On Dec, 14 2019, Jim and I had the privilege of interviewing Temi Kogbe on Freeform Portland, Weekend Family Hour (WFMH). Kogbe is a cofounder of Odion Livingstone Records, curator, African music archivist and collector. He operates Odion Livingstone with former heavyweight EMI-Nigeria producer and musician, Odion Iruoje. Odion Livingstone Records was founded in 2017 and is the only vinyl reissue label operating in Nigeria today. Their recordings are deeply based in African groove heavy tempos, soulful boogie, disco, synth, funk and electro psychedelic tones.
We are sincerely appreciative to Temi for the opportunity in conversing with us from the Ivory Coast. The following is a partial transcription of the interview. The full show is archived at https://www.mixcloud.com/karen-lee3/interview-with-temi-kogbe-co-founder-of-odion-livingstone-records/
K&J– Can you please tell me how you got started as a deejay and what stood out for you with Odion Iruoje productions and being a co-owner of the Odion Livingstone label?
TK– First of all, I’m not a deejay but that’s a secret between us. I’ve had opportunities to play out but I don’t really care about deejaying. I’m basically a collector and someone who is interested in the history of the music, culture plus the context the music was created. So that’s my primary interest. I got into the music late. I used to read a music blog called Voodoo Funk by Frank Gossner. He wrote about amazing trips through Africa, about African music which got me interested. I thought, how can I live here and not even try to find records? I spoke to Frank and he told me to not even try to find the music because there was nothing left, not to bother. But I stumbled on some people, found some stuff, and then I found some other stuff. Nigeria is a big country where there is a lot of music. There is music that is undiscovered, there is music that the Western guys are not looking for because it’s not their taste. But to me it’s still relevant. So I became a digger; I would go on the radio, find heirlooms, and stumble on gems.
K&J-Whenever we try to find African records they are sometimes not in good shape because the African climate is not record friendly.
TK– The environment is not conducive to records. It’s a whole bunch of factors, and if you look at records, they are just a medium to listen to music. People live poor lives in general. If you look at life constraints and having records, there are no turntables to play records anymore. They probably thought this record doesn’t have any value anymore and CDs had taken over and people stopped buying records. You could find records in chicken coops, exposed to elements like water. However some records survived, and you can maybe meet the artists who have five copies at their mother’s house, or find a distributor who still has stock because a lot of records were flops at the time. First off, they didn’t make many of them, and secondly, few survived. So they are rare. That’s why the prices are high. You can compare African records to jazz collector records where the market is very high. I think they’re well priced, to be honest.
K&J-The Odion reissues are the best price. When Odion Livingstone started reissuing records we flipped out! We’re your biggest fans and we appreciate your label so much.
TK– Thank you. The label is 100% African but the records are made in Germany. We wanted them to sound like Soundway records which are high quality. We have to use mixers and producers that everybody uses. We found our own guy in Australia who’s a genius, I’ll give you his name before the show is up. We have to keep the original quality of the record we reissue.
K&J– We love the quality of Odion Livingstone records. Exampling Livy Ekemezie, the first reissue you put out. Keeping the original artwork from the first press, keeping the blue vinyl and creating the labels looking similar to original releases.
TK– I would like to give props to Javi Bayo, our designer. I met him in London in the 90s, we DJed in a clique called The Body Electric Crew, playing broken beats, etc. Hooking up again was a good way to continue that conversation. With regard to Livy Ekemezie, we put out Friday Night with Strut’s Quinton Scott. Basically, I asked him if we could put it out on blue vinyl like the original record. He also wanted to keep it close to the original which was pressed at William Onyeabor’s record plant, whose entire catalogue had been reissued by Luaka Bop. Originally Livy went there and got his record pressed, and William Onyeabor asked him if he wanted it on blue vinyl for the same cost. Livy told him yes. A fun fact: Livy gave me the studio photo he used on the cover so we didn’t have to scan the cover of the original album. We had the original studio photo that he took for the reissue of the record.
K&J– Did that record do well when it came out, was it a private press originally?
TK– Everything was pretty much private press, apart from EMI stuff. Mostly, artists found someone to sponsor them. The Livy Ekemezie was a private press, and it did not do well so he went back to school after that. His parents gave him permission to be a musician for a few months and get it out of his system. He made an amazing record and our mixer who did the pre-production was Frank at The Carvery, he did a fantastic job on that. Dan Elleson is the genius Australian who’s produced our fourth release to the seventh. Frank produced the first three.
Going back to Livy, he took the masters of Friday Night to EMI and wanted to meet with Odion. This was 1979-1980. And Odion wouldn’t see him because Odion was the biggest producer at the time. Someone else looked at the record and told him EMI was not interested, so Livy put it out himself. It was arranged by (Livy) and Julius Elong who is Cameroonian, a keyboard player. The album has a different sound when it was produced. It’s super dense, hyper funky, it’s focused funk.
K&J– We love that record and play it out all the time.
TK– It’s actually our biggest seller and shows another side of Nigeria that people don’t expect to hear from Africa. It sounds like New York.
