Cobhams Asuquo; For the Love of Music
What is music to you? Something you listen to in passing, or something that starts in your soul and flows out of you? A lot of musicians will say that the music is in their hearts, but how many of them truly embody this? The answer is not very many, and definitely none like Cobhams Asuquo.
Cobhams Asuquo is undeniably one of Nigeria’s finest producers today, having always had a deep interest in music. Over the years, he has produced albums like Asa’s Asa, and Bez’s Super Sun both of which topped charts worldwide. This musical genius has also worked with several other Nigerian artistes to produce hit songs, and was featured on CNN’s African Voices for his contribution and impact on the African music industry. But that’s not even the greatest thing about him.
As we settled into the dressing room at MUSON Center for the interview, Cobhams is nothing but charming and funny. His personality easily wins us all over, and I can sense it’s going to be a great morning already. As he played the grand Piano in AGIP Hall, I could see how connected to the instrument he was, how happy playing it made him. Every key stroke intentional, every note resonating.
What would you say drives you to continue to produce, write and sing?
I think music in itself has a pull, and when it gets you, there’s no choice but to do its bidding. For me, it starts from there. When you’re musically inclined, and you have an ear for music, you hear things and you feel the need to express them. When you understand the technicalities of proper music expression, you want to express it. Otherwise, it just feels like you aren’t doing what you know you should. The other thing that drives me to continue to make music is the thought of seeing something move from a place of thought or an idea to a finished work; the process of it is exciting to me. I’m also driven by what I hear and what I want to hear. There are certain things I hear and find inspiring and there are certain things I here and wonder how in the world they got to the radio and airwaves generally. There are certain things I want to hear and feel like I have the skill set to create what I want to hear; to influence what I want to hear. I also think that I’m driven to create music because I see music as a tool, you can say and influence so much with the music that you create or produce. I think it’s one of the deepest forms of expression given to man; it’s the one form of expression that man and God share.
You’ve produced a lot of hit songs in the course of your career, but people don’t really read and hear of your production process, tell us about that.
My production process is interesting. Just like everything great, it starts with an idea; with me wanting to know and understand the personality of the artist, breaking down their personalities in my head. It’s a process that’s very psychological as much as it’s musical; we’re talking mannerism, expressions, vocal range, message, musicianship, and persona. We’re talking about all that the musician is, me having to understand this, and using it to create a piece that is a reflection of the person for whom we’re creating the music. It moves from that thought to conceptualizing either by myself or with the musician what melodies that I feel will evoke the right measure of emotion. It progresses from there to building the music [all of this in my head], and getting in the studio and fleshing the music while sitting behind the piano or playing the guitar and then from there we begin the process of sequencing or creating the music either with a band or with a DAW and it progresses from there to getting the artist to the studio to voice on the created music. There’s an interaction with myself and the artist on how comfortable the artist is in the space that they’re voicing, what’s important to them when they voice, creating the right environment for them to voice, getting the right emotions out of them while doing several takes, creating a compilation of the best takes, which is kind of what you do with photography, and sending to the sound engineer to ensure it is properly mixed and mastered and the final work is acceptable.
How would you describe your evolution as producer, singer and song writer?
My evolution is more outward than inward, in the sense that I’ve always been these things. I took to producing and writing because I wasn’t comfortable with my own voice and would often find vocal expression with other people’s voices. But now that I’m finding expression and learning to love my own voice, the evolution is happening so that everyone can see that I’m sort of transitioning slowly from just producing and writing music to performing music. It’s more of an evolution for people to see than it is an evolution for me, as this is who I’ve always been. In terms of my career path and what I’m known for, I’m now consciously letting myself transition from one skill that I’m known for to another that I may not necessarily have been known to do. It’s been a very interesting process. While shocking for some people, some have always known that this is what I do and some have had more faith in me than I’ve had in myself. It’s feels somewhat like starting over, which is a feeling I really like. I’m moving from behind the scenes to being on stage which I think is a better way to tell my story and control my narrative, as well as the narrative of music and musicians in this part of the world, and of Africa. Music is a very strong tool for telling our story and, as a producer, you help someone else tell their story. I’m evolving to a place where I’m now in control of the narrative, and for me it’s very exciting. It’s shocking and it’s coming out of my shell and being very intentional in becoming the person I want to be perceived as. It comes with its own measure of work but I like it.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career?
I’m scared to consider the highlights of my career. I think the minute you identify with the highlight of your career, you kind of plateau from that point on. The most important thing for me right now is to keep going. I don’t know that it’s in my place to identify what the highlight of my career is. Every day is the same for me, the only difference being that I’m getting better at what I do, and more people recognize me now when I go out.
You recently started the ‘Top 12 Countdown with Cobhams’. What’s been your favorite thing about the podcast so far?
