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Review: WUNMI: Africans Living Abroad (A.L.A)


Sunday, October 28, 2007.


By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


Ibiwunmi Omotayo Olufunke Olaiya. A BBC bio offers:

She was born in London to Nigerian parents who split up soon afterwards. At the tender age of four, she was sent to Lagos, where she spent the next ten years living with cousins. They may have turned her on to Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat revolution, which would later prove a crucial influence, but she always felt out of place there"


“I was always made to feel that because I wasn’t born there that there was something about me that was not quite right. It was like ‘wow I’m really a foreigner here’”, she explains. Arriving back in England at fourteen was also a shock: “I ended up feeling exactly the same thing again. And really it was at that point my identity started shifting, like…who am I?”


Craving attention, she retreated into a world of her imagination, finding expression in clothes, and in her later teens on the dance floors of London’s clubs, (“I find my oneness when I’m performing, when I’m dancing.”) where her unique solo style eventually caught the eye of Soul II Soul’s Jazzie B.


She danced with Soul II Soul and from there literally danced her way around the world. Then produced a host of collaborations: house, afrobeat, brokenbeat: three musical spheres—North America, Africa, Europe.


Eventually Roy Ayers called her and mentored and encouraged her. Go for self, the self you are regardless of how complex the true you is, or as Wunmi states: “I had to get to love my voice, to accept my voice. That was the beginning of accepting completely me, really letting go of my past, my history, the pain of growing up in Nigeria, alone.”

* * *

I had seen clips of Wunmi performing. I had recordings on which she made guest appearances. Eventually—spring 2007—I coped her debut release,
A.L.A. At first I wondered: why so much electronics on the bottom? Why not real drums?

You know if you say
Africa, no matter how enlightened many of us African Americans may be, we'll still be looking for Tarzan to swing through - that is we will be checking for the sound of jungle drums, be expecting the cliched image of Africa.


No drums, well then, we think it can’t be Africa. Wunmi had the energy of Africa, the sun hotness but there was something else happening. I wondered about the elseness of her music.

Eventually, I came to grips with the neo-African propensity toward club music. It’s obvious. It’s dance music. Dance. (Cliché time—a truth so often stated it’s boring.) Africans love to dance.

Wunmi surely  loves to dance. This child would give a robot a heart attack trying to keep up with her. Not to mention, her style: hair and wardrobe announcing some other kind of ish. This is way pass simple stylishness. Out past freakout-ville. There are no maps for where Wunmi goes to get her shit.

Heart of
Africa. Head of Europe
. She knows who she is and takes whatever she likes from what she ain’t. That messes with purists. But like she said, she been messed with all her life for not being just one thing.


But why, why be one when you can be many? Evolution thrives on diversity. The fear of "the other" leads to barbarism and savagery. For those of us who are neo-African, fear of the other also leads to self-multilation.

Our African tongues were cut out once by civilization, do we really need to cut our colonialized tongues out our mouths too? Some would argue we should get rid of English, of French, Spanish and Portuguese. But after you have grown up with that how could you be yourself if you deny who you’ve been in the process of becoming who you are? And besides, isn’t multi-lingualism common for Africans?

Like notice hand-drum beats pushed up against a house electronic beat, that mash-up exemplifying the co-existence not just of acoustic/electronic, nor just African/European, nor even only female/male, but rather exemplifying all of that, exemplifying that we can put it all together, pull together differences that have often been mischaracterized as opposites.


But you see as Wunmi demonstrates: differences don’t have to be opposition even though the mashups might not be to everyone’s taste.

I’m saying: Wunmi’s music is no comfort to those of us confused by a desire for a purity that can never be and, more importantly, for post-colonial us, never was.


So when Wunmi says be yourself, she means be all the selves you are, rather than one romantic self to the exclusion of the reality of a composite self. Hence the house song “Free Your Mind” is an anthem, is a continuation of waving high what brother Jimi called the “freak flag.”

* * *

The enemies of self are often as close as our own inhales and exhales. We are sometimes (too often) at war with ourselves. Wunmi’s music is the soundtrack for embracing contradictions, embracing our organic chaos, for making a compost pile out of our mulatto-histories, and growing Black and strong out of the mélange of diverse roots and influences.

Which brings us to “Talk Talk Talk.” Listen to Sisterlove talk about over-talking, how everyone is talking, no one is listening. A true afrobeat on the bottom - listen to how she does the Fela-inspired low notes. There is a freedom in her sound, a use of mouth sounds as rhythm. She is so tight in the mix you could easily miss her vocal work thinking that it is an instrument, but listen closely. Wunmi definitely got a drum in her mouth.

Then comes a 2003 Bugz In The Attic mix of Fela’s “Zombie,” the famous song Fela wrote after Nigerian soldiers ransacked, raped (literally all the women) and pillaged the Shrine - Fela’s compound in
Lagos. This English-language brokenbeat and Afrobeat dance floor counter-attack against the attackers is a remix of a song featured on the Red Hot series Fela tribute.

“Crossover (Commercialism)” is a confrontation with conformity. Or as Wunmi says: "I don’t think I want to be where you are." Funny thing about this cut, it’s almost all electronic, i.e. commercial-oriented even as it denounces commercialism.

“Illegal Alien” sounds like something Zap Mama would drop except for that blues harp. The way the chorus sounds, the arc of the lead voices—of course, it’s all Wunmi singing, I’m just offering a reference to help us appreciate that Wunmi is doing a bit more than simply talk-singing. And beyond the aesthetics, the song is hard political statement framed in the personal plight of those who are dubbed illegal by the descendants of slave masters.

“Interlude” is a little gem of a mix with Wunmi meditating out loud on the isolation of being a frontliner. “It’s all about that. The process. How to cope with being alone.”

Then comes “Woman Child,” a beautiful neo-blues talking about the deep-ti-tude of “secondhand pain.” Electro washes swirling over mid-tempo percussion. “It is our turn to make a change.” Well, well.

“Good Foot Charlie” is just bend over, bust-a-move, ass-shaking music. “Get on your feet and drop some moves” is the instruction. Form a circle and take turns doing your do.

We close with the title tune: “A.L.A.” Accurate self-description: African Living Abroad. Twenty-first century Afrobeat. Check that snare-drum, Tony Allen-like neo-shuffle beat. Then those horn punctuations. Guitar vamps. And then the keys, just like Fela would do. And of course, the in your face lyrics. The self definition. Proud. To be an African living abroad. Proud to be herself. Beautiful. 


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