As I was clearing out old files and articles, one caption hit my eye hard. “Exodus of Cape Town’s Jazz Giants” by Ayesha Ismail started: “Jazz greats are leaving Cape Town in droves because they can’t earn a living in the city once regarded as South Africa’s capital of jazz.” That was published in September 1998 (Sunday Times Metro) ! Yet, jazz schools of music, like the U.C.T.’s College of Music Jazz Studies, has experienced a steady influx of overseas and African talents seeking degrees and interactions with South Africa’s music legends. One such determined soul is 24-year old trumpeter, Etuk Ubong, from southern Nigerian, who already has notable experience to his name as well as incredible discipline and commitment to his art. His quartet of young South Africans is one of five bands which will compete for the ESP Young Legends award to perform at the 2017 Capetown International Jazz Festival. His album, ‘Miracle’, can be heard on https://soundcloud.com/search?q=Etuk%20Ubong.
I caught up with Etuk on 10 October 2016 before he left for Nigeria to resume his life and goals there. It seems consistency and focus is this young gun’s mantra. Oh, and ‘hard work’. He sounded mature and seasoned, having weathered the disruptions which his University (U.C.T./Capetown) politics were affecting. It’s hard to study and get ahead in a foreign academic environment when the indigenes upset academic progress which eager students from other disruptive African countries so badly seek. Etuk chose to leave those protests behind him, for now.
We chatted about his personality, and mentors like Victor Ademofe and Femi Kuti, son of famous late shrine leader Fela Ransom Kuti, and his own emerging form of music which he calls ‘Earth’ music. “It’s got attitude, spirit, and voice.” His other gurus like Clifford Brown and Wynton Marsalis have helped groom his sound as well.
CM: What makes you tick, and go for improvisation? And why jazz?
EU: Just passion and love of the sound of music. It’s about the message and how to integrate it and reflect it in my music. I studied music at an early age so I got my freedom early. I considered music is about love, bringing people together and making them smile. I love the Coltrane and jazz, but I see myself creating another sound.
CM: What’s so special about your music that comes from Etuk?
EU: Attitude, spirit, and my personality: essential factors are about love, obedience, loyalty, and being humble. Making sure things go right.
CM: It sounds like you had a good childhood.
EU: Yeah, I got this discipline from my parents and my four sisters who were all around me growing up. Also, my parents were hard working – my father was a driver who would get up at 5am to go to work. Same with my mom, a trader. I was a teenager when I took up this trumpet, thanks to my Mom who said this would be my future! She got me to play in our Church band. I didn’t take it seriously for a while, just played around. Then I started practicing from 5am before walking to school and would continue the practices after school until 10pm. My tutor, Victor Ademofe, was a God-send. He was like a Godfather and taught me a lot about life as well, so I got that food and solid orientation from him. He’s also very talented and disciplined as well. He changed me.
CM: Some musicians are activists who use their music for a cause or to get their message across. Are you an activist of sorts?
EU: Yes, I grew up to love nature, and I never liked the way my country’s economy was going or the corruption surrounding our leaders and the way they were acting. I used to say that I’m going to get to a level where I was going to fight for justice and to eradicate this corruption, and stand up for what’s right. I grew up with like-minded people and wanted to address these corruption issues growing in my country.
CM: How were you going to do that?
EU: With my music, with my power, with my soul. I read this book about Fela Ransom Kuti who said a lot in his music and life. He referred to Malcolm X whom I then studied. Fela was making sense by presenting his perspectives on politics at that time. As a teenager, I read about his legacy and structure, and what he was trying to fight for. He made sense to me.
CM: So you were doing things that other teenagers in your home weren’t doing, it sounds like?
EU: Yeah, none of my friends liked what I was doing and thought I was just lazy. After high school, they got involved with jobs, making money, buying clothes, etc. But I just kept practicing trumpet.
I don’t mind going back to those days as I prepare to return home to Nigeria. I’m so grateful that I had learned something about hard work, diligence, commitment, consistency, focus, and of course, my culture. This is what keeps me going. Back then, my parents tried to discourage me from going into music. My father actually grounded me, wouldn’t give me money, and sometimes would lock up my trumpet! [Etuk laughs] He didn’t want me to identify with some of those musicians or artists who smoke and take drugs, but he didn’t see the other side to what I wanted from the music, and I knew where I wanted to go.
I told my parents I was playing on TV and that I was going to travel on tours. They didn’t like this, but gradually could see I was playing well, even as a teenager, started to show me respect. Now, they’re my number one fans!! I wish my mom was still alive; she would have been crazy about my success now. For my second album, I’ve composed songs for her in a high life form which she loved. My Dad is supportive now, as are my sisters.
CM: Are you interested in teaching?
EU: Yeah, I’m doing this in Nigeria. I try to reach out to the youth to impact them.
CM: What influenced your album songs?
EU: ‘Miracle’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Reading in the Dark’, and ‘Thinking’. They’re all my compositions. I had studied classical music in Lagos, and played in Femi Kuti’s band. But when I put my own band together, I wanted to play my own music. So my songs came out in different places, and at different times . I just wrote the music but never gave the songs a name, until I had to record them. The song names came to me while I was in the bath! I thought of what Nigeria has gone through, its struggle for Independence and all, and that’s how I got those names….’miracle’, ‘thinking’, ‘prayer’. It was like we in Nigeria were reading in the dark, when things were obscure and uncertain , and then thinking how to develop ourselves as a nation,
CM: Are you thinking of becoming politically involved? I think I’m driving to that! I need to study history, learn more about where I’m coming from in general. So I’m trying to read as much as I can now.
Here’s a fiery artist to watch as Africa broadens its reach with interesting jazz initiatives having those special cultural flavours.