The Lijadu Sisters: the Nigerian twins who fought the elite with funk

One joyful evening at the Barbican, London, in April 2014, identical Nigerian twins, then aged 65, appeared on stage in matching sparkly red dresses alongside musicians including Damon Albarn, Sinkane, Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip and Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark. They were there to sing the music of William Onyeabor, an elusive synth-pop oddball whose music had been rediscovered by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and was being toured by this unlikely supergroup. But the twins were also making their return to the spotlight following their own lost years, having languished in obscurity for decades.

As the Lijadu Sisters, Kehinde and Taiwo Lijadu were mainly active from the mid-60s to the 80s at a time when it was rare to find frontwomen in Nigeria’s pop music scene. Kehinde died on 9 November at the age of 71, having had cancer, marking the end of a musical partnership whose idiosyncratic warped funk tunes still sound unlike anything else.

They grew up in Ibadan, Nigeria’s third-largest city, and are second cousins of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. Between 1969 and 1979, they released four albums of acid-fried funk, soul, Afrobeat, reggae licks, psychedelic organ jams and irresistible disco-laced grooves. Iya Mi Jowo (“Mother, Please”), Danger, Sunshine and Horizon Unlimited were on Decca’s subsidiary label Afrodisia, but for years they flew under the radar and were only repressed officially in 2012.

The sisters were born on 18 September 1948. Taiwo’s name means “the first twin to taste the world” in Yoruba – but Kehinde is believed to be the elder twin, and sent out Taiwo first to determine if it was time to be born. They sang together from aged 10, pulling influences from the western jazz, rock and soul thanks to their mother, who brought them whatever records she could find by artists such as Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles and Cliff Richard. As a result, they said, when it came to genre, “we did not limit ourselves”. They began working as session vocalists, then released Iya Mi Jowo after they had gone into the studio and demanded a session of their own. Their subsequent albums were recorded with the help and distinctive organ sound of multi-instrumentalist Biddy Wright.

The Lijadus’ disco dabbling drew comparisons with the Pointer Sisters, thanks to a New York Times review in 1988. But the detached way in which they sang on those tunes led the Guardian’s Alexis Petridis to wonder whether they thought the style of dance music was “too flimsy to bear the weight of their message”. Like Kuti, politics were a crucial aspect of their output, as they took aim at the government – their cult Afrobeat track Orere Elejigbo from Mother Unlimited talks of “trouble in the streets”, with the sisters calling to “fight”, before urging the ruling elite to look after its people. The jumpy punk-funk of the earlier song Danger, meanwhile, reflected the political uncertainty of 70s Nigeria, and Cashing In, from the same album, was a more direct address to corrupt politicians over jittery wah-wah guitars.

“Music teaches us to reach out and do something about what is going on, socially, morally, financially, spiritually and politically,” they had told me. “We sang those songs because they [the politicians] were not listening. We needed schools, we needed roads, we needed clean water.”

I interviewed the sisters over Skype from their small Harlem flat in 2014, a month before the William Onyeabor tour. They had moved to New York in the 80s, and played there with popular Nigerian jùjú musician King Sunny Adé in 1988, though when Kehinde suffered a serious spinal injury in 1996, it put paid to their plans of conquering America. The twins retreated into practising the Yoruba religion Ifá and exploring herbal medicine, and a cornucopia of religious artefacts and wall hangings filled their living room. They spoke simultaneously, as if intertwined, just like the harmonies in their songs, which was both discombobulating and mesmerising. “We are the comeback kids!” they laughed.

The twins also talked about what it had been like trying to make it in a macho music world. They were important advocates of female empowerment: in old interviews, they challenged the antiquated view that a woman’s place was “in the kitchen” and were outspoken about the lack of women in west African music in the 70s. “After we made our record, we tried to find a way of having our own band,” they had said, “but at the time we had a lot of obstacles from men. They would tell us that we were not coming here to stay. Now those people acknowledge that they were scared of us because we were very independent.”

Being a female musician then was “a big struggle,” said Kehinde, though they became stars in Nigeria and did find modest acclaim outside Africa. In the early 70s, they caught the ear of the drummer Ginger Baker (who died last month) during one of his many trips to Lagos, and he invited them to perform with his band Salt at the 1972 Munich Olympics. (Taiwo had reportedly dated Baker for a time and said he was “very protective of us”.) In the UK, the Lijadu Sisters were featured in Jeremy Marre’s 1979 documentary Konkombé: The Nigerian Pop Music Scene – which, it’s been said, helped ignite the world music explosion of the 80s – and they made a well-received appearance on music television show, The Tube, too.

By the mid-80s, however, the sisters’ experience of the music industry had soured and they parted ways with their label, Afrodisia. Bafflingly, as the reissue culture of the early 2000s proliferated and “vintage” African sounds began having a moment in the west, the sisters’ story remained largely unheard, despite an appearance on Luaka Bop’s 2005 compilation of psychedelic Afro-rock. In 2006, the American rapper Nas sampled Life’s Gone Down Low – uncredited – and gave his version the same name. (“We can’t forgive him,” they told me, but added: “If other people want to use your stuff, that tells that you did something good.”)

A few of their tracks surfaced on Nigerian music compilations from British reissue labels Soundway and Strut in 2009 and 2010, but somewhere in among all this, the writer and documentarian Wills Glasspiegel tracked down the sisters to Harlem and brought them to the attention of Knitting Factory Records, who had at the same time successfully reissued Fela Kuti’s catalogue. According to the LA Times, Glasspiegel had heard Danger via a music blog and was taken with the timeless quality of their songs. The master tapes nowhere to be found, Knitting Factory restored and rereleased all four of their albums in 2012, just as Afrodisia was releasing its own compilation of these recordings, The Lijadu Sisters: Afro-Beat Soul Sisters.

Back on Skype, the Lijadus had explained that their lasting style of music-making came from their mother. “Mum told us, don’t write any kind of music that is just for today,” they said, “because two years later, nobody will want to hear it. She said, ‘Write the type of music that people will always hear hundreds of thousands of years later and still [be able to] relate to.’” They had told me about their plans to release an album of new music, on their own label, and that their socio-political agenda hadn’t diminished one iota. “We can’t just try and make money through music; we need to correct our own society,” they said. “For the rest of our lives, we will be telling the world to take it easy and turn it around.”

Their new album was never made, their label never started, but the Lijadus had finally got the recognition they deserved and are now talked about in the same breath as their famous cousin, no longer tucked away on obscure compilations. They were crucial architects of west African pop music and footage of them in the studio, from the Konkombé doc, demonstrates that they had just as much vision as the men around them. “I would go to a drummer, ‘Give me this rhythm’,” Kehinde told me. “If he couldn’t do it, I tell him, ‘If your sweetheart wanted something sweet from you, is this how you’re going to sound? Because she’d give you nothing.’ Then he would give me what I want.”