Law school creates more than a few challenges. There are hours upon hours of studying, grueling hours interning at law firms, and financial bills that need to find a way to get paid. For many law students the adversity is just too much to overcome and that can lead to despair. For Ola Onabule, it determined his life's journey.
Onabule turned his back on law school to enter the field of soul and jazz as a singer/songwriter. "In my third year of law school", he said "it became perfectly clear that my real passion was being a musician."
There is an immediate sense, when watching Onabule perform, that he is all music. His voice is similar to Michael McDonald and Stevie Wonder. The rhythm flows through him. A move, a gyration, or punctuation with his hand accentuates every beat. There is a synergy with the music and an awareness of the deep connections with his heritage. Like Wonder, he uses his music in some instances to awaken the African American male spirit. That spirit is never more evident than when he is performing. It is James Brown on steroids. There is so much energy in every performance and a distinct conclusion that, against Onabule, any opposing attorney would not stand a chance.
As he prepares to make a run at performing stateside Onabule already has some big supporters. He has dates for his third visit to Canada where he will be performing November 25 at the Belle Performing Arts Center in British Columbia, November 27 at Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver and November 30 at Alix Goolden Performance Hall in Victoria. Phillip Davey, Publicity and Promotions Director for MYQ Productions, the production company that set up dates for Onabule to perform in Canada, believes it is just a matter of time before the United States goes all in on Onabule. "I heard about four bars of a song and after hearing his voice I immediately booked a showing and we sold it out. It was pretty remarkable and I remember his approach was so compelling. He's probably the quintessential live artist," Davey commented, "because he is able to give you everything in that hour and fifteen minute performance. When you walk away from it you know you've seen something remarkable."
While touring in the United States is a goal, as Onabule prepares for the release of his new album, 'Seven Shades Darker', there is no doubt he sees similarities between himself and some of the earliest jazz pioneers whose records his father gave him and to which he began listening when he was six years old. "I fancy myself somewhat as a member of the jazz group that started it all," Onabule told me, "somewhere between the influences of traditional jazz I experienced as a boy and the time I spent in West Africa, , "kind of where the very roots of the genre began."
Onabule looks calm. A button or two of his shirt is open, and he is explaining his new album which drops in the UK and Europe within the next two months. He is a man who appears to be content with his career choice. This is his first studio album since 2007's 'Devoured Man' which, for him, was a bit of a soul search. He explains how some of the writing for that album came during the Iraqi war and during an election in Nigeria where he spent much of his childhood. He is animated throughout the interview. He uses his hands to emphasize a point. You get the distinct impression that Onabule is a man of action, someone who cannot sit still and wait for events to unfold around him.
Onabule puts as much effort into his writing and recording as he does in his live performance. "I like taking my songs to the people and interpreting and reinterpreting them night after night and making connections with my audience" he said. "That's where I really enjoy my craft."
Davey has also witnessed that same connection. "We had a ninety-two year old woman sitting in the front row of his concert" Davey told me "and by the end of the show everyone including that ninety-two year old woman were standing on their feet and clapping and dancing and they just couldn't get enough of him."
'Desperate Ones', from the new album, is a message to black youths during urban upheaval. Think jazz with a social conscience. "I saw a news report that suggested that an increasing number of black boys in Britain were leaving school without any qualifications" Onabule observed "but, even worse still, they didn't have the ability to read or write. After so many years and so many struggles these kinds of stories should have been put to rest yet we are still debating and arguing the same issues in a not particularly sophisticated way."
His eyes light up when we discuss the thematic similarities of 'Desperate Ones' to Stevie Wonder's 'Pastime Paradise'. "Songs in the Key of Light was absolutely the very first album I purchased with my own money" Onabule said. "I played that album over and over again."
Recording his music is just one piece of his love for jazz. For Onabule, it is being out on the road, performing live, that fuels his passion. "I think the reason why it takes a while for me to produce an album," Onabule said, "is that it really is just an excuse for me to get out on the road and do gigs. We are in a world where there are increasingly more filters being layered between the artist and the audience. I become very protective of the more traditional route of an artist connecting with an audience through live performance. I like to make a personal connection. I want to see the whites of their eyes."
Onabule doesn't know when his album will drop in the United States but with the evolution of digital music, that doesn't really matter. Simply type 'Ola Onabule' in iTunes and much of his discography is there and ready to download. As a result, some of the traditional pitfalls of being a contemporary jazz artist are removed. "You can be bit more existential in your musical musings," he confirmed.
Moreover, not many performing artists can claim David Beckham and the Spice Girls as fans. Beckham and his wife enjoy the underground contemporary jazz scene in the UK. Beckham tabbed Onabule to perform at their wedding. As he fondly remembers that night Onabule laughs and there is an obvious twinkle in his eye. "It was an incredibly surreal feeling to be playing in front of the entire English national soccer team, the Spice Girls and Sir Elton John," he said. "Performing at the wedding is just one more highlight being a jazz musician has over being a lawyer."