The past few weeks I’ve slipped into a musical rut. Don’t get me wrong, I love depressing indie music as much as the next person, but there comes a point when that Mitski song you’ve had on repeat for days starts to make your head fuzzy with emotional catharsis (although I adore her music for this same reason).
Converging with my musical fatigue, the temperature in Maine rose above 50 degrees last week, and I suddenly felt the overwhelming desire to blast some breezy pop with the car windows down all the way. The piles of snow and ice around me were thawing rapidly, and so was the cocoon of sad-girl winter playlists that had kept me company throughout January and February. Never mind the impending weather reports of snow and high winds for the rest of the week, I was determined to savor every last drop of the summery radiance Mother Nature granted me, however fleeting.
On my quest for warm weather music, I came across the Lijadu Sisters, a Nigerian funk-pop duo made up of identical twins Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu. With only a cluster of brief albums released between 1976 and 1979, I wasn’t sure what to expect until I queued their top song, “Come on Home.” In an instant, my headphones were inundated with bouncing percussion and grooving bass licks as the pair harmonized each line in their native Yoruba language with hypnotic precision. I couldn’t understand the words, but the song felt soulfully sunny and dance-worthy.
Instinctively I clicked to the next song, a 1976 track called “Life’s Gone Down Low.” To my surprise, its tone felt completely different than “Come on Home,” with jiving church organ and guitar riffs more akin to Western jazz and gospel rock than pop. Not only that, but its English lyricism revealed tales of struggle rather than joviality. The sisters sang, “Stop and look, oh yeah / Man is headed for the nuclear power / Life’s gone down low, yeah,” and “So people, get together, ah / The only way to be free, yeah.” It became clear to me that the Lijadu Sisters were not only able to serve up a feel-good marriage of Western and African-influenced sounds, but also to provide relevant commentary on political turmoil and poverty in Nigeria.
This duality was a lot more intriguing than my previous pursuit for a light-hearted summer soundtrack, and through further research, I found that the Lijadu Sisters were incredibly influential within the ’70s and ’80s Nigerian music scene. Having infiltrated the largely male-dominated West African pop industry, Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu were able to carve out a rare space for female voices at the time. They vocalized the trials of the everyday Nigerian citizen, exploring everything from corruption in government to a people’s revolution, all intermixed with songs about romance and celebration. The duo even performed alongside Ginger Baker, drummer and co-founder of the British band Cream, at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. But their popularity in the U.S. and Europe never reached the same heights as it did in Africa.
In the ’80s, the Lijadu Sisters relocated to Brooklyn, N.Y., and made only a smattering of musical appearances after experiencing years of alleged thievery from their record label’s parent company, Decca. In 2019, Kehinde Lijadu passed away from cancer, leaving behind her twin Taiwo, who reflected after her death, “Kehinde was my light, my love, my soul mate… my everything.” Her death marked the end of a dynamic partnership of sisters who sang, protested and even dressed as one for decades.
The Lijadu Sisters are not exactly a secret, having had massive popularity in Nigeria at their zenith, but I can’t help but feel that their innovative work has been woefully underappreciated in the United States. Although I haven’t been able to find English translations for many of their songs online, the weight of their words is not lost on me. The Lijadu Sisters represent sisterhood at its finest, and an unwillingness to be silenced by arduous circumstances when there is a story to tell.
It’s 28 degrees and cloudy as I write this, but I’m certain that both the infectious Afrobeat pop sound and revolutionary message of the Lijadu Sisters will withstand the changing seasons in my musical rotation.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.