All over the world, April is observed as the Jazz Appreciation month and traditionally, it reaches its climax in Nigeria with the Lagos International Jazz Festival. Yinka Olatunbosun reports on the engaging and insightful chat with the convener of the festival, Ayoola Shadare
Do you jazz? Every time you see that rhetorical question, you should know that jazz has blown into town with a multitude of artists, spread across genres, and a touch of jazz instrument or a complete jazz band, performing live on three days, right here in the city of Lagos. Freedom Park has been the home of the Lagos International Jazz Festival for two consecutive seasons and this month, Lagos will experience that hypnotic jazzy feeling once more.
To be sure, the idea of Lagos International Jazz Festival was birthed by Ayoola Shadare. His friends call him “Shaddie Bobo”. Shadare is one person you meet and there’s a sudden feeling of déjà-vu and that’s no teenage adrenaline rush. He is absolutely outgoing, always in top spirits, intoxicated with some strange kind of inner joy, which is quite ironical for the busy life he leads. The first time we met was at the National Stadium and he earned this reporter’s respect when he activated four stages, like nature’s own turn tables, in Freedom Park for a simultaneous display of extra-ordinary talents. It was completely unprecedented and unanticipated. For years, he had been promoting artists and organising massive shows in Nigeria. But suddenly, he became an Oliver Twist, yearning for more. Then, an idea struck him.
“It came 11 years ago,” he began. “When you get to a point; you will ask yourself, ‘what is next?’ That was on my mind. I was working with an agency then where we were into tour packaging. We were taking people to South Africa for the North Sea Jazz festival. It happened that a friend of mine, Nseobong Okon-Ekong, who has been to the jazz festival, was in my office when we were preparing the package. I was there the year Femi Kuti performed. That was 2004. It was in 2005 that it came to be called the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. As we were talking, he told me that he knew the director of the festival, Rashid Lombard. He had his email. It was a very spontaneous conversation. So, he said in Yoruba, ‘Oye ka le se iru festival yi l’Eko ke.’ That is, ‘We can have this kind of festival in Lagos.’ Infact, let’s go to Cape Town.’ He gave me the man’s number and email. We were together in Cape Town that year and he was one of the journalists from Nigeria that came for the festival on the bill of South African tourism initiative.”
Lombard is the CEO, espAfrika, an events management company that stages the Cape Town International Jazz Festival annually. An architectural draughtsman, Lombard had worked as an industrial photographer for the construction company, Murray and Roberts, before becoming a photojournalist covering Africa, and, particularly, South Africa. He was in Nigeria last year for the Lagos International Jazz Festival.
Back to Shadare, it was not an easy start. He had to “scrape” the money for the airfares to South Africa. The only thing, asides the nudge from his friend, Nseobong that was propelling him, was passion.
“I had sent a mail to Rashid,” he recalled. “He was like an open door. He responded. He knew I was coming to South Africa. I got one week free accommodation. It is a story that shows that it is not man’s plan. My partner then Segun Bankole travelled with me. As I was relaxing in my hotel room, I saw Rashid on TV. I zeroed in on him: Rashid Lombard. I was excited. Two days before the actual festival, there is usually a free concert outdoor stage for people who cannot afford to pay to enter for the main show. He was upstairs somewhere. I was just sending text messages to him and he was giving one-liners. He was obviously busy and under intense pressure. People were arriving from different parts of the world for the festival. I now know how that feels as an organiser too.”
Shadare was practically stalking Rashid. He wasn’t intimidated by the magnitude of the festival, at least not from the way it looked on the fliers. But it hit him as soon as he boarded the plane that the festival has a huge tourism potential.
“When we were looking at the flier, it was just a festival. But when we arrived in Johannesburg, all the inflight entertainment pointed to the jazz festival. We knew it was massive business. Everywhere we turned; it was welcome to Cape Town, the home of the International Jazz Festival. My partner, Segun was worried. I didn’t know anything about festival production. Flagpoles, cars, buses were branded Cape Town International Jazz Festival. We got to the Green Market square.
That was where I met Lekan Babalola, the two time Grammy award winner. I had met in earlier at Terra Kulture in 2014 when he had a show. I had never seen anyone play percussion the way he plays it. Segun and I were taking pictures and speaking Yoruba freely. He stopped me and asked in Yoruba, ‘ Se Eko ni e ni?’. I would never forget that day. He didn’t ask if I was from Nigeria. He asked if I was a Lagosian.
He asked after Kunle Tejuosho and found out that I didn’t just know him but I had just put up a show at Jazzhole for Keziah Jones. He even called his real name, Femi Sanyaolu. He asked me to meet him at his hotel where he lodged. That was how my partner and I got the media pass into the main festival. That was also the year I met the Commodores and Roberta Flack. Normally, accreditations are done online but we managed to bypass that with Lekan Babalola’s influence.’’
It was hard to interrupt him especially as he was making so much sense with his narration. But then the narrative changed for Shadare the moment he stepped into the venue of the festival. You can tell he is a Femi Kuti fan with his next line.
“When I got to the venue, my head was about to scatter,” he continued. “It was one venue, five stages and on each stage an artist was playing. Then I spotted Rashid. He was just so cool. I introduced myself. He didn’t have security personnel with him. He said I should see him after the festival. But all through the festival, we would be seeing ourselves and I would wave at him. He would just shake his head perhaps thinking that ‘oh this young man won’t kill himself’. Even his partner was amazed that Rashid would come to Nigeria because of me.”
