Q&A: Beautiful Nubia: “Our music is art on a journey”

AiW Guest: Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke

beautiful-nubiaBeautiful Nubia, the stage name for Segun Akinlolu, is widely acclaimed by music critics as Nigeria’s foremost contemporary folklorist. He is an artist with a vibrant soul who combines the Yoruba traditional percussion with other modern instrumentation, just as he sings in both Yoruba and English. The poet and professor, Niyi Osundare, has described his music as ‘so instructive … with intimations of Ifa divination’.

Beautiful Nubia has been performing for about two decades with his Roots Renaissance Band in the genres of contemporary folk music, jazz, soul/blues and has been a sensation since his 1997 hit, Seven Lives, because of the cultural and political consciousness, and didacticism of his lyrics. As well as much acclaim at home in Nigeria, his music has been enjoying international success, most recently when his albums were listed on the World Music Charts of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in 2016.

Aside from being a musician, Beautiful Nubia is also a poet and novelist. His discography and publications include: Seven Lives (1997), The King’s Messenger (poetry, 2004), Jangbalajugbu (2002), Where Rivers Sing A Song (poetry, 2004), Kilòkilò (2007), Keere (2014), Soundbender (2015), Iwa (2016),  Táabákú (2016), Citadel Blues (fiction, 2004 and 2017).

Keere, the subject of this interview, is a 12 track album, a dulcet medley of Yoruba percussion such as shekere and talking drums, with Western instruments such as guitar, saxophone, and piano. The album espouses themes such as motherhood, good neighbourliness and egalitarian community, and warns against such vices as intolerance and greediness, as destructive to the fabric of humanity.

KeereBut that is not all to the album. The poetics of the album, of sound and lyrics, a style mark of the artist, cannot be missed. It intrigues like good poetry you might expect from a poet laureate. In fact, the Nigerian poet and music critic Dami Ajayi says that ‘What Beautiful Nubia and his band achieve in [in his music] is akin to what a professor strives for with an inaugural lecture’. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the highest prize for literary excellence – to the dismay of some critics who deemed it an insult to literature. But Beautiful Nubia’s album Keere similarly suggests that music can be seen as a form of literature; the album boasts many literary elements such as storytelling, rhyme and rhythm, and motif. These are what we appreciate in works of art as disparate as the wordless compositions of Mozart, the Songhay blues of Ali Farka Toure, the socio-political radicalism of the lyrics of Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

In this interview with Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke, conducted after the release of Keere in 2014, Beautiful Nubia talks about his view of music as a political statement, which he thinks cannot be whisked away from the content of an African artist, about Yoruba culture and tradition as a factor in his composition, and about his unique creative spirit.

Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke for AiW: Keere is a distinct profusion of Yoruba traditional folkloric music blended with jazzy instrumentals. It takes on a rather different outlook, in terms of musical instrumentation, from your previous albums, especially the percussion. What informs this blend of acoustics this time around?

Beautiful Nubia: There isn’t anything specifically different – we are still using the same mix of instruments to present these traditional rhythms. Our music is multifaceted and continuously evolving so it is possible to hear slight variation from album to album, which is a good and positive thing. That way you don’t become too predictable and boring.

Before the release of the album, you said, ‘The album explores various themes such as motherhood, love, communal redemption and application of traditional wisdom to solve modern social ills, among others… Keere represents a remarkable stage in the evolution of my positive messages’. How far do you think these messages have reached the people?

Our music is art on a journey – it is not a short trip – we are not in the business of producing those instant hits that fade within a short period. This kind of music slowly seeps into people’s consciousness and the kind of change it preaches is one that takes a while to manifest. Some of the messages are not that palatable to many people and it will take prolonged listening or a special reflective moment in time for their minds to be tuned in. The messages are reaching the people through all possible avenues; the results, however, may take a while to become evident. Our job is to keep those messages coming.

In the opening track of the album, ‘Eniomosin’, a song which explores the idea of motherhood and the relevance of children, there is a paradox in the song that hints at the fact that a childless woman can also be a mother. Could you expatiate on this idea?

In our traditional culture every man is his brother’s keeper, every woman is the mother of all and the child belongs to the community. You’re only childless if you wish to take up that title and mire your soul in despondency. If you make your life a blessing to the community, and at your passing, people come out to celebrate their common loss – that is when you can claim to have been a mother.

‘Keere’ (meaning announcement in English), the titular track, teases out warnings and the need for true social and spiritual freedom from pre- and post-colonial realities and governance. This stirring song of resistance talks about the eventuality of freedom. Do you think the true emancipation can ever be achieved?

Of course, Africa and Africans will ultimately be free of these shackles. It has been more than 400 years of subjugation and carefully orchestrated retardation by the continent’s external and internal abusers, so the change cannot just be in an instant. We have to keep talking to the people, to the young, to the children, re-orientating their minds, re-focusing their energies and getting them to return to a state of spiritual and physical fullness. Then, slowly, we shall see the wheels of true growth and development turn. The pendulum has swung so far the other way that it is hard to see the possibility of light at the end of this tunnel, but we shall keep talking and keep pushing these messages. A generation is coming that will eventually, totally, throw off these chains and emerge into a new dawn of development and real progress. Our music, as I always say, is a tool of mass sensitization, and we are not just opportunistic jingoists chanting leftist slogans in order to gain fame and money. I am a realist – I know that I may not live to see the changes, but there are already many who will pick up the baton and keep the work going until we achieve that true state of liberation.

