When Fela Anikulapo Kuti died in 1997 he was Nigeria’s most famous pop music figure. Thanks to the hit musical Fela! he still is. Moreover, just as that show broke on Broadway in the fall of 2009, Knitting Factory Records initiated an ambitious reissue program of Fela music that keeps the Afrobeat pioneer’s sounds in the air.
In the mid-1970s, around the time the Nigerian government was mounting a brutal campaign against Fela for his political dissidence, twin sisters Taiwo and Kehinde Lijadu, cousins of Fela, were launching their own recording careers. With a budding reputation in Lagos and beyond (they had toured Europe and North America in 1972 in a band led by Cream drummer Ginger Baker), the sisters released Danger in 1976, followed by three more albums before the end of the decade.
The Lijadu Sisters became stars at home and garnered some international attention in the 1980s, most notably during their tour of the United States with King Sunny Ade in 1988. Taiwo and Kehinde settled in New York City after the Ade gig, but their hopes for a record deal were thwarted time and again. Then in 1996, Kehinde suffered life-threatening spinal and pelvic injuries from a fall, and the Lijadu Sisters weren’t heard from again.
Until last November, that is, when Knitting Factory Records reissued Danger. And last week, the label released Mother Africa, perhaps the rootsiest and most compelling of the sisters’ four 1970s albums. (The disco-influenced Sunshine, from 1978, will make its CD debut in late spring or summer, followed by 1979’s Horizon in the fall.)
Even in a time when seemingly every nook and cranny of world music has been plumbed for reissue material, Mother Africa comes as a quite a musical revelation. Danger rode the Afro-rock production of organist and guitarist Biddy Wright and was sung in English; Taiwo and Kehinde sang most of Mother Africa in Yoruba and Ibo, and while a few crazy fuzz-tone electric guitar solos remind us that the Lijadus recorded these tracks during a peak of West African interest in psychedelic funk, Wright helped them fashion a more folky and traditional acoustic sound at this session. Themes range from odes to the moon and regrets for disappointing their mother to an implicit retort to the “two-faced people” who criticized Taiwo for dating Ginger Baker. But given the language barrier, the lyrics are less important than they way they are delivered—through the gritty and sweet vocal harmonies and lilting beats that give Mother Africa a timeless appeal.