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Album Review: Give the Beggar a Chance, Wake Up Your Mind, and The Dawn of Awareness

Three re-releases show the successes, and failures, of Joni Haarstraap and his African supergroup the MonoMono Band.
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Afrobeat enthusiasts may already be familiar with the MonoMono Band, a Nigerian outfit led by the multi-talented Joni Haastrup. The band also features Baba Ken Okulolo on bass, Jimmy Adams on guitar, and Candido Obajimi and Friday Jumbo on percussion. In short, a Nigerian super-group. Soundway and Tummy Touch records proudly present their first two albums, Give The Beggar A Chance and The Dawn of Awareness, plus a solo recording from Joni Haastrup.

MonoMono: Give The Beggar A Chance (1971)

As the name suggests, Give The Beggar A Chance shows the kind of social awareness largely absent from other releases of the same era. This is Africa, not America; out with 60s soul covers, in with themes exclusive to the concrete jungle that is Lagos.

“What do you want from a leper?” sings Haastrup on the title track. “Wake up, no hands to scratch his back.” And then “what do you need from a beggar? Wake up, no hopes to live tomorrow”. Through humour and clever wordplay, the seven tracks of Give the Beggar A Chance give two fingers to “the people sleeping in mansions”.

The album displays a rich celebration of the Hammond organ, an instrument that played an important role for outfits with limited funds such as MonoMono. Every church in the city has an organ. As many great singers from poverty-stricken communities came out of gospel choirs, so did the organ provide an opportunity for budding instrumentalists. Give the Beggar A Chance has that rough-edged “let loose after a Sunday service” feel; see The Upsetters’ galloping, spaghetti Western homage Return o Django for an excellent Jamaican equivalent. Doors fans should find a point of interest also, with Ray Manzarek most likely supplying the inspiration for Haastrup’s meandering organ solo on "Kenimania".

MonoMono: The Dawn of Awareness (1974)

The Dawn of Awareness sees the MonoMono Band expand on their previously set role as social commentators. Joni Haastrup looks beyond Lagos at the volatile state of the world, as did his American contemporaries at a similar time at Woodstock - war in Vietnam, the OPEC oil crises, Watergate and the IRA bombings.

The psychedelic cover bears a strong resemblance to the artwork of Marti Klarwein - who illustrated Carlos Santana’s Abraxas and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew - and sets an appropriate tone for the blues-rock grooves of the album. Santana once again shows to have been an influential guitarist in Nigeria. The Latin percussion of Abraxas also surfaces here, imitated well by Candido Obajimi and Friday Jumbo. Their shakes, scrapes and subtle drum hits provide the perfect backdrop for Jimmy Adams to plug in his guitar and let rip, often taking over the second half of the songs with an impenetrable amount of feedback. This makes for a more established formula than on MonoMono’s previous Give The Beggar A Chance: Haastrup’s heartfelt vocals, sometimes in English, sometimes in Yoruba, sometimes a personalised mish-mash of the two, Adams on guitar, Obajimi and Jumbo workmanlike in their simple percussion style.

When you consider the political situation in Nigeria, The Dawn of Awareness is more daring than other protest albums of the 70’s. “Awareness is what you need,” warns Haastrup, clearly not one turn a blind eye in fear of the consequences of the government. “If you see a man cry and don’t ask why, you can’t look yourself inside.”

Joni Haastrup: Wake Up Your Mind (1978)

Soundway’s third October release is Joni Haastrup’s Wake Up Your Mind, a disco-heavy effort recorded in London at the height of Saturday Night Fever. This new music scene, combined with the absence of the MonoMono Band (four years had passed since The Dawn of Awareness), results in a very different sound for Haastrup.

The album shamelessly muddies the boundaries between homage and outright copying. Haastrup plays a Shaft style seducer on "2Free My People”, while female backing vocalists sing an all too familiar “doo doo doo, woo!” on the opener “Do the Funkro” - an obvious take off from KC & the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way”. The unfortunate fact remains that disco is now rarely taken seriously, and must be something of an embarrassment for those who embraced it.

Haastrup’s saving grace comes in the second half of the album when the songs take on a more typically afrobeat quality, with the last three breaking the six minute mark. The well paced “Champions and Superstars” would have a worthy place on either of the previous MonoMono recordings. Wake Up Your Mind is definitely not, however, Nigeria’s “soul brother number one” in his natural role; for a more intelligent piece of West African disco, see Rob Way’s Funky Rob Way.

Give The Beggar A Chance, The Dawn of Awareness, and Wake up Your Mind will be released by Soundway Records on the 10th of October.

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