All too often, innovative music isn’t appreciated when it’s released. It passes almost unnoticed. Apart from a few people, who realize the importance of the music, and champion it passionately, it can be years, even decades later, that the importance of an artist or album is recognized. This has been the case with so many artists, including Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Peter King.
For those still to discover Peter King’s music, his name is synonymous with his Miliki Sound, a captivating fusion of African musical genres and influences. Peter released seven albums between 1975 and 2002. His debut album was Miliki Sound. That shouldn’t have been the case. Instead, Shango should’ve been his debut album. Recorded in 1974, in Camden, London, using the money Peter was paid to write the music that accompanied a political documentary, Shango lay unreleased. Discovered again in 2002 by Strut Records, who released the album for the first time, Shango was discovered by a new generation of music fans who’d been introduced to Afrobeat through in the eighties. Now eleven years later, Shango has been long out of print. So, Mr. Bongo Records recently rereleased a remastered version of Peter King’s lost album Shango, which I’ll tell you about.
Peter King was born in 1938, in the Enugu region of Nigeria. Growing up, he moved between Lagos, Port Harcourt and Lokoja. Aged just nineteen, Peter moved to Ibadan and joined the Roy Chicago Band. Initially, he played double bass and alto saxophone. After this he joined other bands in Ibadan and later, Lagos. Soon, he was playing double bass, drums and alto saxophone. Having honed his technical skills, Peter decided the had come to spread his wings musically. So he headed to London to study music at some of the city’s most prestigious colleges.
1960 saw Peter moved to London to study music. He played saxophone, flute, piano, drums, double bass and violin when he studied at various colleges. This included the Central School of Music, the Guild Hall in 1961 and Trinity College of Music in 1963. Graduating in 1966, Peter formed his first band in London, The African Messengers.
Following his graduation Peter met trumpeter Mike Falana and drummer Boyo Martins. Together, they became the African Messengers. Not only were they a prolific live act, but released numerous singles. Their best known single is Highlife Piccadilly. When they were neither playing live nor recording, they were the backing group for many Motown artists. Among them were Diana Ross, The Four Tops and The Temptations. Not content with playing in one group whilst in London, Peter King formed The Blues Builders. Like the African Messengers, The Blues Builders were a prolific live band, playing all over Europe and north Africa. However, when Peter returned home in 1969, he formed another group.
On his return home to Nigeria, Peter’s formed another group, Voice of Africa. At one point, they even played in the middle of a war zone during the Nigerian Civil War. Voice of Africa were short-lived. When Peter returned to London in 1971, it was with Shango, his latest band. They toured Britain, Europe and America, further reinforcing Peter’s reputation as a musician.
By 1971, critics were comparing Peter to some musical legends. His playing style was compared to John Coltrane, Gene Ammons and Sonny Rollins. Key to this was his ability to improvise and his tonality. Like Trane, Peter is the consummate professional. Even when he kicks loose, his playing is copybook. No wonder. Peter King was into his third decade as a professional musician. Unlike his peers and compatriots, Peter King was still to make his recording debut. That would happen in a roundabout way.
After forming Shango, Peter was asked to write the score to a political documentary. This he did. With the money he received for writing the score, he decided, he’d use to record Shango’s debut album. Rather than record the album in Nigeria, Peter decided to head the by now, familiar surroundings of London. At Camden Town Studios Shango set about recording what they must have hoped was the first of many albums.
At Camden Town Studios, Shango recorded eights songs written, arranged and produced by Peter King. He played tenor and alto saxophone, flute, piano, violin, percussion and sang. Accompanying him were a rhythm section of drummer James Menin, bassist David Williams and guitarist Arthur Simon. Humphrey Okoh-Turner played alto saxophone, Mike Falana trumpet and Paul Edoh congas. With the eight songs that became Shango recorded, Peter must have thought that given his reputation as an innovative and progressive musician, Shango would released.
That wasn’t the case. Having spoken to record labels, Peter couldn’t find a label willing to release Shango. Disappointed to say the least, a small crumb of comfort was that Sonny Roberts, a Jamaican producer and owner of the Orbitone label, wanted to sign Peter. Between 1975 and 1978 Peter released the first of four solo albums for Orbitone. His debut was 1975,s Miliki Sound, followed by 1976s Omo Lewa then 1977s A Soulful Peter King and 1978s Moods. After Moods, Peter released African Dialects on Grandstar. That proved to be the last solo album Peter would release for twenty-three years.
1979 saw Peter return to Festa in Nigeria with his wife and family. This was he built his home, which has a musical school next door to it. The Peter King College of Music was what Peter dedicated his life to. Then in 2002, Strut Records approached him about rereleasing Shango.
At last, Shango a forgotten musical gem was unearthed. Twenty-eight year after its release Shango was released to critical acclaim. Hailed as a lost classic, it was a reminder of one of Nigeria’s greatest musicians. Who knows how different things might have been for him if Shango was released in 1974? While Peter was neither as well known nor prolific as Fela Kuti, Peter King certainly wasn’t lacking in talent. You’ll realize that when I tell you about Shango.
