Arts, Culture & Media

How a Chicago bluegrass band rocked Nigeria's music scene

Disclaimer: I took bluegrass lessons as a kid. So when my friend Ethan Zuckerman wrote a fantastic blog post recently about how and why a Chicago bluegrass quartet ended up doing a cover version of a Nigerian song called "Chop My Money,” I needed to investigate for myself.

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“Chop My Money” is a song is by a Nigerian hip-hop duo called P-Square  — a.k.a. twin brothers Peter and Paul Okoye. I'm reliably informed that it's certified audio gold, not just in Nigeria but across West Africa. “That tune is just crack,” says Ben Wright, co-founder and banjo player for a Chicago-based bluegrass outfit called the Henhouse Prowlers.

Last year, they were chosen to do a month-long tour of African countries as part of a State Department-funded program called American Music Abroad. Wright describes it as part diplomatic outreach, part cultural exchange and part impromptu jam session with local musicians.

“I play the banjo, which has its roots in West Africa,” Wright says. Musicians in the region still play a related instrument called the akonting.

"The akonting is the great-great-great grandfather of the banjo, and it has a string half-way up the neck, just like my banjo," Wright explains. "And all I had to [do was] tune my banjo down a half-step, and I could play in tune with the akonting player. We didn't understand a word each other were saying, but we could play some tunes together.”

The band must have left an impression: They got an offer to return to West Africa this year, this time from the American embassy in Nigeria. Wright says the band wanted to go with their own version of a local hit — a tune Nigerians would recognize.

“I asked the cultural affairs officer at the Embassy in Abuja to send us some suggestions," he says. "So, he sent a bunch of links to YouTube videos, and I listened to a bunch of them.”

One tune stood out: “’Chop My Money’ was catchy, and it was really strange to think about what our version might sound like," Wright remembers. So the band set to work on a cover version.

The track mixes English, pidgin and a West-African language called Yoruba — Wright admits the band barely knew what the song was about. But they each learned a verse, syllable by syllable, and tested it out on an audience in Rockford, Ill.

It went down pretty well there, but nothing could have prepared them for the reaction they got when they played it for the first time in Nigeria.

It was at a reception at the US Deputy Chief of Mission's house in Abuja, in a room filled with some of Nigeria’s elite. The performance, captured on cell phone video, makes it clear that the Henhouse Prowlers brought the house down. One gentleman even gave each member of the band a 500 naira banknote (about $3) as a mark of approval at the end of the song.

The band made numerous appearances on Nigerian radio, and you can probably guess what the number one request was from listeners: Chop My Money. They also hit the road, playing all manner of venues — even a school.

“We start playing ‘Chop My Money,’ and the kids just lost all their composure. They were these super disciplined kids, working really hard and dressed in uniforms and stuff," Wright says. "We start singing that song, and they can't contain themselves. There's no controlling them. They get up on stage and start singing into the microphone with us.”

And along the way, Wright says, the band learned some things too. Most importantly, they finally figured out what they were singing about.

“The word ‘chop’ is kind of a pidgin-English verb," Wright explains. "From what I understand, you can use it in a number of different contexts. You could say, ‘I'm going to chop some food,’ which means I'm going to eat some food. And ‘chop my money’ means spend my money.”

The song, unsurpsingly, turns about to be about love: "The song is about this guy who is so into this girl that he's like, ‘I don't care if you spend my money, you're worth it. Chop my money, because I don't care.’”

For the Henhouse Prowlers, the highlight of their tour came when they headlined a July 4 concert at the US Embassy in Abuja. “This guy walks up to us with the coolest suit I've ever seen, and you know who it is. He's just the coolest, most well dressed, most bad-ass guy you've ever met in your life.”

It was Peter Okoye of P-Square. “And he's like, ‘Hey guys I heard you learned my song.’ And we said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know why I'm here.’” And yes, during the Henhouse Prowlers performance of Chop My Money he took to the stage to lead them through the song.

On YouTube, there are quite a few videos of the performance. “Man, I've never felt more like paparazzi. I was blinded by the cameras,” Wright says. “This guy's just this huge star. Everyone just freaked out. Everyone started singing along with the tune. And we looked utterly stunned and thrilled that he got up with us.”

Ben Wright says the band came back to the US completely pumped after their Nigeria tour. They're heading back out on another State Department tour next year, and have just recorded a studio version of "Chop My Money" — it's become so big that audiences are now requesting the song at shows.

When I first heard the studio version, I emailed Wright and quipped that it really does make for a great bluegrass tune. "Sure does," he wrote back. "I was shaking my head as we gave it a final listen. Half-thrilled it sounded so cool, and the other half still in shock that we recorded a Nigerian tune ... Who would've thought?"