Donal Dineen's Sunken Treasure: Thony Shorby Nwenyi
Donal Dineen dives into the archives the archives for a listen to Thony Shorby Nwenyi's 'Sweet Funk music' (1978)
Fela Kuti coined the term and popularised the form but the roots of Afrobeat stretch back beyond 1970s Nigeria. More than a decade earlier in nearby Ghana, the popular uptempo highlife sound had entered a new era powered by the arrival of the electric guitar and amplification.
Adding fuel to the fire was the Ghanian government's active encouragement of indigenous music after independence in 1957. With state-funded bands and a flurry of studio activity, it was officially one nation under a groove from then on. All sorts of musical ingredients and outside influences entered the highlife mix during its glorious heyday.
The melting pot was boiling over. Strains of American funk and soul were evident by the time Kuti decamped there in 1967 to think up a new musical direction.
Kuti had studied jazz at the Trinity College of Music in London a decade earlier. In Ghana, he experimented with merging all these different strands together. He then took his hybrid sound to America in 1969, spending 10 months in Los Angeles and discovering the Black Power movement. Newly radicalised and energised he was back in Lagos by 1970, hellbent on starting fires. His Afrika Shrine nightclub in the Empire Hotel was the eye of the hurricane. It was an explosive time and the reverberations spread quickly. The success of his band Africa '70 sparked a tidal wave of Nigerian funk music. The majority of this music never left the country. So many hidden gems from that era have only recently been uncovered.
That's where Thony Shorby Nwenyi comes in. No biographical detail of him exists but it's fair to assume that this gem of a record was born of the same spirit of experimentation that Fela had instigated. All we know for sure is that the slender volume of six songs was recorded in Lagos in 1978.
With so much light in the music it's no big deal being left in the dark about the creator or moment of creation. A lot can be gleaned from the context. The way the songs are steeped in the popular sound of the day tell their own story.
Like Kuti, Nwenyi sings in English but the his lyrics are more personal than political with titles like 'Married Life' and 'Forgiveness'. His expressive vocals are immediately striking but it's the mellifluous wah-wah drenched guitar sound that sets the tone. Wavering organ stabs underpin the laid-back jams which are laid down by a rhythm section intent of having fun. It struts along at a languid pace comfortable in its own dancing shoes. The whole thing is blessed with palpable exuberance and vigour. It can only have meant a whole lot to its mystery maker.
The record was released in Nigeria on the tiny Feathers label on tape and vinyl. The 2012 Melody Sound reissue is a rip from that pressing and the poor quality of the sound does nothing to diminish its appeal. When groove is in the heart, everything else just flows.