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Ola Onabule

Ola Onabule’s new album on his own Rugged Ram Record Label is the fifth in a series of highly critically acclaimed masterpieces within their own universe of Soul, Jazz, Funk, Afro and Dancefloor, even hints of Blues.

In over a decade as a musician, Ola, descending from Nigeria, and considering London his home, blended the aforementioned into something unique, something real and something you can LISTEN to! Get this: Ola Onabule didn’t only release his albums on his own label; he produced and wrote them as well.

"In Emergency, Brake Silence" is not only individual AND entertaining by it’s title, it literally draws in your attention and mashes that certain something into the mix every sincere musician is chasing after. His former four albums, "More Soul Then Sense" (1995), "From Meaning, Beyond Definition" (1997), "Precious Libations For Silent Gods" (1999) and "Ambitions For Deeper Breadth", all on Rugged Ram Records, thrive first and foremost on that Brit-Soul-feeling by the likes of 80’s Loose Ends or Soul II Soul, yet blends in a variety of contemporary Soul and Jazz.

Listening to any of his five long players; I heard Al Jarreau and Michael McDonald, Tower Of Power and Earth, Wind & Fire, but overall I was reminded of Donny Hathaway throughout. It’s not surprising that Mr. Onabule considers Hathaway his biggest influence and inspiration.

In the end, having listened to his albums once again, I feel that this description is yet incomplete, because what we really hear is nothing less than Ola Onabule himself. No copies, yet a lot of spirit and uniqueness. Try it out - you’ll feel the same!

Ola shared his music and his philosophy with JazzReview. Most importantly he explained, why it is important, especially in today’s worldwide music-industry crisis, to make music with brain and belly rather than music to make major-companies money grow.

JAZZREVIEW: Your music has a lot of influences and plays with all of them, whether it’s Soul or Jazz, Afro or Dancefloor. Overall, and in this case I do mean it as a compliment, your music sounds very British.

OLA ONABULE: I’ve heard this before. I couldn’t tell you what aspect of it is British, but I’m not surprised. Unfortunately Britain has been very good with propagating Pop and it’s British Stars all over the world. So they shine for a second or two and then they fade away. You get the impression that America can still give Steely Dan Grammies, after being around for more than 30 years. You’d be lucky if anybody remembers you after 30 years as a British artist.

JAZZREVIEW: Yet your music is highly critically acclaimed - in England you are the best-kept secret in Black Music Magic

OLA ONABULE: Me and the band improve and we try hard. But that’s all it really CAN be because what you put down on a record never really matches what you hear in your head. So you do the best you can.

JAZZREVIEW: But seriously. The critics have been extremely positive towards you and your music. Did anybody ever write anything bad about one of your albums?

OLA ONABULE: We seem to be very lucky. We have this weird situation where the industry, the radio, the record-company, would say we have a problem to sell the stuff, but the press have always seemed to understand the music, and you always have to take this stuff in a realistic way. But it is a huge compliment that the press reads EVERYTHING into the stuff that I hoped they would read into it.

JAZZREVIEW: How do you feel about your first four albums today? Is there a gap between them?

OLA ONABULE: Oh absolutely. It’s like night and day to me. With my first two records, from a production point of view, I had very little money, the equipment I had was semi-professional, if not completely amateur, and then from a songwriting point of view I was concerned with different issues. I was more of an angry young man, so a lot of my songs dealt with concerns of ALL angry young men. I thought it was up to me and my generation to save the world and change it, and all that kind of stuff. The songs dealt more with the social-political affairs Then, over the years, my life became more domestic. I’ve got kids, I’ve got a wife, and I think the songs then started to reflect that. They are more internal and personal in a way. Of course as you grow you start to accept that you CAN’T change or save the world. You have to learn to live within it, so the songs are being written more and more how I am learning to live within the world.

JAZZREVIEW: So the music on your current album is more lighthearted?

