For those who know, love and appreciate quality and timeless Afrobeat and jazz music; one household name they can all go to watch in Johannesburg, South Africa is Femi Koya.
In Nigeria for a tour of a few states and to celebrate his mother’s 73rd birthday, Koya kicked off his tour with an intimate concert at the Freedom Park, Marina Lagos powered by Ayoola Sadare’s Inspiro Productions. He was not only recognised for his music but also for his fight to return Nigerian highlife, Afrobeat and jazz music into public consciousness.
Naturally, the saxophone is both a beautiful and tough instrument, but playing the tenor saxophone requires a great deal of breath and dexterity. 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.
Playing the tenor saxophone for Koya is as easy as ABC. He has the flow, tonality and proficiency expected of a good sax player. He’s a very relaxed performer; 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.
Watching him and his band perform, his style is far from predictable. A good example is on a recent Sunday night when the musician, songwriter, composer and saxophonist walked into the audience while playing the saxophone solo in one of his popular tracks ‘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 of the chance to recuperate. Wondering how he got the strength? The legend’s natural way of playing has made his tone noticeably richer.
Sitting to listen to the musician, you cannot but be drawn to the spectacle that made up the well-crafted stage, floodlights beamed on an array of musicians featuring 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 band.
Tracks from his album ‘Technology’ as well as ‘Ori mi’ and more were performed at the concert. The ‘Iba’ album also calls for African unity, making a plea for the dignity of human rights, and celebrates Africa’s love of life.
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.
Songs such as Babalawo, Lerato, Alo and Kongo enable new generations to understand the significance of African unity as well as provide 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 people who also deserve a decent living in Africa.
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 a keen interest in the piano and trumpet, he chose 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, while he had attuned his ears to South African musicians like Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Hugh Masekela.
Sharing the stage with world music 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 had also performed alongside the King of Juju music, Sunny Ade at the Glo launch in the Republic of Benin.
Other colourful festivals have featured 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 him 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 10 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.
While reflecting on his career in music, he added: ‘‘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.’’