One of the finest vocalists and contemporary artists of our time, British born, Nigerian raised, Ola Onabule writes music exempt from cliché and reminiscent of the great songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s. His music crosses boundaries uniting Jazz, Soul and World Music influences to form a unique yet highly identifiable style.
Your emotional intensity and sophisticated theatricality transform your concerts into live masterpieces that hypnotize the audience. How did you educate yourself and how did you develop your skills to this level?
Thank you! I started my life as a musician working in jazz bars and pubs, sometimes as part of a small ensemble and sometimes playing on my own, accompanying myself on guitar. It’s a great way to learn the art of entertainment. Often enough, people have not come to such venues for the specific purpose of listening to you and your music. They want to have a meal or a drink, they want to hang out with friends and have a chat. In such an environment, I became acutely aware of what I would need to understand to survive in the music biz, including how to grab an audience’s attention and hold it, how to put the emotion in a lyric across with all its meaning intact and how to introduce a song in the most effective way to make an audience curious and attentive. I also became aware of the power and impact of stage presence and appearance. I eventually realized that if I dressed as though I belonged on a stage people would treat me as such. I continue to try to expand on these important lessons and to improve myself in this regard every day.
What experiences and human qualities helped you to become a complete artist?
Once again, thank you! I would say that is very much a work in progress. I could never really feel that the quest for perfection could ever be completed or attained. However, I have been on the receiving end of a great deal of kindness, generosity and faith over the many years from both people in the industry and by fans and supporters of my music. Sometimes I reflect on the distances people have traveled to get to one of my concerts, or the fact that they may have had my songs playing at some profoundly important event in their lives or that they may have freely provided me with tools that will help me make more music… It just makes me feel so inspired to reach for the absolute best I can be and to keep pushing for higher ground.
In return to your amazing performance, which was the most emotional moment that the audience offered you in a concert?
There have been so many! But I remember my performance at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2009 as having a great significance to me. Not only is it one of the most important jazz festivals worldwide, but also I was programmed on the Main Stage of the festival, and therefore in front of the largest audience I’d ever performed for at that point (upwards of 50,000). I was quite nervous, which is something I don’t normally experience, but the concert went incredibly well. Afterwards, I felt like I’d crossed a major milestone in my career. Going back to play at the Lagos Jazz Festival, in Lagos Nigeria, was also quite an emotional experience as it turned out to be a bit of a home-coming. It was the first time I had seen many members of my family in many years as well as the first time I had performed in the country of my ancestors.
Do you remember that moment when you first realized that you’ll be a musician? When and how did this happen?
I think I first realized that it was possible to make one’s living as a musician when I was about nine years old. My father took me to see the legendary James Brown in concert in Lagos in the early 70’s. It was incredible and I was completely blown away! Something in my heart knew that this might be what I would do with the rest of my life, but as is often the case, things took a slightly different turn. I ended up in university studying a law degree and whilst there, I met a musician who invited me to come and perform with him and a number of prominent musicians in a London jazz club. That was such an important moment that a short while later I dropped out of law school, bought myself a guitar and committed myself to the life of a musician.
With these two very different Nigerian and London influences, how would you describe your music in a few words?
I think Afro Soul Jazz is the term that has come closest to describing what I do, but in reality there is so much more going on in the music than such a term can convey, including reggae, South American rhythms and much more…
What can you tell me about your new album “It’s The Peace That Deafens”? What’s the message of your songs in this new album and who do you dedicate it to?
My new album is made up of 12 new songs that I wrote over the summer of 2014 and recorded later that year. The album is inspired by my recollections of my childhood in Nigeria and how I interpret that period in my life today. Africa is a part of who I am but not something that I’d fully expressed in my music up till now so it was very cathartic to spend time looking back and trying to investigate the real effect of life before Europe on my artistic consciousness. I think the album is dedicated to my children who were born & raised in Europe and have a very limited relationship with Africa. The purpose of the album was to create a body of work that would evoke not only the sights, sounds and smells of Nigeria but also the spirit of the people. In this regard it seems I may have been successful as each of my children has their own favorite songs from the album.
You performed on the most prestigious stages and concert halls in the world, but who are the greatest artists and orchestras you’ve performed with?
I have had an amazing opportunity to work with many of musicians I admire deeply including Randy Brecker, Roy Hargrove and Hiram Bullock as well as great ensembles such as the WDR Big Band of Cologne, The SWR Big Band of Stuttgart, The Babelsberg Film Orchestra and the San Luis Potosi Symphonic Orchestra.
The journalist Rob Adams from The Herald compared you with George Benson and Al Jarreau, noticing some similarities in your voices. What do you think about his remark?
These are some of the most memorable and beautiful voices of the last few decades and it is an immense honor and compliment to be mentioned in the same sentence as them. It’s probably not that surprising either as I listened to their music endlessly when I was starting out in music.
What brings light to your life?
The simple things…Time spent with family, good food, the love of a good woman and the possibility to continue my life in music.
What’s the next stage in your career?
I hope the new album will introduce my music to new audiences around the world, such as Asia, Australia and South America. It would be so exciting to have the opportunity to do this while still being able to stay connected to the friends I have already made in Europe, America and Africa.
Interview published in Trend Prive Magazine