Out Of The Ordinary Feel, Blessing Tangban Steps Out Bold
Listening to Nigerian music from the 80s and ‘90s would always drown you with a sort of nostalgia, a feeling of intimacy, but this time with your motherland. The melodies, from the Waka music of Queen Salawa Abeni to the Ekwe melodies of the Onyeka Onwenus, were all bathed in the culture of the people.
Tucked in folk melodies, harmonious native lyricism, as well as intricate storytelling, the music soared for decades, until it waned sadly during the Afro-pop domination of the 2010s. However, new crops of contemporary singers have emerged, reviving the beautiful genre of Afro-folk music, cooking it with all its harmonious, poetry-like lyricism and composition. And the young Afro-fusion chanteuse, Blessing Tangban, is at the forefront of this.
With her just-released EP dubbed, Out Of The Ordinary Feel, the Cross River indigene rehashes ancient and beautiful folk music, with her own twist, finessing it to become an Afro-fusion haven. Within five songs, Tangban spins a rather heartfelt narrative on love, failed relationships, extra self-extolling bops, as well as pan-African patriotic anthems.
Stewed in her native Ejagham lingua, the songs, from Sir’m, to Fibiyin, down to Africa, among others, blossom with a certain solemn and soulful appeal, radiating as a very soothing and low-tempo groovy project. On the EP, Tangban generally paints her vocal portraits over fused folklore combining Cuban percussions, Reggae drums, amongst other tropical sonic elements that colour her discography.
The singer who has viral hits, including her duet with Johnny Drille dubbed, Grow Up, puts a very refreshing and vibrant spin on culture with this EP. In Out Of The Ordinary Feel, it becomes a race to the past, to an interesting place in music, while enjoying the journey all the same.
Tangban, who is currently studying for her doctorate degree in public governance, sits with Guardian Music to discuss her drive towards the EP, her thoughts on folk music, her take off journey, as well as her hopes for the evolution of African music.
So, when did you get into music and how?
I GOT into music when I was studying in New Orleans, in 2009. I remember a guy always walking by the bus station and he was always singing and playing his guitar on the road. I think I was bored at that time. So, I asked him to teach me, but he was doing shakara. So, my dad had come to visit at that time, and I asked him to buy me a guitar.
I didn’t plan to write songs or do music; my elder brother, The Ikom Boy, was already a musician. But when I got the guitar, I started learning how to play it. A lady from a Jehovah Witness Church taught me how to play a song. I started practicing; I became obsessed. I was in the US at the time, with a family friend. And I would just disturb everyone with my practices, until I got the hang of it.
I realised the only way to remember what I was learning was to make songs with the melodies. So, out of the blue, I just made a song and it just came too easily to me. It became my first EP dubbed, Nowhere Girls. I started to discover my talent then.
So, what about professionally?
Professionally, there was a talent competition at my university and I had the worst stage fright then. Even when I think about it deeply, I start to panic. Funnily, that guy who was playing the guitar at the bus station at that time also contested in the competition. I think he won, but I was so nervous and I was shaking.
So, after the show, a guy in the audience whose name is Solanke came to me and offered to teach me how to do music properly. He had an open mic called Melodic Mondays. He had just opened then and it was the perfect opportunity. He would make me come in every Monday and give me time. There were big Jazz musicians coming at the time, and I would play with them. He would always give me a slot to keep practising. I later overcame my stage fright.
So, I took it upon myself to go to more open mic shows. So, I used to go on wanderlust, just me and my guitar; I would perform everywhere. There was even a time I stayed in a research facility in Arizona, without any cell phone, for six weeks, and we were just playing music. I met some super incredible people. There was no pressure. I was barely 18 at that time.
Did you have any primary ambition at the time?
I was studying Criminal Justice at the university; I finished university in three years. I finished with a first-class degree too. I had done my master’s before 23. It was a good time to just be alive and be creative. That is when I wrote most of the songs I even sing now.
So, you never considered music full-time then?
No, it was when I came back from Arizona. I met a girl called Lindsey on a social media app. Then, I also met an amazing person who became the love of my life. I had spent a lot of time alone before then, but with them, it was different. Music had started to become like a companion to me. I once told someone that music is like God to me; not like I worship it, but it is just divine to me. So, the time I crossed the line was around this time. That guy I was talking about – it became a sort of blossoming love friendship. And in an instant, I just wanted something more out of life.