‘Tewogbare’ talks about how the honest, hard-working and good spirited has been shortchanged in this country. I guess the question that will be at the minds of most of your listeners is: at what point does this situation become upturned? Does it have to take on the coloration of a revolution?  

Yes, a revolution of the mind – in every individual and every home until the community is cleansed, consumed by a spirit of renewal and then explodes into a bright dawn, a new beginning, the birth or re-emergence of a land where those who truly deserve honour are rewarded for their hardwork, honesty, dedication, good neighbourliness and selfless service to the community. It will happen – it may take a while to manifest – but it will surely happen.

The cadences in ‘Osomaalo’ pour like a proverb, provoking thoughts of determination and will; who are these talking to?

As in many of our songs, we are just trying to embolden the people to stand up for their rights when trampled upon, and to demand truth, honest service and accountability from their so-called leaders. In ‘Osomaalo’, we employ the parable of the itinerant Ijesha merchant who refuses to leave the doorway to a debtor’s house until he is paid for his wares.  In some of our songs, we take the direct approach and lay the words out simply but, in other cases, we play around with proverbs, parables, little stories that take you in a different direction only to bring you back to a stream of thought ending in the real message within the song.

The story that textures the song ‘House by the Sea’ is so touching, and without a doubt connects listeners with the grief of Martha. What inspired this song for Martha?

Martha is a product of my mind: perhaps I’d caught a glimpse of her in her little house by the sea somewhere; perhaps I created her for a story that I never wrote; perhaps she came to me in a dream – I have no idea. One day I am just sitting in this empty park playing with my son and this song pops into my head – all the words, the rhythm and the melody (the same way “Seven Lives” came to me in 1989). I rush home to put it down quickly. The urge to record it is strong, and when I falter, Martha’s spirit, following me around, insists, “You must sing it, sing it”. So I did.

There is a perception that you straddle between being a musician and a sage. Can we link this to any traditional reality or is it an invention of yours?

Every true artist is a blessing to society, a conduit through which the ancestors speak to us and guide us. Through them the past is recalled for our correction or upliftment, and through their works the future is foretold and outlined in brilliant colours. I feel blessed to have been chosen for this work. Nothing in the Beautiful Nubia story has been invented for commercial gain, everything has evolved from a natural gift, carefully nurtured and honed and then, through some most difficult circumstances, packaged and expressed for the enjoyment and enrichment of us all.

Your music has achieved a cult status among your ever-growing fans all around the world. Your songs draw from the large pool of Yoruba proverbs and imagery, and it interests me that it has a following, despite the fact that indigenous language-learning has suffered a setback in the country. It has carried a lot of young people along this road of appreciating their culture. How has it been?

It has been a tough journey, and the struggle continues to this moment, but I knew what I was going into once I decided to sidestep a thriving and promising career in vet medicine for art music. I never set out to be a culture activist or anything like that. I just had this strong drive to put to use the natural gifts of songwriting and poetry that I was blessed with from birth, to use this medium to provide joy, and perhaps guidance, to those who choose to listen to me. In normal conversation, I speak the two languages I am fluent in – Yoruba and English – and I also sometimes employ the peculiar Nigerian pidgin. And when I write my songs, I just do the same. A lot of my English songs are poems employing all sorts of literary techniques and those heavy, ancient-sounding Yoruba words come from a place I do not know. I get a rhythm or melody, I squeeze out the words from my mind, and then I start to bend and blend all the elements until I sense that a fluidity has been achieved. Now I am tagged a conservator of language, a culture activist, a custodian of tradition…those are heavy labels. I thank everyone for the honour but I am just doing the job I was sent to do and the challenges I have faced, and still continue to face, are just a part of the trip. The biggest pleasure for me is in seeing the variety of people who buy our music – folks from all walks of life! And it is the same at our live concerts – I particularly love seeing the children and the youth. You go to all these universities and colleges, hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of these young, trendy folks turn out to sing our songs word for word and dance with total abandon – that is always a moment of immense fulfillment.

[At the time of this interview], there is another new 15-track album titled Soundbender due of release soon from you, what should your fans be expecting in this album?

Soundbender was released online on March 1, 2015 and will be available in stores by April 5, 2015. We have been recording for about 18 years now – this is our 11th studio album – and we have achieved a certain efficiency and refinement in the recording process. Soundbender, like its predecessors, comes with those deep and positive messages, the mellifluous melodies and the evocative rhythms. Everyone should get a copy. Or two.

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A review by Tope Salaudeen-Adegoke of Beautiful Nubia’s 2015 album Soundbender can be read here.

tope-eniobankeTope Salaudeen-Adegoke is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tope is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.



Categories: Music, Nigeria, Q&A

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2 replies

  1. I absolutely agree that music can be seen as a form of literature and it’s wonderful to see a deserving artist get the recognition he deserves. There is a power to music that is unparalleled.

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