When we travel down the history of Nigerian music and map our sonic ancestry via the sounds that dominated the late 60’s and 70’s, you would find the story of Fela Kuti telling a singular story of the country’s sound.
Fela might be the most iconic singer in Nigeria’s history, but his rise meant that he overshadowed some of the greats of his time, and relegated his contemporaries to just footnotes. Amongst them was Segun Bucknor, who has just passed away at the age of 71.
Segun Bucknor was underrated in the effervescent era where soul, funk and groove influenced popular Nigerian music traditions. Segun was in the mix, a musician influenced by James Brown, who made pop music designed to get people dancing. Where Fela Kuti achieved dominance via his Afrobeat rhythm and activism, Segun made music to entertain, rock the clubs and generate a living.
Extremely talented and well-versed in American soul music, he had been influenced by greats such as Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. While he began his music as a Highlife artist, his life was changed by his time abroad, as he had studied in New York’s Columbia University, taking courses in ethno-musicology and liberal arts.
Upon returning to Nigeria, Bucknor created a band named The Soul Assembly, and leading the pack, they played a specific sound which drew heavily from the music he had immersed himself in, while in the States. But the band did not last long, and Segun began to explore musical fusions. Segun blended the bounce and swing of soul, with more local content. He brought in African elements, and also pumped in themes that were in touch with the radicalism that was the signature of Nigeria’s post-colonial era.
Songs such as ‘Adebo,’ ‘Poor Man No Get Brother’, ‘Sorrow Sorrow Sorrow,’ and “Son Of January 15th” (which was created to mark the day in 1966 when Nigeria’s prime minister, Tafawa Balewa was killed in a military coup), carried his efforts in conscious music.
And while parallels between his social commentary and Fela’s were drawn, the full story of his brilliance can be found in the ‘dance’ and sway of his soul records. The music is funky, charged, driven and convincing.
Bucknor’s delivery was unique. He switched between singing and shouting, with a persuasive zest that is contagious. He mostly sang alone, floating above every instrument, in a clear loud voice. The drums, percussion, guitar, bass, keys and horns would be accessories to his vocals. The progression of his sound is more circular and rhythmic, floating around you, and inspiring dancing.
Visually, he also was unique. Bucknor’s live performances featured engaging imagery. At some point, during his stint with The Revolution band, he had bum-shaking women gyrating to the music. Interestingly, he named them The Sweet Things.
Segun Bucknor has passed away, and while his story might be hard to document, he represented some of the earliest ancestors of pop music, whose major occupation is to create a vibe and a feeling, that is both positive and entertaining. You can’t fault that.