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SHOWDOWN AT LIDO by Frank Onyezili 

The famed Garden City, Port Harcourt, Nigeria, was reverberating with news of the arrival of the new kids on the block. The Fractions a pop music group comprising Travis Oli on vocals and guitar, Mike Obanye on drums, Jake Sollo on bass and Frank Zilli on rhythm guitar, had hit town parading Ify Jerry, their new lead guitarist, and were literally setting it alight with their funky sound, music that was refreshingly new in those climes in those days. However, their arrival signaled intensification of rivalry between the group and the Hykkers, the landlords at Lido nightclub, situated on a street next to Hotel Emilia where the Fractions were based.

It was 1968 and the civil war between Nigeria’s Federal troops and the secessionist Biafran forces was at its peak. There was not the entertainment of Premiership or La Liga football, no Diamond league and no Hussain Bolt. Just war, and music, to which everyone, soldier and civilian alike, flocked. For the better part of three years the combatants were locked in a war of attrition, in which no quarters were given nor prisoners taken, a war that by conservative estimates cost more than two million lives, mostly of women and children. First Nsukka, then Enugu had fallen to Federal troops who were facing serious challenges of their own as the Biafrans overran the Midwest as far as Benin and were threatening Ore, right in the heartland of Nigeria’s western region. But there in Port Harcourt it was still music, sweet soulful music, opium for the rich and poor alike in the Biafran enclave in a time of war.

The Lido was a shrine of sorts to night-clubbers in Port Harcourt who gather there like ants to sugar, to listen, more listen than dance, to the music dished out by the Hykkers, a five-member pop music group led by ever-immaculately-dressed Bob Miga on rhythm guitar and with frontman Pat Finn on vocals. The Lido itself was an eye-catcher fashioned in the finest traditions of Las Vegas, with cool shaded lighting embellished with custom-built music acoustics. Every Saturday night was Lido nighta in Port Harcourt and security details needed to be deployed around the perimeters of the usually jam-packed venue. 

The Hykkers were masters of their art and were superbly organized by Eddie Roberts, a wily professional image-maker, spin doctor and thoroughbred dealer who had negotiated a lucrative long-term contract for the Hykkers at the Lido. He did not have to say that he saw the Fractions as interlopers in his own backyard, intruders that needed to the uprooted and disposed of. For years, in Port Harcourt, the Hykkers had held sway, becoming a bit complacent, and the coming of the Fractions represented both a wake-up call as well as a serious, even existential, threat to the Hykkers. And Eddie Roberts was determined to “drown” the Fractions.

Had the Fractions remained in Enugu, from where they started out in Biafra, the showdown at Lido would probably have been averted and the Hykkers would have continued to rule the roost. But the Coal City had been overrun and the fleeing Fractions landed in Port Harcourt impromptu. Upon arrival, Frank Zilli, him of the Beatles hairdo, had visited the home of his childhood friend and primary schoolmate, Bob Miga, who barely concealed his indignation at the Fractions’ invasion of their territory. The rest of the Hykkers more openly cold-shouldered me as well as the other Fractions, flaring the flames that literally stuffed out any chance of the two groups accommodating each other and making music peacefully.

Much of the rivalry had to do with the demography of the fan-bases of the two groups. While fans of the Hykkers were generally older folks, the Fractions and their rancorous music appealed more to the youth, soldier and civilian alike, a new wave of music lovers who filled up every inch of space especially at the Fractions Sunday ‘jumps’. While the Hykkers’ music was mostly laid back, sedentary, the Fractions’ were the exact opposite, vivacious, unrelenting, as they dazzled with stage acts which Travis Oli, the acclaimed king of the smooch, smartly choreographed. The fans of each group loved their own to the core, almost to the point of fanaticism, even long after the music had stopped.

Surreptitiously, three events, all unrelated, combined to make a Hykkers/Fractions showdown inevitable: First, using his connection to the Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu, Tony Amadi, a seasoned and respected journalist in his own right and the savvy, innovative and enterprising manager of the Fractions had the group accredited as the “Biafran Armed Forces Entertainment Group”, a status that came with handy fringe benefits such as chauffer-driven transportation, immunity from molestation from soldiers and easy access to highly-placed government officials. Second, Pal Akalonu, a famous veteran broadcaster and musician had taken to a strong liking of the Fractions and was openly marketing them in Port Harcourt and Aba, a noisy populous city near the Hykkers stronghold. And, thirdly, Mr Ukonnu, a TV producer of note in both Nigeria and Biafra had just invited and recorded the Fractions in Aba for TV viewers across Biafra, a first in those days, broadening the Fractions’ fan-base considerably and incurring even more loathing by fans of the Hykkers. There had to be a decider to the question on everyone’s lips: Who was the greater, the Fractions or the Hykkers? And there would be no neutrals.

