When it comes to songs and musical acts, I am hardly a 21st century fan. I am a staunch fan of pre-21st century music as most of my favourite songs and musical acts made waves most in the 60s 70s 80s and even early 90s.
I often have to face questions on why my choice in music is so ‘oldschoolish’. My response has always been that I think I have been born into the wrong generation, musically speaking. Compared to now, I think the 60s, 70s and 80s was when music had ‘soul’ because people sang with more lyrical depth irrespective of the genre of music. Today, music mostly has a face in terms of the propensity for commercial appeal. Songs and singers are mostly commercial today, relying heavily on the power of technology and its kaleidoscope of sound and visual effects, to rent the air and inundate our visual senses with songs that are heavily laced with slang and not-so-deep lyrical content which dwell more and more on the lewd, the ridiculous and the raunchy, to fetch recorders monster millions (ask D’ Banj, ask 50 Cent, ask Rihana, etc). Place the timeless ‘We are the World’ side by side ‘What’s going on?’ (a song performed by a collection of some of today’s brightest musical stars in the aftermath of 9/11), or the lyrical prowess and artistic consistency of an Aretha Franklin, a Lionel Richie, Onyeka Onwenu or Tupac Shakur side by side that of most of today’s stars. You may just realize the debt of gratitude music and its stars of today owe to 21st century technology and marketing genius for much of the edge they may enjoy.
The truth, however, is that whatever we may think of the lyrical tendency and artistic prowess of a musician, as fans have become more and more star-struck to buy up tickets to his/her performance venue, and such artists sell millions of dollars/ naira worth of records then those of us who crave so-called ‘meaningful’ deep-rooted music can keep despairing for eternity.
And from a Nigerian perspective, at least, just as you were wondering just how long you would have to continue to rely on the likes of Lagbaja and Sound Sultan alone for such ‘good’ music, there comes a bespectacled bird called Asa (Bukola Elemide) chirping, or is it, crooning for you to count on her. I have seen Asa on TV a couple of times, and on each occasion, I felt sufficiently impressed with the wisdom and cool edge in her response to issues, more than I gave her credit for any musical talent I felt she had. That was until a conversation with a friend recently, prompted me to buy a copy of her self-titled debut album, which I have already played or replayed in full more than 20 times in the six days I have had my copy.
Having listened to the tracks so often within such a short time, it is perhaps an understatement to say that I have become an Asa groupie. Between her vocal technique, the message of her songs, her choice of words and the language in which she renders each song, you are left in utter indecision as to which element to pick as the most powerful tool in the making of this album which has turned out to be a collector’s item for me, and I dare say, for lovers of original conscious music also. Do you vote for her choice of imagery and symbolism (chains, jail, internet, children, blood diamonds, etc) in appraising the society, over her choice of words (fire on the mountain – a popular denotation for troubled times or emergency situations – for instance)? Do you pick her decision to render certain tracks in part or in full in her mother tongue, the Yoruba language (a language whose words can easily sound pleasantly and appropriately onomatopoeic for each situation, even to a non speaker)? Or is it her voice and vocal technique, which is so commanding that the musical instruments have to follow the lead of the vocalist rather than the voice trying to keep up with the instruments as is the case with most singers today? It is difficult to answer a straight yes or no.
One thing though, in her ‘ancient’ wisdom, and armed with a raspy voice, Asa seems to combine (elements in) the vocal technique of the likes of Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman and Eric Donaldson with the lyrical depth and consistency of an Aretha Franklin, a Christie Essien Igbokwe or Whitney Houston to such devastating effect in making an 11-track album in which each song easily stands out. The result is that, with each strum of the guitar, and as the music catches you in between deciding to do the bata or ballet dance to the chorus in So Beautiful, reggae dance to the rhythm of Fire on the Mountain, or simply listen and nod in unfettered appreciation of the wisdom and truism in No One Knows or the spiritual Iba, the music inevitably tugs at your heartstring.
And this brings you inexorably to another realization; with the lyrical depth and leaning of her songs Asa doesn’t strike you as just another young female singer just singing about heartbreaks or man/woman palaver. And just like the evergreen Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and the like, she seems set to continue to serenade us with existential tunes, dwelling philosophically on the human condition – for, having put in over three years of meticulous work before releasing her first album, it is difficult not to think that this well-grounded young woman is not just singing for the sake of singing.
And if her philosophy to music be a movement I am a willing adherent, even if it becomes “my bad habit”.