Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A spirit of Sounds

Lekan Babalola is currently one of the busiest and most sought-after percussionists on the jazz scene. Based in Dorset, about three hours drive from London, he has performed with almost all the top names in jazz. But it is with Cassandra Wilson that he has done the greatest amount of work, notably Loverly, a recent album of standards, into which Lekan infused intriguing elements of African music.
When Lekan, who participates in almost all the jazz festivals is not playing music, he is in Dorset, managing a non-profit-making organisation called, “Ifa Yoruba Contemporary Arts Trust” whose aim is to foster and develop Yoruba contemporary arts all over the world.
The conversation began with the object of his mission to Lagos:
“I am in Lagos because it’s time to come back home. It’s time to come back home to take stock of what I am doing. I am in the middle of my career now, and this is my home. This is where I was born. I have come so that my own family can meet other families. I came with my wife.”
What implication does the visit have for your music?
In Europe where I am, I’m working with musicians who are from their own tradition and I think it is good for me to come back to my own background and cultural heritage. I’m here to work with other musicians. I have been doing this in the last two weeks.
I am producing an album of Alaba Pedro for Jazz Hole Records. I’m not doing anything new. I’m just changing the colour of the music. The structure is already there, everything is there. What I’m doing with Pedro is introducing highlife to the youth, making it more accessible to them just like jazz appeals to them through hip hop.
Why Alaba Pedro?
I was here in October 2008 and I met Alaba Pedro at a gig. The venue was Nimbus. I heard him play and said, wow, this is a combination of Kenny Burrel, Taj Mahal, B. B. King and all of them. I spoke to him briefly and we played together with Duro Ikujenyo, Tee Mac, Jimmy Solanke. Chike Nwagbogu was there, taking care of business.
It was from playing together that I realised that if Alaba was put on the same stage with Biodun Bakare, it would be great. I spoke to Kunle Tejuoso, the president of Jazz Hole Records, whom I have been wanting to produce for. He agreed.
Where exactly are you based?
I live in Dorset, which is about three hours drive to London. I run a non-profit making organisation called Ifa Yoruba Contemporary Arts Trust (IYCAT). The aim is to foster and develop Yoruba contemporary arts all over the world. I work with my wife who is a composer and clarinettist. She is also a producer of children’s music education.
Through the organisation, we raise grants from funding organisations. The children compose the songs. It’s a workshop where the children write the songs and perform them with professionals.
How would you describe yourself?
I am an artist, a percussionist, and a composer. I am also a producer. I work with other artists, namely Cassandra Wilson, Branford Marsalis, Earnest Ranglin, Roy Ayers and many other artists. I did an album with Rycooder, a guitarist for Alifakatore from Senegal. The LP, In The Heart of the Moon, which I did with him, won a Grammy.
Presently, I am working with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson-from Mississippi, USA.
Whom have you found most comfortable to work with?
I have enjoyed working with everybody, but I must say that presently, I am learning a lot, playing with Cassandra Wilson.
I am learning the culture of African American jazz, blues, the whole formation of it. It is a new dimension. Cassandra usually gives the musicians a free hand to contribute to the music. This is what led to the new album I did with her for Blue Note called Loverly.
What inspired Loverly?
The Blue Note president, Bruce Lundval wanted Cassandra to do jazz standards. Cassandra wondered how she could take jazz standards to Africa.
That was where I came in. The drummer, Herlin Riley from New Orleans and I did most of the arrangements. Cassandra liked it. Blue Note loved it. And now, the album has been nominated for Grammy 2009.
What are these standards?
The standards comprise Caravan, one of Duke Ellington’s classics. The others include Dust my Broom by Robert Johnson, Till there was you, St. James Infirmary and Black Orpheus
What would you say has recommended it for nomination?
Critics say that it is Cassandra’s best work so far. There is a serious commitment on the part of Cassandra to identify with her roots. There was a deliberate effort to Africanise it. Cassadra requested me to bring the sensibility of African music to these standards, and it worked. These were some of the qualities that must have endeared it to the Grammy award people. The album must have won because of its African overtones, something that Cassandra had not done before in all her career as a jazz singer.
How busy is your performing schedule?
I have performed at several jazz festivals including Monreal in Switzerland, Monterey in California, Montreaux in Switzerland. I am privileged to have stood on the same performing stages that the likes of Miles Davies, John Coltrane, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Sonny Rollins and others performed on. I give thanks to God for that.
Which has been your most memorable experience?
I think it was one evening when I was going to Monterey, California and I changed planes in San Franscisco. I met Herbie Hancock with whom I eventually sat face to face on the same plane. We were both going to participate in the festival. This feeling blew my mind.
However, I was in Cape Town last year. Cassandra with whom I performed was also there. Carlos Santana,Wayne Shorter, Dee Dee Bridge Water, Joe Sample, Randy Crawford, Blind Boys of Alabama, Taj Mahal, Keb Mo and all the jazz greats were there. It was a memorable experience.
I also found the Umbra Jazz festival at Perujia, Italy interesting in July 2008. There, I saw Sony Rollins, David Sandbom, New Orleans Youth Jazz Orchestra. I was also there with Cassandra Wilson.
Last December, we were in the Caribbeans at the Coyman Island Festival. Anita Baker, George Benson and others were also on the bill. What I found even more memorable was the kinds of discussions we had in the dressing rooms, off stage.
How do you mean?
You hardly talk about music when you are off stage. You talk about other things.
For example, I had a wonderful experience with pianist Joe Sample in East St. Louis at the St. Louis Jazz Festival last year when we were together off stage for about four hours. He opened the show on this festival date. We discussed English football, food and so on. He said he liked the way Nigerians carry themselves in Huston Texas, the way they do business. They are always successful in their various endeavours.
He spoke highly of their industry and integrity.
What do you think of the Lagos
International Jazz Festival?
I contributed to the whole idea. In 2005, I met Shadare at the Market Square in Capetown during that year’s North Sea Jazz Festival. I heard him talking about the idea of getting involved in the festival. I introduced him to Rasheed Lambert and I told him if he could do the legwork, it would be nice to do a Lagos International Jazz Festival. I heard Shadare did his best last year to put the first edition together. I heard he brought Britain’s Curtney Pine, a great saxophonist.
The idea of the festival will foster the development of music education in Nigeria. It will attract a lot of business with people moving in and out of Lagos. The big companies should sponsor the festival because they have a lot to gain. It will attract a mammoth audience and will open up a hole new economic opportunities and advantages.
As a tourist attraction, the influx of people from all over the world will generate business for hotels, more of which will spring up. Besides, the audience will experience quality music to improve peoples’ minds.
Lagos is a mega city, which is as big as Paris, London, Rome, Belgium, Brussels and all these cities, which continue to host Jazz Festivals, Jazz Festivals are comparable to the Olympic Games, which have huge economic advantages to the host cities. The Lagos International Jazz Festival is a source of economic power. Everybody is involved- the journalists, the market woman, the taxi drivers, you name it; everybody. Lagos needs an annual music festival.
Are you participating in the next edition?
If I am invited I will come. It will be good to come and promote some of my recorded works. I love to come and perform with my band.
What about Cassandra?
It’s the same requirements that her management will ask from promoters- performance fees, hotel accommodation, good sound system, venue and other logistics. But I was told that MUSON invited her for their festival but could not come up with a Business Class ticket. She doesn’t travel without it.
What are your future plans for the industry?
My vision is to have a version of Jazz at the Lincoln Center – the type that Wynton Marsales involved with in New York, a centre with performance exhibition, Theatre space, lecture room, Administrative office, center for art in education for children, workshop, practice room and so on. It is a total package.

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