Music Review: Liner Notes for a Rex Lawson Playlist – Dami Ajayi

A pistol rests on your right temple and an icy voice says, Pick 6 Rex Lawson songs.

What would you do?

Would you ask, who is Rex Lawson?

Now, if this is your response, then you are in fine company, probably destined for finer ethereal company.

In the morning of January 17, 1971 in Buguma, present day Rivers State Nigeria, a child en route school encountered her troubled father on the front porch.

The father asked where she was going?

Perplexed, she responded, I am going to school.

Hear her father’s response, Did you not hear that Rex Lawson has died? Will you go and remove your uniform and begin to cry?

This vignette, courtesy novelist EC Osondu, aspires to myth but it underscores the importance of Rex Lawson to the Buguma people and Nigerians at large.

Perhaps you are from the southwest Nigeria and you find that the early 60s highlife/juju  of Chief Commander Obey is his best. News flash: the iconic ‘Oribayemi’ of that era is a spoof of Rex Lawson’s superior and more soulful ‘Jolly Papa’. Ditto for Kenneries originator Dr Orlando Owoh’s ‘Yellow Sisi’, Rex Lawson’s version is more mellow and urgent. Manu Dibango’s version of the Cameroonian folk song ‘Okoh’, as much as it aspires to funk, can’t tie the shoelaces of Rex Lawson’s.

Perhaps Flavour N’bania may be the most worthy sampler of Rex Lawson discography. His  remake of ‘Sawale’ is charismatic, agile and, for the lack of a better word, flavourful. I won’t be surprised to hear that this up-tempo dancehall synth-laden joyous ‘Ashewo’ made Rex Lawson’s tombstone shudder.

Without a doubt Rex Lawson’s influences stretch as far as Beautiful Nubia who honoured him with an enthusiastic documentary film.

The first time I heard Rex Lawson I was a House Officer in Wesley Guild Hospital, Ilesa heading to work that Saturday morning, blackberry phone spewing music into my earphones. Then this song came on. A scene is set. A shopkeeper arguing with his beloved but notorious creditor, Angelina. Fittingly, the song is called ‘Angelina Pay My Money’. Perhaps this song is why retail shops in Lagos bear the sign, No credit today come tomorrow. That morning, Benson Eluma, said if he was with the academy issuing the Grammys, he would have issued several to the Cardinal.  Entranced by how a mundane scene of  Lagos  in the 60s could be beautifully captured in music, I became a fan.

‘So Ala Temen’ is a standout soulful song, a tear jerker for even the performer, Rex Lawson known to weep copiously during his performances. Writer Igoni Barrett leaned into his Kalabari roots when he said, “From this song by a late, great Nigerian highlife singer I learned how to laugh and cry at the same time.”

Rex Lawson’s sets were known to gesture towards the spiritual, little wonder his initial sobriquet was pastor. Of course, at the height of his powers, he was called Cardinal, promoted through the ranks of musical clergy in what was the golden age of West African music.

Independence from colonial rule across West African states in the 60s sparked an optimism carried almost entirely by the music of that era, highlife. Highlife, named in Ghana by those outside who watched in dance halls, the teeming elites, young and educated Africans in their platform shoes doing boisterous sways, but ill-equipped for the more urgent work of nation-building.  Little wonder, the nations they shepherded fell apart in spasms of war in a matter of years.

During the Biafra war, Rex Lawson sold salt. A low moment no doubt but he was about picking up his career when that tragedy happened. He died on duty, en route a concert. But his music lives on.


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