Fearless, skillful,adventurous, urban, urbane, convivial, culturally aware, known for original evergreen compositions and colourful music. Call him the new face of the African Renaissance, combining West African highlife and jazz and you wouldn’t be wrong. From the bubbly streets of Lagos-Nigeria to sofiatown-inspired sounds of South Africa, his sharp, deep, rich fusion of Afrobeat and contemporary groove connects to his life’s journey – a story of migration from the West to the South. Femi Koya is a composer, performer, versatile saxophonist and dynamic vocalist who, through his craft express wide spectrum of emotions, depth and energy,thus putting Nigeria and Africa on the global map. He speaks with Adedayo Adejobi on his quest for African unity through music…..
For those who know, love and appreciate quality and timeless live Afrobeat and jazz music; one household name they all go to watch on the sweaty stages of Johannesburg, South Africa, is Femi Koya.
In Nigeria to tour a few states and celebrate his mother’s 73rd birthday, Femi Koya last week Sunday kicked off his tour stage by Ayoola Shadare’s Inspiro, performing an intimate concert at the Freedom Park, Marina Lagos. He was not only recognized for his music but also for his fight to bring Nigerian highlife, Afrobeat and jazz music into public consciousness.
The saxophone naturally is a beautiful and tough instrument though,but playing the Tenor Saxophone requires a greater deal of breath and dexterity because its bigger and more difficult. Femi Koya would rather feel the music he plays than read it off a page. All he needs is the rhythm and the rest is easy. The energy and dexterity.
Playing the Tenor Saxophone for Femi is as easy as riding a bicycle. He has the flow, energy and tonality and proficiency expected of a good sax player. He’s a very relaxed performer, and he doesn’t impede the rest of the band.The Musician puts out an energy that is comforting and professional at the same time. That kind of energy goes a long way in this business.
For any young man his generation who has listened to the array of Albums recorded by Music legend, the history made by this great singer, composer and Saxophonist in such a short time, is remarkable.
Watching Femi Koya and his band perform, it’s very hard to say exactly what will happen on- or, as the case was, offstage. Just one example: Last Sunday night, the Musician, song writer, composer and saxophonist walked into the audience while playing the saxophone solo in one of his popular numbers-‘Iba meaning ‘homage’ a title from his second album released in August 2015, he sustained his breath on the instrument for minutes, fading his musical notes in as though they came out of nowhere, going all the way up into the fortissimo range, and then coming back down to fading out. Koya noticeably made it a point to not remove the horn from his mouth between notes, as it would have robbed him off the chance to recuperate. Wondering how he got the strength! The legends natural way of playing has made his tone noticeably richer and larger than life.
Sitting to listen to the musician, you can’t but be drawn to the aesthetic of the well-crafted stage, effects lights and an array of Professional musicians which comprise the Brass Session- Saxophonists, trumpeters, flugelhornist, keyboardist, guitarist, Bassist, Drummer and traditional Percussionists who laid out in a clean and tidy manner, sweet and melodic Nigerian highlife feel to his music. The reporter couldn’t but mesh the sensibility of absurdity laced with intelligence- a collection of some of the most accomplished musicians in town, on the Femi Koya band.
Tracks from Technology his album , to Ori mi and more , all Koya’s music performed at the concert were arranged and wrapped in a presentation that invites you in with a sense of whimsy.
The ‘Iba’ album also calls for African unity, makes a plea for dignity of human rights, celebrates Africa’s love of life with infectious dance numbers that bring fans to their feet.
His album, ‘Village Afrobeat’, was released in April 2018 and its songs depict nature, fertility, rituals, change of seasons and traditions essential to village life. The album tells stories and tales of what happens in villages as well as fables. He revisited a few songs on his latest EP ‘Ori Mi’ and the single ‘Iba’ in 2019.
Songs such as Babalawo, Lerato, Alo and Kongo enable new generations to understand the significance of the African unity as well as providing a nostalgic look at village culture and its life lessons.
The multiplicity of voices in his songs creates a conscious musical and social dialogue between West and South African artists. It is a dialogue that promotes a culturally integrated Africa and strives for love, unity and respect for human rights among Africans regardless of their backgrounds or social station. In “Africa Unite” he sings about taxi drivers and women at marketplaces as some of the ordinary folk who also deserve a decent existence under the African sun.
Born in Lagos, Southwest Nigeria, in 1981, his musical talents were evident from early childhood when he used to dance with traditional drummers in his father’s compound. With keen interests on the piano and trumpet, he settled for the brass single-reed woodwind instrument with a conical body- a Saxophone. At a tender age, his musical influences include Fela Kuti, Bob Marley, Manu Dibango, Hugh Masekela, Baaba Maal and John Coltrane became his influences, whilst he had attuned his ears to South African musicians like Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Hugh Masekela.
Growing up, it became easy to share the stage with World Greats like Youssou N’dour and Yvonne Chaka Chaka at the CAF Awards in Lagos; and with John Legend during his first South African tour in Cape Town. He also performed alongside the king of juju music, Sunny Ade, at the Glo launch in the Republic of Benin.
Other colourful festivals have felt Femi Koya’s acrobatic music, where he performed alongside Wynton Marsalis, Oliver Mtukudzi, Habib Koite, Salif Keita and Baaba Maal. He has recorded with Simphiwe Dana, Pops Mohamed, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and worked with Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo and Wizkid, among many others.
A few years ago, his musical pendulum swung full circle when Chaka Chaka invited her to contribute saxophones on her latest album, Amazing Man. The recognition from the Princess of Africa is a far cry from his humble beginnings when he first landed in South Africa ten years ago with nothing but hope and a determination to make it against all odds. He had been invited by a South African-based Nigerian church to work with a choir as its coordinator with promises of a regular salary and accommodation.
But within a week of his arrival in the Promised Land, his hopes were dashed when the church authorities told him that they were experiencing financial difficulties and could not contribute to his upkeep. For some time he was stranded on the streets of Yeoville. “It was tough, but I persevered. Every day I would walk around carrying my saxophone and approaching anyone with musical instruments,” he recalls. His fortunes eventually changed for the better when someone directed him to Newtown – a space that enabled him to pay homage to his adopted land in true Yoruba tradition.
With a life story of migration from the West to the South –one thing resonates in his music, a conscious dialogue between West African and South African sounds. This musical fusion demonstrates the path to a new and culturally integrated Africa in which a common heritage is reinforced to meet the needs of today’s world. His quest is for African unity at a time when he believes Africa should claim its rightful and proud place in the world.
When quizzed on oh fulfilled he is doing music, these were his words, ‘‘I am very happy that God uses me as a vehicle, hopefully to express the spirit of unity through music, oneness through music, peace through music, love through music, and the perpetuation and preservation of life through music’’