May be less celebrated than William Onyeabor or Jake Sollo, you could say that keyboardist Nkono Teles was similarly fundamental to Nigeria’s electro pop explosion in the eighties. Well, Soundway Records are aiming to do the right thing and raise his profile with the release of ‘Love Vibration’, a collection of key cuts from Teles solo output which hustle with the best.
From his home in Cameroon to Nigeria, then Tony Allen’s first post Fela group to leading afro-funkster Steve ‘Dudu’ Black’s band, Teles really began to shake things up as the seventies drew to a close. As Black himself recalls: ‘”Someone told me there was a Cameroonian boy here that plays keyboards. He came to the studio and he was good, but he only played Cameroon music, mostly Makossa, but I knew he had potential. I said to him – “We have to change our musical style, let’s play some funk”. We listened to Cameo, The Crusaders, that kind of stuff. He spent hours on end listening to Cameo!“
That advice and the time spent immersed in Larry Blackmon’s electric disco paid dividends. Nkono Teles decamped from Kaduna, headed to Lagos and began to fashion his own sound. Attributed as one of the key drum machine beatmakers at the time, who blended these new crisp rhythms with snappy guitars and Roland synth bite, his unique disco boogie style was in high demand. What followed was an impressive rosta of Teles produced dance floor smashes from Peter Abdul to Rick Asikpo and onto Steve Monite’s touchstone boogie release Only You. Plus there were three fine solo albums from Teles himself, Afro Music Party (1982), Party Beats (1984) and finally Fiesta Dancin, each one wired with his distinct synth sparkle and geared for the afro-pop dancefloor.
The compact and crisp Love Vibration compilation sees Soundway sensibly focusing on these three records as a prime source, given the complexity of the trail of Teles work as producer/arranger with 100 plus artists over the years. Opening up with the swaggeringly upbeat ‘Martin Street Special’ from his first album, is another fine move. It’s a tight focused, super stretched instrumental groove, part mid-funk strut, part disco shoulder roll, held down by rubber band bass lines and tensed up by some sharp synth chops. Steve Black chips in with percussion, Elimbi Oscar adds some wily jazz rock guitar but it’s the Teles touch that brings the magic. The subtle afrobeat congas, the playful lo/sci-fi effects and a meteoric Roland shredding solo, it’s sharp, on point and readily infectious.
Including a re-work of the same tune from another Teles album, the illusive Fiesta Dancin’, may seem a short-change move on a six track retrospective but when you listen take two of ‘Martin Street’ it makes perfect sense. The pulse is up, the drum programmes more out front and the funk shakes itself in a lighter electro-dance direction. What’s lost in earthiness is made up for by the Teles keyboard flourish that drives the tune. Made intricate by multi-layered synth trills and tingles, the arrangement’s jazz vamping underflow highlights an exuberant musician at work.
That same sophistication shines through another track taken from Fiesta Dancin’, the sultry down-tempo ‘Hometown Weather’. There’s a confidence in these melody lines and a groove that makes even the schmaltzy hook sound just as it should be. Being Nkono Teles there’s also an inventive twist, with a sudden bell chime, spacey bleeps and a bubblegum pop feel to the fade out.
Another surprise comes courtesy of the Soundway compilers with their digging out of a non-solo album track to grace Love Vibration. The instrumental ‘Love Got A Hold Of Me’ which Teles wrote and recorded for Jane Coleman’s lost 1987 gem, the ‘Don’t Want To Be Alone’ LP, is no filler. In a swirl of eighties pomp, the rhythmic chunkiness and the minimal Kraftwerk synth lines are the hallmark of a musician who knows how to make even the most simple tunes ring. If Soundway get the chance to pursue the re-issue of Jane Coleman’s Teles produced neo-soul treasure any time, let’s hope that they grab it.
Swinging back to his solo catalogue for the compilation’s close, both the title track and ‘Party Beats’ are sourced from Teles second album. ‘Love Vibration’ features him taking on lead vocals in addition to everything else and why not. A slinky disco swoon, his falsetto sits well in the twinkling tension although the tune hits top gear when the backing singers fill out a gospel hinting call back. As it fades you kind of wonder where this would go if Ghanaian soul king ROB had done a version. Not that it really matters, the pumping energy of ‘Party Beats’ ensures the momentum doesn’t drop as it jumps and jives to the album’s fade.
Part celebration/ part discovery ‘Love Vibration’ opens up the book on Nkono Teles,
a sound shifter who often got the credit listing but sometimes not the credit. It’s a record assembled with care that brings plenty of joy in its own right but inevitably leaves you needing to discover more. Job done then.
Get your copy of ‘Love Vibration’ by Nkono Teles from your local record store or direct from Soundway’s Bandcamp HERE