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Why the work of Beautiful Nubia is a more than an appreciation of great music but also an education on Africa and universality.


Interview by Dirk Binsau of Jazz not Jazz


Blending rhythms and melodies from the folk traditions of his Yoruba culture with contemporary influences, Beautiful Nubia (aka Olusegun Akinlolu) has created a highly original, neo-traditional African music.


Performed in both English and Yoruba, his songs are loaded with universal social and political messages, complemented by soulful vocals and dexterous performances.


Since his 1997 debut album, Seven Lives, Beautiful Nubia's music has grown in popularity and stature in his native Nigeria and beyond. He has released three other albums, Voice From Heaven (1999), Jangbalajugbu (2002) and Awilele (funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts and the City of Ottawa, 2004).


Jangbalajugbu has sold in excess of 500,000 copies in Nigeria and the West African sub-region. His fourth album, Awilele, made wave in North America - a testimony to the growing acceptance and appreciation of his music outside Africa.


Born in Ibadan, Nigeria, Beautiful Nubia picked up interest in music and literature very early.  At the age of nine, he wrote his first song and has since penned over 700 original songs.


Before taking up music as a full-time career, the artist studied veterinary medicine for six years at the University of Ibadan and worked in this field for eight years, all the while playing and recording music in his spare time.


He has shared his music with audiences in several countries, including Nigeria, Canada, Zimbabwe, South Africa, the US, and the UK. In 2004, BN was the proud recipient of an Ontario Council Of Folk Festivals Songwriter Award for his song, "The Small People's Anthem".


In 2000, he was nominated in the 'Best Artist from West Africa' category at the Kora All-Africa Music Awards in South Africa and a year later, he and his band received another nomination for 'Best African Group'.


Beautiful Nubia presently divides his time between his native Nigeria and Canada, spreading his message of love, understanding and universal kinship across continents.


jnj: What made you change your musical style from club/R&B to a modern afro beat?

Beautiful Nubia: It wasn't a sudden change but a gradual evolution. When we started recording my songs, we tried to fit them into the styles popular in the urban centres of Nigeria, such as reggae, R&B, jazz, soul, etc. I think naturally when you are an original artist, with original compositions, you will eventually come to a place of your own and with Jangbalajugbu we are at that place. This album fuses the traditional African core of my art with other influences I have been exposed to all my life.

jnj: What impressed me the most (besides the music, of course) are your lyrics. While most of modern soul/jazz/black music just misses the opportunity to address problems of the world today like globalization, modern-day slavery, taking away fundamental rights or injustice, you just seem to come up with social conscious lyrics with great ease. Please tell me more about your mission and vision behind the songs.

Beautiful Nubia: I cannot but write and sing about serious issues because of the way and place in which I grew up. I have always been a very sensitive individual, sensitive to my environment, the struggles people have to face in their pursuit of happiness, and the cancerous greed and selfishness that ravage modern society.


I've always said if I wasn't a musician and a poet, I would be a dead freedom-fighter or a politician in jail! I am always glad that I have these rare gifts which enable me to express my confusion, anger, questions, answers, truths, and humanity and as long as one person anywhere in the world is touched, inspired, or freed by my words, I feel my purpose is served.

Jnj: Where do you see your development as an artist with the release of Awilele compared to its predecessors?

Beautiful Nubia: Every new album is a platform of celebration for me. Awilele, my fourth album, represents another level in the evolution of the music of Beautiful Nubia. With the acceptance of each album, our voice gets stronger, bolder and more focused.


In the unprecedented success of Jangbalajugbu we found greater strength to remain on our chosen course and with Awilele, we hope to prove to everyone that we are here to stay, we are for real, and we actually believe in all the strong, positive messages we have been churning out over the years.

Jnj: I really appreciate that Awilele again features songs that voice an opinion and criticise current political conditions, e.g. in your song Awilele you say "This is a call to people to awake from their lethargy and speak out against bad leadership and the ills in their society". Where do you see the involvement of the individual to make a change in their society?

Beautiful Nubia: Many people do not realise the power in words, that guns and violence are not the only means to socio-political, that our words, spoken, sung, written with the purest of intentions can change the most stony-hearted leadership and bring the reformation we so badly desire. Many have been cowed into silence by threats or fear, but then what is the essence of living if you can't live free and happy? So in our songs, we try to embolden people to see that change begins with them; that they must not give in to lethargy, fear, intimidation or coercion. We must speak out against injustice and falsity wherever they occur. I know that these words are not wasted; people are listening to us and taking our songs serious.


jnj: Most of your songs are sung in Yoruba. Although you offer an English translation in the CD booklet this still requires more activities from the listener who doesn't speak Yoruba than songs recorded in English. Would it be an option to release an album sung in English only, to attract more listeners?

