Over the last two decades, Femi Temowo has become one of the UKs leading jazz lights – although he describes the sound he’s aiming for as ‘only 50% jazz at most’. A guitarist first, Temowo has worked as a producer, arranger and composer, doing everything from touring with Soweto Kinch, to scoring for Amy Winehouse, all the way through to his current experiments with fusing the Yoruba spiritual music of Nigeria with a Western jazz tradition, all the while seeking some new spin on classic forms.
His latest album The Music is the Feeling, recorded with The Engines Orchestra, marks what he considers the closest he has come to delivering the sound reverberating in his head; a mix of lush orchestral strings and shuffling Nigerian rhythms, nodding to jazz, folk and afrobeat with a sound that feels both familiar and new.
This November Temowo is appearing at Nightspot Cinema’s Jazz Cinema Festival – where he performs with the Engines Orchestra following a screening of the highly regarded Fela Kuti documentary Music is the Weapon. IN advance of this London show, we caught up with the guitarist for a chat. Grabbing a few moments over the phone as he took a break from a recording session in France, we ended up in a rambling, entertaining conversation that went from the wild days of South London, to how he’s been testing the limits of Western notation…
Where are you at the moment?
I’m in Mont Blanc in France. I’m producing a record here for another artist
Do you get up to a lot of studio trickery?
Yeah, quite a lot, heh. The first step though is to get some really talented musicians into the room to get the music down, and then I delve into the trick bag of studio magic… I’m very old school, I started learning the production trade at the turning point between analogue studios and the digital revolution, so I still like to make music from an analogue stand point. Digital only comes into it to enhance. If it doesn’t enhance then I don’t see the point of it to be honest.
Talking about you coming into things – you started learning guitar fairly late in life didn’t you?
Yeah, I was about 17. Most of my peers had started 6 or 7 years before I did – it just made me think, man I’ve got a lot of catching up to!
Sticking with your early days, I just read that you used to be a regular player in the Paradise Bar in New Cross – I used to go down there quite a lot, I don’t think people who are unfamiliar with it would realise how rough around the edges the place was..
Absolutely! It was very rough around the edges. But the Paradise Bar was amazing because it allowed me to fall flat on my face every single time I went there without being judged by the people there. The audience there weren’t necessarily jazz fans, they had a love and an interest in jazz but they were also interested in other things as well. It had jazz improvisation at the heart of it but the musicians could get on with whatever they wanted. It definitely played a part in my early education.
People there were getting drunk and doing whatever – it definitely wasn’t the Jazz Café on a Sunday afternoon – do you think that informed how you approach live situations since?
I think so. From the beginning I was thrust into it. People say to me I’m quite good with live audiences but I’ve had that education from standing up and facing people, and trying to interact with an audience; trying to build the energy of a gig according to the audience rather than coming with a set plan you execute. My way has always been to tailor the set to the energy going between me, my band and the audience – and places like the Paradise Bar where some people were there to listen to you and some people were just there to get drunk and chat at the bar, trying to cater to all those people at the same time was a real education.
And now you’re bringing more of a Yoruba vibe to your sound. Have you been paying much attention to the big upsurge of Nigerian music as a whole – where you’ve got someone like Femi Kuti guesting on a track with Wizkid?
Absolutely – I keep my ear firmly pressed to the ground, both in Nigeria itself and in the diaspora. It’s hard for me to get involved too much, because in my opinion a lot of the new school stuff has kind of lost the gravitas of the older artists; the Fela Kuti’s, the Sunny Ade’s, and it’s become a lot more mainstream pop where everyone sounds the same. There aren’t that many artists in the popular scene in Nigeria where you can identify, OK, that’s that person and that’s that person. There are still artists on the Lagos underground doing interesting stuff, but that doesn’t necessarily make it out of Nigeria. There’s a singer songwriter called Temi Dollface who’s always been quite innovative in her approach. In the diaspora there’s a guitarist/singer called Adedeji who’s based in Greece, he’s doing interesting stuff. In Nigeria itself there’s a guy called Femi Leye doing stuff. There’s people around, I just don’t think they’re likely to break into the mainstream.
I feel like there’s a certain animosity between the older and younger generations of musicians in Nigeria – certainly from the older generation towards the younger
Yeah, I would say so. I think it’s partly because when the older generation were doing it there wasn’t such an injection of corporate money in the scene – most of the young musicians make their money from corporate.
