Sunday, October 10, 2010

Uchenna Ikonne, Renaissance Man

Some of Ikonne’s prized 45-inch records. Photo: COURTESY COMB & RAZOR

By Jayne Usen, NEXT

Uchenna Ikonne could be described as a walking encyclopedia of some sort because of his knowledge of the history of Nigerian music. Based in the United States, he is a filmmaker by vocation and a lawyer by training, but his consuming passion is Nigerian music. Ikonne is currently working on reissuing a lot of Nigerian classic songs under his label, Comb & Razor Sound. He shares his story with NEXT.

With your knowledge of Nigerian music classics, many would be shocked to realise that you are only 35 years old

That does often take people by surprise. I’m primarily known as an online presence, chiefly for my writing on my blog (, so most people have no idea of my background, age, or appearance. They generally expect me to be much older than I am because I’m writing about Nigerian music and popular culture of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s; and they’re often alarmed to learn that I’m in my 30s.

The funny thing about it is that I have spent a lot of time interviewing musicians from that era, and even when I’m sitting with them face-to-face, they still forget how old I am. Like, we’ll be discussing some events that happened immediately after the civil war, and they’ll say to me, “Shey, you know that nightclub we used to go to in Port Harcourt… You remember when so-and-so played there one Friday night like that in 1971. Were you there that night?”

When stuff like that happens, I’m not quite sure how to process it: do I take it as a compliment that I appear so knowledgeable of the era that they forget I wasn’t there? Or does it mean that hard life has aged me to the point that men in their 50s and 60s can look at me and think I am their age mate?

Do Nigerian youth know enough about Nigerian songs of old?

I would not even be exaggerating if I said that many of our youth actually believe that the Nigerian music industry started in 1998 or so. They realise that yes, there must have been music in Nigeria “back in da dayz” - but they think that maybe we only had a handful of artists: Fela, Osadebe, Sonny Okosuns, Onyeka, maybe Evi-Edna, and a few other really popular names like that. I am not playing!

I have had many young people express this to me directly! But what’s curious is that a lot of times, even Nigerians who are old enough to remember better have completely forgotten most of the music of the past; cultural amnesia is an epidemic in our society, and that’s a shame.

Tell us why you decided to embark on this task

If I didn’t do it, who would? Well, the main thing I am working on right now is the Comb & Razor Sound record label, which will be reissuing a lot of classic music from Nigeria, as well as other countries in Africa and South America.

I’m trying to make it so that our releases are more like “publications”—big booklets full of historical information, stories, and photographs with a CD attached to them.

Because really, people aren’t that interested in just buying CDs anymore and CDs are too easily pirated, anyway. You have to give them the value for their money. We’ll also be releasing the music on vinyl records, which happens to be my preferred format.

You recently embarked on a trip to Nigeria to get more information; were there any challenges?

The number one challenge is always the relative inaccessibility of the information. It’s not like you can just walk into a library or something and comfortably find information. You have to dig for it. And frankly, not a lot of people have the stamina or resourcefulness to do that.

I remember when I first started telling people in Nigeria that I am looking for old records and stuff like that.

They told me, “You can’t find that kind of thing in Nigeria today.” My reply was “No, you mean YOU can’t find it… I can!” And they would say “Ha! You won’t see that sort of thing in the market o!” The market? Are you kidding? Who is looking at the market? To find this stuff, you need to go ‘under’ the market! For months on end I would be rummaging through dark and filthy storage spaces, day in and day out. Getting sinus infections from the dust and mould… digging through urine-soaked garbage and getting bitten by rats. And in the end, when I show all the material I’ve gathered, people always ask “How did you find this stuff?” as if I’m a magician. But really, it’s all right here under our noses!

Security was also a major challenge. Undertaking the project required me to traverse the breadth of the country several times over, and navigating the terrain while trying to stay ahead of the kidnapping epidemic in the East. Well, let’s say it required a good deal of gumption and creativity.

The challenge I feel defeated me, though, was the complete unavailability of a lot of the material. I’m actually a filmmaker by vocation, and my original intention had been to make a documentary film about Nigerian musicians.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get enough period footage to create a sufficiently dynamic documentary because of a lot of the tapes of musical performances recorded for television in the 1960s, 70s and 80s were either dubbed over or thrown away. So, unfortunately, I had to put that project aside.

Any collaborations with record labels in Nigeria for more information?