Nubia: My first two albums, which are out of circulation at the moment, were mainly in English so I'm not a stranger to this proposition. There are several options - we might decide to compile all the English songs in Awilele and Jangbalajugbu into one album or we could record a full album with songs in English.


The question is not whether singing in English reduces my authenticity as a Nigerian musician but rather why I have chosen to sing in Yoruba with the subsequent possibility of reducing my audience appeal. I like to be true to my songs, and they are often recorded as they came to me. Some songs come to me fully in English - "Seven Lifes" from Jangbalajugbu is a good example - I think adding any lines in Yoruba would have destroyed the beauty of that song.


On the other hand, a song like "Matters Arising" from Awilele, has no single word in English. These are just two cases of where one language is used throughout. Most of my songs are a mix of the two and the English part embedded in the Yoruba or vice versa, often gives the non-speaker a window of insight into the meaning of the song. Nigeria is a country of about 300 diverse groups with different languages yet we are reaching everyone, I think, because they can sense the soul, purpose and honesty in the music. Some people have written to us saying that some of the songs have made them cry just listening to the voice or the way the instruments work together. It just proves that, if music is from the heart, with a pure purpose, it will transcend language, political or cultural barriers.

jnj:E Ko'mo L'ede you talk about how important it is to teach children their roots. Which observations had inspired you to talk about the importance of knowing one's history and where do you see the perils if one forgets his roots?

Nubia: In my travels across Nigeria, Africa, and the world, it has disappointed me to see people so easily give up their own culture and language for what is considered the majority's. For example, many of my friends and peers in Nigeria have chosen to educate their children solely in English, speaking to them even in the home in English, rather than share with them the beauty in their own language and specific history.


The way I was brought up in the 1970s was very different. A great emphasis was placed on learning English in school but we spoke Yoruba everywhere else. The people around me, especially my grandmother, made sure that we learned the oral traditions of our people, including the songs and stories that impart the values of the culture. Local languages were also taught in public schools.


Nowadays, public schools are in disarray and everybody is struggling to send their children to private schools where all they learn is English and western culture. And, of course, the more western they are, the more everyone seems to applaud this as a mark of progress.


For me, this points to a common tragedy soon to befall Nigeria as it has already affected many societies where you find confused young adults constantly in search of identity. I see this a lot in Canada where the children of immigrants are lost because the parents chose to educate their children in the ways of the majority group rather than preserving a sense of pride in their heritage.


So these children grow up and they start asking "Who am I?" and "What is my place in this society?" Very soon the children of the middle class in countries like Nigeria are going to start asking the same questions. I wrote this song to warn people and remind them of their responsibility in passing on the culture, the history, the language, the stories, the values, etc. to the next generation.


Every culture has its negative and positive sides. Most non-Europeans/North Americans have been taught that what they have is inferior, negative, and non-progressive. What we say in this song is that we must carefully pick the things that are positive in our culture (and there are lots!), embellish them, mythologize them, make our children proud of them so that they will honour them for their lifetime and the next generation will be rewarded.


In this emerging global village, everyone must come to the table fully equipped with a knowledge of who he is, where he is from, and where he is going, without any feeling of inferiority to another person at that table.

jnj: It looks like the rest of the world has forgotten about Africa. It only appears in the news when there are civil wars, or natural disaster and if you have a look at maps showing the numbers of internet access it's almost as if Africa doesn’t even exist except for South Africa. Do you think that Africa as a continent will some day have a prosperous future?

Beautiful Nubia: Africa has gone through a lot, from the de-humanization of slavery, being denied of our own history, and to the present economic enslavement by the powers of the western world. My position has always been that Africa does not need anybody's help.


The only assistance its perennially abused peoples need is to be left alone by greedy and selfish western governments, capricious and dishonest NGOs [Non-Governmental Organization], and international organizations who come in their fancy SUVs [Sport Utility Vehicle] to lend a hand and leave with more than they came with.


I believe the salvation of Africa will come through a process of self-discovery by its own children. Until a people come to terms with their own identity, history and group goals, they cannot truly sit with others in a global assembly. Africa's salvation and renaissance will begin with a cultural revolution, a journey of rediscovery, which will liberate us from long held self-loathing and a western-fuelled sense of inferiority.



PLAY LO-FI MP3 lo-fi: dial-up
PLAY HI-FI MP3 hi-fi: broadband

1. How do you do? (Owuro L'ojo)
2. Jangbalajugbu
3. Keep 'em Moving
4. What can man do?
5. Pass de Kalabash
6. Tropical Spice
7. What a feeling!
8. The Small People's Anthem
9. Seven Lifes
10. The People Are Ready
11. Ma ba won so
12. Baba Mimo
13. What will it take?

(Click a song name to hear it in lo-fi MP3. Need help?.)


For more information visit beautifulnubia.com and cdbaby.com.


Dirk Binsau is an expert on jazz and contemporary music. He owns and blogs at Jazz not Jazz


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The Beauty of Beautiful Nubia

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