“Grotto started in ‘Gregs’ (St. Gregory’s College in Ikoyi, Lagos) around 1973/1974. The original line-up was myself on lead guitar and bass guitar, Martin Amenechi also played both lead guitar and bass and Jimi ‘Skid’ Ikemefuna was on drums. Over the years, the group went through several other members. The members of Ofege were also students in the same school and I also played lead guitar for them. We were all in our teens.
As Grotto, we played a rock/funk fusion. We were probably aged 15, 16 or thereabouts and we were heavily into music; we listened to Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and lots of rock bands like Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. We listened to a lot of rock to learn guitar solos. As I grew older I think I got a bit jazzier, though. I also listened to Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Isley Brothers, Prince and a lot of funk groups from that era.
Odion Iruoje was the A&R manager at EMI at the time and he auditioned us, liked the material and signed us. He also produced our recordings. As a band, we were also very much involved in the production but, being kids then, I’m not sure that we were credited for that on the album.
It was a cool period musically – you could play in several bands based on relationships. A lot of guys moved around. Martin Amenechi, Femi Lasode and Etim Bassey played in a band called War Head Constriction before Grotto but they were also members of Grotto at different points in time.
Most of us were boarders and the school encouraged music and had instruments so we had time to jam and really gel together. Only Martin was a day student. We used to break bounds to go to the studio when we started. The group still continued after we left Gregs. We had to juggle A-Levels with gigs and I completed my studies. We used to skip school whenever we had a show, rehearsal or a recording date. Grotto was a very active live band unlike Ofege, which was mainly a studio band.
My old man was totally against me being involved in music, which is why my picture didn’t appear on the first Ofege album I played on. I was afraid he would spot me and ‘kill’ me! Even the pictures of Grotto were only featured on the back cover of the album, if my memory serves me right.
Apart from our recordings with Odion and EMI, we also started a couple of later projects which remained uncompleted. I think we recorded at Arc Studios (Ginger Baker’s studio in Nigeria) and some other studio I’ve forgotten the name of. Arc Studios was a 16-track studio back then while EMI was just an 8-track studio. So we preferred Arc.
We played at The Shrine with Fela, with Tee Mac, I think, at Batakoto, Blackman Akeeb Kareem at some club in Surulere, with Sonny Okosun at Kakadu, Segun Bucknor at Granada Hotel and lots of other places and with other musicians I don’t recall any more. We also played at UNILAG, the Lagos State Uni… We played a lot. The gigs were not paid as the organisers felt that they were doing us a favour. We all came from relatively comfortable backgrounds so money wasn’t the first consideration. It was like a very serious hobby for us and, besides, not many musicians made much money back then anyway.
We mixed very well in school and had lots of friends. There were lots of female admirers as well since we played some shows as part of our school activities and also played in some girls’ schools like Holy Child, Queens College and one gig at St. Agnes Yaba. The Grotto songs I really liked were ‘Come Along With Me’, ‘Bad City Girl’ and ‘Funk From Mother’. The songs were quite advanced because we were well travelled and well read. We were young but quite mature for our age.
I always travelled out for the holidays so I was able to buy original instruments. I looked up to established cats like Berkeley Jones (from Blo) but I would say that the best guitar players then were people like Tony Isikalu, Martin Amenechi, Erasmus Yurenki and, of course, my humble self.”
Soga Benson (Theophilus Olusoga Shobowale Benson)
“I remember the Grotto audition, they were a bit cocky, St Gregs boys, they had some material that they thought was great, but I felt otherwise. Grotto was a rock group but we needed to get them somewhere original. That was the challenge, not to sound like Ofege or some British rock group, but for them to sound like their authentic self. I was into youth bands at the time, I felt they offered something fresh, most pros were into reggae which I hated (not as a genre but the aping of it).. youth bands allowed me to experiment, I gave them something and they in turn gave me something, which I could take to the next project. They made me in a way. EMI (Nigeria) did not really get the emergence of the youth market, they thought I was fooling around with kids”.