Shango opens with soaring harmonies, rolls of drums and quivering flute unite. Blazing horns join a pounding, funky rhythm section and crystalline guitars in driving the arrangement along. A fusion of James Brown inspired funk is combined with jazz, Afrobeat, highlife and Peter’s soulful, impassioned vocal. Arthur Simon unleashes a jazz-tinged guitar solo that’s reminiscent of Wes Montgomery and Norman Harris. Meanwhile horns blaze and percussion is sprinkled across the arrangement. Stabs of horns fill the spaces left by the vocal, before Peter unleashes a dramatic, frenzied, saxophone solo. Funky, soulful and jazz-tinged, it’s a track where musical influences and genres meet head on.
There’s a much more thoughtful, understated sound to Prisoner Of Law. A spacious arrangement, sees wistful horns, chiming guitars and ponderous bass join forces. Having set the scene, the alto-saxophone takes centre-stage, producing a heartbreaking sound, that reflects the pain, suffering and agony suffered by a Prisoner Of Law. Meanwhile, the rhythm section play around the horns, while the jazzy guitar provides a subtle, contrast, albeit one that’s melancholy. Chanted harmonies plead, their emotive vocals reflecting the suffering of the Prisoner Of Law.
Mr. Lonely Wolf sees the understated sound continue. Just brief bursts of chiming guitar and rasping horns, join percussion and the rhythm section. A flute escapes from the arrangement, meandering along. Accompanied by scatted harmonies its wistful sound is a perfect fit for the fusion of guitar and percussion. Later, the flute is replaced by the guitar, and Arthur Simon plays a starring role in this understated, emotive and quite beautiful fusion of soul, jazz and Afrobeat.
Stabs of braying horn and joyous vocals signal the start of the Freedom Dance. Horns join forces with percussion and crystalline, chiming guitar as the rhythm section propel the arrangement along. Defiant cries of “freedom” from Peter aren’t just idle talk. Far from it. Peter once played in a war zone. He then unleashes a blistering saxophone solo. Combining power, passion and control, he’s responsible for one of the best solos on Shango. Not only that, but his saxophone solo is at the heart of this defiant and celebratory track.
Funky and dramatic describes the introduction to Go Go’s Feast. Propelled along by chiming guitars, ponderous drums and blasts of blazing horns, Peter delivers a probing vocal. Grizzled horns riff, following the lead of the guitar. Having set the scene, the guitar fills in the gaps, laying down some intricate jazzy lines. Brash bursts of braying horns provide a contrast. Gradually, everyone wants their moment in the sun. Taking turns, drums pound, horns blaze and bray as Peter and his band demonstrate their inconsiderable skill and versatility. In the process, they up the funk quotient, adding equal measures of jazz, Afrobeat and highlife into the musical melting pot. The result is a delicious dish, tasted often.
Mystery Tour is the perfect title for this track. It’s not unlike heading off on a magical, musical mystery tour. The destinations seem to be funk, jazz and Afrobeat. Having said that, it’s not just any funk. Initially, it’s a space-age brand of funk. Soon, normality is returned. While the rhythm section provide the heartbeat, Peter showboats on the saxophone. Unleashing another peerless saxophone solo, sharp, dramatic bursts of horns are augmented by the guitar and space-bass. Sounding like a fusion of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis circa Bitches Brew, Fela Kuti, Wes Montgomery and Funkadelic, psychedelia meets funk, jazz and Afrobeat to create an innovative, progressive fusion of musical genres and influences.
Now I’m A Man is another celebratory sounding track. From the opening bars, it bursts into life. As we’ve come to expect, it’s a fusion of styles. Veering between jazz, funk, Afrobeat and free jazz the horns are at the heart of the action. Along with chiming guitars, percussion and the rhythm section, the create a joyous, hopeful, dance-floor friendly sound that’s uplifting and truly irresistible.
Closing Shango is Watusi, a track that initially, sounds as if it belongs on a classic Blaxploitation soundtrack. Driven along by the uber funky rhythm section, bursts of celebratory harmonies fill the spaces left by the braying horns. Guitars chime, their urgent sound trying to keep up with the bass and keyboards. At breakneck speed, Peter King and his band seamlessly combine musical genres and demonstrate their versatility and talent. Like so many albums, the best of Shango, has been kept to last with the joyous and hook-laden Watusi.
On its release, Shango was described as Peter King’s lost classic. That was no exaggeration. From the opening bars of Shango, right through to Watusi it’s all killer and no filler. Given how good Shango is, why it wasn’t released seems strange. After all it’s a truly innovative album of progressive music. Fusing Afrobeat, funk, jazz, psychedelia and soul Peter King doesn’t put a foot wrong. Shango should’ve been the album that it introduced the world to Peter King. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. A really accessible album and truly irresistible album, Shango is filled with delicious rhythms. Although just eight songs and forty-five minutes long, it’s an almost flawless album. Best described as a joyous, uplifting and irresistible musical experience, sometimes it’s melancholy and wistful, other times, Shango is a call to dance, one you can’t help but submit to. It’s almost mocking you, daring you to submit to its glorious rhythms. Having said all that, there’s much more to Shango than some delicious rhythms.
Listen carefully to Shango, and the music is intricate, multilayered and complex. You’ll hear subtleties, surprises and nuances. Musical genres and influences melt into one. They were thrown into the musical melting pot by Peter King. Given a stir, Shango, Peter King’s eclectic fusion of styles and influences, is a dish that’s best delicious and best tasted often, by discerning musical diners. Standout Tracks: Prisoner Of Law, Mr. Lonely Wolf, Go Go’s Feast and Mystery Tour.