When Popular Names Like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith And Renee Olstead Of Blessed Memory, Who Have Made A Mark Globally In The World Of Jazz Music Are Being Dropped, Nigeria’s 43 Year-Old Highly Eclectic Vocal Power-House, Elfreda Yinka Davies Is Unarguably Her Country’s Foremost And Most Experienced Surviving Female Jazz Act. She Spoke To Adedayo Adejobi Recently
How do you label a woman who has composed a number of timeless folk songs based on the realities of the African daily life and struggles? The mixed grill of a husky voice that is clear and cool, yet slippery and swirling around you.
Likewise, imagine touching thick pile, silk velvet. The response is warm, breathy, deep, soft, so cushy and absolutely luxurious. When you hear Yinka’s voice in the art of delivering different genres, she puts in varying characters thus creating various pictorial and emotive scenarios through her voice, yet when we listen, the response is the same. You melt in the luxury of Elfreda Yinka Davies’ sound.
The tones of the singer and songwriter, is no doubt a delight to the pop, classical audiences with a taste for rich African music laced with jazz improvisations, in addition, a confusion to music critics.
Yinka’s first solo album titled “Emi n’lo” was recorded in 1999 and released in 2002. In April 2000, a group of young men and woman assembled to give birth to her band “5&6”.She then released her “Black Chiffon” CD with a hit Song “Owo” featuring Fuji Music maestro Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister. In 2006, she recorded and toured with Fatai Rolling Dollar for the legendary Tony Allen, the great drummer for Fela Kuti in Tony’s new album “Lagos No Shaking. Yinka composed, performed in downtown bars and recorded her quirky set of two-in-one album “Black Chiffon” in 2006 at Eko Reelmix studio with her 10 piece band, the 5&6 in Lagos.
In 2009, Yinka was signed up to be a judge on Nigerian Idol, the local version of the Idol series franchise. Her popular anthem, ‘Eko Ile’ began to find its way to various radio stations,other singers’ recitals at places like the Muson Recital Hall, National Theatre, Professor Vida’s Music department University of Ife Amphi -Theatre, Late Steve Rhodes band,Goethe Institute,French cultural centre and Richard Lang’s arranged tour to Rome, Tunisia and Milan.
Suddenly, Yinka broke the perceived boundaries between pop and classical African folk songs, becoming more distinct for an entire generation of emerging artists. Davies has been on the roll ever since.
Through the writers’ eye, in this context as a listener who enjoys all types of music influenced by the genre of jazz, it is very noticeable that jazz has evolved and either influenced or been influence by different sounds.
The early roots of Yinka’s jazzy side historically seem to stem from the God-sent catalyst, Sam Ukuah who’s insistence and training on her singing yeilded fruits. And singing Yinka did in 1990, discovering, creating and finding her feet in African traditional jazz, swing, and rhythm and blues. There she became eclectic, setting the stage for improvisation. “Apologies if I leave lots of history and people out, but there are lots of good people around’’ Yinka chuckles.
Speaking on the inspiration into jazz music as an approach to her vocal technique, warm and friendly Yinka slowly closed her teeth on the ripe, succulent, ruby coloured apple. The crunch of her teeth piercing the apple’s skin was deafening and the sweet juices of the apple ran down her chin , ‘‘well, let’s start with after my tutelage with Sam Ukuah. It was listening to some great voices and being thrilled and moved by them. I believe that we are each born with this amazing and versatile instrument-the voice. From the beginning, we learn to use it to express our intentions and feelings through sounds and then words and the voice becomes a powerful transmitter of emotion. So, if we can learn to apply that to the singing voice, the singing voice becomes a transmitter of emotion. We’re born with the instrument and the passion,” Yinka said.
On taking her up on her personal style at her Anthony Village home, one which expresses freedom and deep passion for the art, i could not help but notice sunlight pouring through the window, pooling on the down comforter which lies across the bed. A block of light also angles across the wall opposite the bed, highlighting the pale orange color of the room. A thick red carpet sprawls over the floor, a corner of it lit too by a sunbeam; the room’s windows admit the sun along two walls, and tiny dust motes hover in the bright streaks which glaze the room.
In her words, ‘‘the elements that define my personal singing style are technique, style training, physical presentation – movement, body language, staging and microphone technique. I am lucky to have worked with the best crop of musicians in my band, the 5&6 -ranging from my pianists, Sola Raji, Kenny, drummer- Micheal, Percussionist-Lati, Solomon and Kuti -Saxophone,Taiwo Clegg-Trumpet, Bassist-Kunle Adegunsoye and Femi Sholotan on the Acoustic guitar.’’
It became apparent that the aforementioned musicians seem to have rubbed off some musical and technical expertise on her. She speaks and thinks like an instrumentalist.
