THE SAXOPHONIST AT FREEDOM PARK

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SEUN OLOTA

As live performance finds a thriving hub for the expression of conscious and alternative music at the Freedom Park in Lagos, Wednesdays attract a peculiar gathering drawn by the antics of a skilled saxophonist and songwriter, Seun Olota. Nseobong Okon-Ekong writes

With each change of name, the band assumed a new direction in the sound of its music. Today, Oluwaseun Ayomide Olota or Seun Olota to his friends and acquaintances has woven several layers of music from different cultures that he has interfaced with into a distinct sound which he would rather not put a label on. This liberty, however, does not discourage the teeming number of enthusiasts who enjoy his regular show Wednesdays at Freedom Pak in Lagos.

The ExTasI Band which he leads was not always known by the name. In the late 1990s when he started out, it was known as Janvier Band. It transmuted to the Dotcom Band at the turn of the new millennium in 2001. With Janvier, it was strictly African Jazz. His original compositions started with Dotcom.

The last few years brought seasons of excellence for Seun. With a sizeable number of band members working with him for over 10 years, his sound reached a level of maturity that is not easy to ignore. Every music pundit agrees Seun Olota and the ExTasI Band have been able to forge a stage craft they can be proud of.
That Wednesday night at Freedom Park, at his weekly gig called the Free Spot Show, beautiful sounds floated from his saxophone.

It mixed beautifully with reverberations from instruments played by other members of the band in a sweet and soothing harmony. As the leader and singer in the band, he was often in the front, but team spirit and; perhaps, showmanship took him all over the stage. He could be with the other horns men to back an instrumentalist who had moved from his place to the front to take a solo spot. At other times, he ran back like a concerned striker in a football team, eager to halt an invasion from the opposing team, to play a percussive instrument. He was everywhere, even jumping into the crowd to encourage a familiar face or to urge greater participation from an already inspired and excited audience. The show has become a hub for the expression of conscious and alternative music.

The performance may as well be called ‘Seun Olota and Friends’ for its free flowing nature. Often packing a lot of surprises with appearance of guest artistes – the regular suspect being another ubiquitous persona at Freedom Park, Edaoto – a member of the band may also take the spotlight for sometime as Seun retreats to the back row. At the Free Spot Show, an audience member could be catapulted to the star attraction for the night, if he is courageous to take the microphone and go on stage.

On this particular night, the revelation was guitarist and songwriter, Ubong Edem Ukor who is known to the inner circle of the music industry in Nigeria as the man who produced, Zule-Zoo’s first album. He grabbed everyone’s attention with his rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s hit, ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’. Playing on the guitar and giving the song his own unique arrangement, Ubong got more than a passing notice before launching into his self-penned songs some of which eulogized his home state, Akwa Ibom.

From years of playing together, the 10 consistent members of ExTasI Band have become so closely knit; so much that even if a member should be absent, his place would be taken by another and the dexterity of his colleagues would cover the lapse. On the night of our visit, the regular drummer was not on duty, but if Seun had not disclosed this, we wouldn’t know. To the audience, it was a smooth performance.

With this set of musicians, Seun has recorded three body of works at different times. The first album ‘Home Made’ was released in 2006. His second album, ‘Home Brew’ went public in 2013. Two years after in 2015, he recorded ‘Free Spot Show-Live’. The direction of Seun’s music is the result of a combination of his exposure, pedigree and background. What has emerged as Seun’s unique sound gives credence to his parents, particularly his father, a medical doctor who used to play the piano in church, a brother, “as well as the result of rubbing minds with like minds.”

A highly opinionated individual, the saxophonist and songwriter was introduced to the benefits of reading widely, early in life. Therefore, his character has become formed from engaging with many great people, even if vicariously through their works. One of the issues he feels strongly about in show business is objectifying women. While he has a couple of women, who play different roles in his band, they are not there to excite or to create sexual fantasy. “I am not just in the music industry for the showmanship. This is very serious business. I do not subscribe to derogatory representation of women. I am an advocate of dignity of womanhood. Why should the men be fully and decently dressed, while women are left in something as little as a scarf which barely covers the sensitive zone of their bodies? That is not right! I don’t want anybody to tell me that my daughter is less intelligent than my son. When we think in that line, some men may start to start to restructure their mind.”

For Seun, music is a means to an end. His father wanted him to take after him as a medical doctor. And he was well on his way, studying the sciences until he bowed to the compelling desire to operate in the arts and culture sphere. He began his studies at the University of Lagos, gunning for a certificate in Creative Arts. He would later earn a BA in Creative Arts and a MSc in Mass Communications from the same university. An attempt to study Music for one year at the Obafemi Awolowo University at Ile Ife did not quite end well as he couldn’t pursue the course to a logical conclusion.

Nonetheless, he is thankful for what he could learn during the sojourn at Ife where he found the haven for tranquility and the academic environment he always wanted. “At Ife, I discovered everything my father always encouraged me to do – read a lot of literature Bible, about the Nigerian civil war, books on Egypt and lots more. My course of study would have been an issue with my father. He had no problem as long as the music was restricted to the church (like he did, playing piano in church). But over time, he discovered that the people who came looking for me were all respected. I was earning money and I never got into trouble. So, they left me alone. I have led a band since I was in primary school.

From home, my father exposed me to the basic theory of classical music. When I finished secondary school my brother brought me into a studio and showed me something on the piano. I continued with the classical for a brief period at the MUSON School of Music. It was quite expensive at that time, between 1994 and 1995. I became a street musician. I went to Mount Camel College in Ilorin, Kwara State because my father wanted me to go out of Lagos. It was a bit of punishment too. I have certificates in Copyright Law and Business Administration. I want to be an intellectual. I have discovered that all disciplines are related.”

He is involved in advocacy and sensitization initiatives which include surrogate schemes, campaign projects, and awareness programs for and with agencies on breast-feeding, immunization, down-syndrome, marital issues, polity, and gender related issues. Our conversation had started on a somewhat weird note, with Seun insisting that we may not all be indigenes of the places we lay claims to, all in an attempt why he would not like his music or himself to be boxed into a corner.

“I just want to play whatever that comes to my mind. I am exposed to other world cultures.
Cultures are similar. You may be in Brazil and hear sounds that transport you to Isale Eko. Do you wonder why northerners in Nigeria are in love with Indian music? We have all migrated from one place or another. I am from Kwara State. I am a student of history. Through my journey in music, I have been exposed to different world cultures. You do not have one type of music that you can call African music. There are so many ethnic nationalities in Africa. It is the tribe that describes the music, not the language. It is the environment that describes the music.” These views amalgamate his fusion flick of trado-urban music styles and sound shapes.

Even if he is not totally satisfied with the feedback, he needs people who can look him in the face and say, ‘you messed up.’ This is particularly important to him as music is the principal thing that puts food on his table. On the side, he teaches music, buys, sells and hires musical instruments. Seun was in his elements on this particular night. Earlier, he had demonstrated the unique dance that he has evolved and he’s being identified with. He said body movement is due to his understanding of the tools of drama that he was exposed to while studying Creative Arts.
He has since left the atmosphere of formal of studies to practicalise his training. “Along the line, you find your own interest and develop your own movement.”