Fans of Seal and classic solo Sting take note of this underrated veteran of the British club scene for the last 25 years
Ola Onabulé’s sound is hard to pin down. He effortlessly blends West African and Caribbean rhythms with American blues, jazz and soul. He delivers his highly melodic compositions with a four-octave voice that can be as smooth as velvet or as gritty as a Stax/Volt hit from the early 70s.
He started releasing his music on his own label in 1994, and grew his audience with a riveting stage presence that leaves crowds incredulous. He’s a major star in Europe, often appearing with symphony orchestras and headlining jazz festivals in Europe, Canada, Mexico and Turkey.
His new album, Point Less, continues to explore issues of race, identity and immigration, as well as the rapture and heartache to be found in long-term affairs and intimate friendships. His band balances acoustic and electric textures to create a sound full of cosmic soul. “I Knew Your Father” combines jazzy comped guitar chords, hand percussion that nods to Cuba and Brazil and a crisp snare backbeat, with Onabulé’s mellow tenor slipping into impressive scats between verses. A free form African introduction of clapping hands opens “Exit Wound,” before the song blossoms into a melancholy meditation on survival in the current climate of growing xenophobia, while “Tender Heart” is an elegant ballad offering solace to a friend suffering silently in the aftermath of a doomed relationship.
Onabulé said he owes his artistic range to the fact that he grew up bi-cultural. “I was born in London, moved with my family to Nigeria when I was seven, then returned to London for high school, with hopes of a law degree. In Nigeria, endless fun was had at my expense for being a black, English boy. In Britain, I was an African, regardless of my birth. Seeing the tendency to reduce people to fixed categories made me become the artist I am. I took my discomfort to the stage and turned it into a superpower. The complexity of being British and Nigerian, and identified with the colonial masters creates a tension in all of us children of the empire. When we come back to the ‘motherland, ’ the British don’t know whether to open their arms or barricade the borders.”
Growing up in a family surrounded by music, mostly jazz and American soul from the 50s and 60s, had a lasting impact. He picked up guitar and piano at an early age and started writing songs. “I was emulating the sounds of my heroes, although I didn’t think so at the time – Jaco Pastorius, Stevie Wonder, Nat ‘King’Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and the jazz my dad played – Miles, McCoy Tyner. My African side was lying fallow, gently nagging at me, until my fourth album, Ambitions for Deeper Breath, in 2001. I listened to Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music as a young man, wondering why the music sounded as it did. I realized it came from Nigeria’s Yorubaland. Even the names of the percussion – bongos, congas – are African. When I made that connection, it wasn’t much of a stretch to blend those sounds into my music.”
Onabulé played gigs while he was in law school, dreaming of becoming a jazz singer. He eventually dropped out of college to pursue his music. “I hung out with the jazz/fusion and funk guys and got into as many bands as I could. I’d join a group and, when you’re the songwriter and singer, you start to direct things. They’d slowly become my bands. I still know many of those players and I’ve toured the world with them.
“I never imagined I’d become an international success. When I read stories suggesting that I am, I always think, ‘Is that really me they’re talking about?’ I’m a put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of guy. It’s only when I look up, that I sense the distance I’ve traveled, but I’m a workaholic, so I seldom look up. When I do, I’m surprised, but I guess that’s how that works. I do know that I want to connect with the American consciousness.”
VIDEO: “I Knew Your Father”
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