You wouldn't guess by his diminutive stature, but Prince Nico Mbarga was one of the greatest giants of Nigerian music ever. Nico's record Aki Special marked the high point in his career: it featured the tune "Sweet Mother," which sold over 15 million copies and stands as the most popular African pop song ever.
Nico came from Nigerian and Camerounian roots, a polyglot who spent enough time in both countries to absorb a monster share of music and culture. For an extended period, he performed with a group called Rokafil Jazz, but he was unquestionably its star. Aki Special features seven tunes all about 8-9 minutes in length, drawing from the musical traditions of Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, New World centers like Cuba and Jamaica, and the great beyond. In 1977, this emerging mix made a great recipe for popular music.
Certain hallmarks of the West African highlife sound surface regularly on Aki Special. The interlocking guitars and drums, especially the congas, present a rhythmic foundation upon which Nico's vocals glide. On "Sweet Mother," the pulse turns toward calypso for a carefree, lilting dance rhythm. The words to the song formalize the deep respect African cultures have for their family: "If you forget your mother, you have lost your life." With lyrics like these and a light, refreshing groove, "Sweet Mother" transmutes a deep tribute into a joyous celebration. Maybe that's why it's the best-recognized song on the continent.
And if there's one thing that marks Aki Special, it's the upbeat frolicking spirit that runs throughout. There's nothing particularly complex or dense about these pieces, though they draw from so many styles and somehow integrate them into a seamless whole. Nico's septet makes it seem easy to assemble a tight, coherent unit from all these beats and patterns. But in the end, it's pure dance music. And in Africa, where the best music drives the shuffle of feet and the sway of hips, Prince Nico was King.