CULT CLASSICS: VICTOR CHUKWU-AKALAKA-/UNCLE VICTOR CHUKS AND THE BLACK IROKOS-THE POWER.
Cult Classics: Victor Chukwu–Akalaka /Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos–The Power.
By 1977, Victor Chukwu was regarded as one of masters of Igbo highlife and over the next two years recorded two of his most important and rarest albums. The first was a solo album Akalaka, and the second was The Power which was credited to Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos. These albums are a reminder of Victor Chukwu’s unique brand of Igbo highlife. It’s feelgood music that is uplifting, dignified and spiritual that played and continues to play an important part in Igbo culture.
The roots of Igbo highlife can be traced to the late-fifties, and Onitsha, a city which was located on the banks of the Niger River in Nigeria’s Anambra State. That was where Igbo highlife was born.
Igbo highlife grew in popularity during the early sixties, especially just after Nigeria gained independence. However, all wasn’t well in Nigeria. There was poverty, wages were low and housing was overcrowded and dangerous. This resulted in strikes and by June 1964 the Nigerian people had enough and there was a general strike. Although this resulted in wage increases, there was tension between the army and civilians who believed the government was corrupt. It went to the polls at the end of 1964.
On the ‘30th’ of December 1964, there was meant to be an election in Nigeria. However, in some parts of the country the election didn’t take place until the ‘18th’ of March 1965. The Northern People’s Alliance won the election, but the result was marred by violence accusations that the result had been manipulated. Sadly, things were about to get worse for the people of Nigeria.
Ten month later there was a military coup on the ’15th’ of January 1966. Just four months later, the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom began in May and lasted until September. By then, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Igbos and people of southern Nigerian origin had been murdered. Another million Igbos fearing for their lives fled from the Northern Region to eastern Nigeria.
This led to the secession of the eastern Nigeria region and the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. Sadly, those that had sought sanctuary were now caught up in the Nigeria-Biafra war which began on the ‘6th’ of July 1967, and lasted until the ’13th’ of January 1970. After a war lasting two years, six months, one week and two days there had been 100,000 military casualties, while between 500,000 and three million Biafran civilians died of starvation and Biafra rejoined Nigeria.
During what was a bloody period in Nigerian history, Igbo highlife’s popularity grew. It was primarily guitar-based music, which also included a combination of horns and vocal rhythms. They’re sung in a call and-response style in Igbo or pidgin English. The music takes its 6/8 time signature from the Ogene bell that take a prominent place at the front of Igbo gatherings.
The Igbo bell can also be heard on Victor Chukwu’s solo release Akalaka and on Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos’ album The Power. They’re two of the albums that Victor Chuku recorded and released for the Tabansi label between the late-seventies and early eighties.
Before signing to Tabansi, Victor Chukwu and The Black Irokos had released Vol. 1-Nwanne Bu Nwanne on the Jet Sound Studio label in 1975. The bandleader wrote the six tracks on this album of Igbo highlife which was recorded at the Jet Sound Studio. It’s one of the earliest recordings of Victor Chukwu and nowadays, is an extremely rare album with copies changing hands for upwards of $375.
Next stop for Victor Chukwu was Tabansi Records, which by the late-seventies was Nigeria’s biggest and most important record company. It was founded by Chief Tabansi in Nigeria in 1952, and filled a void when major labels like Decca and later, Philips closed the doors on their Nigerian operations.
In the early days, Chief Tabansi recorded artists in the towns and villages in parts of Nigeria, and then pressed the records at The United African Company’s pressing plant. After that, record vans promoted the latest releases in Nigerian villages. This was just the start for Tabansi Records.
In the sixties, The United African Company decided to concentrate on importing American and European music. With very little competition, Tabansi Records was able to concentrate on local music, which The United African Company had turned its back on. This was a big mistake
During the seventies, Tabansi Records was the most successful Nigerian label, and its founder Chief Tabansi was one of the leading light’s of country’s thriving and vibrant music scene. He had invested in the company which was based in Onitsha, Lagos, and by the seventies, it had its own studios and pressing plant. Tabansi Records was going from strength-to-strength. This was the perfect time for Victor Chukwu to sign to Tabansi Records.
Very little is known about the time Victor Chukwu spent signed to Tabansi Records. He released three albums for the label, including his solo album, Akalaka. It’s thought that it was recorded around 1977, at the Tabansi Studios in Onitsha.
Victor Chukwu wrote and arranged the four tracks that became Akalaka. He was joined in the studio by a drummer, bassist and some horns. To augment this small but tight and talented band Victor Chukwu doubled his tenor saxophone and adds guitar. Taking charge of production was Chief Tabansi who also mixed and mastered Akalaka.
It’s thought that Tabansi Records released Akalaka later in 1977. However, like so many of the Tabansi Records’ releases the exact dates of the recordings and release dates are unknown. It requires a degree of detective work and sometimes, an element of guesswork to work out a release date. That was the case with Victor Chukwu’s Tabansi Records’ debut Akalaka.