For anyone who has attended a rehearsal session with Yinka and her band at the off- Ikorodu road Jolly-Jay studio in Onipanu Lagos, south-west Nigeria. When she waltzes into the studio and begins to warm up, you may not be able to differentiate between the artiste and the back-up musicians, especially if meeting her for the first time, as there is no gap of social class nor evident paraphernalia of office, otherwise a musician or singer while the rehearsal session is in progress, strikes a wrong note, chord or progression on their instruments, then you’ll hear her jokingly caution the party involved, if she gets to recognise which instrument it is. She depicts a great sense of humility.
Yinka, no doubt has a very sharp musical ear to pick all and hear what others could not. She has a good ear. She may not be able to name some complex musical notations, but she can hear chords and intervals out of thin air when played on a piano, ability far beyond the grasp of the average Nigerian musician. No doubt she was hand-picked as judge at the Nigerian Idol.
Observing the second un-devoured though separately hand-picked apple out of a bowl of six other apples, it had two leaves still attached to the stem; it doesn’t stand straight when resting on a tabletop, on its left side a streak of yellow shines underneath the red, a small bruise hangs just below the apple’s crown on its back side. Pausing to answer my next question, enigmatic mystic and music critic, Yinka who remains a mystery to many, devoured the aforementioned apple and answered me in the following lines.
‘‘One song from my album that my fans constantly point to as an inspiration is entitled “For Example”, it’s an outburst from the “Black Chiffon” album. The song spends its verses outlining social ills, from sexism, corruption, apathy, police violence and war. Many Nigerians relate to these lines, having a government that misrepresented reality.’’
For an expressive Yinka who has over the years demonstrated on stage and in her recordings vocal skills, technical vocal control and artistic style, breath control, breath support, pitch accuracy, clarity and projection, vibrato, volume dynamics and natural resonances for tone colouring, she disclosed in a delightful voice; ‘‘I am presently focusing on bringing out the expressive artist in me, especially as it relates to creative improvisation.’’
Describing how important her personal style is to her and what her important traits are as a singer , ‘‘personal style is extremely important for the solo recording and performing artist ,as it helps to build improvisational freedom , close adherence to the musical notation. I connect with my audience. My voice has to reach out and grab the attention and the heart. So, depending on the style and the feel of the song, my goal might be to get them on their feet, dancing – or provoke tears or even anger or longing. In a word, that performance trait is ‘charisma,” she enunciates.
For the singer whose work includes a variety of starring roles on the musical stage as well as jazz club performances and recordings with a great level of skill, experience and confidence, one can always count on her voice to perform any popular jazz or secular number at the shortest possible notice. All she needs is a versatile pianist who has scored repertoires. Watching her recently perform a jazz number ‘summertime’ accompanied by her pianist at the Victoria Crown Plaza Hotel, I couldn’t but come to the conclusion that Yinka has mastered the art of perfecting pitch accuracy, holding notes and increasing her vocal range.
To Yinka, ‘‘jazz is a feeling, a groove, a bite, a joyful noise, therapy, an integrative sound and peoples listening choices.’’ Structurally reviewing and analysing the Black Chiffon album after listening severally for hours, days and weeks, Yinka deserves commendation on her success in producing interesting and attractive piece. She effortlessly clarified some difficult manoeuvres, such that any musical mind would be particularly impressed by her fascinating sequence on the vibrato and overall playful vocal dexterity.
The songs are a condensed presentation of complex and multi-dimensional societal subjects with a variety of personal styles, well thought out and clear piece of music worth many times the cost. The songs are nothing short of phenomenal!
BubblyYinka Davies,an entertainer who comes across as a jack of all trade has got her strength in her very strong voice hidden in the petite frame. Fielding the question on how she feels at 43, these words found expression, “In all of my journey, of all that I am, I owe all to Thee, oh pleasant Father, Glorious to behold, wondrous in awe, the eyes don’t lie, yes, I am well preserved. Sweet Jesus, forever, Your praises well deserved. Oh sing sweet Holy Spirit, my best You are. I am blessed, I am so grateful to God for what he made me and who He has made me to be. I do not have anything to say than to bless God for my person’’
Continuing; “. Today I shall conduct introspection and examine a lot in life. It’s an opportunity to recount my wishes, celebrate my achievements and desires, I shall have to see those projects and targets at hand which I would be able to complete in the coming years. It’s a new and exciting way to celebrate ones’ self.” the diva said.
The celebrity was on Wednesday showered with gifts,cakes and presents as phone calls, text messages, tweets, blackberry and facebook messages flowed ceaselessly.
When she spoke to journalist later the night over the phone, she had this to say: ‘‘this would go down as the most memorable birthday I have ever had.’’
Elfreda Yinka Davies, Singer,dancer, actress and a devout Christian, still single and available mother of two handsome sons has worked with notable Nigerian musicians Lagbaja, Sir Shina Peters, Mike Okri, Telemi, Vitus Eze, Fatai Rolling Dollar,Orlando Julius,Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister and many others.
Of all her many parts,the singer in her stands out.