Marking 60 years of Nigerian independence with the story of a seminal psychedelic rock album.
Nigeria won its independence in 1960, ending a long struggle against British rule. Seven years later, the country underwent a brutal civil war, and with war came corruption, military dictatorship, inter-religious hostility and social revolution. These circumstances brought a lot of suffering but also intense creative energy and, later, opportunity (sadly, these same words could be spoken about the atrocities committed against young people in Nigeria today.) When peace resumed in 1970, an energised and liberated Nigerian youth kicked off an inspired era of Afro-rock. They took cues from Jimi Hendrix and Beatlemania, as well as the traditional, big band sounds of native highlife and afrobeat music.
The three musicians who would become BLO—the late Berkeley "Ike" Jones (guitar), Laolu "Akins" Akintobi (drums) and Mike Odumosu (bass)—were part of a nationally-known rock band called Clusters International. Following some financial disputes, they left Clusters International and started performing as part of Tee Mac & Afrocollection.
One night, when they were warming up for Fela Kuti at his Lagos club Afro Spot, Ginger Baker (of UK band Cream) heard them play and recruited Laolu and Berkeley to tour the world with him as Ginger Baker's Salt. Laolu came back from the Salt tour with drums, while Berkeley brought Fender and Gibson guitars. They also came back with the question of what to do next, craving something unusual after the success with Salt. They called Odomusu and proposed to try a trio: no keys, no horns, instead styled on the UK rock band setup. Odomusu tells me he simply replied, "Why not? I'm always game for a laugh," and so started the journey of BLO, one of the most important bands in Nigeria’s history.
Around the same time, Chris Blackwell of Island Records planned to bring Afro-pop supergroup Osibisa on a tour of West Africa. He connected with a journalist in Lagos, Tony Amadi, who suggested the new trio BLO as a support act. The first night of the Osibisa tour was on 23 December 1972, at the 10,000 capacity Lagos City Stadium. It was the largest audience in Nigerian music history. The three musicians were known from Clusters International and Teemac, but nobody had seen BLO before. They had never even played together in this formation before, aside from a few rehearsal sessions in Amadi’s bedroom. By the time they finished, the whole stadium had gone berserk, chanting, "We want BLO, we want BLO!" The band had to be ushered off the stage so headline act Osibisa could try to match what had just happened.
That show determined BLO's future and changed Afro-rock forever. Overnight, BLO set the trend for the whole music industry in Nigeria. After the tour finished, Tony Amadi went to EMI Records Nigeria and told them of what happened in Lagos City Stadium. The music BLO performed that night was recorded as Chapter One and released on EMI in 1973, making it Africa’s first rock album. Amadi's notes on the album cover describe the studio time: "most of the sessions were done during the night, the studio often jammed by faithful BLO fans ranging from long-haired white chics and beautiful black sisters and brothers—all enjoying the fun that BLO music generates."
Chapter One is a masterpiece, a blistering fusion of styles stripped down to their raw essentials. It captures Berkeley, Laolu and Odomusu's intentions to flip the script of Nigerian popular music, ranging from spaced-out afro-delia on "Chant To Mother Earth" to Funkadelic-esque mind expansion, earworm refrains and spiralling guitar solos.
After years of performing together in other bands, Laolu's percussive heartbeat, the funky, laidback bass tones of Odomusu and Berkeley's captivating guitar outbursts were in perfect sync. It was unlike anything else at the time, and unlike anything else that BLO recorded afterwards (the band's formation changed for their second album and they switched to a more upbeat style). Also unlike their Western rock counterparts, BLO and the Nigerian psychedelic rock scene were not fuelled by hallucinogens but by liberation, Afro-spiritualism and the country's famous can-do attitude.
The album was huge across West Africa and inspired a whole generation, at least amongst the parts of society who were able to relate to rock music. "For a while, there was a picture of BLO in every newspaper in Nigeria and we were all over the radio," Odomusu explained to me. "If there is anything you can say that actually united Nigeria, it was BLO. That's the truth."
BLO started touring Africa, bringing their new sound, hip look and peerless, shamanic vibe to huge stadium audiences. "I never made money from BLO, I couldn't even feed myself from what we made," Odomusu continues. "Sometimes, as soon as we played our first string and the whole crowd was jumping, the promoter disappeared with the money. If they hadn't paid for the accommodation they booked, God help you."
Outside of Africa, BLO don't have the same fame as Nigerian acts like Fela Kuti, Tony Allen or William Onyeabor, but amongst those with a deep interest in African music, BLO's catalogue—Chapter One especially—is on the same level. When Paul McCartney went to record in Lagos in 1973, he hoped to work with BLO, but they were on tour in the north. Belatedly, Chapter One has earned wider recognition worldwide and become highly collectible (original copies fetch thousands online). Santana covering "Chant To Mother Earth," Madlib sampling "Time To Face The Sun" and Mr Bongo reissuing the vinyl in 2013 have helped this along. The music from Chapter One has also been included on various retrospective compilations. These releases were organised independently by different members of the trio and range from official to highly questionable.
The story of BLO and Chapter One is one of serendipity and cosmic inspiration. It's hard to comprehend quite how influential the record was, especially without live footage of their concerts, but by all accounts it was truly groundbreaking. The following four BLO albums, before they disbanded in 1982, are also standout and successful works, but none have the originality and virtuoso magic of Chapter One.