Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Olatuja Project: Soul mates

Olatuja Project
Olatuja Project Olatuja Project Alicia Olatuja (Olatuja Project) Michael Olatuja (Olatuja Project)

As their first full album collaboration, ‘The Promise’ - the new LP from New York-based husband-and-wife duo Olatuja Project - finds bassist/composer Michael Olatuja and singer/composer Alicia Olatuja (alongside their virtuoso band) fulfilling their collective vision to create music that fuses such traditional elements of African music as the Yoruba tongue, the talking drum and call-and-response vocals with the more familiar Western languages of contemporary jazz, neo-soul, traditional gospel, R&B, and an underlying funky groove.

Indeed, fulfilling the promise suggested by Michael’s critically-acclaimed, 2009 solo debut LP ‘Speak’, the inspirational feel of ‘The Promise’ takes in moods ranging from the seductive celebration of its percussion-driven title-track single and the warmly tender, jazzier ‘Sumo Mi (Draw Nearer)’; to the richly-arranged, inspiring ‘Soki (A Little While)’ and the hypnotic, Brazilian-bossa-nova-flavoured ‘Boju Woke (Lift Up Your Eyes)’.

All of which - with its unique blend of Nigerian rhythmic complexity with the harmonies and production quality of contemporary American music - bears fitting testament to the couple’s interesting, culturally-diverse backgrounds. With Michael (whose personal journey took him from Lagos, Nigeria to London before settling in New York) having established himself as a go-to bassist for the likes of Terence Blanchard, Phil Collins, Shakira and Stevie Wonder; and St. Louis, USA-raised Alicia having served as a soloist in The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir (as well as working with Chaka Khan and BeBe Winans) before the twosome first met while both studying at The Manhattan School Of Music (when Alicia called Michael to play bass on one of her sessions!).

… Which in turn makes for highly interesting conversation. As an affable and articulate Mr. & Mrs. Olatuja - who’ve now been married for three years - hook up with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to discuss such pressing matters as their aforementioned, self-produced new album plus their ideas on releasing their music independently.

The significance behind titling their new album ‘The Promise’

MICHAEL: “Well, most of our music is basically about hope and inspiration and encouragement. You know, from the ‘Speak’ album on, that does seem to be a theme that’s been running through what we’ve been doing - and we’re happy to KEEP it that way, particularly when there’s so much negative music out there. And so the reason why the word ‘promise’ was so important to us for this project was because it tends to speak to the future, and towards something people can look FORWARD to… You know, basically it speaks to hope concerning the future, and to better and greater THINGS. Which was why we decided to title the album ‘The Promise’.”

How ‘The Promise’ fulfils the Olatujas’ collective vision of creating a fusion of culturally-different musical styles

ALICIA: “Well, I’ve always tried to experience music without boxing it into different categories. You know, I’ve always felt that listening to music and placing the importance of what GENRE it is over what the MESSAGE is, to be a big MISTAKE. Which is why I’ve always loved a VARIETY of music. Because, like Michael says, music can have an inspirational element that can cause people to experience things that they wouldn’t experience from just words ALONE. Which was why one of the primary goals we had with this album was just to express our lives and who we are THROUGH the music. And with neither Michael nor me coming from one particular musical background, the record itself obviously ended up pulling together all those different elements and musical experiences we’ve both picked up along the way, and then fusing them together.”

The uplifting, life-changing aspects of the lyrics on ‘The Promise’

ALICIA: “Well, one of the main themes that I feel runs through the entire album is that of reconciliation and moving forward. You know, I feel a lot of our lives are in limbo - and even put on hold - because of issues and situations that we’ve not been able to put to rest. And, though I do understand reconciliation is a huge concept to grasp onto and place into action, at the same time I also believe that music is one of those wonderful vehicles where you CAN take a huge topic, place it into a melody, and make it emotionally and mentally tangible very quickly. Which is why a lot of the songs on ‘The Promise’ are about starting over, a new day, forgiveness - and of letting go of the past and moving FORWARD. Because I do strongly believe that by doing so, one can find healing in the soul.”

