Shola Emmanuel is a jazz musician based in Abuja. He started out as a graphic artiste under the tutelage of his uncle, Bode Fowotade, before studying Fine Art at the Ibadan Polytechnic. He fell in love with the trumpet when he happened on one in his family home in Lagos, which was not far from the Afrika Shrine. He finally went on to study music in France and the United States. He currently runs a 32 piece jazz orchestra, Rhythm and Sax. He plays Jazz every first Friday of the month at Duillon, Maitama.
The artiste spoke to PREMIUM TIMES about his start in music, the profitability of being a jazz in Nigeria and whether jazz could be more mainstream in jazz.
How did you start playing jazz?
I would say it is destiny. I grew up in a gallery. My uncle happens to be one of the famous artistes in Nigeria, Bode Fowotade. I studied Fine Art at Ibadan Polytechnic. After school, I was at home trying to decide what next to do, whether to work with my uncle or open my own gallery. One day, I found a trumpet that was carelessly left behind at our house by a church member. When I started to play it, my grandma said, “For two days now, you have been disturbing the peace with this instrument. If you really want to play it, why don’t you get someone to teach you?” Prior to that, I used to visit Fela’s Shrine a lot. It was close to my family home and he was a family friend. So eventually, when I decided to go into music, it was very easy. I went to the Shrine and found the best trumpeter there to teach me how to play. Initially, I started learning the trumpet in 1999 with Muyiwa Kunnuji, also known as Emperor. I studied under him for six months before leaving for France to study the trumpet properly at the Paris Conservatory. I later went to the US, at Albany Music School where I studied music in general and I majored in the trumpet. And then I started to tour with musicians in the US before coming back home.
Why did you come back?
I came back to form a band for the late Segun Damisa, the right hand man of Femi Kuti. They started Positive Force together in 1986. After he left Femi, he decided to come to Abuja to form his band and I was recommended to him. He was more of a percussionist and he needed someone rounded in music. Those in Abuja back in 2001/2002 would remember the afrobeats band, Akegbula. That was one of the biggest afrobeats bands in Abuja. The band was on for like two years. We went to Paris to record an album and unfortunately, towards the end of recording the album, Damisa passed on. The album was stalled for like two years before it was later released with permission from his family. He was a visionary and the band leader… But I wasn’t discouraged after that. I returned to Abuja and decided to start my band.
When was this?
I formed Rhythm and Sax in 2006. We started as a quartet: I, a pianist, a drummer, and a bass guitarist. Progressively, we grew to an orchestra – a 32 piece orchestra. We also have the Rhythm and Sax sextet, however. Our performances as an ensemble are based on the occasion and the pocket of our clients. We don’t only perform jazz though; we perform other genres too.
What kind of occasion would you need a 32 piece orchestra for?
Mostly concerts and festivals. We have performed in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Calabar. As a solo performer or with the sextet, we have performed severally outside Nigeria; the Cape Town Jazz festival, Dubai Jazz festival.
Is playing jazz profitable for you?
Yes, very profitable. It pays my bills and I have never regretted being a jazz musician. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of prominent jazz fans around who are like… You know, they say jazz is for mature minds and for the rich. I would concur with that because sometimes, these (rich) folks call us up to perform for them.
Who are the prominent people you have performed for?
We have performed for several people but I’m not sure it would be proper to start mentioning them. We have had very good relationships with several embassies; foreigners who have more value for jazz – the French, American and Swiss embassies, among others. We often perform at their national days. I barely stay in a month without getting like three to four of such gigs. Not just for foreigners though; there are a lot of Nigerians that love jazz.
Has Rhythm and Sax recorded an album?
We do have an album. It was not really an album but a souvenir for people who come for our concerts. We have an annual concert at various venues, mostly at Silverbird Abuja, where people pay a token of N5, 000 or N10, 000 to attend. We did the album because people who attend our concerts were always asking for one. So we recorded one titled, Nine Lessons. The album flew further than we expected. We thought it would just be a souvenir but before I knew it, it was making waves on some radio stations abroad; probably thanks to my friends. This year though, we intend to have a proper album that would tell the world what we really area and what we do. Our style of jazz would be properly expressed through the album. We intend to stat recording in May in France and then in the US.
Why not Nigeria?
There’s no problem with recording in Nigeria but we want great standards and we feel we would get that abroad.
Do you have original material or are you going to rely on standards?
We play standards, yes, but we have our originals. I have written several songs; lyrics and instrumentation.
Who are your jazz influences?
Musically, I’ve been influenced by those who taught me. Saxophone-wise, I was influenced by Charlie Parker. George Benson is a guitarist but it was challenging trying to do what he was doing on the guitar on the sax. I’ve had to meet a lot of professionals, known names who have contributed to my artistic growth in one way or the other.
Do you see yourself going “commercial” for the fame?
My jazz is something that can be enjoyed by everyone. I have tried to blend the African rhythm with the New Orleans swing jazz. We are very rhythmic. As a matter of fact, some radio stations in Abuja and Lagos – Cool FM, Wazobia – they play my songs. You don’t get bored when you listen to my jazz so you probably may have heard it and enjoyed it not knowing who performed it.
So you feel jazz is boring?
Nigerians feel jazz is boring. My understanding of Nigerians’ impression of jazz is that it’s boring. And that’s because a lot of Nigerians don’t listen to music; they just move to music. When they can’t move to it, then it’s boring.
So which kind of jazz do you prefer to play, the “boring” (classical) one or the rhythmic jazz?
Well, it depends on the audience. I don’t mind playing everything all the time. But there are some audience, like at the Italian Embassy; they would prefer you to play the classical one because they want to listen. That’s what they enjoy. While with some other audiences, when we see that there are a lot of blacks, we just have to add a lot of rhythm or play the jazz with African beats. My style of jazz is called afro-jazz because I’ve had to super-impose afro-beats – African beats, into core traditional jazz.
Do you see jazz going more “mainstream” in Nigeria, having a category at award shows?
It would get to that stage but that would depend on the people at the helm of affairs. I’m hoping that I would get to a point where I can actually sponsor and start those things myself. A lot of people haven’t witnessed the jazz scene in Nigeria because most of the jazz performers are silent and a lot of them actually left the country. Most of the people that actually started playing jazz in Nigeria are not here anymore because they always have reasons to leave. People tell them: “This is not the place for you; go to America.” And they often get invites from there. I get invites too but I go, perform and come back. I’ve decided Nigeria is my home. You see, as long as you do what you do well, they will source for you from where you are. One does not have to compromise to get famous. In a matter of time, everyone would come to reckon with what we are doing.
Have you collaborated with mainstream Nigerian artistes?
The only Nigerian artiste that I have really worked with is Dare Art-Alade and I enjoyed working with him. It was a lovely relationship. I learned a lot of things from him in relation to being commercial. I have had reasons to work with Don Jazzy and a few other people too on records and not live performances. I do want to invite these artistes for my concerts, my yearly concerts, I have tried to bring Tuface, Omawumi, Davido and Tiwa Savage but there is a barrier that they have put before themselves. I’m an artist and because of the kind of music I do, I don’t even wait for sponsors. I just try to work, perform abroad and raise money to come and finance what I do here; promote and organise events. So if I’m going to organise events as an artiste and I’m calling my fellow artistes to come and perform at a reasonable fee and they feel – well, until I pay N2.5 million… That’s the problem. Left to me, I would love to work with every one of them. I feel we have some things to share. But until we realise we are one and we need to be considerate with ourselves, it may not happen.
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