A Muslim Highlife Pioneer, and ‘70s Star, Returns for Legacy

Alhaji Waziri Oshomah fused Highlife, local folk styles, and Western pop into songs of positivity in Auchi, Nigeria. When New York label Luaka Bop released The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah in its World Spirituality Classics series last year, we spoke to musician and label about his artistry.
Alhaji Waziri Oshomah by Eric Welles-Nyström

Alhaji Waziri Oshomah by Eric Welles-Nyström.

A Muslim Highlife Pioneer, and ‘70s Star, Returns for Legacy

The singer Alhaji Waziri Oshomah was born in Auchi, present-day Edo State, Nigeria. When he first became widely known from the mid-1970s to ‘80s, it was for his combination of eclectic music and messages of positivity, influenced by his Muslim background.

People who lived in the Auchi of Oshomah’s reign would surely remember his colorful records, his fusion of Highlife with local folk styles and Western pop. Lyrics in a potpourri of local languages, most prominently Etsako, and English were carried by his sun-drenched vocals. With jumpy synths and inflections, dance was a residing ethos of his, mirroring the psychedelic wave which swept the country at the time, led by the bands Ofo and the Black Company, The Hykkers, The Funkees, BLO, and Ofege, and solo acts such as Ife Jerry Krusade and Theodeore Nemy.

These were the lasting qualities that stood out to Luaka Bop, the New York-based record label founded by David Bryne, lead singer and guitarist of the legendary American New Wave band Talking Heads. Since going fully independent in 2006, Luaka Bop has reissued and distributed wide-ranging sounds from around the world. Its projects, meant to sustain legacy and showcase elite artistry, are often released to critical acclaim. For its World Spirituality Classic series, it collected seven songs by Oshomah, representing the scope of his catalog, in The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah.

Last year, Open Country Mag spoke separately to both the legendary musician and Luaka Bop label head Yale Evelev about the motivations and process for the project.

The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah album artwork
The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah album artwork.

Alhaji Oshomah on His Inspiration and Legacy

Your music resonates a lot within Auchi where you’re a cultural icon. Would you say the dance elements in the composition contributed to its appeal?

Yes, I will say my music appeals to Auchi people a lot because of the messages and the sound, which make it stand out from other musicians at that point in time.

It wasn’t very popular during your time that musicians would combine Muslim messages with synths and styles from Western pop. What took you in that direction, and was there any pushback?

I went in that direction because my up-bringing was completely Islamically inclined, and as a result of my parents imbibing in me Islamic teachings. So I needed to spread the message of the fear of God to my people.

How did you get to become a musician? Who were your influences and how did you go about recording your earliest music?

My becoming a musician was destined by God Almighty, although other artists influenced me, people like the late Prof. Victor Uwaifo and the late Fela Kuti.

Can you tell us about your experience with the music culture in Auchi, your opinions of the musicians before you and those after you?

I really gain a lot from the culture of Auchi kingdom and it contributes to the message and rhythms in my music. The few musicians who came before me tried in their own little way and also created happiness among the people. They also made a lot of sacrifices to bring music to the people. The artists after me are quite lucky because of the advent of technology.

You name Fela as an influence, and like him, your sound has also been compared to another Highlife legend in Ebo Taylor. Did you meet any of them and what’s your relationship with their music?

I had a very cordial relationship with my fellow musicians because there was a body governing all of us. Outside that, I have a personal relationship with Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor.

Tell us about the first album you ever recorded – what was your motivation, your process, and how did you access funding to enable its creation and distribution?

My first album as a musician was really very exciting to me because I needed to get the people connected to my work. The major motivation was from a few friends who believed in what I was going through at that point in time, including the funding of the whole process.

Your parents weren’t supportive of your chosen path in music, yet in 1970 you formed your own band. How would you describe your personality in those days – were you the rebellious youngster who did things how he wanted, or did you consider doing something more conventional than music?

