INTEVIEW WITH KEZIAH JONES 'My Job As a Nigerian Is To Do What Fela Kuti did, Only For a Different Era'

Author(s): Olja Ljubišić Photographer(s): OLJ
Keziah Jones is known for his distinctive style, the so-called blufunk that is a blend of blues, fun and soul, which is a combination of the artist's native Africa, but also of London and Paris. Dubrovnik Daily talked with Jones about his music, Nigeria, life philosophy and more in Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel. 

This is your first time in Dubrovnik, how do you like it?

For what I’ve seen it’s very beautiful, seem very nice, pretty, historic.

You said in one interview that your home is where your guitar is. Does that mean Dubrovnik is your home now?

Essentially yes, it is my home. (Smiling)

You are playing in Croatia for the first time. For those not familiar with your music, could you explain the sound and the idea behind blufunk?

The idea is actually very, very simple – guitar used as a percussion instrument. I'm from Nigeria, and I play guitar as percussion. This evolved from my time of busking which is playing on the streets of London, New York and Paris. I evolved it because I needed to accompany myself and make more noise than the traffic and other musicians. I found a way to play a bass, guitar and percussion, all at the same time to sound like a bigger band. The result of that I called blufunk – doing everything at a same time. And when I got a band together, the drummer copied percussion on the guitar, bass player copied bass line. So, when you see the band it’s just a bigger guitar. That’s what I call blufunk. It’s a musical technique and is also a philosophy which means in order to do that you need to be quite relaxed. I try to live my life very, very, very relaxed.

Does it feel the same to play on the street and for example at gorgeous stage like Orsula?

Information always comes from the same place. Every time I’m playing, I’m basically accessing place so wherever I am, I’m accessing the same information and having the same feeling. Otherwise, my mood would change radically, from playing yesterday and playing today. I try maintaining a clear idea about why I’m doing and what I’m doing. Material aspect change, the size of the room, the audience, the amplifier if it’s very good or very bad, my guitar sometimes expand, extract with the weather and the heat. But those are things that can be fixed, adjusted. It shouldn’t affect the music itself.

Orsula Festival

What about the feedback you get from the audience?

It’s a similar kind of thing. When you’re busking on the street, you have to be prepared for people not listening to you (laughing) but you need to play with the same energy, same enthusiasm. I’ve got that as well. I can say that sometimes I have to, in different audiences, make a real impression. I played here for the first time, so obviously I tried to make an impression and create something you’ll not forget. I’ll be more conscious about myself on the stage. Normally speaking, when I’m playing, I’m trying to deliver a message and it should work regardless of what the audience is. It should work. 

What is the message?

Basically, to be calm enough and relaxed enough so that you can channel your ideas immediately from the mind to your guitar to the audience. That’s all there is. What is the message? The message is energy, light. Ideally, if you’re cool with yourself, message can get through a lot easier. Normally, a lot of musicians transfer what they’re thinking into the hands and into the instrument. You shouldn’t do any thinking at all. When the message is good there is no thinking at all.

You’ve said Fela Kuti inspired you as a man and as a musician. Could you tell us more about his influence?

The idea that you (Fela Kuti) can live your life complete i.e. you make your music, you have your philosophy behind the music, you have a political idea behind the music, you have the aesthetic behind your music, you have your club where you’re playing your music in, and your label which you release your music on. You live in commune with your musicians who believe in your philosophy (laughing) – that’s like ideal existence. For me and many other musicians he it made it possible. In a situation where is military dictatorship - he did it in the most difficult environment. He is a standard for a lot of things. Not only that, he stayed in Nigeria in Africa. The world came to him. I’m born with different generation where we have to go to the West to become known and then go back to Africa to our country. The word came to Fela. Everything was done beautifully. He radically changed himself. He came from very elite background and became one with the people. He lived with the people, sang for the people in their language. And his music was packed with cultural information.

What you consider most important for us to know about Nigerian music?

Nigeria is on the West coast of Africa and almost all the slaves were taken from that west coast. If you go to Haiti, Cuba, Brazil you’ll find people who are Yoruba, Egbo, Hausa from Nigeria essentially which means the music you hear in the Western world, the gospel, the blues, jazz, black cultural ideas come from that western coast. So Nigeria to me is culturally the most important place in African culture. My job as a Nigerian is to reinterpret and reintroduce Nigeria to you by using blues, jazz, funk, English language turn it around to speak my language.  I just have to find a way to update what Fela did for different era.

Orsula Festival

You also did that with a comic book and a super hero, popular ‘western’ form.

Yes, that was the last album which relates to Fela again. In terms of superhero, he was our superhero – people who do incredible things against all odds. We started to think what this Nigerian superhero would look like, what would be his name, superpowers. It was just a joke among friends but the word rugged came along. In Lagos language when you’re rugged you are indestructible. In Nigeria, you see all kinds of things, man. That’s why we called him Captain Rugged because he is able to exist in any environment. We made songs out of it, and entire album out of it, just like a funny idea. Than my friend, another Nigerian guy, great graphic designer went to Lagos for three months to do some research and started drawing it. Basically Lagos is amazing architecturally because you have a lot of churches, mosques, British colonial buildings, very vanguard experimental architecture from the 70-ies. Then you have shanty town, massive mansions all jumbled up together. So that’s quite amazing. We’ve never seen it in graphic novel form.

Apart from the cultural aspect why you think your music is relevant to the audience?

'If I objectify myself and look from the outside, I would say that that guy plays in a very unusual way, you may think you’re hearing funk, you may think you’re hearing jazz, you may think you’re hearing African music but you still can’t put your finger on it. At the same time, your mind has been fed; your body has been fed. I think it is a nice experience. This guy may deliver a message that might be useful at some point of your life.

Olja Ljubišić