set up the first 16 track-recording studio in Lagos and had been working with Fela. This meeting led to a chance for them to join Baker at a cultural festival held alongside the Munich Olympics in Germany in 1972.
The Lijadu Sisters recorded four albums on the Afrodisia label, a subsidiary of Decca Records West Africa, which was a major powerhouse in Nigerian music, releasing some of the most sought after Funk, Highlife and Afrobeat by Fela Kuti, The Oriental Brothers International Band and Chief Ebenezer Obey.
The albums were Danger in 1976, Mother Africa in 1977, Sunshine in 1978, and Horizon Unlimited in 1979.
Mixing Afrobeat with jazz and disco, they sometimes sung in English and other times in their native Yoruba and other local dialects. Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and producer Adeniyi “Biddy” Wright, whose mother was childhood friends with the sisters’ mother, played the guitar and funky organ on all four of their classic 1970s albums.
The music blended heavyweight Afrobeat with psychedelic Afro-Rock, High-Life, Disco and Soul in a truly unique combination.
The Lijadu Sisters were also featured in documentary Konkombe: The Nigerian Pop Music Scene by British director Jeremy Marre’s film in 1979. By the 1980s, their international profile was further enhanced by the release of the compilation album Double Trouble by the US label Shanachie Records while Horizon Unlimited was reissued by the British label, Earthworks.
In 1988, after a performance in the US with King Sunny Ade’s band African Beats, The New York Times described the twins as ‘a West African parallel to the Pointer Sisters: smiling free spirits, wearing dresses cut from the same fabric, mixing sisterly banter and flirtatiousness.’
Their years in the US were spent in Brooklyn, performing in clubs in Manhattan and Harlem. After touring the US with King Sunny Ade, various major international record labels came knocking on their door.
However, tragedy hit the group when Kehinde suffered serious spinal injuries after falling in the twins’ apartment building in the US. She recalls that the first doctor she saw gave her just six months to live and after that, then she was told that she would never walk again. During this period, the Lijadu Sisters stayed out of the public eye and Kehinde eventually overcame her injuries.
They prematurely retired from the music business and settled in New York City where they have spent the last 30 years languishing in obscurity.
Thanks to a renewed interest in classic Nigerian soul and funk, record companies are drudging up the archives to reissue past releases. The Lijadu Sisters have been thrust back in the spotlight with the reissue of their finest catalogue from the 1970s.
Four out of print albums by the twins, have been remastered and released for the first time on CD by Knitting Factory, a New York record company which has also made some of Fela’s rarities available.
The group accuses their original record company of robbing them from the sales of their music: “Decca sold 50,000 copies in three months,” Kehinde says, “but we were only paid once for royalties from all four albums.”
The twins were also left fuming after American Hip-hop star Nas, sampled an entire chorus of their song Life’s Gone Down Low, originally on the album Danger, without their knowledge. “He took our song!” they say.
The Lijadu Sisters were the most successful female group in Nigeria in the 1970s and managed to overturn many stereotypes and attitudes as they carved out a unique space for themselves in a predominantly male arena.
The twins, now 63 years old, are still enchanting as they were at the peak of their fame. They dress alike and complete each other’s sentences and a fully recovered Kehinde can dance once more.
“It is decades since we performed publicly,” she says, “but now we are ready, and the music will be of today.”
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