This feature originally appeared in Songlines #112 (November 2015) p78. Download a pdf here.
Alexandra Petropoulos speaks to Jamiroquai’s percussionist about his Yoruba roots and his respect for musicians who are rooted in their tradition but are always looking forward in their expression of it (Photo: Maruska Mason)
Sola Akingbola’s musical history is one full of serendipitous moments, those happy accidents in life that open new doors of opportunity, all of which eventually led him to become the percussionist with popular acid jazz and funk band Jamiroquai. “Sometimes in life,” he muses, “doors just open.”
He was born to Yoruba parents just outside of Lagos, Nigeria, though his family moved to London when he was two years old. At home, his parents would listen to traditional Yoruba music, but never spoke the language to him. As he couldn’t understand the lyrics, he found himself drawn to the intricate drumming. However, he didn’t actually start playing music until he was 27 years old, when he experienced the first of one of those happy accidents.
A young Akingbola met Nigerian percussionist Gasper Lawal after a show at the Commonwealth Institute in London. “His band was amazing – three percussionists, bass guitar, two backing vocalists and two dancers. I had never seen anything like it, and it really inspired me.” When he met Gasper next, Akingbola was going through a rough patch. “My girlfriend had left me. I was really low.” To help try to cheer up the young man, Lawal invited him to rehearsals with his band. “I’ll never forget it. It helped me lift my mood. He gave me some light again.”
Lawal asked him to sing backing vocals in Yoruba, which he picked up quickly. And as the band was proving so therapeutic, Akingbola found himself throwing himself into the experience. “I’d get to rehearsals really early and just mess around on a conga or grab some shekere or a cowbell.” Lawal appreciated his enthusiasm and helped school him in Yoruba percussion. “I was fortunate to meet Gasper,” Akingbola confides, choosing a track from Lawal’s 1980 album Ajomasé for his playlist.
Akingbola went on to perform with Lawal and his Oro Band for four or five years until he joined the band of acid jazz pioneer Ronny Jordan. “It was a big step up because all the other guys in the band were seasoned session players, who played with Duran Duran and Fine Young Cannibals. I was young and inexperienced, so it was a baptism of fire for me. But it really forged me as a musician.”
It was while performing with Jordan that Akingbola serendipitously met his next playlist choice, Congolese singer-songwriter Lokua Kanza. Ronny Jordan was supporting Manu Dibango in London, and Kanza was playing with Dibango. “He noticed me backstage. I had found an instrument flight case and was just warming up my hands on it. Before we came on stage he said, ‘I really like your playing.’ I said, ‘what do you mean, you’ve not heard me play.’ He said, ‘no, I love your attitude. I’d love you to come to Paris and come record with me.’” And sure enough, about a month later Akingbola was flying out to Paris to record percussion for Kanza’s first self-titled album.
“I’d never been put in such a position before, so I was incredibly nervous. He left me in the studio with the engineer all day. He said, ‘I just want you to play what you feel.’ It was a sign of his confidence and belief in me. Lokua arrived at a key point for me because I felt overawed by the other musicians [in Jordan’s band]. So meeting Lokua and him saying to me, ‘play what you feel and I’ll see you later,’ was a huge vote of confidence. So I gave my heart to that project.”
This confidence boost came in handy when several years later Akingbola was asked to audition for Jamiroquai in yet another fortuitous encounter. Jamiroquai’s drummer, Derrick McKenzie, was given three percussionists’ names to call for an audition. “He said he chose my name because it was such an unusual one and he liked the sound of it. And the rest is history.” Akingbola was asked to play with the band on a live TV show in Paris. “The manager forgot to send me the music so I’m live on television and I’m just winging it. On the basis of that, I got the gig.” That’s one hell of a way to do an audition.
Akingbola makes it clear that he has never forgotten his roots along his journey. On one of his last trips to Nigeria, he spent four weeks with his friend and fellow percussionist Lekan Babalola filming babalawos (‘fathers of the secret’ – a form of Yoruba priest). “The Yorubas used to use a form of divination to help them with their day-to-day problems and these guys used to divine. They do it by casting inkiness [kola nuts].” Depending on how the nuts fall, the shapes are associated with particular poems, stories and songs. “Then the babalawo will recite what he can read from the signs and that’s how people would diagnose their problems.” These sung recitations so inspired Akingbola that he went on to record his first solo album, Routes to Roots, where he chose 12 babalawo poems and reimagined them. Following on from this, Akingbola started his own band, Critical Mass. Mixing all his influences – from acid jazz to the songs of the babalawos – it’s very much a London band with a West African tinge.
Coming back to his playlist choices, Akingbola reveals how much he’s been inspired by countless West African artists. “Please don’t give me what I call bubblegum Africa. Give me the artists who are deeply rooted in their tradition but are looking outwards in the way they express it. Oumou Sangaré is one of those people.” When he first heard her album Oumou, “I understood it immediately. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It was the expression of Africa that I love. It’s classic but not in an elitist way.”
“This music is not just about entertainment. And as far as I know, in parts of West Africa, but definitely in Yorubaland, musicians were the guys who were able to express difficult positions to the people in power and in elite positions. They were the ones that were given licence to say what they think.” This is certainly the case with his next playlist choice, Fela Kuti. “Fela was a political man. He’s from a family rooted with strong political ideas.”
While he admires Fela’s commitment to politics, it’s his next playlist choice that he holds above all others. “Fela was a fantastic musician, but his music was a vehicle for his politics. Manu Dibango was doing a similar thing to Fela but not so political. But musically he is of a higher calibre. Manu Dibango, alto saxophone… he’s my favourite.”