K&J– How hard was it to track down Odion Iruoje and involve him in the label, did you have records by him you wanted to release?
TK– To be honest, I just wanted to meet the guy. You can compare him to Phil Spector, Odion is an enigmatic genius. I wasn’t sure how to go about licensing, so I found I had to track down the artists first. Odion Iruoje’s name opens doors, and he agreed to reissue records with me. I approached artists on a record-by-record basis. Some artists are hard to find, some artists disappeared, some had stage names, some are not on Facebook. So you find a guy, then they want too much money, or you can’t find them. So some records are not released because of licensing.
K&J– It’s great you’re being ethically correct and trying to find artists to ask for consent.
TK– It’s the minimum we have to do. Livy didn’t believe it until he got the money for the reissue. He couldn’t understand how we knew about his record. He was actually scared and thought we were kidnappers. He couldn’t believe we wanted licensing to reissue his record. He was shocked! It was a short chapter in his life, he did the record at 18 or 19 years old and that was it, he wasn’t a musician but really into music. It is very Nigerian to reinvent yourself and when he made the record he moved on. Livy did some studies in Marketing, he worked for an oil company; when he got the check from the record he said, “Look, I never expected this”. He was really happy. When Strut got the record, it sold out like hotcakes and they asked us if he can talk or do some appearances. I talked to him about it and he laughed, it was too far away from his experience for him. He is older and in his 60s, he has eyesight problems. It’s the strangest story for him he can imagine. I think the internet has a big part in this.
K&J– It’s a great story for him, it’s nice how artists can be remembered and highlighted for their musical accomplishments when they were younger. There are musicians that are having a resurgence such as Ata Kak who’s touring with Awesome Tapes from Africa. Like Livy, he is able now to make a living off his music because of reissue labels.
K&J– What’s the story with the two Grotto records?
TK– The two Grotto records were EMI releases at the time. EMI had just come from the Ofege madness which was a very successful release. So Ofege came out as a monumental hit and they couldn’t press the records fast enough. So Odion tried more boy bands, he was experimenting with a lot of boy bands.
K&J– Was C.S Crew one of those?
TK– No, they were older. Odion used to go to schools and listen to talent shows. So Grotto was one of those bands. I met the lead guitarist and worked a deal with him.
K&J– I love the female vocalists on the first record…
TK– I met them after the record and they told me about their experiences, Ukay and Bola. The first record is very sought after in the rock collector world. The second record is more straight ahead funky stuff. I am fortunate enough to be able to sell some Grotto originals, and I have sold the first Grotto record to rock guys who really like it. But the second Grotto record was a more successful release because it’s easy to dance to. The first Grotto record is like a unicorn, the rock guys really like it, similar to Hendrix, maybe Sly Stone. It sounded interesting. They went to Saint Gregs College and were members of a school band. Similar to the whole Ofege thing, Grotto did not do as well as Ofege but they were very interesting.
K&J– Did those bands play live at hotels in the 70s?
TK– They played at hotels, universities, stadiums, there were a lot of live shows in the 70s and early 80s.
K&J– Manford Best from the Wings wrote in his book there were many Nigerian bands playing at different hotels. He explained how rival bands, such as Wings and Super Wings, played at different hotels on the same day. It’s a very interesting book about the Nigerian music scene in the 70s and 80s. Did you read it?
TK– Yeah, I read that book. One of my diggers introduced me to Manford Best. I spoke to him and told him “I love your stuff”. I told my guy to buy his book and send it to me. We need more of those books. I wish Jake Sollo had a book, or Nkono Teles. There are guys who had incredible careers in Nigeria who played amazing music and no one knows anything about them. This music was on the radio, this music was the soundtrack to Africa at the time. Some of the songs were really big hits, the songs on the radio people would sing along with. But nobody knows anything about them.
K&J– Well you’re such a good writer, Temi, so maybe you can start another career documenting biographies and start Odion Livingstone books…
TK– Nah, Uchenna (Ikonne) does a good job.
K&J– Your liner notes for the N’Draman Blintch Cosmic Sounds reissue are great.
TK– One of my good friends was involved with that reissue, and I always wanted to put that record out but I couldn’t find N’Draman Blintch. He is one of the biggest enigmas in the Afro Music collecting world. Blintch is originally from the Ivory Coast. He recorded the music in Nigeria, and then Harry Mosco took it to England and laid some voices over the tracks, post production. I found out there was Blintch and then some session men from Cameroon. Session musicians from Cameroon were more versatile and easier to work with. So they did a three or four day recording at Decca studios, recorded the material, got paid, and left. Decca gave it to Harry Mosco to go to London to lay over voices, and they basically made two records out of the material. There’s Cosmic Sounds, which is also the name of the record, and Passport. Those two albums came out of one session. But the guys never listened to the final product, so they never really knew what Harry Mosco did. The bass player thought he produced Cosmic Sounds, but he said there was no girl in the studio, even though there was a girl on the record. It was very common to start a record in Nigeria and then take them to London to finish. Odion did it a lot, Jake Sollo and Harry Mosco also.