OLA ONABULE: In a way it expresses it. But at the same time personal affairs are actually the most overwhelmingly powerful and they affect you. I realize now that some of the things I was talking about were actually distractions. It’s easier to talk about the situation in Iraq than it is to talk about the situation in your marriage. You know what I mean?! It’s to discuss all sorts of affairs or whatever it is. So, "lighthearted" in a way to describe the topics, but not in the way that I tried to approach those topics. On a first it sounds like a love song, but on the second or third you start to realize that I am thinking about my life and analyze it and put it back together.

JAZZREVIEW: You also wrote all the material on your new and your former albums yourself.

OLA ONABULE: I’m always writing. Ideas are always coming to me and I am always trying to get them down. Often enough I don’t have my Dictaphone with me so I have to hum tunes, call people’s answering machines and sing them down. There are about ten more tracks that actually didn’t even make the album. It is very difficult. When I wake up in the middle of the night or in the morning, singing a song, and that happens two or three times, then I know that it’s so much a part of me that I have to record it. In a way the songs that "want to be left behind" speak to me quite naturally, organically and leave me with just the right songs.

JAZZREVIEW: And then?

OLA ONABULE: The whole thing kind of rolls into one process, because I have my own recording facilities, my own studio. Once I come up with a musical or a lyrical idea I’ll think of something that has happened to me in my life and I realize that it’s good material to write a song about. I almost always pick up my guitar and start to think of the ideas whether the melody comes from the idea, although in some occasions I could finish a song within half an hour. For instance Half of Lead, the third song on the album. It just came within an hour.

JAZZREVIEW: How’s that?

OLA ONABULE: Because it was so full of personal experiences that it was so easy to do - almost compositional style. Some of the other songs deal more with analysis, but once the song is laid out fully on my guitar and I know that I can play it from start to end and I can sing along and it makes sense then I’ll just program a full demo, which I’ll then finally play to the band. So I program the drums, the keyboards, the bass, and I play the guitar, and so I get a full set of what exactly I want to hear and then I present it to the band. They are all professionals and they just play it. The whole process usually takes a few hours.

JAZZREVIEW: Is it hard for the musicians involved?

OLA ONABULE: They get into it pretty quick. We’ve been working together for so many years, and you know how it is when you know someone fairly well. And I don’t read or write music in a classical way, I was never formerly trained in that field. But they know and understand my idiosyncratic ways of how I record and write. "Use this or that chord with the orange pin" (laughs) and stuff like that.

JAZZREVIEW: Other than most artists these days you seem to put way more effort in the overall sense of your albums - not only by the title, I might add.

OLA ONABULE: It’s unavoidable for me, because I am of a certain age where all the albums I’ve heard made some kind of sense. If you listen to all of my old heroes right across the board, on one extreme Led Zeppelin all the way through to Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Donny Hathaway all of these guys. They all took themselves very seriously, they fought for their art. They fought on the same level as visual arts whether it’s painting, architecture or whatever. The album sleeves, the costumes they wore, the band philosophy - you could tell there was a great commitment to all that. And I sucked all of that up. I find it quite difficult to get a collection of twelve songs together that are exactly the same except for the lyrics. Everything today is either about Sex, or my bitch, or my whore but the audience is actually very happy to hear "human" stories! So yes, it’s something I just can’t avoid. I might get myself into trouble with that though: Maybe one day it will be SO unfashionable, that I have to consider another approach. But for now I can’t think of another way to present a project.

JAZZREVIEW: I hope that this day is far, far away

OLA ONABULE: Thank you.

JAZZREVIEW: You really found your own definition with your five albums, your own musical identity.

OLA ONABULE: I share the same influences with a lot of my colleagues that are in Black Music all around the world. But because I grew up a considerable amount of time in West Africa and then in Britain, I think I kind of drifted away from the Hip Hop, the R&B-type influence because I was simply not involved in it. This is not my kind of culture.

JAZZREVIEW: Is there anything that would underline your musical philosophy?

OLA ONABULE: You don’t find music - music finds you!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ona Onabule
  • Interview Date: 12/1/2004
  • Subtitle: You don't find music - music finds you!
Michael Arens

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