No, not really. For one thing, most of the big record labels from Nigeria’s golden age of music - EMI, Phillips, Decca/Afrodisia, and the like - they don’t exist anymore. And many of them even discarded or destroyed most of their records, master tapes, artwork, videos, and documentation.

Record keeping is almost non-existent in Nigeria. Why do you think this is so?

It’s probably a controversial view, but I think that we as Africans have a peculiar relationship to the concept of antiquity. We joke about “African time” and what-not, but I really do believe that the African perception of time is a bit more… fluid than it is in the West. We tend to live primarily in the present, and even our concept of “the present” is very elastic.

I once read about an anthropologist who was looking for artifacts in a certain African country, and he was presented with a carved wooden mask representing an ancient fertility god. He asked the indigenes if the mask was “authentic” - by which he meant: “does this particular mask actually date back to an ancient era of this land? Is it an antique?” And the people told him, “Of course it’s authentic” - by which they meant: “Yes, it was made here, and it still represents this particular fertility god who we still worship.”

Whether or not the mask is old was unimportant to them: all that matters is whether the mask did its job as the avatar for the god. It wouldn’t make a difference to them if the mask was carved 3000 years ago or yesterday. And if there was a mask from thousands of years ago representing a god that they no longer worshipped, then they would have no qualms with burning it or throwing it away because it served no useful purpose for them in “the present.”

So it is with us in Nigeria. We’re fixated upon how utilitarian things are to us in “the present,” and “the present” trumps everything.

That’s why you have television stations erasing the only copies of classic TV shows like ‘The Village Headmaster’ so they can use the tapes to record today’s music videos. It’s why record companies hired contractors to cart away and destroy entire libraries of master tapes of Nigerian music from the 1940s to the 1980s, so they’d have room for the music of the 1990s. ‘The present’ is all that exists for us.

When will your releases hit the market?

The first of these publications will probably be released in the US and Europe at the end of November. I’m not sure exactly when it will come to Nigeria, but obviously it will find its way here. It’s a musical chronicle of the years of Nigeria’s Second Republic (1979-83) and covers a lot of the notable developments of that era: the increased professionalisation of the Nigerian music industry with the rise of high-tech independent labels like Phondisk and Tabansi, the rise of solo singers as the old bands died, the emergence of more women in the music scene, and so on.

The next one will probably be out in December, and it will focus on the venerable Semi-Colon Rock Group of Umuahia. Then in early 2011, we’ll have something concentrating on music from Cross River and Akwa Ibom States and then a spotlight on Benin-style highlife, and lots of other stuff in the pipeline.

Is royalty payment a big issue for you?

It is a big deal to me. A BIG deal. You see, one thing that a lot of people don’t know is that most Nigerian musicians of years past never made any money off the sales of their records. I mean, ask someone like Onyeka Onwenu if she ever made even one naira from record sales. There’s no way I can in good conscience perpetuate that kind of exploitation of our artists and so, it’s of the utmost importance to me that the original artists are paid, even if it’s not a huge amount of money.

CDs actually are not selling as much as they were ten years ago, so nobody is getting rich off selling discs. But one thing we’re working on is developing ways to licence the music for use in films, television, adverts, ringtones, and other applications, and hopefully we can make some decent money for the artists that way, because some of them really, really need it.

What do you hope to achieve with this project?

I’d love to tell you that I hope to become a millionaire from it, but I’m much too realistic to even fool myself with that, let alone fool you. If, as a result of my efforts, Nigeria’s rich heritage of popular culture becomes fully recognised and celebrated, and I get to see our national artistic legends reap some of the money and kudos they deserve, I think I’d call myself a happy man.

And if I’m able to even make a few pennies from it myself to stay afloat and continue doing what I do, that would be a bonus, because this is really expensive work and I fund it pretty much completely out of my own pocket.

What’s next after this?

Well, I don’t like to look like I’m this guy who is stuck in the past, because despite my interest in history, I’m very much on the cutting edge of culture! I want to sign some contemporary artists to Comb & Razor Sound; I’m just looking for artists who are really unique. What I would really love is to find a really cool, young Nigerian hard rock/funk band.

Also, this whole music thing is really a side track that I stumbled into over the past two or three years and it has taken me away from my work as a filmmaker, so I’d like to get back to making movies soon.

To that effect, I have some film projects I’m developing. I haven’t completely given up on the documentary either. I’m also working on a book on the history of Nigerian film-making, and a cartoon series for Nigerian TV.