Shadare had a serious disagreement with his partner on the festival replication in Lagos. As 9ice would put it, “photocopy ko easy”, that is, “duplicating is not an easy task’’. Segun thought it was silly of him to want to take on that project with the scarce resources at hand. But Shadare, bent on grooving this event, held one at a studio in Victoria Island in 2008 with just two stages.
“After that, I was introduced to the Lagos State Tourism board because the festival was too big for me to manage. But the festival rested for a few years, not because I was discouraged. I was called to produce the Smooth Luxury Concert and other shows. But in 2014, I decided to do the International Jazz Festival. In all those years when I didn’t do the festival, I had learnt so much. Immediately, I entered Freedom Park, I knew that was my venue. I knew I could do four stages. I have been attending the Cape Town Jazz Festival and I learnt. Every time I went, I would meet with the artists themselves. Not their managers. I have met Najee, George Benson and others. Rashid would hold my hand and introduce me as his boy in Nigeria. He mentored me. That gave me good leverage.”
What particularly impressed Shadare about the Cape Town Jazz festival was the spiral effect it had on the South African economy.
“Half of the people who went for the festival were from outside South Africa. It was a festival that had about 35,000 people. That meant that at least 17,000 are obtaining visas to go to South Africa every year and they would buy flight tickets, book hotels, hire taxis, spend money and impact the economy. That is what the Cape Town jazz festival got the mandate to hit 1million rand to affect the GDP of South Africa. Even though there are years when it seemed as if the festival was having setbacks, it had become too important to let lack of funding not let it happen. The model was unique: one venue, five stages, 40 international artists. No other festival does it better in the continent. The Johannesburg International Jazz Festival has just adopted that model and they have moved from Newtown to Johannesburg Convention Centre. At the festival, if you turn to the left, you see someone from Japan. If you turn to your right, you will see someone from Britain. We can do this in Lagos. This is my own contribution to Lagos, my own legacy,’’ he said.
Shadare said that with the right resources, he can activate ten stages in one venue. Now, that sounds crazy. But with the success of three seasons of the festival, he deserves the boasting right. He had given his life to promoting music and his obsession with Jazz and everything around it is no private affair.
“You should have met me ten years ago. Everybody knew Rashid in my house. I could call the name 30 times in one day. And you know what, Yinka? He would respond to every call for the past ten years. Nobody, I mean, no big man that I know has done so. If he missed your call, he would call you back. And he would not complain. He is a god-sent. I see what I am doing as a divine mandate. When he came to Nigeria with his partner, it was like fireworks and they came on their own account to give me support. I believe that this festival will work well for Nigeria,” he enthused.
The dynamics had since changed in the Nigerian entertainment scene, inspiring and energising start-ups. With Shadare’s show, green room managers, multi-media equipment service providers, set designers, stage managers, stage hands, make-up artists, travel agents and others can smile to the bank. That’s what Shadare’s mind is set on, namely, developing a major attraction for tourists while revitalizing the economy.
“During the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, sometimes I would get to Johannesburg and all the flights to Cape Town are booked,” he recalled. “I have had to pay the cost of my flight from Lagos for a Jo’burg to Cape Town trip. I had been forced to return to Lagos when I couldn’t get a flight to Cape Town from Jo’burg. But the city of Lagos has become more sophisticated online and entertainment is getting more recognition. This festival is a package that has loads of benefits for this economy. I think people should be looking at events with a tourism bias. In 2009, I went to Cape Town with the Lagos State Ministry of Tourism officials and from there I went to Maputo for the Maputo International Jazz festival. Eric Clapton had been in Maputo.”
It’s no news that some unscrupulous persons have given Nigeria a bad name in the diaspora. Once you introduce yourself as a Nigerian, you’re either received with apprehension or outright rejection. Nigerians in diaspora contend with this daily and it is not up to them alone to give Nigeria a good image abroad. Shadare thought that this international festival will serve as the needed eye-opener to foreigners who visit Nigeria to have that firsthand experience of the people and tell others that the good in us outweighs the bad.
“When you are chatting with South Africans, once they know you are a Nigerian, the conversation goes south. They call us crooks. They have not come to Nigeria to see that we are not crooks. It is just a few of them. I thought if we create something that would make them come to Nigeria, they will know who Nigerians really are. That was what developed my relationship with the South African High Commission. Nigerians are very hospitable. They are ready to help. Nigerians are in your business, in a good way. The SA High Commissioner once said it is only in Nigeria that you’d be exercising on the street and passersby would greet you, ‘Oga welldone’. So we have a good thing we are not tapping into.’’
The plans towards the 2016 Lagos International Jazz Festival look rock-solid. Having recovered from the abysmal spate of a lingering fuel scarcity situation that began last year, Shadare has some strategic ideas for a better edition of the festival.
“The 2015 Edition was not as good as 2014,” he admitted. “This year, the festival starts on April 29 till May 1. The festival is dedicated to Benson Idonije, the veteran broadcaster and music critic who turns 80 this year. We will bring some of his favourite bands on stage. I believe we have a good event. The core of our event is predominantly Nigerian, whether indigenous or international. That makes it organic. We are still working on one or two international artists. We are looking at getting another venue in Lekki but we are still working on that. In collaboration with Inspiro Productions, the Lagos International Jazz Festival will hold in culture café, Sugar Lounge in Lekki and Ayo Bankole Centre in Surulere.’’