Mr Odion Iruoje
(Resident A&R exec/Producer, EMI Nigeria)
Ghana is a cool country. Fela thought so. For a long time in his formative years, it was where he went to reboot, take refuge and think about his music. It was a place for taking off. Highlife took off here. The first truly West African Modern music. A music that was a true reflection of our aspirations, dreams and struggles.
I love Ghana highlife. You find a lot of Ghana highlife in Nigeria. Some Ghanaian musicians enjoyed so much success in Nigeria, that they spent most of their lives cutting records for Nigerian labels like Okukuseku, Opambuo, Sheggae Reggae, even the mighty African Brothers cut several records in Nigeria. I made this mix after a digging trip to Ghana.
I love 80s boogie. I love it for so many reasons. I was born in the 70s and came into adolescence in the 80s. On vacation from secondary school, I used to go to a dj in Jos, I can’t remember his name. All I remember is he played basketball and was a mad mixer. He would play us songs and we would hand over a list of the latest jams from which he would subsequently proceed to create a mixtape.
Some of his mixes were so intricate, half science, half turntablist artistry. He very ably blended Prince’s “When doves cry”, with UB40’s, “Sing our own song”. The feat was unbelievable in the emotions it provoked. That tape brought great happiness to me and my brother until, it went missing. I wasn’t surprised that it was stolen. Cassettes were a hot commodity. People stole them, so we scratched tell-signs, logos, and initials on the plastic with the hope that being indelible would deter potential thieves. But that rarely worked when the music was this good.
Cassettes were also, susceptible to getting destroyed by the tape player. We bought Chrome tapes, for sound quality and the hope that they would last longer. But those tapes rarely lasted beyond a few months.
I still smile when I remember that mixtape, it was ridiculously high art.
I created the selection below for that dj..
Peace, Light and Love forever and ever and ever and ever… amen…
The biggest South-African musician for most Nigerians is Mariam Makeba, she was the struggle personified, in her we saw the pain, the grace, the royalty, the greatness…
Her music was familiar and foreign at the same time. And when she danced we saw beauty in motion, sensuality and class. She single-handedly started the fixation some Nigerian men have for South African ladies. She came to Nigeria for the first time in the 1960s as a member of the ANC and as a freedom fighter but also as wife to Hugh Masekela, to which this post is dedicated.
A friend told me, Mr Masekela plays an Orlando Julius tune at each concert, any of these three: Asiko, Awaade and Going back to my roots. Actually, Ashiko was first “recorded and produced” by Masekela in 1975. They both worked together in the US and were involved in the disco classic, Going back to my roots, which shares a lot with Ashiko but for which Orlando was not properly credited. The song was originally written for Lamont Dozier (LP, Peddlin’ Music On The Side, 1977, Warner Bros). Masekela was also friends with Fela and he spent time in Nigeria staying and playing with him in the late 70s. He dedicated his album, The Boys Doin’ It, (LP, 1975, Casablanca Records), to him. The album contains a song titled Ashiko, composed by O.J Ekemode AKA Orlando Julius).
I met Hugh Masekela when he came for Lagos Jazz Series 2013 I was shooting the festival for the Organisers and had full access. He was practising Tai Chi behind the live stage and he had a timeless quality like he was hewed from granite. We (Folarin my assistant for the shoot and I) went up to him and asked if we could shoot him privately. He agreed and when he had an hour we took him to the Radisson, set up lights backing the 5 Cowries Lagoon and started shooting.
He had tales for years, the one that stuck was when he was about 17, already a working artist and a member of the cool set of black bohemians. He and his girl at the time, were widely recognised as two of the sharpest dressers around. Alf Kumalo came round looking for a shot for Drum magazine. He told Masekela, “I need you to jump up with you hands spread out like so”. “I knew right away it was a bad idea, but Alf had a way you know, he was very persuasive a bit like you guys…”. The picture came out and it was serialised, it epitomised for many, that bubbling happening jazz revolution that was happening at the time in South Africa.” My girl saw the picture and thought, very rightly that it was the corniest thing ever and she left me.” “I saw her recently and she said, ‘we could have still been together but you had go take that stupid picture”.