N’Draman Blintch is from the Ivory Coast where they speak French, so he speaks English with a French African accent. Harry Mosco made the girls sing with a French African accent, so the whole record has these weird French African intonations. It’s such a beautiful album.
K&J– Are you planning to release Passport?
TK– Yeah, I have no idea about that.
K&J– What inspired you to reissue Apples?
TK– Apples was another Odion Iruoje boy band made up of two half Swiss guys from either the Ivory Coast or Dakar whose dad was a diplomat. They were in Nigeria at the time and they were part of the Ofege wave. Frank was the drummer and the leader of the band who was older. I like Apples because they remind me of Shuggie Otis. I thought they were special and had a laid back soul sound. I met Frank and licensed the music from him. Mind Twister is a special album because the tracks were recorded in Lagos, Nigeria and then Odion took the tapes to London and mixed them at Abbey Road because he had access to EMI studios. He worked with a session keyboard player called Monkman who added keyboards to it. It took the music to another level. You would never guess the record was recorded in two sessions because of the layering and sounds. If you listen to the lyrics you can hear English is not the singers first language but it adds to the charm of the record. It’s beautiful. Most albums I put out I have an emotional attachment to the record, I’m not in business to make profit. It’s music I like, I find different. Nigerian music is not just this or that, it is “this.” Music has certain qualities, feelings.
K&J– How has the response been locally for Odion Livingstone records?
TK– I think it’s mostly Western taste driven. I have to struggle sometimes to listen to music outside of that spectrum. There’s no music scene in Nigeria per se. I have played music out when people invite me to play. I have guys who like the music we release, but I have more guys asking me about music from Russia, Japan, guys from all over the world. There are guys in Japan who know much more about music than I do, they come with information. Some guys relate to Nigerian music on levels that I cannot even imagine, it’s crazy. Music is international and universal.
K&J– What about the Willy Nfor double reissue?
TK– He came to Nigeria at 19 with his bass guitar. He lost his mum at some point and wasn’t getting along with his dad. He became a session guy for EMI and formed a band called The Mighty Flames. They put out some great music. He was one of the biggest bass players around at the time. He played with the biggest musicians such as, Sonny Okosun, Bongos Ikwue, they were the big guys at the time. He was very busy in the 70s and 80s, and then ended up in Paris and died very young. He played with Manu Dibango and made a name for himself but he passed from cancer. I love the guy, his feeling with the bass. He is on another level of music. I was happy to find his wife, his last partner, so I licensed the music from her.
K&J– It’s a great compilation.
TK– I’m glad you like it. It’s a great album, I love the album. I love his music.
K&J– It’s a beautiful release with the liner notes and the photos especially.
TK– We tried to keep the quality, it’s not easy. If you’re going to do something, do it well.
K&J– Can you talk about the Duomo label and how the Duomo compilation came about?
TK– Duomo was a fascinating label in the 80s with an amazing catalogue.
K&J– Mike Umoh is one of my favorite artists on that compilation, he drummed on some records that I also love. I also found out Christy Ogbah was a police officer after reading the liner notes on the record.
TK– I think the Advice album she (Christy Ogbah) released should be reissued as well, it deserves a merit. She was an amazing singer.
Duomo was run by this guy Humphrey, who was a producer. He ran Duomo like a proper label, and I think Mike Umoh was his music director. The first record they released was Bassie Black, which was a huge hit. They used EMI studios and paid the EMI engineer to put out tapes after mastering. I knew straight away after collecting Iruoje that there are more highly sought after records. I thought the common thread was the record label, so if I can do a deal with this guy who lives on the Ivory Coast, I could put out all this music. So I went after him through a Nigerian friend I knew from the record collecting world who said he knew this guy from the 80s and knows how to get in touch with him. And the rest is history. It came out after Soundway’s Doing It In Lagos comp but it didn’t hurt record sales because it was a different curation. It wasn’t just disco, it was more rural and pointed in another direction which was interesting. I didn’t want to do another boogie comp, I wanted something with a bit more variety.
K&J– The Johnny Obazz song “Xmas Eve” is a good song.
TK– Yes! “Xmas Eve”. That was the only song on the comp I did not have an original of so I had to get that from a friend. Once I heard it, I knew I had to put it on.
K&J– How many records do you think Odion Iruoje has produced in his lifetime?
TK– Probably close to 1000 records, I’d say. Not all of them were released, including singles.
K&J– We follow you on instagram and we recently saw some pictures of Iruoje, perhaps sitting in a sauna, were you sitting in the sauna with him?
TK– Actually, Lagos is a sauna right now. And I popped over to his house, he was sitting on his terrace. He’s been there, done that. It’s impossible to quantify the amount of what he’s done. Nigeria is a fast life, there’s the now and no one remembers someone who’s done so much, so much good stuff, amazing mind boggling stuff. I don’t want it to waste away. I’ve at least got him to release records again. It goes both ways because it’s been a blessing for me too.
K&J– Thank you for joining us today and nerding out with us. Are there any sneak previews you would like to talk about?
TK– Thank you for having us. I’m glad I’m not the only nerd here. There are some ideas, working with stuff that’s already licensed for next year. I would say just hold tight and keep watching.