Official album art from Na Teef Know de Road of Teef
Not many people could challenge Fela Kuti. The revolutionary Afro-beat master of ceremonies was far from one to be silenced or legitimately threatened by another man’s wager. Pax Nicholas, however, one of Fela’s own comrades, did. As a vocalist and conga drummer in Fela’s renown band, Africa 70, Nicholas spent eight years performing with his mentor and leader, while secretly recording work on his own. The result of his independent venture was two original LPs, both of which were kept out of sight and out of mind for over 20 years at the behest of Fela’s jealousy.
Nicholas was raised in Accra, Ghana, a youth driven by the American soul movement of the 60s. Influenced by the likes of James Brown and Otis Redding, Nicholas became a musician on his own at the age of 18, and his talent quickly led him to the doorstep of the most momentous African performer in history, Fela Kuti. At Fela’s invitation, Nicholas relocated to Lagos, Nigeria where, according to his manager Matti Steinitz (“DJ Matutu”), he “experienced life in Fela’s Kalakuta Republic…It was a property in Lagos that had been declared an independent state by Fela, in open defiance of the brutal dictatorship ruling Nigeria at that time. The regime, which hated Fela for his radical messages and his popularity, attacked Kalakuta several times. In one of these raids, Nicholas was arrested with several other band members and remained in prison for nine months, where he was strongly mistreated.”
Despite the stark air of anarchy and radical affairs, music remained the primary force behind Fela and his band, and Nicholas embraced it fervently. He recruited several members of Africa 70 to work with him on his solo efforts, recording in Ginger Baker’s studio in Lagos. The music was a blend of Afro-beat—the style Fela invented—and American funk and soul, which had so long been a hymn in Nicholas’ mind. The LPs were released on Tabansi, an independent Nigerian label; the first titled, Mind Your Own Business in 1971, followed by Na Teef Know The Road of Teef in 1973. This latter work was the central point of contention between Fela and Nicholas, Fela reportedly telling his protégé, “Don’t you ever play again.”
And so not until the 90s, when the emergence of hip hop both resurrected decades of throwbacks and unearthed undiscovered anomalies, did Nicholas ever receive proper validation. It was during this time that Frank Gossner (“DJ Soul Pusher”), while browsing through albums at a record store, uncovered Na Teef and brought it to the attention of the public. Nicholas’ music finally got the attention it deserved, and his second LP was released by Daptone Records, an arthouse retro-soul label, in 2009.
Though not necessarily the caliber of Fela’s original opuses, Nicholas’ flair and deep knowledge of musical heritage is evident in each song. The record is brief, only 33 minutes long and comprising four recordings, but it is a distinct journey through Africa and America in an era of riots, revolution and reinvention. The rich compositions are representative of the depths of emotion present in the mind of Nicholas and his players. There’s a “very solid groove laid down by the band who, one suspects, operated largely on their own,” notes Richard Miller in his review for Dusted Magazine, admitting “perhaps a comparison to Fela’s rich voice and complex, politically charged lyrics is unfair; even his two sons, Femi Kuti and Seun Kuti, struggle at times to match their father.”
Nicholas left Nigeria at the end of the 70s, relocating to Berlin after a successful showing at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1978 with Africa 70. He resides there today along with his two sons, and leads a new band named Ridimtasi, keeping the spirit of Afrobeat alive through performance.