If pure charisma, rave reviews and great rhythmic skills are any indication, then Ola Onabule is one of today’s top Jazz vocalists. Ola Onabule was born in London and raised in Nigeria, where he began his music career with his band “the Diplomat”. He developed his craft on the circuit as a vocal support for George Michael, KD Laing and some other notable musicians. Jazz took precedence over a career in law.
I had the pleasure of meeting and seeing Ola perform live in London a few days ago. He has a strong rapport with band mates, a quirky sense of humour and a lack of ego that endears him to the audience.
MyWeku: Your song “Lagos Boy” hints at your background. How important is Nigeria and Africa to you as a musician?
OO: Nigeria and Africa loom very large indeed.
Like all children of the diaspora I worry about my homeland, I (probably quite unfairly) expect and demand to hear only good news of Africa and Nigeria. One easily falls into making lazy comparisons between our countries of origin and the ‘developed’ Western societies we reside in. I realise that Europe and America have survived the worst of their growing pains and so will we, maybe not in my life time, but we certainly will.
‘Lagos Boy’ deals with the modest role I hope to play in getting us closer to that goal, to be an agitator of sorts through song and maybe make my small contribution to that relentless and growing drive to do better with the blessing that is Africa than we are currently doing.
MyWeku: Many American inspired musical genres have enormous cultural clout in Africa. Will you say Jazz has become a cultural phenomenon on the continent?
OO: Absolutely! However I guess it’s not really a new phenomenon, So it’s influence doesn’t feel as sensationally explosive as some of the more recent exports such as RnB and HipHop. That said, It seems to me that every modern African genre since Hi-life through to Afrobeat has referenced Jazz and since the spirit of Jazz is partly African anyway, the beautiful thing is that so many of these formats have in turn impacted quite powerfully (yet organically) on the American psyche …so you have (for example) great American Jazz icons such as Dee Dee Bridgewater tracing her roots back to Mali in West Africa and consequently creating a Grammy nominated album born of the experience.
MyWeku: Given the choice of your music being acclaimed as a “Jazz Standard” but with limited global reach or being able to take your music to all four corners of the earth, which will you prefer?
OO: I have no real preference in that regard. I nearly almost didn’t become a musician, so very I’m thankful that I’m lucky enough to make my living as I do, and let the winds of providence blow me where they will.
MyWeku: At your concert a few days ago, you made references to a couple of “old” Jazz Musicians. Do you think it’s important to reference and to pay homage to those who blazed the trail in this music genre and should Jazz be more experimental and move forward to bring in more youthful fans?
OO: Jazz is by it’s improvisational nature a progressive art form. However Jazz is also quite a broad term and encompasses so many styles and sub-genres within which there are heroes who are admired for being unparalleled interpreters of a traditional ethos …And then there are heroes whose reputations were forged in the spirit of pushing barriers to the outer limits of our performance (and some would say listening) abilities.
The most encouraging thing for me is that in my travels around the world I’ve come across outrageously talented young people who wear their influences proudly but have carried the baton of inventiveness and excellence in Jazz beyond the bounds their heroes could have imagined.
MyWeku: Jazz musicians tend to have interesting stories about performances that didn’t quite go according to plan, falling out with other musicians, or performing with some of the greats. Do you have an on the road story you could share with us?
OO: I Remember one torturous journey in the early days to Hollyhead to catch the ferry to Northern Ireland. Myself and band ended up stranded on the side of the Motorway because our van had died from a lack of diesel, which I had omitted to feed it, on account of the fact I’d totally forgotten to fuel up for the journey. To cope with the cold and rainy misery of it all, we ate our chicken and pasta supplies on the hard shoulder till the rescue service came and re-commissioned the fuel system of our desolate van. We made it to Ireland 18 hours late having missed our scheduled ferry, and with less than an hour of sleep between us all, we went on stage to perform in a 200 seater venue to the 10 or so people who’d turned up. As we got into our stride in the first song, a beautifully delicate jazzy blues about overcoming suffering and pain, someone of our desperately underpopulated audience yelled out with impassioned exasperation: “for ‘bleeps’ sake, Just play something by the ‘bleeping’ Spice Girls”, That’s the stuff that keeps you grounded.
MyWeku: You have performed at many of the world’s renowned Jazz venues – Ronnie Scott’s (London), Blue Note (New York) and Quasimodo’s (Berlin). Are any of these you favourite venue?
OO: Ronnie Scott’s is a favourite, because it’s a venue of historical significance in my hometown, added to that it’s always got a great vibe, the music sounds right and the audiences are always with us from the get go. However all the venue’s above and many many others have been the scene of some very memorable nights that I’ll smile secretively to myself about in my old age.
MyWeku: What do you do with your spare time when you are not touring and what advice will you give to aspiring Jazz musicians?
OO: I immerse myself totally in family life when I’m not touring.
Advice is a difficult thing to give in a pursuit as nebulous as music. I guess the clichés still ring true: Follow your heart, because when the tough times come along (and they will) only a nigh obsessive passion will sustain you. Fame and money wont.