Carol Martin interviews Nigerian jazz trumpeter Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Carol Martin

Carol Martin

Jo brings New Orleans to Badagry!

Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Jo Lanre Kunnuji

Trumpeter Jo Lanre Kunnuji is completing his Masters degree in Ethnomusicology at UCT’s School of Music. His passion to ‘modernize’ his less well understood musical tradition of the Ogu people of Badagry in southwest Nigeria has led him to research it and improvise on it. Jo’s ‘Ogu’ people, whose language is completely different from that of the larger Yoruba ethnic group which covers south western Nigeria, are more numerous in neighboring Benin than in Nigeria. Yet, most Ogu actually speak Yoruba, but are considered by the Yoruba to be of a ‘lower’ status. Jo’s cultural exploration of Ogu music is quite fascinating…..

CM: So, why are you presently researching this music?

JLK: I said to myself, oh wow! My people really don’t know their own culture – they are ‘borrowing’ from the Yoruba….like names, the music, even the language. The older people remember and know the music, but not the younger ones. So I decided to research my own Ogu cultural roots, and the musical idioms.

I found there is a radio station in Lagos that hosts an Ogu language program run by people who don’t want to see this culture die out. So there is more awareness now. But it’s the older people in my home area who are performing the classical Ogu music. I want the younger Ogu to become interested, which is why I am fusing jazz with this tradition. Jazz is demanding, so maybe the youth will see they have to work at it. Many people consider our traditional African music as ‘old’ or not relevant. So they try to impose Western ideas on the music. There’s a condescending attitude about African music: “Oh, she’s not singing in tune.” Not singing in tune – by whose standard? The African concept of intonation is different, so you can’t judge them on Western ideals!

CM: You’re using the word, “jazz”, a lot. In other societies/countries, musicians take their folk songs and improvise on them, and call it ‘jazz’. Perhaps, you are doing the same with your Ogu music. So you’re not actually trying to preserve the traditional, are you?

JLK: I take Badagry music and do jazz harmony to it. As a performer, I’ve had great feedback and interest from other Nigerian musicians. Even Ogu people are asking “What are you doing to our tunes? It sounds cool.” It’s like bringing New Orleans to Badagry! I am keeping the melodies and the percussive base. What I am doing is adding on harmonies, and using Western instruments –the trumpet, flugelhorn, baritone saxophone, etc. At this stage, I am not writing my own music, because I want to build on our own songs which are familiar. But when I play MY own arrangements, people get excited to hear the mix of traditional and jazz.

CM: Let’s go back a bit to your training. You studied music in Nigeria?

JLK: I first received my BA degree in Sociology, but I grew up in church – my father was an Anglican priest – and played the drums. My older brother played with sons of afrobeat pioneer Fela Ransome Kuti, namely Oluseun Kuti and Femi Kuti. I was encouraged to study for a diploma in music. Now, I am focusing just on experimentation, taking the afrobeat groove , which is Fela’s music. That’s for one of my own arrangements. I believe in the foundation people and acknowledging what they did, try to copy what they did, then do something of my own. That’s my personal lesson from the jazz greats and masters.

CM: How did you get to Cape Town?

JLK: While I was doing my diploma in music in Nigeria, I learned about UCT from my professors who came from overseas. I was advised to go further than a diploma. I happened to be volunteering with the Limpopo Youth Orchestra as a teacher for three months– there were seven of us from Nigeria – as the head of my Nigeria music school had links with this Orchestra. So , from Limpopo I could apply to UCT School of Music.

CM: Who else has influenced you in your experimentation?

JLK: Definitely, Terence Blanchard. His album called ‘Bounce’ has a song called ‘Azania’ that sounds like my own traditional music. You can even hear my language spoken, but there’s a different version. I could just pick a few words. I wish I could contact Terence. I like his style, approach, and composition. This is just a personal thing – I would like to study with him. Another person I’d like to speak to is Kenny Garrett. He sounds like he’s speaking in my language. You know, African languages are tonal, and when Kenny plays a certain phrase, it sounds just like my own Ogu music!

CM: You don’t think this is just coincidence?

JLK: Oh well, there must be too many coincidences, then! Both Kenny and Coltrane use pentatonic. My own music uses a lot of pentatonics – so listening to them is like listening to my own language. Some of their songs have West African names, like Coltrane’s “Tunji” which sounds like home. Also, Sonny Roland’s pieces, “Airegin” which is ‘Nigeria’ spelled backwards! Then, there’s “St. Thomas” which sounds like highlife to me. The melody is very Yoruba.

CM: Who in South Africa has influenced you?

JLK: Marcus Wyatt and Feya Faku. Also my current supervisor and other School profs have encouraged me. Also, Miriam Makeba and Dizzy. Mostly what has influenced me is synchronicity, music from other worlds, peoples.

CM: What will you do in the future? Go back to Nigeria?

JLK: I see myself contributing to preserve my people’s music, as well as making it attractive to listen to. My plans are to record, write articles and music, and teach. I don’t see much appearing in publications. I’m still experimenting, nothing is final.

You can hear Jo Kunnuji Experiment and his Creative Project at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zQzux3KhWw
and “Jesu wa nami… dagbe dagbe” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNo9RF1ME88
with its lovely mix of horns (including a lady baritone sax) and vocals.

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