But then, I got my heartbroken and it just loosened me up to want to express myself more. And I couldn’t talk to people. So, I made music. I made a song titled Penny Sylvania. Then, a friend of mine named James told me that I needed to make an EP. And then I put it out. I had a listening party with just the producer and my friend. This was 2014; there was no pressure. But my family was excited. Everyone was excited. When I got back to Nigeria, I started taking it very seriously.
Tell us about your creative process, what draws you to ‘Afro-folk’ music?
I started as a singer-songwriter; I learned my language only when I came back. Before I came, I was doing only folk, but when I came back, I started Afro-folk. I feel that we have little to no representation of our people and our culture. So, with my music, I’m bringing back the culture.
Before, people tried to put me in the box of Afro-folk, but I think I’m just very versatile with the music, and I am making the music how I feel. So, typically, my sounds come to me. I knew I could write music effortlessly. I don’t really have a creative process; I just need to be alone with my thoughts. When I am alone, I can hear God and myself. I am pretty intelligent and insightful. So, I need to be quiet and alone to hear myself. I don’t really think about it or plan it; I am not trying to force anything. I have not done writing camps before, because I think it is forced. Although I can flow personally, I don’t at the moment.
So, at the moment, I compose my melodies and lyrics. What I don’t do is sound engineering. So, I direct everything. I have a band that also works with me on the song. We flesh it out, practise and perform it, and then I record it. There are some songs that come instantly and I record them immediately.
So, what does music mean to you? Is it a business?
Generally, it is. However, I know where to draw the line. And the business does not affect the creative process. I also ghostwrite and produce music for a lot of other people.
What inspired the EP, Out Of The Ordinary Feel?
It just felt like the perfect name. At this point, my thought process was on a similar level. With the EP, I am basically trying to share the creativity that is out of the ordinary. This is why songs like Sir’m and Fibiyin were meant to go a certain genre, but I had to put my twist on it. You can’t really explain them.
One of the songs, Sir’m, was born out of really intense heartbreak; the kind of heartbreak song that you cannot express in English. It was a really complex situation. Fibiyin was born of something similar. I think love is the only thing that touches my heart. Everything else is just mundane. Other songs like Blessings and The Beat are a bit different. Blessings talks about my experience in the industry, and how I haven’t gotten my accolades yet. So, I had to use the word of God to inspire myself. That’s what the songs pretty much embody.
Then, the song, Africa, was initially meant to be called ‘Abuja.’ But then, someone talked me into making it about Africa. And that is how the song was born. I love all the songs, and they mean so much to me.
Were there any challenges while creating the project?
Despite my band being very mixed cultured, we were still able to flow. We rehearsed over and over, three years actually, before recording it. I picked a producer that was not proud and was able to differentiate between composition and sound engineering. He allowed me to have my creative input; a lot of producers don’t do that. The producer and I have worked before on my previous projects and both of us just grew.
So, you didn’t have any challenge in terms of language?
I am not trying to make an album in terms of replicating what already exists. I am blending the language and using my own musicianship to create something more. The sound of my music is purely me. So, it is about being a creative genius. You take something and add your own. I think I would do more concentrated cultural sounds in my later project; this is just a scratch on the surface.
I practised a lot with my mother and that was how I got better at the language. I started learning it on my own. When I make a record in our language, she tells me when I said absolutely the wrong thing.
What’s the reception like so far?
I haven’t really taken the time to get people’s feedback on the EP. But the few I have gotten are very solid. People don’t know what it means, but it is just beautiful.
So, is making cultural or folk music going to be a one-off or will you continue on this trail?
Music is not yet my sole income source. So, I am going in the direction of my heart, and that is pointing toward more of my language songs. I am not trying to impress anyone. It is great that people love my stuff; it is not an influencing factor for me.
Who among your generation of artistes would you like to work with?
Firstly, I really like Lady Donli; I would like to work with her. I also like the Cavemen a lot, mostly because our sounds are kind of stark opposites and I would like to see how they interact.
What is your vision for the music?
My vision is to build a following of music lovers that I can have quality, intentional and good music with.
Finally, tell us three things people do not really know about you…
I love to sleep. I love to try out new food recipes. I love to travel.