Etuk Ubong ‘Africa Today’ LP (Night Dreamer) 4/5

Etuk Ubong is Nigerian born but his musical influences are much wider. He studied and played in South Africa including stints in Victor Olaiya’s highlife band, Nigerian reggae artist Buchi Atuonwu, Femi Kuti’s Positive Force and with SA pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.

As well as getting known in South Africa and his native Nigeria, he has been active on the UK scene with Steam Down, Jazz re:freshed, Gilles Peterson and Theon Cross from Sons of Kemet. So what is clear from the outset is the rich mix of musical forms and references in his music with a distinctive and fresh approach.

On first listening, I found the sound a bit muddy which got in the way of first impressions. This is probably explained by the spontaneous way the tracks were recorded – in a deliberate attempt to replicate a live sound. Vintage recording kit was used at Artone Studios in Haarlem, Netherlands and the music was taken direct-to-disc at the pressing plant downstairs.

An enviable aim but I found two things helped me get into this record – first some subtle tweaks in the iTunes equalizer to open the sound up and then re-ordering the tracks to match that on the record – for some reason the track order didn’t survive being imported.
This got me closer to the live sound and programming – and what a difference this way you can get some separation and hear the interactions between the instruments and voices more clearly. These things plus repeated listening make you realise this recording is a bit of a grower.

There are repeated rhythm lines and horn hooks at mainly fast-paced tempos. It’s all very funky with exciting grooves. Ekpo Mmommom kicks it off with a medium tempo horn riff with a responding line. Via a short bassline it speeds up using the same horn riff with electric organ prominent.

African Struggle has an insistent feel starting with heavy horn figures and drop drum hits again speeding up into a maelstrom of beats with lighter keyboard figures and a trumpet led repeated riff eventually leading into repeated vocal lines stating the title.

Africa Today starts with percussion and then a choppy horn figure moving into a darker feel with keys and bass prominent before returning to the horns figure. Etuk backed by Bahghi Yemane then sings the lyric– a powerful evocation against violence – with strong sax and trumpet solos to follow and then a return to the vocals and the horn figure.

Mass Corruption is a fast-paced banger with organ and horns taking the lead. Trumpet soars over the top before Etuk twice sings the lyrics briefly but fast and a bit hard to follow. The beats lead to an organ-led section before the lyrics return with Etuk and Bahghi trading phrases.

There’s a change of pace with Spiritual Change which is more of a slow burner. With (presumably Etuk) trumpet standing out from the mix doing call and response with Bahghi followed by tenor all underpinned by a solid beat and a horn line. Etuk again contributes a vocal highlighting positive responses to Africa’s issues before returning to trumpet lines with Bahgi continuing responses.

The final track The Purpose of Creation returns to the faster pace with a keys figure over beats and a horn line with vocals by Etuk. Being hyper-critical on its own his voice does not have a great range but in this context with a busy mix and funky beats, and at times a spoken style, it works fine. And there are plenty of examples of successful singers in jazz and other forms who don’t have range an obvious example being Chet Baker.

I’m not that into genres and labels but as is implied by his influences this does have recognizable elements of SA jazz, highlife, afropop, afrobeat and its Nigerian roots. Ubong calls it “Earth Music” but whatever you call it, it’s a great set of music well worth a listen.

Musicians: Trumpet & Vocals: Etuk Ubong, Drums: Robin van Rhijn, Keys: Jack Stephens Oliver, Bass: Benson Itoe, Percussion: Mamour Seek, Percussion: Dra Diarra, Trumpet: Michael Awosogo, Trombone: Alba Pujals, Alto Saxophone: Giovanni Cigui, Tenor Saxophone: Nicolò Ricci, Vocals: Bahghi Yemane.

Brian Homer

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Etuk Ubong Quartet ‘Tales of Life and Miracles’ LP (Jazzaggression) 4/5