Ola Onabule, jazz and soul singer-songwriter: Something Else! Interview

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Ola Onabule has proved himself something of a dervish in terms of musical surprises. In a musical career spanning more than two decades, he has released eight albums yet there remains a sense of fierce independence about this musician. He had a contract with Elektra but chose to release his first albums on his own label, Ragged Ram. Only now has he signed with a label, Dot Time Records, for the release of It’s the Peace That Deafens – a recording which speaks of jazz-rooted African essences perhaps more than before.

Intrigued by Ola Onabule’s ever-increasing media exposure, and his ingenious music, I tracked him down for a Something Else! Sitdown. Ola has a great sense of music, a sense of purpose and a wicked sense of humur. As a musician, I feel we may just hear a lot more of him …

SAMMY STEIN: How did you come to music?

OLA ONABULE: I was born in Islington, London to Nigerian parents who had come to the U.K. to study in the ‘60s. When I was 7 years old, we returned to Lagos, Nigeria as my parents had attained their qualifications. I spent the next 10 years in Lagos, the son of two successful professionals pretty assured I would tread a reasonably similar path. I returned to the U.K. to complete my high school education and pursue a degree in law. While at law school, I got seriously and happily distracted from my studies by what I thought had been little more than a favorite pastime – music! It was available to me in all forms: songwriting, producing, performing and more. In the third year of the course, I had a serendipitous meeting with a jazz musician who, on hearing me hum to myself as I walked along a busy London street, invited me to sit in with him and his band later that day at a famous London jazz bar. I never looked back.

SAMMY STEIN: Who, or what, initially inspired you to play?

OLA ONABULE: My initial source of inspiration was the music my parents played – Motown, the Beatles and crooner jazz of the ‘50s and ’60s. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald were de rigueur,” Onabule said. “They also played a lot of back-home music, so I subconsciously absorbed a lot of Highlife, Afro jazz, Juju and Apala that would come to haunt my sensibilities a lot later in life. At school and university, I discovered Donny Hathaway, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Steely Dan, who became a bit of an obsession for a while. Because of my unconventional route to becoming a musician, I never received formal tuition with regards to playing an instrument, so I’m mainly self-taught to a standard that allows me to sketch out and write my tunes on guitar, piano and bass.

SAMMY STEIN: Why did you gravitate to this particular style of music? How would you describe it?

OLA ONABULE: I’ve never consciously thought of my music as a style. I always begin the process of writing a new song by figuring out what I’m trying to say, and staying true to the spark of inspiration that brought me to my workstation in the first place. Once I become certain of my subject matter, this determines the flavor and instrumentation I need to help me realize my objectives with the inspiration and purity of the original spark intact. As a result, the music can vary so much that I’ve heard so many terms applied to it: Afro jazz, soul jazz, afro soul, pop jazz, Afrobeat pop jazz and so on. I’m happy with whatever gets me to my audience or vice versa in the hope that once the listener is listening the labels become the most inconsequential part of the experience.

SAMMY STEIN: Where were your first performances?

OLA ONABULE: I did a lot of performing throughout my school days, so I appeared in school plays and recitals. I started some doo-wop a cappella groups at senior school and entered a few competitions. However, during this period, it never really occurred to me that I was a musician at heart or that I could actually do this for a living. My first professional gig was the year I dropped out of law school, in a London jazz bar. It was a profound experience, because I knew I had put all doubt that I was anything but an artiste behind me – and though I was coming to the party a bit late I felt humbled by all the creative possibilities ahead of me.”

SAMMY STEIN: Describe the emotions when you perform, and the reactions you notice from audiences.

OLA ONABULE: I think performance is liberation as much for the audience as it is for the performer. To be at the center of what can be a transcendental experience when it’s at its best, is so powerful and intoxicating. I feel that what I am charged with being and doing – which is also the thing I work hardest to attain – is to create connections with as many components of the human psyche as is a possible. The emotional, romantic, nostalgic and intellectual aspects of who we are, as well as so many more. When it works, one can feel, hear and see that you and the audience have been transported to this primordial place in our consciousness. It is by far the most exhilarating feeling I know!”

SAMMY STEIN: So, what music do you listen to?

OLA ONABULE: Anything and everything! I try not to be lazy and just indulge in the things I have a natural affinity for – jazz, blues, soul and Afrobeat. I try to explore alternative and new genres as well as educate myself about other scenes. You never know what might inspire you next.

SAMMY STEIN: Do you have a philosophy on life and music?

OLA ONABULE: Oh, I have many philosophies on life. I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person and I try to ratify everything that has happened and is happening to me with some philosophical reasoning. My abiding philosophy is two-fold: Firstly, whatever it is you fear the most has already happened. And secondly: Wherever you are, you are only in the middle of your story, there’s more to come so don’t tune out now. I find that with these two powerful aphorisms, I can negotiate my mind and my way out of many of the petty insecurities and a misguided sense of entitlement that can be part and parcel of making a living as an artist.