Alicia’s ideas (as an English-speaking American) on the Olatujas’ lyrics being a mix of both the English and Yoruba languages, and the reaction to it from the public

ALICIA: “Well, with Yoruba not being my mother tongue, to me that whole experience has been very interesting. Because working in the classical world, as I have done, you have to learn to speak French, Italian and German - so you can sing in all those languages convincingly, and express whatever the particular piece you’re singing is about in an accurate fashion. And so for me working with Michael and learning to sing in the Yoruba language felt no different from THAT. So it wasn’t something that I approached with any trepidation. Which, funnily enough, is exactly the way a lot of the AUDIENCE have reacted to it! You know, they’ve basically just received the music for what it IS! And the fact that the audiences we’ve performed to - both here in New York and in Paris - have all, whether they understand Yoruba or not, reacted in exactly the same way, to me makes it very interesting to WATCH! Because it does make you realise how music truly can transcend language.”

New York-based, British/Nigerian Michael’s perspective of the album’s blend of the two languages

MICHAEL: “I’ve found that people actually LOVE it - especially here in New York City! Because it’s definitely not something you hear every day, and I do feel that today people are very much looking for something that’s new, that’s fresh, that’s quality, and that’s ORIGINAL. And what I especially love about it is the combination of the lyrics being partly-in-Yoruba and partly-in-English with Alicia’s VOICE - which has a certain purity and clarity to it that you usually just get in soul and R&B music. And I do actually think that it’s that unique combination that has proven to be a very powerful attraction to the AUDIENCES - whether in The States, in France, or in the UK. Because while they can relate totally to the tone and the style and the way Alicia sings, the fact it’s sometimes being sung in a language they don’t understand I think adds a certain MYSTIQUE to it all! Which I feel has been a major factor in people RECEIVING it all so well.”

Having released ‘The Promise’ independently, the Olatujas’ view on today’s indies-versus-majors debate

ALICIA: “I’d say that going down the independent road gives you a lot more FREEDOM, which in turn gives you more room to cook up the MELODIES. You know, because I love to bake as a side-hobby, I always like to think of making music as like BAKING! And something I’ve always enjoyed about baking is being able to do it without a bunch of people in the kitchen adding their ‘put-a-little-of-this-in-here’ or ‘put-a-little-of-that-in-there’ - just as I like the way an independent label gives you freedom to do your thing MUSICALLY. Whereas with a major there DOES tend to be a lot of people telling you to add this or add that. Which ultimately means you don’t really have that freedom to determine what the finished product is going to BE… So yeah, to me that’s definitely the big appeal of an independent label... But then, having said that, it’s the MAJOR label that’s the one who’s able to give you the financial backing and the marketing - which is ultimately what the music industry is ABOUT today… So yeah, to me those are the main differences today between a major label and the smaller-scope independent. And I guess as an artist you just have to make the choice that you feel works best for YOU.”

The importance today of a dedicated fan-base to an act like Olatuja Project

MICHAEL: “Well. as far as we’re concerned, whether you’re with a major OR an indie label the strongest thing to have today is your own loyal FAN-base! And so right now that’s what we’re particularly looking to DEVELOP, and that’s why we do as many shows as we can in different parts of the WORLD! Because, as long as you keep giving them good music, that fan-base is always gonna be there to receive whatever you put OUT! Plus in terms of the actual labels themselves - both major and independent - whenever they think of signing you, they always want to see what your PULL is. You know, statistics like how many people come to your gig - or whether all your shows are sold-out - DO MATTER!... So yeah, that loyal fan-base is definitely something we’re working hard on these days - and so far we’re doing very WELL! We’re just going onwards and UPWARDS!”

The album ‘The Promise’ is out now through World Tune Records

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