His dark skin shines brightly under colourful lights. The yellowish rays of the light play a trick on his clean shaven head. He still looks very Nigerian as he takes his seat at the La Scala Restaurant that sunny Saturday afternoon. His performance is billed to commence in a couple of hours. He has to squeeze a few minutes out of his rehearsal schedule to have a chat with me.
Ola Onabule is a British-born Nigeria, writer, singer, producer and performer of Soulful jazzy Funky tunes influenced by his British and Nigerian heritage. He may not be very familiar with his home country Nigeria, as his performance at the last Lagos Jazz Series that took place August 2, at the La Scala Restaurant, MUSON Centre, was more like a homecoming for him. It was his second visit to Nigeria since he last visited in 1972, with his parents.
He was a member of the choir and he sang with friends in the 70s as a young child, but he never knew he would later choose music as a profession. It was in his final year while studying Law at the University in England he realised he would be more comfortable as a musician than practice Law.
“I think if I really completed my degree without having that second thought,” he recalls, “I would stick to my profession and remain a lawyer for life. I will not be able to then say I was doing music on a part-time basis. I think I just had that realisation because I was always struggling through the law degree. I was spending most of my nights in jazz clubs listening to music or playing on stage with great musicians. It became clear to me it is what I want to do, so I backed out studying law; I didn’t finish it.”
As it is usually the case with most parents way back, Onabule’s parents believe the only way he could make a headway in life is to either study to become a doctor, lawyer or an accountant or even an engineer. These were the only four professions on the list of his parents’ choice. Hence, Onabule opted to study law. He has uncles and aunties who are lawyers.
“It was not difficult being a law student,” he explains to me, “but the fact that I was so distracted by music and whenever there were music playing around, or a talk of a great musician coming to town. I was in London at the time. I will think about missing lectures, assignments and make sure I was there, meet the artiste, talk to them and make sure I find out what is necessary to be a musician, and all that got me distracted from studies.”
Taking a decision to become a musician did not come easy as Onabule ran into trouble with his parents for three years. “For three years,” he says, “the relationship with my parents was much tensed. My parents wanted my security financially, be happy and settled and these professions give a sense of guarantee. I know there are no guarantees in life but somehow, these professions give people the impression that at least they will be able to feed themselves. Ironically, being a musician is the most adventurous thing you can do with your life. Your parents worry about, who is going to marry him, how is he going to live, pay rents, and what guarantee’s his security and so it makes sense for them to be upset?”
Onabule frankly tells me that leaving school without completing his Law degree was the worst thing he ever did. “Then, the way I was thinking at that time, was just run! Get away from this thing! May be now that I am older and cool headed, I think I would have just completed the degree for my parents, then turn to music.”
But that feeling only lasted for s short while as his parents later became proud of him after a successful career in music. “I wasn’t thinking, it really was who I am and when you perform in a place and you give all of your heart and soul and your audience responding, your parents look at you and say Wow! This isn’t the person I raised from my house and from that moment onwards, it’s been nothing but unconditional support.”
After a successful career in America and Europe, Onabule believes it is time to return home, not to live in Nigeria but to perform and intimate Nigerians with his kind of music. “Yes, this is the first time I am playing in Nigeria. I am excited about it. I have said this to my manager, if you go round the world and play incredible gigs and you don’t get slight satisfaction and the audience applauds you and they said, you play like the DJ at home, and all of that is there in my mind about how successful this evening is to me.”
Onabule has always longed to perform in Nigeria and he tells me when the opportunity came on the platform of the Lagos Jazz Series after meeting Oti Bazunu, the festival’s founder in New York. A deal was sealed and his manager agrees he should be part of the mid-year event in August.
Onabule has a unique style to his rendition and performance. His style of song writing and music is from a storytelling perspective. Hence, his songs are based on his personal experiences. “There is a reason each song has come into play, maybe because something happened to me, I got upset about something I heard in the news or enjoying some.
Basically, the song is a story and that is the first thing to expect. These songs are attached to different feelings, some of these stories are stories you can dance to, others are slow and make you think or you can cry; there will be a wide range of mid-tempo and up-tempo songs.”
Although Onabule’s music is classical yet he says he won’t mind to do some collaborations with Nigerian artistes, even as he is looking forward to returning to Nigeria any time soon. I know a lot of Nigerian artistes considering there is a big scene in the UK, a lot of Afro-Pop, Azonto stuff is really popular in the clubs, they are always in the news, people like D’banj, Tiwa Savage are doing really well, but also, a lot of them who are based in America and the Europe are heading back home and so there is a lot of mixing; people like Asa who was born in France, Femi Keziah Jones is actually an old schoolmate of mine but found his success in France and Europe is also heading this way. I think it’s same with Nollywood, couple of years ago, they brought it to the attention of the international world, I have a feeling the same is about to happen in music and I would love to be part of it, he says.