By Anote Ajeluorou
Although the Etuk Obong Quartet had the honour of kicking off the show with the intro and after the interlude, the night didn’t become magically enchanting until the masters of the jazz genre came on stage. Young and poised to go places, Etuk Obong Quartet is the regular jazz stuff that excites MUSON Centre faithful so much so that even when their jamming would otherwise lull newcomers to sleep, the regulars were appreciative of their performance with applause. But after the 10-minute intermission, they came on stronger, with Tombratade Roberts on drums really revving up the hall with his callisthenic virtuoso as he seemed possessed by some drumming powers even beyond his control. The performance, at last, re-energised slumbering non-jazz enthusiasts.
But then the masters and avante garde Afro-centric innovators of the jazz genre came on to create a new kind of jazz. First was MUSON’s new Artistic Director, Mr. Tunde Jegede, with his kora, an instrument made popular by Malians. In his simple white top and white trousers and a pair of sandals, he was the true court musician reminiscence of the time when the kora serenaded some of Africa’s beloved monarchs. With his fingers deftly set to work, Jegede plucked away enchantingly, sexily at the stringed instrument to produce soul-stirring music that could rouse slumbering spirits from the nether world. It was ‘Timeless warriors’ and merely the intro to a rich bouquet of radically democratised jazz offering that was yet to come.
It was perhaps Jegede’s New Horizons’ concert series. It would be Jegede’s first imprint at taking charge of MUSON artistically and the innovation it brought would be relived for a while to come in the minds of the audience.
By the time Cef (on bass guitar), Imoleayo Balogun (saxophone) and Venus Bushfires, who bore a totem for a headgear (on hang - a brass-like and compressed calabash-shaped percussion instrument), joined Jegede still on his kora, a magical night of unbridled Afro-jazz was born. It was sheer virtuoso performance, as Venus Bushfires lent her velvety voice to ‘Last Winter’s Sparrow’. Apart from the saxophone and possibly guitar, the kora and hang offered a different sound perspective, which is a revolution on the way jazz music sounds. The pity was Venus Bushfires didn’t perform a solo so the true beauty of the hang could be appreciated on its own without the accompaniment of other instruments.
And when the Balogun and Venus Bushfires left the stage for Jegede and Cef, it was a wonder from which musical planet the Cef phenomenon emerged. If there was ever an extravagant, colourful guitar-maniac, Cef right qualifies as front-runner; he could easily suppliant ‘Guitar Boy’, Sir Victor Uwaifo. He bends and strains the guitar to his will with the fluidity of a gymnast, as he coaxes the strings to breaking point crescendo and then, just as swiftly, brings then down to the least, undulating point, with his powerful voice rising and falling along with the waves of his guitar. All the while, Jegede is also plucking at his kora alongside him in a fusion of high-breed Afro-fusion and mastery that are unrivalled.
When Age Beeka joined them and wailed his way from among the audience in a negro-spiritual, and brought his own rough-and-ready but tempered voice and guitar effect to the stage, it was clear MUSON will perhaps never be the same again. The old, faithful lovers of jazz – Nigerians and a sizeable number of whites - would wonder if it was the same MUSON they’d known. They might have given a grudging applause to the performance, but they just can’t stem the tide of musical revolution that happened in a jazz radically democratised for the high-breed effect.
In all the genius of the night remained Cef, a relatively unknown quantum but a music force to beat. He navigates from the guitar to the beat-box, the choral drum or udu, the gong or ogene or agogo and other local instruments with effortless ease. Even the setting for the performers was so ancient and rustic in its ground-level elevation it lent certain quaintness to the players’ setting and the entire performance. Most times, Cef would sit cross-legged like a monk and kneel like a supplicant or just sit on the bare floor while working at a given instrument. It was such a radical departure.
From ‘We’re moving to higher ground, rising like a morning star’ to ‘You’ve got to hear the river crying’ and ‘Breaking barriers’ and ‘Always Love’, it was the finest musical experimentation shone of any encumbering orthodoxy. And one looked around and didn’t find any Nigerian hiphop ‘stars’ trending the airwaves. The concert was for them to learn a thing or two about how music is made, as much as it was for its pure enjoyment for the loyal audience that thronged the Agip Recital Hall.
Perhaps, what really got to the audience after this high-breed Afro-jazz feast were the politically-charged liberation words of Dike Chukwumerije, a spoken word artist. Chukwumerije’s poetry is street poetry laden with the failings of the Nigerian society and its inhabitants, who profit by sucking the blood of fellow beings. It’s poetry that spits at so-called modern ways that are sharply at variance with old, golden days of yore.
But he caps it all with ‘Bring Back Jos’, perhaps a city he’d lived that used to be haven of peace suddenly torn to shreds ‘when we dipped our hands in blood’, as the claims and counter-claims of indigenes and settlers or immigrants deafened the ears in staccato of guns and bullets and arrows to destroy centuries-old harmony and peace. It’s what is at the heart of Boko Haram insurgents, abductors of innocent schoolgirls. How do we bring them home and restore our bleeding humanity are the poetic concerns of Chukwumerije. He got a standing ovation for his supreme performance.
Wrapping up performance was the Art Essemble of Lagos comprising of Jegede, Cef, Beeka and the Etuk Obong quartet. In their white apparel, with Jegede on bass guitar, Cef on African instruments and Beeka, as lead voice and doing ‘How many prophets do we have to lose?’, the essemble is the future of a redefined Afro-centric jazz. And if you thought you’d attended a music concert in recent times and missed Sunday’s concert at MUSON, then you need to stay close to your calendar.
March 29 is next musical date at MUSON, when Jegede performs African Messiah. It features MUSON Choir and the Samadhi Essemble, which will be conducted by Sir Emeka Nwokedi.