In the wake of the fabulous Ola Onabulé’s latest releases ‘Invincible’ and ‘I Knew Your Father’, we caught up with him to chat about his beginnings, his powerful 2019 album Point Less and his aspirations for his music and the future. Read the full interview below in which Ola talks of his love for travelling with music, the power of musical connection and the themes of social injustices that are prevalent in his creative output.
What was your introduction like into the world of music? How did you begin?
I think I had a somewhat unconventional introduction to music. My parents were both professionals – a banker and a medical insurance underwriter – Neither considered themselves particularly artistic or musical. However they played a lot of music of a very wide variety in my childhood home. They were undeniably responsible for music being my 1st love. I grew up thinking I would fulfil expectations and becoming a lawyer until a chance meeting with a Jazz musician in my third year at Law School changed all of that. He gave me a listening list of standards and classics, introduced me to some amazing musicians and invited me to come and sit in with them. I was hooked and I have never looked back. Soon I was writing my own tunes, building a studio and gigging most nights. Law soon fell by the way side!
Singing is such a direct way of connecting through music, and you carry such an incredible amount of soul in your voice. When did you start using your voice to connect in this way?
I have tried to analyse why my singing is often described like this. I guess I am very keen to make a connection with my listener. I want the words to be heard and fully understood and for my voice to reflect the arc of whatever story I’m trying to tell with the music.
What are your favourite moments or experiences in your career so far?
Far too many… The best experiences is essentially the business of life as a musician and creative… I love the travel, meeting new people in far flung places, sampling cuisine from all over the world and playing and working with some amazingly talented folks in front of hundreds or thousands of amazing folks who go to great lengths to engage in our synergistic joy!
What and who have been your main influences throughout your career?
I never lost that broad taste in music that my parents imbued me with! So I have influences in a wide range of genres – From James Brown to Steely Dan, Fela Kuti to Salif Keita, Tony Bennett to Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn to Ella, Aretha Franklin to Anita Baker, Stevie to Donny Hathaway, Miles to Coltrane, Sunny Ade to Miriam Makeba, and the Beatles to Peter Gabriel… They’re all locked away in my sub-conscious alongside personal idiosyncrasies, waiting to leave subtle traces of their impact on my life in my art.
Your powerful latest release, POINT LESS, focuses heavily on social injustice. Can you tell us a bit more about the concepts behind this piece?
I started writing the songs for Point Less after watching a harrowing video of Philando Castile’s unfortunate demise at the hands of the Police in the US. I was so profoundly heart-broken by what I saw I wrote ‘Ballad of the Star Crossed’ that night and went on to write another 35 or so songs at a fevered pace. Writing the songs was a therapy for me. A way to evolve a philosophy that would help me understand how a man could be killed in the way he was, in front of his wife and little girl When I was done, I realised that all the songs fitted into a theme – An exploration of the impact of Violence, in all it’s forms: physical, emotional, psychological and beyond. It’s pointlessness and to whom the finger of blame could be pointed.
Have themes of social inequality always been a motivation behind your creative output?
Yes, In the main although, I’ll hasten to add that I’m just as likely to write a traditional love song as I write one railing against injustice of some kind. A good chunk of my childhood was spent in Nigeria. It was a time when socially conscious commentary was prevalent in Afro-Jazz and Afrobeat Artists such as Fela Kuti, Manu DiBango and Hugh Masakela would critique and lampoon governments on their treatment of their citizens and hold society in general to high standards. it was also a time when the music coming in from the US, like Curtis Mayfield, Gill Scott-Heron and Stevie Wonder had a defiant message to bolster, inspire and encourage oppressed people. So I guess I am both a child of my culture and my era.
As the pandemic cancelled all live shows, you appeared to creatively turn to live streaming and have remained prolific in your output! How have you found the transition from live audiences to live streaming?
It’s been a crazy time! I am so thankful for the opportunity to play again and to indulge myself in the exceptional playing abilities of others. However with live streaming there was so much new information to take in! It’s so different to a live gig, the absence of a live audience being the biggest challenge by far. The deafening silence at the end of a song is not natural but we have gotten used to it. The best part is interacting with folks all over the world and the opportunity to reach those places I have not or may never get a chance to play live.
What do you hope people will take from ‘Point Less’?
That’s a complex question. As I said, writing these songs was therapy to me at the time, a time before George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions about violence towards women. I hoped listeners would have their third eye opened and their sense of empathy engaged such that they might become aware of the stifling threat and fear of violence the vulnerable among us can often feel. So, I guess I feel that the songs on Point Less are a small part of very huge conversation we all need to have with ourselves.
Have recent experiences influenced your perspective of what you would like to do next within your career in music?
Yes, I think I would like to continue to develop the Livestream concept even in the Post -Covid Era.
What’s next for Ola Onabulé?
Well getting back on the road is a priority! For me and for all of our tribe 🙂 But in addition, We are developing ‘Point Less’ into a stage play/musical, I am working with Seminal Afrobeat artist Dele Sosimi on an AfroBeat meets Big Band Jazz project and I have started putting ideas together for my next album. Hopefully that will keep me busy for a moment 🙂
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