It’s not often that you get the chance to re-visit a bygone era and help rescue one its great protagonists from the shadows of obscurity. After all, the future may be a sea of possibilities, but the past is definitely not. Especially in the well-publicized field of pop music, such finds are rare, Nick Drake and Arthur Lee being a few that come to mind in the Anglo-American mainstream of pop music. Within the ample hidden folds of world music the harvest may be a bit greater, as many long gone old-timers are found, revived, and brought back up to the surface for fresh air and ultimate justice. Examples of this might be Boubacar Traore’ of Mali or any of the Buena Vista Social club members. Others of course met crueler fates and survive only through their music, never knowing that they found a posthumous following in the west. Ros Sreysothea and Sinn Sisamouth of Kampuchea are good examples of that.
Meet Joni Haastrup from Nigeria. His band MonoMono was one of the defining acts of a generation that included a much better known Fela Kuti, with whom he collaborated and competed in the 70’s. Now three of his albums from that era have been re-issued and made available to a new generation. Like Fela, Joni too did most of his songs in English, ostensibly to gain an overseas audience, but don’t underestimate the need for the broadest possible lingua franca in a country of over five hundred languages. But Joni was never the attention-grabbing superstar in his own right, shining instead as a vocalist and keyboard player in an ensemble setting, first with O.J. Ekemode, and then Ginger Baker’s Air Force, before forming his own band MonoMono. His lyrics are always upbeat and empowering, shades of another young man from across the sea, also making the rounds in London at about the same time in the early 70’s. Of course, the ‘rush for Africa’ didn’t really begin until Bob Marley hit #1 in the charts, scooping up Fela and King Sunny in its net, while Joni had to wait… until now.
“Give the Beggar a Chance” was originally released in 1972, and it reflects much of what had occurred in Anglo-American rock by this time, especially a wild-ass psychedelic organ derived straight from the 60’s via The Doors, and a clean jazz guitar laid down in light hot licks. But the vocals predominate, to generally good effect. In the title song, lyrics like “what do you need from a beggar?.. give him a chance to blow your mind” exemplify much of Haastrup’s ethos, his love of common people and constant exhortations to forge on and forge ahead. “The World Might Fall Over” even features a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins- like vocal, reminding us that his voice defined him as much as his keyboards. His lyrics were consistently upbeat, but not always bold. ‘Lida Lou’ was a soul number that could have been right out of any 60’s American soul music playbook, if not playlist- “she was so good to me… I’ll never forget her… she was called ‘Lida Lou.” But maybe my favorite song on the entire album is the final number, titled ‘Kenimania’, an organ and guitar instrumental that would do Booker T proud.
1974 saw the release of ‘The Dawn of Awareness’ and an advance in the steadily-evolving progression of Joni and Monomono’s sound. The thick psychedelic organ is now given over to a cleaner tighter keyboard style while guitars take over much of the experimental chores, at least two of them in fact, clean precise jazz licks dueling with fuzz tone power chords, triangulated sonically with an up-front saxophone and percussion that increasingly jumps up off the back line to assume a more prominent place in the mix. “Plain Fighting” is maybe the best example of this in the lot, singing “don’t ever let yourself feel so downcast…your life is exactly what you make it.” ‘Awareness Is Wot You Need’ opens with a nice flute solo and continues in the same vein, “Awareness is what you need… people refuse to see the truth… you don’t know what you are inside.”
The third album of the trilogy ‘Wake Up Your Mind,’ released in 1978, finds Joni back in London and going it solo. While America has gone to disco by this time, Joni moves his sound closer to Fela’s successful Afro-Beat while maintaining his own lyrical similarity to Bob Marley’s successful formula. The opening song ‘Free My People’ explains this well in a opening rap, then continues on with lyrics like, “give us unity, give us peace of mind… we need peace and love all over the world.” The title song keeps it up with, “We have gold, we have silver, we have every thing… we have to open up our minds so we can get back our land.” ‘Champions & Superstars’ is an ode to soccer stars and ‘Do The Funkro’ is a worthy attempt at disco, but Joni is best is his comfort zone, closing the set with “Watch Out…heaven is gonna fall… people get yourself together.” He’s got a point, you’ll have to admit. At the very least Joni Haastrup is an interesting and highly listenable footnote to the 1970’s and the history of world music, not unlike Mamadou or Boubacar or Eliades or Omara or any one of a hundred other undersung heroes. He may even be a lost master. Either way, he’s worth a listen. All three albums have been re-issued by Tummy Touch/Soundway and are available in all formats. Hardie K says check it out.