The thing for me about doing the podcast is recognizing that I’ve been able to take the bold step to curate great music. The podcast is about curating great music, because Nigerians are constantly putting out a lot of great music that is often not heard or not given the type of audience that it deserves. The Top 12 Countdown allows me pick the songs that have reached out to me. Music is an experience; it’s got to make you feel a certain way. Sometimes, because of heavy rotation, music that is otherwise average can feel great to you, but there’s music that was intentionally created to be great. It’s like a master’s work of art; it’s like an amazing painting. And I think that that kind of music, because of the effort that’s put into creating it, is deserving of some form of recognition. I’m also excited about the feedback I get from musicians whose music make it to the countdown, and from people who ask if these songs are Nigerian because this isn’t the music we are exposed to on the radio. Watching it grow is another amazing thing as the countdown isn’t one that started with a lot of funding and watching it grow from a dream that has taken baby steps really excites me. The countdown is one I hope will grow a great deal, run for a long time and become a standard for good music and music that isn’t always mainstream but is great nonetheless.
You’re slated as the musical director for this year’s Hennessey Artistry Live RnB and Soul Show. What are your expectations?
One thing that is unique about Hennessy Rnb and Soul that I’m excited about is the bold step to feature artists that are not mainstream. It is bringing the unknown and popular artists together in a brilliant way of mixing and blending genres. I’m also really excited about the unknowns who will eventually become household names, the unknowns who will become stars and those who will get time on the Hennessy Rnb and Soul stage. My expectation is that more stars like Tuface, M.I, P-Square, Lagbaja, Asa, Bez, Ice Prince and all these people who we now regard and respect as household names will rise out of this show.
We can sense that you favor alternative genres of music more, why do you think Nigerians are not as receptive to these sounds as they are to “Jollof Music”?
I think Nigerians are not responsive to a lot of music I feature because we have the radio, and the gate keepers control what we absorb and consider to be music. A lot of the time, what gets heavy rotation is what people want to hear on the radio, and in the clubs, and they become the standard while everything else becomes alternative. For example, Waje released a song Koko Baby with Diamond Platnumz, which is a great song that can sit anywhere with songs from Flavor or anyone else. But because it was by Waje, who people consider to be an alternative artist, it made it to alternative charts as it wasn’t considered a popular or “Jollof” song. I think Nigerians respond to what we are fed by the radio, and TV, and a lot of the people who create the music which is now considered alternative either don’t have the means or don’t know how to put it in the right spaces where they could be heard. If you think about it, Adekunle Gold, Simi, and Aramide, are people who are blessed with the opportunities and means to put their music out there and are doing great things while getting into the “Jollof space” without having to compromise. I think, our gate keepers have a role to play in introducing Nigerians to variety because music isn’t just made of Jollof music which I love and make sometimes if I absolutely must. But I also think that, radio stations, TV stations and people who control the blogger-sphere have a role to play in helping Nigerians who have different taste pallets feel a sense of inclusion but also including the rest of Nigeria to this kind of music. If you think about it, we are one the biggest consumers of ballads besides Korea and a bunch of others. For a long time, we loved Celine Dion, Brian McKnight, West Life and the rest. We are still those people, and it’s just a question of what the media is feeding us as a people and how this is slowly defining us and our tastes.
Can we expect any projects from you in the nearest future?
There’s a ton of stuff happening and there are a couple of things slated for the rest of the year. I’m not sure if I can talk about them, as they are exclusive events. It’s also in the spirit of promoting variety and encouraging the perfect blend of music which isn’t just one genre. We are going to be running a series, details of which I’ll share when the time is right. I’m also excited about a couple of personal projects that will be coming out. I’m putting out singles as a build up to an album for myself. I am also invested in the albums of Bez, Omawumi and Timi Dakolo, there are also a ton of great stuff coming out and a couple of other things I’m working on.
What words do you have for people who look up to you as a role model or for inspiration?
I would say it’s important that you’re passionate about it. Don’t ever allow money be your motivation. It’s great to have money and you should work towards having loads of it, but don’t let it be what motivates you. Let your motivation be something bigger, and let it come from inside you; the desire to meet a need. If your desire is to meet a need, you not only do that but you get paid for it. I would say you need a lot of patience so you better start building it. We don’t appreciate delayed gratification in this part of the world, and that’s a challenge. If you’re going to do music and you want to stay out there for a long time, build the patience and discipline to create something that is long standing and would outlive you. I would say, as a musical person, you’re most likely to be a helpless creative and creatives are known for putting things off. Check that and make sure you do what you say you will do when you say you will do it. Creative people sometimes live in a bubble where they do things in their minds but not in reality, so ensure you balance the things you think about with how you go about doing them. It’s never enough to think about them no matter how fantastic they are. Remember that ideas are not given to you alone, and the world will celebrate the person who first takes action. Whatever you’re thinking about, get up and go because someone is probably thinking of doing same.
In parting, Cobhams shares with us important principles of life and of music. As he speaks, it’s easy to see the love he has for music is more than just a passing affair, but one that burns bright. For the creatives, he shares how important it is to understand the principles of life and live by them because they don’t take any excuses. Cobhams also shares that his faith and belief in God has played a huge part in getting him to where he is today.
I thought I had an idea of what passion was, and how necessary it was to be passionate about whatever it is you choose to do, but talking with Cobhams opened my eyes to a whole new dimension of it. It’s more about just having deep feelings for something, but relishing what your purpose is and living for that purpose.
Photography: Jerrie Rotimi
Styling: Henry Uduku
Bow Tie: The Indulgence Accessories
Location: MUSON Center, Lagos