Carol’s Musings

Carol Martin is AJR’s effervescent travelling reporter, blogger, reviewer in chief, music critic, and writer.

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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INTERVIEW – Marcus Wyatt at Joy of Jazz – Saturday, 27 September 2014.

Carol Martin chats with Marcus Wyatt

Carol Martin chats with Marcus Wyatt

I caught up with 43 year old trumpeter Marcus Wyatt during the Joy of Jazz Festival in Sandton a few weeks ago – he seems to be everywhere in Jozi! First, at The Orbit jazz club in CBD the Thursday night before Joy of Jazz started, with bassist Benjamin Jephta and pianist Kyle Shepherd. Then, somewhat hidden at US crooner, Gregory Porter’s concert with a huge orchestra.

Regarding his newest ‘Language 12’ album entitled “Maji Maji: in the Land of Milk and Honey”, he explains the title: “Maji is like muti. It’s an album about protection, as ‘maji’ in Kiswahili means water, and water sustains life. Water keeps us sane.”

Marcus Wyatt in full cry

Marcus Wyatt in full cry

We talked:
CM: How different is this album from your previous one?
MW: It’s the same language 12 which is music, but it can go anywhere, just like the creativity of music, without genre, without specific definition. This ‘Maji’ album is probably the most accurate representation of who I am in my growth as a musician. I grew up playing everything and not just straight ahead jazz – drum and base, orchestral, west African. What makes me most proud about this project is that you recognize all these elements but there’s not a preconceived feel, and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

CM: Siya – your vocalist is quite beloved to you?
MW: We’ve been together for many years . There’s only one solo song of hers on the album; the rest of her vocals are with all of us. Her songs “take you places” thanks to the collective. This album is really hers. She’s done all of the lyrics.

CM: I love how her voice emotes. She has a range which sounds ‘African’. You have mixed your own cultural identity, and through her, your music has the flavor of many different styles and themes.
MW: I grew up as an English speaking white South African, this being the least cultured of all the groups in South Africa. We are probably the strongest ethnic group seeking a cultural identity, because we have the biggest reason to find this. On the positive side of all this, it allows me to choose and take from the different cultural groups, cultures that I am engaged with. I’m not locked into a ‘culture’ and therefore I’m free to explore.

CM: I see you haven’t used the accordion yet, in the South African Afrikaans sense. What about Melissa (van der Spey) for that ethnic dimension?
MW: I would definitely like to use her in the future, particularly her voice, with me playing vuvuzela and her singing, and in a mascanda style. The Vuvu has a place in South African history, like the kudu horn!

CM: I don’t think many people understand that or have thought of it in that way, so you can pioneer that attitude. You’re in a position to evoke ethnic sounds without having to be part of that community! Nice! So, who have been your greatest influences – in the music world?
MW: Who is the person I would default to? Well, my dad was chairman of the folk club in PE growing up so I listened to Tony Cox, Steve Neumann, David Cramer and those guys. At the house I listened to a lot of blues and folk. I played in the Navy band so several musicians helped me on the path. Other band members, like Buddy wells and Dave Ledbetter, whom I think is one of our most underrated musicians, helped a lot. In JBG, saxman Sidney Mnisi influenced me with his energy and do-or-die attitude. Others like Herbie (Tsoaeli, acoustic bass) and Carlo (Mombelli, bass) have been a big influence for many years. Ach….so many influences.

CM: But…..Siya?
MW: Yes, she is THE person. I can write pages on her. She is such an inspiration in what she brings. Language 12 is SHE. International artists? Mono DiBongo on Robben Island; musos in Europe/France, like those guys in Paris – Braka and Nicola and Daniel (tuba player). A gig with them at the Grahamstown Festival was great; the vibe of audience was one of surprise.

CM: What are your next projects?
MW: I’ve always wanted to promote the non-commercialized jazz exiles, like Chris McGregor and those of his time, who were pushing our jazz heritage, at least in Europe. The Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra, meant to be less Euro-centric with its spelling, buckled me down to write for this 13 piece orchestra. There is nothing recorded for release yet, but there are a few recordings in Europe. I’ve tried to sell the project of the Blue Notes Tribute to festivals here, but no luck.

CM: Isn’t there a ‘heritage jazz festival’ being bandied about among musicians and promoters here? What about interests by the SA Concert series?
MW: I don’t know, but I would love to travel the heritage band around to schools and their communities. The “Jozi Unsigned” company is interested in this. Even Language 12 has performed out of the country more than within RSA – mainly in India and Europe. Heritage jazz music needs to get out there to the public– such as at the upcoming Fringe Fest in Cape town, and at the Crypt.

I was left thinking how South Africa might provide that ‘land of milk and honey’ and that ‘Maji’ for the rich jazz heritage is still has, among the living, both older and younger. It’s about protecting history and artistry, and nourishing it for future generations.

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