Key moments in a soulful life – Afro, soul, jazz, funk singer and songwriter Ola Onabulé tells us about his musical inspirations.
“I rolled into existence in the seventh decade of the 20th century. A 14-pound baby, born in a London bedsit to two young Nigerian part-time worker/part-time students. They were fresh from the colonies. Misty-eyed and mystified, focused on realising the highest achievements from the humblest of social beginnings. Their aspirations exceeded their own lives and with nigh torrential intensity, spilled into lofty hopes for their new-born. The mantle of living up to mythologised generations past was placed squarely on miniature but sturdy shoulders. I was named Olatunji Olugbenga Adetokunbo Abdul Majeed Omotayo Olanrewaju Onabule to remind me of the epic legacy of fearless forebears to be emulated and then surpassed in my life.
“Our little home in London’s Islington, shimmered with the light of white teeth smiles, it bustled with spicy sweetmeats, black-eyed beans and rice-laden trays at busy get-togethers, frequently called to ward off the alien chill and the frequent reminders of disorientating alien otherness. Perky 60s’ pop tunes stung the fragile air, clung to the tablecloth-turned-temporary-curtain, and sent tiny vibrations through the yard-square strip of expensive deep shag off-cut. My Boy Lollipop became my theme tune, distinct from the other fascinations that formed my mother’s daily humming routine – The Beatles, Tom Jones, Motown and Shirley Bassey. My father would defiantly claim his Dansette Bermuda time by first coveting and then playing his Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson and Paul Robeson 78s until a musical accord was struck and a negotiated playlist consisting entirely of ‘Songs From Home’ would commandeer possession of the uneasy impasse.
“I would ascend to a new level of daydreaming as the European-styled formica and vinyl-clad box emanated rich, sonorous African tones. Voices that seemed unfeasibly joyful and impossibly expressive. Choruses that yielded boundless variety in their repetitious abandon (Didn’t they know how cold it was in Islington?). It is told that I would bop uncontrollably when this music filled the room as though it were resonating with some unfinished song in my precognition.
“When my parents were done with their toiling and had claimed the fruits of 10 years of stooping and studying, adversity conquered, they returned to Nigeria to lend their hearts and hands to nation building. There was much to be done in the wake of independence from colonial rule and an infamously devastating civil war. I remember that readjustment seemed surprisingly easy. I found cousins, community, language, rhythms, an ecstatic raucous cacophony called Lagos and ‘the funk’.
“In a nation of almost 100 million black Africans in the early seventies, no statement could have seemed more appropriate than the proclamation that one was “…Black and Proud”. James Brown and his music claimed me for an apostle, an emissary for the structure of tight rhythm and disciplined showmanship. I had older cousins and friends who, having been smitten by the Godfather’s music long before, were now attending to the work of spreading the word about ‘the funk’ with commensurate missionary zeal. They would play the tracks one groove (pun intended) at a time, lift the needle from the record and test my understanding of what I’d just heard. I was a good student!
“Sometimes, if you love something enough the universe conspires to procure it for you. On the eve of my eighth birthday and the end of my first year as an acolyte of the funk, my father took me to the main racecourse in Lagos; it often doubled up as an open-air concert arena. The air was heavy with the sickly sweet pungency of an unknown aroma and the typically open ebullience of the African countenance seemed to have stepped up a notch to a heightened level of all-inclusive camaraderie and positive reciprocity. We positioned ourselves between two enormous assemblies of loud speakers and in front of a large raised area; I was mesmerised by a beautiful array of constantly evolving, powerful incandescent lights. I searched my father’s face for a clue as to our purpose in this most irregular place and punished his inscrutability with a hundred ‘but whys?’.
“The crowd pressed forward and I lost my line of sight. My father lifted me onto his shoulders as the echoes of the announcer’s Tannoy treated us to every word in staggered triplicate. ‘Are you ready for a fantastic night?’ he bellowed. The throng roared its approval. I drank in the sight and sound afforded by my elevated vantage point and felt intoxicated by the moment. When the announcer screamed his question for the second time, I screamed so loud as if believing I could drown out all those other thousands of competing voices.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, make una welcome to de stage…’ I don’t think I heard another word he said. Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis and a very young Bootsy Collins walked out onto the platform, followed by all the other JBs. My time poring over liner notes and album sleeves came in to relief, I rushed a hyper-excited blow-by-blow commentary of events to my father’s Afro just below. Each man was resplendent in platform shoes and tight all-in-one suits. They strutted on to the stage, beaming self-assured smiles across the expanse in front of them. Once each man was settled into the position that seemed most comfortable for the job at hand, they struck up what seemed like the most stupendously funky groove I’d ever heard in my very young life!
“Every single person was dancing; rapturous, ecstatic, arms flung about; celebratory gestures that seemed both intimate and universal. Then James Brown walked out onto the stage, to the most extensive and exciting introduction imaginable. He was ‘…the eighth wonder of the universe, the Godfather of Soul, the master of the groove and the funk’. Soon he was barking commands at the band, screeching syncopated calls and responses, whirling and wheeling around the stage; dropping to his knees in perfect time with the breaks, doubled over on the floor pleading, ‘Please, please’; sweat-drenched, seemingly exhausted but finding boundless reservoirs of energy.
“Somewhere in the middle of the spectacular event unfolding around me, I found a moment of quiet genuflection. In the eye of this veritable funk storm, I came to the realisation, that I had found a most profound love. I knew that something powerful and life-altering had happened to me and I knew that it would never let me go. I took its slow-burning fires and used them to fuel my relentless journey to the life I now lead as a professional singer/songwriter and performer. It saw me through my fleeting but potentially dangerous dalliances with a degree in law and moments of self-doubt and the chaos that ensues after life’s crises. It has extricated me from potentially stifling commitments to traditional record company culture and a life of inorganic paint-by-number-for-profit song design. It’s helped me chart my course through the music biz jungle with nothing other than the faith that if I sing it pure and true they will come. It’s placed me on stages across the world spreading the unfettered, unbridled infectious joy that was passed to me all those decades ago.”
Thanks to Ola Onabulé for the latest in our series of artist blogs. Ola’s new album Seven Shades Darker is out now on Rugged Ram. Ola will be performing at this year’s Hay Festival in Hay-on-Wye on 25th June 2012.