Masekela and Makeba were signed to western record labels so their music is widely available they aren’t that much of a thing (rarity value low). Orlando Julius on the other hand for the early part of his career was signed to Nigerian labels (Philips West Africa, Jofabro etc) and his Nigerian releases are highly sought after by dance music DJs and collectors.
“I was just out of senior secondary school and I wanted to make an album. I had this urge. Melodies used to come to me in my sleep and I would wake up and record them on my tape recorder. I would mumble sounds and write lyrics later – it was this big dream born out of dreams. My Dad was creative. He sang traditional music, so he was cool with it, as long as it wasn’t a career choice, just a hobby.
I first thought I needed a record company to sponsor the project so I travelled to Lagos dressed as a hippy with my demo in my pocket. I arrived late so, to save money, I slept under a bridge. I went to EMI in the morning to meet with Odion Iruoje but instead I met with Tony Okoroji who said, ‘we will listen to it and get back to you.’ When I didn’t hear from them, I knew I had to move on.
I was into disco and funk at the time and I was looking for a bass-driven funky sound. The entire idea was to make an album that sounded like something made in London or the U.S. so I tried to sound “American” and did some research on the LPs I loved, from the jacket cover design to the names of the session men. On my album I credited Fred Pants, John Norway, King Gusher, Kif Goods… (laughs), that was the vogue at the time! Although I wanted the album to sound like an American or British production, if you listen to the first track, ‘Get On Down,’ you can hear that we ended up with something else: a mix of American and Nigerian.
My perseverance paid off and I found myself at Goddy Oku’s Godiac 24-track recording studio in Enugu, which was the best studio available there at the time. It was amazing. Frank Izuora, a family friend, heard about my project and was equally enthused so he came down to the studio (Frank was a founding member of the band Question Mark, which was produced by Odion Iruoje in the ‘70s). Frank had since moved to the US and was on holidays back in Nigeria. So, he became involved, he played guitar and actually sang lead vocals on the title track, ‘Friday Night’.
It took about 9 months to a year to make the album. I financed it by myself so I had to resort to friends helping out with loans for session men and studio time. But the 24- track studio was great because if you made a mistake, you didn’t have to do it all again.
The original LP was released on blue vinyl and that idea came from William Onyeabor. We used his pressing plant and he sold the idea to me. It was different so I said ‘why not?’”
“I am from Cameroun and I am primarily a keyboard player. I played keyboards and bass guitar on hundreds of sessions in Lagos and Aba. My background is in jazz and funk – I played as a solo jazz pianist at the Sheraton in Cotonou and worked on projects spanning highlife, jazz and jazz funk. During the late ‘70s, I was employed in a nightclub in Constanza, Cameroon called Club San Francisco. There, we had to play the disco and funk hits every week so I was very popular as a session man with Nigerian musicians looking for that sound. I played on William Onyeabor’s ‘Anything You Sow,’ – there were just three of us. I programmed the drums and played bass and strings live, Dorothy Ipere sang the background vocal parts. She was a classical music singer. I worked on several projects for Afrodisia, EMI and Decca in Lagos. I worked on Odion Iruoje’s ‘Sound President’. All of this prepared me for Livy’s project.
I knew Livy from his interest in music. He came to our shows and, when he introduced the idea of an album to me, I wanted to encourage him. In those days, the keyboard player was often the arranger but this role was rarely acknowledged. The feeling was that, because you were paid as a keyboardist, anything else was part of the job.
On ‘Friday Night’, I used an analogue Moog Synthesizer, a Fender Rhodes piano and a polyphonic Yamaha synthesizer. Livy sang the vocal parts and I played the backing music and we fashioned out the parts for the other instruments on the keyboard.
