The COVID pandemic has not stopped some artists from ‘performing’. Beginning 2021 with aplomb, Nigerian trumpeter, story teller and composer, Jo Kunnuji, has developed some fascinating informational videos about African music through his African Music Conversations YouTube channel. He confidently proves that jazz can fuse with some traditional music he grew up with in southern Nigeria.
In his 14 minute introductory video, Kunnuji asks ten questions about what ‘African music’ is all about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVo6DbFRhWU These include such areas as how to describe the differences and similarities of musical instruments in the Southern African region, how people changed their musical practices over the past centuries, and the early writings on African musical traditions. He cautions, and rightly so, that early interpretations of African musicality tended to be Euro-centric, but that scholarship now, including his recent ethnomusicology studies about his own Ogu music of southern Nigeria, is under covering key rudiments of African musical traditions apart from Western thinking. His present post-doctoral research, particularly with musician practitioners, as seen in these Conversations, deals with reimagining African musical traditions, while considering the marginality of ethnic minorities and its implications for their music.
About six years ago, I sat down with the then Masters degree student, Kunnuji, to discover his love for ethnic appreciation of one’s cultural expression. http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2014/11/10/carol-martin-interviews-nigerian-jazz-trumpeter-jo-lanre-kunnuji/
Now, his continued research at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music, and occasional trips back home to work with Ogu music, have molded his abilities to adeptly interpret just what constitutes “African Music” as he journeys through the rich polyrhythmic styles fusing the traditional with contemporary improvisation. His eagerness to teach and share his findings has resulted in clearly articulated and informative YouTube videos which could well excite high school and college students in South Africa and beyond to look further, as cultural curricula become more and more ‘decolonized’. He’s honest, factual, and determined; indeed, one goes away with a better understanding about the deeper aspects of the diverse African musical landscape.
Kunnuji’s motivation for presenting his Conversations channel on YouTube is explained in his Intro video #1 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wt1ejHlTdqY and Intro video #2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXoMmlUHfMU.
A riveting conversation with trumpeter and lyricist, Mandisi Dyantyis, talks about music and identity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2RzV21tzXE (14 min) This is followed up with a second video with Dyantyis at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=po1xsbA0M2g (21 min 33 sec) which speaks to: “Music is for communicating. How are we going to communicate without music? It’s about language.”
Thabisa Dinga, a professional musician and dancer, shares instructions and performance about how to play the Xhosa musical bow, Umrhubhe.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q3WS-q2p0pk (12 min 15 sec).
Zinzi Nogavu narrates how she discovered her African voice and, more specifically, umonbelo, a Xhosa traditional singing style. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWaqM4kjwmc&t=28s (15 min 15 sec) Having grown up in Cape Town and studied at UCT, she admits to her lack of exposure to culture and African instruments which she has had to discover for herself.
Kunnuji’s 2019 album, Avale, attests to his expertise in how to fuse jazz improvisation with more traditional Nigerian musical styles. ‘The Jo Kunnuji Experiment’ is an impressive array of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds, including an indigenous Ogu band (Gogoke) from Badagry in Lagos on mainly percussion and vocals, and seven South Africans making up the horn section with jazz harmony.
Songs fuse Ogu beats with vocals, jazz improvisation, gospel, pop, and soul, making this album very listenable and certainly danceable in the tradition of African movements to sound. Kunnuji uses video effectively where possible. Watch his album promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWlVYsVqAHg
Kunnuji describes Avale as combining familiar modern jazz practices with polyrhythmic turns, percussive undertones, syncopated instrumentation and enchanting vocals.
The beginning track, ‘Avale’, sets the pace for the rest of the album with a melodic fusion of improvised sax and vocals backed with mixed percussion and the trusted Ogu rhythm. ‘Pentho’ presents female vocal harmonies backed by an improvised trumpet and keyboard solo complemented with traditional horn harmonies. ‘Mautin Adokun’ is a contemporary ballad lead by Kunnuji’s melodic trumpet and enhanced with soft piano and drum accompaniment. A vast contrast with the West African sounds and rhythms – a reprieve in the album so one can catch one’s breath. The piece strikes of a memorial to that which was… the late Adokun Mautin was the Secretary of the Gogoke Band.
In ‘Adura Fun Afrika’, South African vocalist, Thandeka Dladla, sings the Lord’s Prayer in both English and an African language. In the background, Kunnuji’s trumpet improvises with blues, giving this song a gospel feel. He is reflecting about the need for peace and stability in African regions torn by gender-based violence, femicide, and xenophobia. Lastly, back to some West African percussive styles, an improvised baritone sax brings syncopation in ‘Awa dagbe’. Clear fusion. It’s all about pleasant melody, vocal messaging, beats which urge movement, and honest interpretation that the traditional styles can combine with contemporary jazz and soul in profoundly moving ways. A gem of an album!
The Avale album is available on Spotify.