Jazz may not be a popular genre of music among the young people, but it has become an enduring art form that cannot be ignored, write FUNKE OSAE-BROWN
On a warm Saturday evening in May, the guitarist strums his bass guitar dexterously. His dexterity rouses a huge excitement in the ecstatic audience. Many followers of contemporary jazz rank him as Nigeria’s fastest-paced contra-bassist. He is also about the most experienced. His performance is aided by his vast knowledge of music. Watching him play that Saturday evening, it becomes evident that the widely-read contra-bassist matches, if not surpasses, some well-known jazz musicians. Watching him jam and toss the chords is a jazz lover’s delight.
Mike Aremu is one of the growing numbers of contemporary jazz musicians who through their unique sounds are bringing about a shift in Nigerians’ taste for music. Through their slow tempo ballads, walking basslines of their guitars with their fingers, using the more nimble tips of their forefingers to play fast-moving solo passages while plucking lightly for quiet tunes, they have been able to reach out to a hitherto reserve young generation of jazz enthusiasts.
Jazz may not be a popular genre of music among the young people like hip hop, R&B, among others, but the modification which it is going through is making most young people have a rethink. Beautiful Nubia, a well-known Nigerian folk music artiste, says Nigerians, especially young people regardless of their preference, have accepted jazz like other genres of music. “What you have to understand about popular or contemporary music is that people listen to different beats,” he explains. “There are those who primarily love what you call jazz. They might also have interest in some other genres like R&B, reggae or traditional African music, but they will still say jazz is their first love. If you think about the way hip-hop is popular in Nigeria, you think everybody loves hip-hop.”
However, he observes that people do not understand what jazz really is. “There is the jazz that all of us tend to define: the New Orleans kind of jazz or instrumental music. A lot of people think instrumental music is jazz but they don’t realise that there is jazz as song and song as jazz. And I always like to say something about my music: I call my music folks and roots music. It reflects the roots of all modern genres of music. Call it jazz or rock or soul or R&B, my music reflects all that because we are playing traditional African music. It reflects core African folk rhythms,” he says.
For 60-year-old Tobi Ogunmodede, a lover of jazz, the American form of jazz was developed from traditional African rhythms, hence jazz as a form of music takes its root in Africa. “There is jazz in everything and everything is in jazz,” he explains. “There are elements of jazz in Akpala music. People wonder how some artistes qualify to be called jazz artistes but some kinds of music have a lot of elements of jazz. Some Nigerian artistes are coming from the point of the origin of jazz itself.”
While tracing the origin of jazz in Nigeria, Benson Idonije, foremost music critic, says the 1980s ushered in a dynamic jazz experience with the coming into existence of Jazz 38. According to him, the first female jazz singer in Nigeria was Mud Meyer who sang in the mould of Billy Holiday and Bessie Smith from the 1950s to the 1960s with various bands in Nigeria.
“But Fran Kuboye brought in a dynamic experience with a warm voice like Ella Fitzgerald and the new generation of female singers,” he says. “With her husband Tunde Kuboye on bass guitar, Fran took jazz singing to a new level of creativity in Nigeria, later reaching its peak at this venue when the likes of Ngomalio and Fela Anikulapo-Kuti began to sit in and blow in the ‘80s. That was jazz at its best. After came Jazzville in Iwaya area of Lagos, founded and managed by Muyiwa Majekodumi. The period also had the weekly jazz et al session at the former Bread & Butter at Allen Junction in Ikeja Lagos, where The ITAN Band and later Colours led by Bisade Olugunde performed.”
In addition, he says each era is marked by its own uniqueness. For instance, the 1990s saw the emergence of Kayode Olajide and the Weavers, playing at Art Café, Ikeja and the French Cultural Centre, Ikoyi on regular basis. Olajide, according to him, provided an interesting menu for jazz devotees who loved jazz with African interpretations, playing flute, alto, tenor and soprano saxophones.
“Peter King has always been there, fusing jazz with highlife and rock;” he says, “but he was featured for almost two years monthly with his College Band at Ojez Club, Iwaya from 2002 to 2004 – on a programme called Jazz Alive. And his stint really kept jazz alive. One of the female singers who has continued to keep jazz alive in Nigeria is Yinka Davies. Even though she has not performed on a particularly regular basis, whenever she finds herself in a jazz setting, for her, it is often a challenge.”
In addition, Idonije observes that there is a new crop of young jazz musicians most of whom have travelled to South Africa in search of more challenging jazz activity and opportunities. “One of them is guitarist Ayo Odutayo. But perhaps the most promising is Ayo Solanke, a saxophonist whose technical skill has become remarkable and outstanding. With the group, Uncommon, Ayo did a lot of creative things four years ago, culminating in a concert at Eko Le Meridien,” he adds.
On the taste of young people for jazz, Abiola Olanipekun, a music critic, says young people are not totally responsive to jazz as they would hip hop and other genres, yet gospel jazz artistes like Kunle Ajayi have renewed their interest in jazz. “Jazz artistes who play popular tunes appeal more to young people because they adapt these tunes to jazz. These kinds of artistes are more popular among young people, but be that as it may, there is a shift in taste and attitude to that genre of music.”
There are pockets of guitarists and saxophonists on the scene today. Most of the guitarists are looking up to George Benson and Earl Klugh as their idols, but highly impressive are trumpeters such as Nathaniel Bassey, Taiwo Clegg and Biodun Adebiyi whose debut, Harmonious Blacksmith, is in the market.