Interviews by Temitope Kogbe
Sometime in 2015, I got a call from a digger friend, “how much would you pay for Livy Ekemezie’s Friday Night. I sat down, took a deep breath and gave him a number, a high number. He was feeling me out, if the number wasn’t satisfactory, he would move on to the next guy. This was the ritual.
“What if I offered you 10 copies”, “I would pay you the same amount”. I hastened to add. I had on occasion been known to negotiate prices down if and when I was offered a lot of deadstock. This case was different. Friday Night was a one of the big ones, those records you only see on want-lists. A rare record among rare records. A unicorn.
What is the condition of the records, I asked. “oh, they’ve never been played, I have 12 of them”. I received the records and for the first time, held a copy of Friday Night in my hands, most were sealed, so I opened one and played it….. Then I understood why it was so highly sought after…
Hard dance grooves, filtered through 80s syths and punctuated with funky licks from a Fender Rhodes. The voice was funky and embedded in the grooves, the joy of repetition, proto-house, afro-disco boogie, minimal afro.. So many good things going on…
I reached out to my friends around the globe and spread the word. Some established diggers took notice, “Can you help us licence the record”, “The amount you have, suggests you have met the man”… “Are you pressing these records”.. Local diggers got in touch, “we need Livy’s number can you help?” As I meditated on the requests, Javi Bayo a Spanish DJ and longtime friend suggested I put it out myself. “how..”. “Set up a label, licence the record…”.
I made some moves, located Livy’s village, found his sister who after much cajolling, explained that Livy came to the village only rarely and that he was a very reserved man. But you can call him on this number. My first attempts to speak to him were met with silence at the end of the line. She further explained, that Livy worked as a contractor in the upstream oil sector and was concerned about getting kidnapped. I thought about the situation and sent a text message that read, “Dear Sir. You have created a thing of rare musical beauty that has withstood the test of time. Only few career musicians manage this feat. But somehow, by dint of hard work and divine inspiration you achieved it. The work deserves to be re-issued to vindicate your former self for the investment put into this work. To show him that somewhere in this busy world, a raceless tribe found in this rare gem, something worthy of love, respect and recognition.”
Whilst this was going on, a friend from Australia reached out to say that a DJ in New York was putting out a bootleg edit of Classic Lover, a track from the album. I sighed. It was only a matter of time. My Australian mate mentioned that at least four names (reissue labels/DJs) were being bandied by the cognoscenti as being in the process of working on a release of the lp. My mate added, if anybody can make it happen, you can, plus there’s no better way to launch a label.
I sent a text to Livy mentioning the threat of a bootleg. He sent a number, “this is my lawyer’s number please talk to him”. Progress at last. We signed the contracts, two months and three weeks after I sent the text message, in a fast food restaurant in Port-Harcourt. Mr Livy looked frail but in high spirits. He explained that the record was a unique foray into music after which he dropped everything and furthered his studies. He currently has a doctorate degree in marketing. “I had big dreams then, it was designed to appeal to a global audience”… “you achieved it sir, only thirty five years later”. He smiled shyly, “We give thanks..”
we are honoured to officially release this music masterpiece by Livinus Ekemezie, a record so ahead of its time, a document of how sound travels. Released in 1982 on a private label, this sound has travelled from Goddy Oku’s Godiac Studios in Aba, to the dance floors of Lagos, Port Harcourt, Berlin, London, Paris, Detroit and New York. The vocals are undeniably Nigerian, however the sound of the record is harder to place. This was Livy’s idea and he achieved it wholesomely. He wanted to travel in sound and he did. This holy-grail lp has been on the top 5 lists of most collectors and diggers of afro-boogie.
Official release date is 10th March 2017, pre-orders available from Strut/K7.
Legendary EMI Nigeria producer Odion Iruoje and rare African music collector Temi Kogbe have launched a new label called Odion Livingstone, a brand new venture out of Lagos, Nigeria in association with Strut Records. The label is one of the only imprints based in Nigeria to specialize in new and back catalogue releases from across Africa, bringing a fresh African perspective.