And what a showdown it was. The Fractions conceded home advantage to the Hykkers by agreeing to play at Lido, for the first time. Also the Lido acoustics better suited the tenor-toned ambience of the Hykkers’ musical renditions. But the Fractions were quietly confident that when the chips were down they would deliver both good music and catchy stagecraft, better than whatever the Hykkers could offer. They were sure that when it mattered, their twin advantages, in stagecraft and raunchy soulful sound, would prevail.

The ground rules were simple: beginning with the home group, each group would render two numbers, there would be a second round, again of two numbers each, to be followed by a finale in which each group would play its last number. The body language of the audience would be the judge and jury.

So, up first, came the Hykkers with Pat Finn belting out “Please Please Please” the James Brown 1956 rhythm and blues classic. The older folks in the jam-packed auditorium crooned while the youth listened with bemusement. It was not a dance tune and received only generous applause all round. Pat Finn’s next number was “Walking the dog”, Rufus Thomas’ 1965 hit, which drew a sizeable number of dancers mostly their own fans. The Fractions opened with Arthur Conley’s 1967 single, “Sweet Soul Music”, which had Travis Oli taunting and teasing his audience with the refrain question ”… do you like good music?”, to which the youths, who were already familiar with the song, responded loftily “Yeah yeah”. But, more than that, the youths surged to the dance floor as Travis worked them into a frenzy, twisting and turning, weaving the cords of his microphone round his wrists before detaching it from its stand and walking right up to the center of the dance floor, still asking *do you like good music?”. The atmosphere was electric and, suddenly, there was no holding back. The Fractions without a pause went into their second number, “Hold on I’m coming”, recorded by Sam and Dave in 1966 under the Stax label, with Ify Jerry’s funky lead guitar wailing another infectious refrain. Lido erupted and this time, it was youths and older folks alike wriggling to Travis’ sandpaper-like vocals, as sweat poured from his face and eager female fans obliged with their handkerchiefs.

In the second round, the Hykkers opened with “Baby I love you” the 1963 mega hit by the Ronettes. Here was Pat Finn doing what he does best, crooning teasingly with the backing duo of Bob and Eddy in harmonious encores of the title line “Baby I love you”. This time the older folks stepped on to the dance floor, rocking gently within tight grips. Not to be outdone, Pat Finn, without a pause, went into James Brown’s “Papas got a brand new bag” which also got youths joining in on the dance floor, leaving no room for tight grips.

For their second round the Fractions rendered “Knock on Wood”, an Otis Redding 1967 hit which again the Fractions had popularized at almost every household level in Biafra and which received tremendous ovation once the audience recognized its opening riffs. With a stylish change of pace, orchestrated by the canny Mike on drums, the Fractions delved into their own original song, “Do the Smooch”, performed as only Travis could and drawing virtually every one to the dance floor as Travis led the tutorials on those new dance steps of his, dance steps that have now outlived him.

At “Do the Smooch”, Lido lit up as never before. Never before had a musical group mesmerized its audience so completely. Biafran currency notes flew from all corners of the auditorium, aimed at Travis’ sweaty face and Travis, oblivious to it all, continued to thrill even the most ardent of the Hykkers fans.

For their finale the Hykkers, perhaps realizing that the show was not going their way, opted for an upbeat dance tune, “Hang on Sloopy” penned by the McCoys in 1965. The audience responded with a few getting on to the dance floor. But the atmosphere was tense, subdued, as if in anticipation of what the Fractions were coming up with next. And when they came up, the Fractions did not disappoint. Astonishingly and with telling effect the Fractions rendered their own version of *Papa’s got a brand new bag”, which the Hykkers had offered earlier. First it was Jerry’s merry twang of his lead guitar followed by Jake Solos thundering bass lines and Mike’s crisp drumming, anchored by Frank Zili’s steady rhythm chords, before Travis bellowed a mind-blowing rendition of the same song Pat Finn had sung earlier. The difference was clear. While the Hykkers had lumbered and laboured through the number, the Fractions free-wheeled, weaving through the gears with minimum fuss, and with stagecraft to match James Brown’s. 

The audience responded in cash and kind, plastering Travis’ face with Biafran notes of all denominations and occupying every inch of space on the dance floor. Then enthralled fans, from both camps, surged on to the stage, urging Travis and the other Fractions on. But Lido had seen and heard enough. The lights went off momentarily, a warning that the show had ended. The crowd turned round and headed for the exits, into the street and into the night, the names of every Fraction on every lip, young and old. The showdown was over, the judge and jury had turned in an unmistakeable verdict with their feet, hands and wallets, and the Fractions were the uncrowned masters of pop music in Biafra.          

--- Frank Onyezili 

(Cover photo shows The Fractions in session.)









GOOD INTENTIONS, by Marie Louise Schipper

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Sunday, 22 May 2022

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