Etuk Ubong’s Sophomore “Africa Today” is full of righteous anger – Dami Ajayi

Etuk Ubong’s spare jazz-quartet-structured, afrobeat-disciplined sophomore record, “Africa Today”, released under the Night Dreamer label is an urgent and disquieting testimony of our times.

To those who imagined business as usual, per his jazzy debut record “Tales of Life”, Ubong shows versatility, confidence, and I daresay, courage—and it pays off.

Paying tribute to a turbulent time on a troubled continent requires a music updated beyond mere intricate melodies and sophisticated rhythms. That update already polished in afrobeat, which is an update itself of a fusion of jazz and highlife with a dollop of Pan-African political consciousness, adds another layer in Ubong’s hands.

His introduction of  ritualistic drumming of ekombi to the ensemble brings a sacred dimension of worship to his already urgent and necessary music. He calls his fusion, Earth music, which is sort of a fusion of fusions.

To eschew confusion, let’s reflect briefly on nomenclature.  Naming one’s sound is as necessary as acknowledging influences. A prodigious trumpeter, Ubong, cut his teeth blowing for the greats. He started as a teenager in Victor Olaiya’s band. He did some time with Buchi’s reggae band. He played for a bit in Femi Kuti’s Positive Force band.  What he takes from his serial tutelage is lobbed into what is his style—a distinctive and  frenetic tune paced by sophisticated trumpet riffs. It has the cool of highlife, the improvisation of jazz and  the incendiary element of afrobeat.

Consider the opening tune, Ekpo Mmommom, the first of six tracks. Rueful trumpet riffs alternate with unrelenting percussion—in what is a masterclass in shifting tempo and pacing. Then the album sprints.

‘African Struggle’ races, like a musical equivalent of a struggle itself. The entire album is marked by an urgency, a trademark characterised by insistent and confident blare of trumpets (shout-out to Micheal Awosogo).  What makes this album irresistible is the range of emotions you are made to feel, even within the same song.

A Pan-African affectation is an intellectual stone to be touched, even for Ubong’s earth music. On the mournful eponymous track, ‘Africa Today’, Ubong may be singing to his country’s president or to the clutter of all geriatric African leaders.

On ‘Mass Corruption’, he updates Fela’s Yabis with a new roster of Nigeria’s leaders (read kleptocrats). “Spiritual Change’ brings down the tempo, tempered for ritual and worship, invoking the presence of true African heroes, for what may be the cleansing of Africa.

Throughout the album, the groove is adjusted for shimmering buttocks, the pace adapted as a riotous soundtrack but the lyrics, occasionally coming close to competence, is the weakest link. It is, at best, a  placeholder for the robust philosophy engendered in the musical form, and Ubong, pressed for spool time, does not have the luxury of Fela’s musical meandering.

Like the state of Africa itself, Africa Today is a fiery album brimming with regret, complaint and righteous anger. But the nimble African feet, hanging on a ponderous head, cannot resist a good groove. This, perhaps, is the most vital testimony: music and dance will continue to be necessary tools for interrogating our grim realities.

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