Ogbu Mmadu (Murderer) was recorded in 6/8 time and opens Akalaka. It combines a Igbo highlife groove with calypso influenced horns and Victor Chukwu’s Hawaiian-tinged guitar which weaves and winds its way across the arrangement. He’s accompanied by backing vocalists as he delivers an impassioned vocal and narrates the story about the Murderer.
Although Nwanne Bu Nwanne was recorded in 6/8 time it’s quite different from the album opener. The tempo increases and the music is joyous and uplifting as the arrangement trots along. It features a myriad of percussion, stabs of horns and woodwind which join forces with the crystalline, chiming guitar. They create an almost mesmeric backdrop for the vocal which veers between a vamp to jazz-tinged and soulful on one of the album’s highlights.
Born Throwaway is another example of major key Igbo highlife. However, this time, the vocal and backing vocals are delivered in pidgin rather than the regular Igbo language. Meanwhile, the arrangement has an almost mesmeric quality as the percussion and guitar melt into one and stabs of blazing horns punctuate the arrangement which later becomes funky. When all this is combined it’s a spellbinding and potent combination.
Closing the album is Akalaka (Mind Your Business). It’s delivered in a similar storytelling style to Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. Horns and woodwind play a leading role in the arrangement as Victor Chukwu delivers a warning to the listener to Mind Your Business.
When Akalaka was released in 1977, Victor Chukwu’s debut for Tabansi Records the album wasn’t a commercial success. Very few copies and sold and nowadays, Akalaka is one of Igbo highlife rarity.
Despite the commercial failure of Akalaka, the music was of the highest quality. Victor Chukwu took Igbo highlife as a starting point and with the help of a tight and talented band combined elements of funk, jazz and soul. The result was music joyous, uplifting and akin to a call to dance and sometimes thought-provoking and cerebral. Other times, there was a spiritual quality to the music which sometimes, was like a mini moral tale. This made Akalaka an intriguing album. Given the quality of music on the album it deserved to find a wider audience. Sadly, that wasn’t the case and very few people bought or heard Akalaka. Despite that, Victor Chukwu’s career at Tabansi Records continued.
The next album he recorded was The Power, where he was billed as Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos. Just like Akalaka, it’s not known when the album was recorded and released. It could be 1979 or as late as 1984 as there are a few copies of the album that are dated 1984. However, going by the catalogue number it seems more likely that The Power was released in 1979.
For The Power, Victor Chukwu had written three new tracks which he arranged. He also played tenor saxophone and guitar on the album. It was recorded at the Tabansi Studios in Onitsha, and produced, mixed and mastered by Chief Tabansi.
When The Power was released it also failed to find an audience. That was despite being an ambitious album that tried to take Igbo highlife in a new direction. Proof of that was the album opener.
Onwu Uwa (Famine) which is played in 6/8 time opens The Power and sounds almost psychedelic. That’s because of the way the electric guitar is played. The strings are dampened and plucked pizzicato style as effects are added from the mixing desk. Soon, blazing horns are added and combine with percussion and an impassioned and heartfelt vocal delivers lyrics full of social comment on this powerful, genre-melting track that in parts is experimental.
Just like the previous track, Anya Ukwu (Envy) is played in 6/8 time and features a pizzicato guitar which combines with an impressive ogene drumming combo. At one point, the track seems to have been influenced by Ghanian sikyi minor key highlife. Meanwhile, Victor Chukwu delivers the lyrics to this genre-melting moral tale.
Oge Chukwu(Time For God) closes The Power and it’s a case of saving the best until last. Victor Chukwu’s guitar weaves and lopes its way across the arrangement and just like the horns and woodwind plays a starring role. Together they play their part in this uplifting, joyous and spiritual opus.
Despite the undeniable quality of the music on The Power it also failed to find an audience. That was despite being an ambitious and innovative album of Igbo highlife where Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos weren’t afraid to experiment on this genre-melting album. They added funk, gospel, jazz, psychedelic and soul to Igbo highlife on the three tracks. One was full of social comment, another was a moral tale and the album closer was spiritual. The Power was a joyful, powerful and thought-provoking album that just like Akalaka, failed to find the audience it deserved.
Since then, a new audience has discovered the delight of Victor Chukwu’s album Akalaka and Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos’ The Power. The starting point on both albums is Igbo highlife which is combined with funk, Ghanian highlife, gospel, jazz and soul. The result is music that’s joyful, uplifting, catchy, soulful and dancefloor friendly as also thought-provoking and spiritual. It’s a powerful combination and these two cult classics will be of interest to anyone with a passing interest in African music.
Cult Classics: Victor Chukwu–Akalaka /Uncle Victor Chuks and The Black Irokos–The Power.