Forever Loving Jazz!

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Onyema Dike
“Yes, this is our seventh year running and we are loving every bit of it,” Oti Bazunu tells his interlocutor. Place: his well-appointed residence in Victoria Island. His pet project, Lagos Jazz Series (also called LJS), enters into its sixth year this month as the local aficionados hold their breath in anticipation. “Our effort is to continually try to relax the folks of Lagos through music, alfresco style, at the park or by the poolside – just easing the soul musically.”

Of course, holding each edition of the event hadn’t exactly been a walk in the park. This much Bazunu acknowledges before his guest. “Just like most things in life, we too have had our ups and downs but we roll with it,” he waxes. “This year, we have challenges but come Friday, November 25 at the Muri Okunola Park in Victoria Island, we shall come alive again with the soulful sounds of the Cape Verdean world artistes, Lito Coolio, Lizenda Da Cruz as well as eclectic Nigerian newbies like Amaka Amaka and a host of others.”

Call it a labour of love. Or, simply a case of passion trumping common sense … One thing is certain: this art aficionado, who speaks with a hint of American accent (a nod from his years in New York), has indelibly engraved this endeavour in the consciousness of the local jazz enthusiasts. “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.”

Talking about music seems to animate this Warri-born businessman, whose love for Jazz peaked while he was in the US. Lagosians now look forward to his street festival, which has annually kept faith at the Muri Okunola Park in Victoria Island.

“True, street festivals are not popular in Nigeria – save for the Eyo and Calabar festivals,” he acknowledges. “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.”

His visitor wonders if jazz, deemed elitist if not insular in some quarters, has a strong following in Nigeria. Bazunu acknowledges that the musical genre can be elitist but thinks it “can also be inclusive”. He explains: “What most folks don’t realise is in the roots of all music, including Afrobeat. [The late Afrobeat legend] Fela [Anikulapo-Kuti] 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.”

But then, Bazunu’s annual festival has been known to feature non-jazz artistes. Doesn’t this dilute the focus of the event? He doesn’t think so. “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 artists alike however, we also include other genre of musicians simply because they too find relevance in jazz music. For example, at the Montreux and Montreal jazz festivals, you will find neo-soul artists and others not classified as jazz. So, it’s a case of all music considered.”

“So, we have had heavy hitters like Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def and M.I,” his guest observes. “Who and who is on the line up this year?”

“Heavy hitters indeed,” rejoins Bazunu. The past editions of the event had featured greats like Marcus Miller, who once played with Miles Davies, Bob James, whom they call the originator of smooth jazz, Roy Hargrove and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def). “We try to engage various artists 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 some greats grace our Lagos Jazz Series stage from.”

This year’s edition will be headlined by Cape Verdeans. He calls them “a musical set of people from a small country made up of ten 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.”

No thanks to the current economic downturn, what has usually been a three-day festival has now been scaled down to two days in two venues. “On Friday, November 25 at the Muri Okunola Park in 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 artists on this two-day jazz festival. Tickets for the park events are nominal. There would be drinks available at the park with side kiosks – Catuma is readily available… Ah! Finally, a great drink for the ladies!”

The LJS has also become a platform through which a handful of local musical acts have burnished their musical credentials. This is usually through imbibing lots of jazz influences. “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 artists jazz-wise and positively so.”

But why would he choose Cape Verdeans to headline this year’s event? his visitor asks. “When one thinks of Cape Verde, the first thought is not music. So, why Cape Verde? Cesaria Evora seems to be your favourite. What about her that caught [your attention] 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.”

Strange enough: just one sponsor – Catuma – has indicated interest in this edition. How does Bazunu hope to cope with this, especially 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.”
-Dike writes from Lagos