by Obi Ejiogu
A common complaint that often pops up in conversations about contemporary Nigerian music is the sense of a lack of “substance” to much of the Industry’s current output. From radio call-in shows, to social networks and the comments section of countless online sites, it’s a notion that appears to have spread with little resistance across the current social landscape.
The criticisms typically take the shape of laments about a perceived shift of narrative focus from the promotion of wholesome traditional values to the glorification of sex and materialism, a switch in emphasis from storytelling to catchphrase driven couplets and a dearth of discernible “messages” contained within the music, with everything from the much discussed internet-spawned shortening of global attention span to social media-abetted emergence of second-rate talent being fingered for blame.
However, while there may be some validity to such opinions, they do not exactly paint a true picture. With a little extra digging, one may discover it’s sometimes the case that substance isn’t necessarily lacking, but rather, overlooked. It’s the reason many “substance” laden songs escape mainstream awareness. It’s the reason Brymo’s Merchants, Dealers and Slaves (M,D&S) is most probably the best album that you haven’t heard this year.
In his introduction to her award-winning novel Half of A Yellow Sun, the late Chinua Achebe describes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as having been “endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers”, an endorsement that In many ways rings true for Brymo. Part memoir, part cautionary tale, part social commentary, M,D&S’s two-chapter narrative unfolds along separate but convergent lines, drawing you in and seizing you with its intricately woven tales of life, love, woe, ambition and hope.
In keeping with the singer’s 2012 sophomore release Son of a Carpenter, M,D&S departs completely from convention, bravely side-stepping go-to afro pop trends for a stab at creative freshness. At a time when most of contemporary radio sounds like the soundtrack to one endless club night, MD&S feels less raucous. And decidedly so. There are no catchphrases to chant along to, no signature dance-moves to memorize. Indeed, no song on this album would make it unto the playlist of any self-respecting club DJ. And that’s exactly what makes the album a great listen.
As the protagonist of the albums array of stories, the different facets of Brymo’s personality manifest over its 32 minute running time: his sense of humor swings from the graphic- like when he sings “I dey ja like say I thief condom” after he’s caught literally pants down on Purple jar– to the lurid- illustrated by a curiously casted, unsavory tale of crime and adultery on album highlight Down. Where most songs eulogizing relatives tend to focus on mothers, Grand Papa finds the singer reflecting on the eventful life of his grandfather over a celebratory afrobeat inspired instrumental, while on impassioned album opener Truthfully, he sings of love and devotion with a tender vulnerability similar to that displayed on 2012’s moderate hit Good Morning.
Thematically, it feels wholly grounded in reality. For a good number of us, the thrills of such frequently touted experiences as “buying out bars”, having improbably voluptuous women fawn over us, or taking said women on random international shopping sprees, are at best vicarious, only living such fantasies through the music of our favorite artistes. But who amongst us will deny lamenting the various injustices of modern day society. In how many hearts does the bitterness of unrequited love not linger. How many have approached Lagos with wide-eyed ambition only to be cruelly dealt its own dysfunctional blend of disappointment. M,D&S manages to vividly convey these feelings and emotions without ever seeming contrived or cloying, setting it further apart from the rest of the mainstream.
Brymo’s nonconformity seems less borne of a cheap desire for attention but more from genuine experimental zeal and nowhere is this refreshing sense of adventure more evident than in the sound of the album. Crafted by the relatively unknown but hugely talented Michael “Mikkyme” Kebonku , the album’s stylistically diverse palette incorporates genre elements from a broad ranging mix of Traditional pop, Bluegrass, Latin rock, Reggae and Afrobeat, with the overall effect of the blend creating an acoustically lush backdrop to the albums colorful narrative.
M,D&S doesn’t just sound different however. It also feels different. For a mainstream Nigerian afro pop release, it’s uncharacteristically emotionally engaging in a manner most reminiscent of Asa’s excellent eponymous debut. Its mood shifts frequently between songs and often in pleasantly unexpected directions: On Everybody Gets to Die, random existential musings take shape over a doleful reggae melody; the rhythms of the bitter-sweet ode to eponymous city Eko rise and fall against a Latin rock inflected afrobeat groove, while the plaintive and contemplative Purple Jar evokes country music melancholy.
Both singers share a pleasing roughness to their voices, a certain weathered quality that imbues their words with a seeming wisdom so that their narratives sometimes feel as if they were delivered with a cautionary tug of the ear lobe, but with none of the sanctimony or judgment of your average morality tale. But perhaps the most striking similarity between the two singers is the hint of irony that runs through their music. It echoes knowingly underneath the layers of Asa’s anguish and colours several of M,D&S’s scenarios perhaps nowhere better illustrated than on the brooding and portent-laden satire Down.
Ultimately, M,D&S feels evocative of a different time and place, one far removed from the influences of current music industry trends. As contemporary afro pop records go, it’s as self-assured an effort as any and an altogether rewarding listening experience. Achebe goes on to end his glowing endorsement of the author’s book with the remark: “Adichie came almost fully made”. In many ways, he could have been referring to Brymbo.