SAMMY STEIN: Where have you found the most appreciative audiences?

OLA ONABULE: I’ve found appreciative audiences everywhere I’ve been, and just as many different ways to express said appreciation.

SAMMY STEIN: How aware are you of musicians – those onstage with you – and how would you describe the connections music makes between band members and audiences?

OLA ONABULE: Great simpatico between players on stage is unbeatable. I love it when an audience can feel the wit and personality of the players on stage, as well as the effect of the musical bond between us. I’ve worked in bands where there is no love lost between the players on stage and it is the closest thing to hell I know – especially when they let the hate just hang out where the audience can get a good long look at it. Can’t think of anything more disrespectful of the people who invest so much into our art!

SAMMY STEIN: How about the future? Are there any up-and-coming projects or things you would like to do?

OLA ONABULE: There are a number of collaborations I’m involved in at the moment, all with very exciting and unique artistes. I can’t wait to share these new ventures with everyone.

SAMMY STEIN: Do you have any hobbies and interests away from the music?

OLA ONABULE: Away from music, I’m very much a family man. I love hanging out with my kids and puttering round the house doing my handyman and wood working stuff. When I’m not doing that then photography and filmmaking are my down time pursuits.”

SAMMY STEIN: How do you feel young people connect to music? Is there enough being done to develop their interest?

OLA ONABULE: I feel young people connect to music just as much as they ever did. I think the way in which they find new music and the means by which they consume it has changed dramatically, which in turn has altered the way in which young people view what it means to be an artiste. If you grow up in a world where less and less music is paid for, then the areas of the art form that make the least money will be amongst the first to be seriously marginalized. I don’t think such genres will disappear, but I think they may be relegated further and further in to the fringes of our collective artistic identity. There seem to be a few private concerns targeted at attracting younger people to music and the arts, in general. However, there seems to be a lot of statistical evidence that suggests that governments around the world are removing music and the arts from school syllabi, or the very least seriously de-prioritizing them. Instinct tells me that these things go in waves, and that a renaissance of sorts is just around the corner.”

SAMMY STEIN: Where would you like to be in five years?

OLA ONABULE: Exactly where I am, doing what I’m doing now, but hopefully inspired by fresh new ideas and working with brilliant and talented individuals. Or in a retirement home for wealthy musicians. [Laughs.]

SAMMY STEIN: Is there was a memorable incident or event you could share from your travels?

OLA ONABULE: I remember one incident where my band and I were playing in a Persian restaurant. The proprietor of the establishment was incredibly passionate about music and musicians in general. He treated us like royalty. He instructed his kitchen to prepare us a magnificent feast, which was laid out on a beautifully decorated table. After we had performed our first set, we sat down to dinner. One of our party excitedly took the first mouthful, only to spit it out in disgust. Something was wrong. Too much spice had been added to a particular part of the meal. That was okay; the rest of the food was delicious. We’d all been given fair warning, and just left the affected part of the food on the plate and finished off the rest.

We were halfway through the meal when our host came round to ask how we enjoying it. Suddenly his open and ebullient countenance gave way to a horrified expression. “Why had we all left this particular item of food uneaten on our plates?” he wanted to know. He picked a fork and scooped some of the offending substance in to his mouth. A mixture of repulsion and rage over came him. He stormed into the restaurant kitchen, the door of which swung closed behind him, so that all we could hear was the distant, muffled sound of raised voices and commotion. A moment later, he returned to our table, smiling, recomposed and charming.

As he tied an apron round his waist, he offered a profuse apology for the unforgivable insult and injury this food represented, he told us he had dealt with his chef and cooking staff severely. In fact, he had fired the lot of them for the crime of ill-treating musicians who were nigh deities as far as he was concerned. He would now return to the kitchen to cook the entire meal for us again in the manner that it should have been cooked in the first place. We were mollified and pleaded with him extensively to reinstate the chef and his team. We implored that it was no big deal and told him that the meal had been a triumph, notwithstanding the over-spiced bit. He would hear none of it. He assured us that when we returned to the table after we had played the second set we would have, “the meal our talents deserved” waiting for us.

To my eternal shame, I had to agree. He was right! The feast awaiting us when we returned to the table was incredible – all the more for the fact that he had single-handedly created it in the kitchen himself. I have never felt so much conflict about the potential impact being a musician can have on the lives of others since then – and if you were ever a chef in the early 2000s who got fired because of the meal you served a bunch of musicians at a Persian restaurant, I offer my sincerest apologies!

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