Spot the difference. Juju stars Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey and Dele Abiodun; Afrobeat originator Fela Anikulapo Kuti and ozzidizm originator Sonny Okosuns; highlife rejuvenators Victor Uwaifo, Prince Nico and the Oriental Brothers; fuji stars Ayinla Kollington and Ayinde Barrister; apala veteran Haruna Ishola; waka child prodigy Salawa Abeni; and roots-modernists the Lijadu Sisters. With the exception of Abeni and the Lijadu Sisters, the biggest names on the 1970s Nigerian music scene were all men.
In Nigeria in the 1970s, only a tiny handful of female artists broke through the backing singer/dancer ceiling to become stars in their own right, particularly if they wrote all their own material – as did Abeni, with lyrics closely based on or taken straight out of Islamic scripture and folk wisdom, and the Lijadu Sisters, whose repertoire ranged from love songs and dance anthems through philosophy and political/social commentary.
“The music business was hard for women in Nigeria,” says Taiwo Lijadu. “Back then, they didn’t think women had brains.”
Twins Taiwo and Kehinde were born in Jos, in northern Nigeria, on October 22, 1948. They enjoyed singing from an early age, encouraged by their mother, who bought them records by a wide range local and overseas of artists. Kehinde and Taiwo remember with special fondness discs by Aretha Franklin, Miriam Makeba, Ray Charles and, later, Fela Kuti (who, like the Nobel Prize winning writer and political activist Wole Soyinka, was their second cousin).
The twins started songwriting early too – Kehinde when she was 10, Taiwo when she was 17 – and absorbed the humanitarian sensibilities of Franklin, Makeba, Charles and Kuti along with their soulful vocal styles. “All our records include songs with deep messages,” says Kehinde. “Artists should be the voice of the world. Not just of their own people, but of the wider world, for a problem which faces one, faces all.”
The Lijadu Sisters began working as session singers, but solid-gold talent and determination – and, no doubt, the twins’ extraordinary physical beauty – soon led to their first own-name release, “Iya Mi Jowo” (“mother please”), which came out on Nigerian Decca in 1968. The song was written by Taiwo in 1965 and the story behind it is included in the notes for the album Mother Africa, for which the sisters rerecorded it.
In 1971, the sisters met the British drummer Ginger Baker (Cream, Blind Faith, Airplane), who in the first half of the 1970s was a frequent visitor to Nigeria, where he recorded and performed with Kuti and his band, Africa 70. In 1972, the Lijadu Sisters performed with Baker’s band at the cultural festival accompanying the Munich Olympics in Germany. For a while, Taiwo and Baker were an item.
Another fortuitous male encounter was with the multi-instrumentalist Biddy Wright. Wright’s mother was a close friend of the sisters’ mother, through whom the three met. Sadly no longer with us, Wright co-arranged and played on all four of the classic 1970s Lijadu Sisters albums released on Decca’s Afrodisia imprint. Thirty-plus years later, after an introduction by Will Glasspiegel, Knitting Factory Records will re-release these long out-of-print albums – Danger (1976), Mother Africa (1977), Sunshine (1978) and Horizon Unlimited (1979).
Assisted only by traditional drummers and percussionists, Wright played most of the instruments on these discs – including electric and acoustic guitar, bass guitar, saxophone and keyboards. After the twins’ own ravishing voices, rich harmonies and thought provoking songs, Wright was key to their 1970s success: as at home with funk and rock as he was with traditional Yoruba music, and, like Taiwo and Kehinde, adept at bringing traditional and electric styles together.
By 1980, the Lijadu Sisters were acquiring an international profile. They were featured in British director Jeremy Marre’s fiIm Konkombe: The Nigerian Pop Music Scene in 1979, and in the Nigerian chapter of Marre’s TV series on “world music,” Beats Of The Heart. In 1984, the US label Shanachie released the compilation album Double Trouble, and the British label Earthworks rereleased Horizon Unlimited. In 1985, on British television, Kehinde and Taiwo were a big hit on the so-cool-it-hurts music show, The Tube. In 1988, they visited the US with Sunny Ade, and performed under their own name with Ade’s band, winning an enthusiastic review in The New York Times.
By the end of the decade, things were looking good for the Lijadu Sisters in the US, and after the Ade concerts they stayed in the country while their green card applications went through.
Then disaster struck. Kehinde suffered dreadful spinal injuries in a fall in the hallway of the twins’ Brooklyn apartment building (they lived on the first floor). “The first doctor who saw me gave me six months to live,” says Kehinde. “Then they said I would never walk again. But I said to myself, ‘I will be strong, I will not give up, I owe it to my family.’”
The accident threatened to finish the Lijadu Sisters’ career, and it kept them out of the public eye until 2011, when Knitting Factory’s reissue program began.
While Kehinde was recovering, the twins withdrew completely from the limelight. Inevitably, rumors about their wellbeing and whereabouts abounded. Some people thought they had died, others that they had married rich Americans and retired into lives of luxurious obscurity. There were several other tales. Everyone missed them terribly.
Kehinde eventually overcame her injuries, but it took many years, and she still suffers its effects. “I am walking, even dancing again now,” she says. “But I cannot sit down for more than two hours at a time, and I cannot fly any distance at all.”
During Kehinde’s recovery, the sisters’ were sustained by their embrace of the traditional Yoruba belief system Ifa (which has a divination strand of arcane complexity and infinite nuance), and their study of the use of herbs in healing.
“Our mother taught us that unless we had something to promote, it was best not to do interviews,” says Taiwo. “Save it for when you have something to talk about. And we have not spoken for a long time. But the Knitting Factory program means we have something to talk about once more. We are back, and we are going to perform again.”
“It is decades since we have performed publicly,” adds Kehinde, “but now we are ready – and the music will be of today! We thank our fans for remembering us, and we want them to know why we have been silent. We love them very much.”
In 2011, Kehinde and Taiwo, inseparable since birth, share an apartment in Harlem, NYC.
It is wonderful to have them back.
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