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We have made street music festivals popular in Nigeria, says Oti Bazunu

By Margaret Mwantok
06 November 2016   |   5:17 am
Oti Bazunu seems always animated but it is controlled animation, like a tightly wound spring that could explode with little prompting. He speaks with a slight American accent ...


Oti Bazunu seems always animated but it is controlled animation, like a tightly wound spring that could explode with little prompting. He speaks with a slight American accent from years of living in New York, where his love for jazz was cemented but he can segue easily between Queens English and the pidgin English variant spoken in his native Warri. Businessman and art aficionado, Bazunu is the convener of Lagos Jazz Series, which he has championed for the past six years. As he prepares for the 7th edition, The Guardian’s Margaret Mwantok caught up with him to find out what drives his love for Jazz and what Lagosians should expect the 7th time around.

Six years and seven editions of the Lagos Jazz Series – how has the journey been?
Yes, indeed, this is our 7th year running and we are loving every bit of it – our effort is to continually try to relax the folks of Lagos through music, alfresco style, at the park or by the pool side – just easing the soul musically.

Just like most things in life we, too, have had our ups and downs but we roll with it. This year, we have challenges but come Friday, November 25 at the Muri Okunola Park, Victoria Island, we shall come alive again with the soulful sounds of Cape Verdean world artistes – Lito Coolio, Lizenda Da Cruz as well as eclectic Nigeria newbies like Amaka Amaka and a host of others.

You have said before that this is a labour of love, passion trumping common sense. What does music mean to you?
Unlike most other ways of releasing stress, music is unique in the way it makes you feel good – it touches your very soul and makes you human again. We all have to find ways to let it all hang loose – music does that for me.

Street festivals are not popular in Nigeria but you have kept faith with Muri Okunola Park. Why go against the grain?
True, Street or Music Destivals are not popular in Nigeria – save for The Eyo and Calabar festivals. But it’s a matter of awareness. Once we started using the Muri Okunola Park in 2010, outdoor and open festivities became trendy. The park has become very busy with events – that’s great. Street and park events have a way of making us feel good with ourselves.

Jazz music is considered elitist, almost insular. Do you think it has a strong following in Nigeria?
Yes, jazz can be elitist. However, it can also be inclusive. What most folks don’t realise is that jazz is in the roots of all music including Afrobeat. Fela first dabbled around with jazz before he found a footing in Afrobeat, as we now know it. When you listen to Afrobeat well, you will hear all that jazz in it.

The festival is called Lagos Jazz Series yet you feature non-jazz artistes. What informs your choice?
Yes indeed, we are The Lagos Jazz Series – not to be confused with any other and as I said earlier, jazz is inclusive. We feature our traditional jazz artistes alike. However, we also include other musicians simply because they, too, find relevance in jazz music. For example, at the Montreaux and Montreal jazz festivals, you will find neo-soul artistes and others not classified as jazz. So, it’s a case of all music considered.

There have been heavy hitters like Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, and M.I. Who and who is on the line up this year?
Heavy hitters indeed! We have been fortunate to have had some great artistes grace our Lagos Jazz Series stage from Marcus Miller, who once played with Miles Davies to Bob James, whom they call the originator of smooth jazz; from Roy Hargrove to Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) as you mentioned. We try to engage various artistes from around the globe and fuse them on the same stage with our home-grown talents like M.I. Abaga, Seun Kuti and many more.

This year, we are bringing the Cape Verdeans – a musical set of people from a small country made up of 10 Islands just off the coast of Senegal. This country is especially known for her musical export, the biggest being the late Casaria Evora, a Grammy award winner. On Friday, November 25th at Muri Okunola Park, Victoria Island, we will hear some creole-styled reggae from these Cape Verdeans, together with some eclectic Nigerian newbies, and the next day, November 26, at Moorhouse Hotel, Ikoyi, we will again hear a different set of these Islanders – this time pelting soulful creole Portuguese music – you have to hear these guys.

We, of course, also have The Lagos Jazz Series Quintet, featuring Ope on Piano, Tosin on drums, Johnson Eyo on double bass, Clegg on trumpet and Victor on sax. It’s going to be quite a line-up of artistes on the two-day jazz festival. There would be drinks available at the park with side kiosks – Catuma is readily available… Ah! finally a great drink for the ladies!

After seven editions, has there been an artiste that rocked your stage, who went on to become a star?
Yes, we have had artists who, after performing at The Lagos Jazz Series, have their music become fuller, richer and bigger. Indeed, stars through jazz influence, I guess. I remember when Burna Boy came on our stage performing his “Like to Party” in jazz with a full set of horns and M.I., conducting and playing the piano. So, we are happy to be influencing our home-grown artistes jazz-wise, and positively so.

This year, you are going to Cape Verde? When one thinks of Cape Verde, the first thought is not music. So why Cape Verde? Cesaria Evora seems to be your favourite. What is it about her that caught you and did you ever see her perform?
Why not Cape Verde? Sometimes, the best of a people or country is not easily seen from the outside. However, when you get closer, voila! I just got back from Cape Verde and I can tell you that music is very much a part of their lives, as well as water and fishing.

I remember the story I read of Casaria Evora going to perform in Paris for the first time years ago. For those who knew her and her beautiful, soulful creole songs, she always came on stage bare-footed and there must be a bottle of whisky and cigarettes on a table for her. When she was told to wear shoes, she said simply: ‘You want me to wear shoes? Then I don’t perform – I’ll go back home.’

Anyhow, she got to perform and the entire royal hall audience was mesmerized – she went on to win a Grammy after that. I did see her perform in New York many years ago. May her soul rest in peace.

What are the major highlights for this year?
The sneak peek would be for you to be there – don’t miss this one. So, there will be two different shows this year, as usual. The street party at the Muri Okunola Park and then the Moore House event.

Why do you always host two?
We usually have a three-day festival at three separate venues. However, this year, we have had to scale it accordingly, given the situation in the country, as we know it. Aside from Catuma, we don’t see the usual sponsors. How are you able to go this alone in a recession?
We understand that there seems to be sponsor fatigue. However, we have a sponsor in Catuma – the vibrant and refreshing wine that ladies love. I have seen ladies get down at Catuma parties – hmm! Quite exciting. We will have plenty of it at the festival. We are glad to have Catuma as sponsors and we continue to thank our sponsors from over the years and Keith Richards of Promasidor, who has been of help and a big supporter!

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