Yes, I will say my parents were never supportive of my chosen path. But as a person, I needed to pursue my dreams. In this case, I would say I was rebellious in nature.

What was your impression of Luaka Bop when they came to discuss the reissue album? Can you tell us about the selections on the project? Did you have preference for certain records, or was it more of their curation at play?

It was a great impression that I had when Luaka came for my albums. Knowing that my music is now being heard in the U.S. and all over the world – it is really very remarkable. Although I suggested some of my hit albums for them, they already had some choices in mind.

And, finally, how close is music to your everyday life? Do you still play any instruments, maybe sing to an audience every now and then?

Music is a part of me till date. My fans will not let me rest, and because of that, I still go to shows in different parts of the country.

Thank you for your time, Alhaji.

Luaka Bop Head Yale Evelev on Curating The Muslim Highlife of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah

Yale Evelev by Sam Valenti IV.

How did Luaka Bop first come into contact with the music of Alhaji Waziri Oshomah?

Yale Evelev: When we released the William Onyeabor album, Eric, who works at Luaka Bop, went to Nigeria to see him a few times. He said to me that a record seller had been very helpful to him while he was in Nigeria and could we buy some albums from him? I said sure, and the guy sent me a list.

One of the beauties of music is, even if you know a good deal about different musics, there are always new things to discover and get excited about. He sent a list but I didn’t really know any of the records on it, so I said to Eric that he should just send us some.

Months go by and we then got this large box full of records and dirt – literal dirt! And, as a record collector, the records were in an unimaginable shape. These days, I am used to African records in various states of having lived a distressed life. At that time I had never seen LPs this deranged-looking.

There was a Waziri album in the box (in the wrong cover, of course). I loved the record and kept playing it. I asked Eric, do you think we should do a Waziri record? I could tell he was unsure, until one weekend he listened to it and the record bowled him over. The rest is history.

How did Alhaji Oshomah or his estate contribute to the compilation?

Yale Evelev: Eric and the legendary Nigerian musicologist Uchenna Ikonne went to Auchi to see Alhaji Waziri and his family. They were greeted very warmly and even got a chance to see him perform. Back in New York, Eric kept in touch with Waziri’s son, Malik, translating lyrics and getting help with video footage.

In terms of sound, what broader traditions in the sprawling world of music does Oshomah connect to?

Yale Evelev: Well, this is dance music, and we hope to have it be seen as part of the world’s dance musics, whether it be house, techno, IDM, EDM, trance, jungle, grime, or garage.

How does the message in Oshomah’s music advance the vision of the World Spirituality classics?

Yale Evelev: The spirituality series is a study of why humanity invented God. We invented God to make us better people, to give us an ideal to live by and for. God exists in the hope that there won’t be war, there won’t be injustice, so that we have a reason to be kinder and gentler with each other. That we realize our short time on this planet Earth is an opportunity to do good and be good to each other. God is a universal belief system and it is music that is the universal language to translate those beliefs. Of course, we are not gods, we are people, and so we continue to go down a path that may result in our eventual denouement. In fact, it seems we are doing just that. So in a very small way from a very small record label, we are hoping to slightly make us all think about who we could be.

The first album in the Spirituality series was from Alice Coltrane. She created a spiritual community in the Malibu Hills, California, U.S.A., that brought together people who were searchers. They found a place, gathering together and singing a mixture of Indian Kirtan and American gospel to translate the essence of God into their own belief system.

The second album had songs from unheralded groups from the soul gospel era of the 1970s, singing about how we live with each other, using the ideals of Jesus while not necessarily singing, in this case, about Jesus himself.

With Alhaji Waziri Oshomah we are presenting a man who is a guiding light, a teacher, someone who gathers people together to dance in the furtherance of universal community, no matter what their belief system is, even though he himself is a pure believer in the Muslim faith. ♦

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Emmanuel Esomnofu, Staff Writer at Open Country Mag

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