Lagos calling

OLA Onabule steeped in African rhythms and American soul

- Ola Onabule, Centennial Theatre, Sunday, Nov. 27, 7: 30 p.m. Tickets $45 available online at

DOWNSTAIRS, adults talked about the Nigerian Civil War, national independence, and living in the grip of a military dictatorship, but upstairs, a seven-year-old boy was transfixed by music.

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"One of my fondest memories is lying in my bed on a Friday evening. . . and not being able to sleep for another four hours from that point because there'd be so many parties," says jazz/soul singer Ola Onabule.

Avenues in Lagos, Nigeria would close in the evening, leaving streets packed with revelers bathed in marquee lights as diverse bands carved their brands of funk and soul into the night.

Speaking from a U.K. recording studio after a day spent editing a music video, Onabule recalls the constant chugging sounds of drums and the screams of enjoyment that mingled with bass lines before drifting through his bedroom window.

"You'd have the cacophony of these conflicting frequencies filling the air and invading your attempts to sleep, but a kind of happy cacophony because it was a good place to float your daydreams," he says, his mind returning to his homeland like a wayward son. "Whenever I think back to Lagos. . . the representation I have of it is as music."

Onabule is scheduled to bring his sound steeped in African rhythm and American soul to Centennial Theatre on Nov. 27 to promote Seven Shades Darker, his seventh studio album.

During a 40-minute interview, Onabule discusses spirituality, his brief time on a major recording label, and being baptized in soul by James Brown.

Onabule's father left Nigeria for England shortly after the African state received its independence from the British in 1960.

Once in the bosom of the empire, his father worked for a mortgage bank while a life insurance company hired his mother as a medical underwriter, but their eldest child was itchy.

Despite being born in London, Onabule had a difficult time adapting to England's climate and suffered acute eczema.

After doctors were unable to soothe Onabule's dry, chronically irritated skin, his parents wondered if a return to Nigeria's more tropical climate would help.

"That cured my eczema completely," he says, chuckling at being the cause of his family's migration from England's capital to Nigeria's financial centre.

His memories of Lagos and his hope for Nigeria eventually formed the lyrics for "Lagos Boy."

"We struggled, we fought, survived all as one, tho' beaten and wrought," he sings on the 2002 track.

While the song addresses violence and fear, Onabule's memories of the teeming city are joyful.

"Looking through the rose-tinted spectacles of a child's memory, it just seemed to me to be endless fun," he says of Lagos and his childhood home, which pulsed with the sounds of LPs.

"My mom is a very musical person, always singing and humming and dancing," Onabule says. "She loves big dramatic voices."

Onabule's mother favoured soul queen Aretha Franklin and lounge hero Tom Jones, while his father preferred the more sonorous sounds of Paul Robeson and the blues.

Onabule enjoyed his parent's music, but it wasn't until the eve of his tenth birthday that his father, then the head of Nigeria's housing ministry, took him to a stadium to see the Godfather of Soul.

Singing his signature style of guttural gospel and sporting one of the finest pompadours in popular music, James Brown captivated the crowd.

"The man came out and all my dreams, all my expectations were met in that moment," Onabule says. "I was already a James Brown obsessive, I'd do all the moves and I'd drop to my knees and get my sisters to throw a cloak around my shoulder as I went 'Please, please, please.'"

For Onabule, Brown personifies a musician committed to an honest, visceral communion with the audience.

"A lot of people claim to be soul singers these days," Onabule says. "And really what that means is they study a lot of the techniques. . . They warble in a technical way. But you got the impression that some of the founding members of soul music back then were very profoundly connected to their soul, to their memories of a tough life."

Onabule's appreciation for the pioneers who fused gospel music with rhythm and blues is expressed in his 2004 track, "Soul Town."

"Someday we'll build it all again, when we've had enough of this emptiness," he croons in the ode to soul music.

But as much as he was influenced by the records of his youth, he was equally inspired by the West-African language of Yoruba, which Onabule says is like speaking in music.

"It's a tonal language where many, many words share the same appearance on paper, they're spelled the same way, but by adjusting the tone, you change the meaning, sometimes to disastrous effect," he says, laughing. "I think all of that infused my sensibility, this notion of everything in life is music."

Despite his love of singing and earning the nickname Gramophone among friends ("Because I wouldn't shut up," he says). Onabule returned to the U.K. to attend law school as a teenager.

"That's what African first-born sons do, is they take the advice they're given with a mind to fulfilling duties that they're born into," Onabule says. "So I assumed I'd be a lawyer. . . and singing was just this obsession I had."

Listening to law school classmates analyzing the minutia of court procedures and precedents while envisioning his life at a law firm in Nigeria, Onabule realized he had to escape.

"It wasn't until my third year at law school that I suddenly realized that if I committed to this, it would be a terrible mistake," he says.

After dropping out of law school Onabule signed to Elektra Records, the label that adorns the sleeves of The Doors albums and Tracy Chapman records.

"I was cast as the loverman soul singer, kind of vaguely Teddy Pendergrass, and obviously it didn't fit," Onabule says. "It was always inevitable I would move on."

Onabule split from Elektra, determined to never work for a major label again.

Eager to record his own songs, Onabule recorded voiceovers, worked with novelty acts, and provided backing

vocals for singers like George Michael and Gladys Knight.

"I very slowly started to save up my money and built my first studio in a spare room in my flat and recorded my very first album, More Soul Than Sense," he says

Onabule recalls the making of the 1995 album as a happy time, even though the disc makes him cringe today.

"All I hear now are the millions of things I'd have done differently," he says, punctuating the thought with deep laughter as he discusses the frustrations of songwriting.

"I don't know if I'll ever match what I end up with on a CD to all those millions of components that make up an inspiration," he says.

"When you hear it, when it's still in the clouds, and you look up to it, you look heavenward to this amazing thing, and the angels are singing, and you reach into the clouds and pull it down to earth, and something's always lost in the process. . . So I'll never be happy," he adds, cheerful in his dissatisfaction.

Over the past 16 years, Onabule has reached into the clouds to record seven albums, featuring love songs, smooth piano, and growling guitars that sound like they've been imported from a Seattle garage band.

Inspired by artists ranging from politically astute Afro-beat master Fela Kuti to Nigerian writer Ben Okri, Onabule has explored many issues that are far removed from the tunes about lust, bravado and teenage confusion that dominate modern pop music.

The first single off his new album is "Be A Man" a rocker that opens with a blast of horns that would make Otis Redding proud. From there, the album uses jazz, soul, and African melodies to explore the personal and the global.

Despite the difficulty of delving into complex topics like closeted spirituality or the tug-of-war over the political identity of Africa, Onabule continues writing challenging lyrics.

"I know that they're impossible to put into songs that masquerade as popular music, but they're the only tools I have," he explains.

"I sit on the fence of nationality and culture and identity," Onabule says. "There are arguments and discussions that I want to have in my music that will necessarily create tensions. . . and they're usually about my culture, my colour, the way I speak."

While he may continue to explore those issues, the form of those explorations will soon change, according to Onabule.

"I want to give this album as much life as I can," he says. "And then I want to explore something, and I don't know what it is. . .

"One thing I realized with Seven Shades Darker is that I won't make an album of that kind, maybe, probably, ever again, because I think I've probably gotten as close as I can to my ideal soul/jazz album. I hear other voices calling to me now."

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