Sir Victor Uwaifo - "Edenederio (Ekassa 40)" (Guitar Boy Superstar 1970-76)
Nigerian pop music in the 1970s was overflowing with new sounds and new possibilities. Victor Uwaifo, schooled deeply in the classic highlife style as an apprentice in Victor Olaiya’s International All Stars, struck out on his own in the late 1960s and created a highly original range of sounds by blending the traditional songs and rhythms of his native Edo State region with the textures and colors of soul, funk, rock, and – most of all – the sweet-natured lilt of palm-wine music and vintage, dance-band highlife.
The anthology at hand picks up Sir Victor’s career a short while after his first flush of success as a dynamic showman, electric guitar wizard and bandleader in the ‘60s, jumping right into some of his most expansive and creative musical years, the early to middle 1970s. By then, Victor – a multi-talented creator, with painting, sculpting, and poetry among his other means of expression – had gained long experience with a compositional approach that built songs in layers and sections. According to interviews, he envisioned tones as colors, the whole woven into patterns inspired by traditional Akwete cloth. And indeed there’s a corresponding sharpness and clarity – a visual elegance, even – to the layers of trap drums, hand percussion, electric bass and guitars - intertwining, but separate in resolution. They combine into rock-solid yet-undulating grooves for the voices, horns, electric organ and solo guitar. For example, check out "Edenenerio (Ekassa 40),” wherein a perfectly-disciplined yet utterly fluid traps, percussion, and bass groove moves like a slowed-down JB’s track. When the horns and guitar begin to pass a melody line back and forth over that groove, it’s as if time disappears. The rhythm and melody magically stand still and flow at the same time. That sense of timelessness fits the mood of the lyrics, too. Uwaifo’s songs are mostly philosophical and uplifting, drawing upon wisdom and proverbs from the treasure trove of Benin City’s ancient traditional culture.
Then there’s the thing that helped give Guitar Boy that very nickname. Uwaifo may not show quite the technical faculty of guitarists like Docteur Nico or Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, but he’s at least their equal in imagination and bold expression. An Uwaifo guitar solo might start with muted and scratched percussive patterns, then move on to spacious and clean melodic lines, ending up with an array of fret-brushing glissandos, echoed bass-note slurs, and tremolo bar pulls that suggest speech patterns, drum language and Cuban trumpet shakes. Then again, Sir Victor might just go straight for the fuzz -wah pedal and commence something like a psychedelic Haight-Ashbury excursion worthy of, say, early Quicksilver Messenger Service.
As welcome as all the recent multi-artist overview anthologies of ‘70s West African music have been, the idea of giving a single artist as brilliant as Sir Victor Uwaifo his due is even more welcome. And it crosses this reviewer’s mind that the sheer variety and imagination displayed in Uwaifo’s music is such that just about any track here could someday start its own genre.