True, but Fela got signed, as did a load of his contemporaries, and by the end of the 80s the major labels had completely deserted Nigeria
Well that’s true, but most of the current money comes from corporate – companies realise that the current crop of stars are very important to people, so they just put their faces on products to sell things. Fela did get his money from the labels, and maybe Sunny Ade, but only those top guys. Nowadays you don’t have to be in the realm of Don Jazzy or Tiwa Savage or Wizkid to get money from the corporates – if you’re in country and doing remotely well, you’re probably going to get noticed by one of the banks or one of the oil companies, whereas back then the older guys only got money by playing parties which is a slightly different angle. My approach to the whole scene is more about taking the folk elements of Yoruba music and bringing that to jazz or a more soulful approach to music.
Has that led you to be interested in Yoruba spiritual belief?
I have no connection with it – I didn’t grow up with a family that had a connection with it, and it’s usually something that’s ancestral. Of course I know of it, and know some basic stuff from it, but I feel like, for me, I feel like I’ve separated the music from some of the traditional religions – even though that’s probably sacrilegious! But that’s not my business, I’m in the business of trying to innovate, and if you’re caught up in thinking, oh I’m never gonna change how things have been done then you’re never going to make anything new. The new comes from thinking outside the box – paying respect to what’s there but trying to move it along.
And is this what you’re pursuing in your solo work?
Yeah I’m seeing how far I can push the envelope of keeping that Yoruba identity married to more Western sensibilities in my music. At the moment I’m feeling really pleased with the results. The last album I went really into the world of orchestral arrangements, and for me there’s more to find in that area, still mainly using a Yoruba rhythmic approach
It’s interesting bringing that sort of rhythmic approach to a full orchestra
Yeah it’s quite a challenge to get the musicians to hear the rhythms I want. It’s tricky and we’re working on it. I’m really happy that I’m working with people who are willing to experiment and keep searching with me.
Have you had any moments where it’s really clicked?
Definitely. The last gig we did we closed out the London African Music festival about 2 weeks ago – we’d played that material live a few times, but it was the first time I felt, oh wow, OK, there’s something here. This is the sound, and I can probably turn this into another 3 or 4 records – I think there’s a lot of scope here to explore. That’s become my big focus. It’s an interesting time for me, I feel like there’s a real opportunity for me to develop something that will define me as an artist
So you don’t think that’s been defined yet?
Not fully. I feel like it’s taken time for me to get the people around me who can understand what I’m trying to do sound wise. Now I feel like I’ve just entered the beginning of people saying, ohh that’s what were’ trying to do – I see – and we’re beginning to get to work.
How do you explain what you want?
I try to play things as much as possible, but obviously if I play something on the guitar it’s going to sound completely different on the violin or the cello. They can listen to it and try to get the feeling I’m playing. Ultimately it’s about how the thing feels, not just the notes that are given you. I have to write the music down for people to read, but none of the personal information is there on the page, I have to sing stuff, play them rhythms, play them stuff I’ve grown up with, say this is what I’m coming from, this is probably what I was listening to in my mother’s womb, I’m trying to get the soul of that music to marry the soul of this music. I like the challenge, I like the fact it’s not coming easily.
Do you feel like you’ve hit the limits of the Western notation scheme quite quickly?
Oh absolutely, it just can’t cover what is necessary. But I think it was always just meant to be there as a guide anyway, even in Western music I don’t think it was meant to be the be all and end all and over the centuries it’s become something that people worship a bit too much –it was always just a way to record the music – every time someone performed it they were meant to interpret it and bring a vibe to it.
It was created to be explicitly open ended?
Exactly. I think so. That’s what I do when I write music for myself or other musicians – I always try and leave a little room to interpret and bring something of their own to it – that’s where the magic lies. It needs to be open.
So finally, if you look at all the work you have done, which gives the closest definition of what you’re about as an artist?
This last album for sure. My second album I went a little but further into the jazz realm that I might have intended to. I’m not quite sure how it happened, but it happened and I accepted it. That’s that record. I made a very conscious decision with this last album not to go quite as far into a jazz realm because it’s not definitive of who I am as a musician. It’s not even up to 50%. I drew back from it a little bit and thought about what I was trying to say – and this latest album is the closest in how I feel about music and what my sound is. I want to build on that, not just with this next record, but with every gig I do. I want people to hear this sound and be ahh, I get it. That’s my vision right now.
Femi Temowo plays at The Pond, Dalston on Novemeber 19th. Tickets for that show and the rest of the London Jazz Film Festival, November 17th-20th are available from here