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Kezyah Jones
  Kezyah Jones  
Kezyah Jones

We Can't Go Home Again is an old Nicholas Ray flick starring Robert Mitchum as a world-weary cowboy. At first sight, not much of a connection to Nigerian singer/guitarist Keziah Jones, the lanky youth who shot to fame in 1992 with Rhythm is Love and his brand of hi- energy blufunk. The fact is that the moody film title would also work just as well as the title of the latest Keziah Jones album. It's a record that recounts a progressive return home to his African roots. Direction Lagos. As if, after 34 years upon earth, the man who as an eight year-old was packed off to a succession of private schools in England, the man whose real name is Olufemi Sanyaolu, had come to the decision that the exile within was henceforth to become the more dominant element.
Exile is not really the right word; Keziah Jones has never stopped toing and froing between Nigeria and Europe. This album opens a window onto the culture of his family, offers a line straight to the heart of Lagos and its celebrated artists. A quest for reconciliation, unity of the twin heritages, African and European.


Despite the fact that Black Orpheus is remarkable for its coherence, don't go falling into the trap of thinking that this is one of those decried 'mature' albums. Written in the solitude of the Andalusian countryside, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, these are songs that betray an artist whose concerns are at once increasingly personal yet better controlled. There's less grandstanding, and the songs are the better for it. The lyrics are filled with obscure references and collages, drawing on the evocative richness of the 'pidgin' English often spoken in former colonies to subvert what you might call 'English as we know it'. Many of the tracks deal in the afro- surrealism of the opening track.
Afrosurrealismfortheladies is a strange voyage to both sides of the Atlantic. The track opens to the sound of the surf and a few dimly heard echoes of the tabla -providing a background of unifying timelessness - all accompanied by the creak of a ship's timbers as it rolls on the seas. The ship in question must be one of the "ships of slavery" referred to in the song. Ships that transported the "afro- pioneers" across the oceans. But there's no bewailing of the tragedy, in fact at times there's a sense that he's coming at the 'politically correct' from a totally different direction. Winding around a cat- smooth bass and sax, the mysterious lyrics speak of blackness, sex, magic. Keziah adds that "it's also a hard-hitting riposte to African- Americans who use African musical forms to sell a kinda black 'hyper- sexuality', a concept that to me smacks of a sort of self- colonization", and you just know that he's as uneasy as ever with all the clichés and stereotypes that go with the image of being a 'black' artist, or man.
The record is steeped in evocations of Africa and of the melancholy of the émigré: "I'm sentimental like a state in Africa (...) Does anybody know the way to Africa?" he sings on Afrosurrealismfortheladies. In 72 kilos, a track with some kindly meant words of irony directed at Lagos, the rhythms and the brass pile up in a free-jazz style, seemingly driven by the urban chaos: "I'm rugged in London/Tokyo, I'm rugged in Paree/from immigration to McDonalds with a false identity(...) 72 kilos of Nigerian weed". Rugged and ruggedness are concepts oft referred to by Keziah. They are at once an expression of the sheer grind of life in Lagos as well as being the signifiers of a strength born of another age, almost like a memory of the pain which has now become the survival instinct that protects an entire community, a vital energy fuelling writers and artists.
Lagos and its creative community are the targets of the album's most emblematic track, Kpafuca. During the intro, Keziah talks directly to artists of Nigerian origin, painters and musicians who have found fame in the Western world and who decree what is, and is not, African Art. It's a song about himself and his friends, Nigerians educated in the British style, "living in the first world, waiting for the next one". Finding one's own place, fitting in without renouncing the mindset forged by years' of training in Europe, attempting to draw on the creative strength of his native land, yet filtering the process through his own experience, renewing with his family without becoming overwhelmed by the force of community, dreaming of a country at ease with tradition and modernity... Such are the pressures, and rewards, of travel. But Kpafuca is also a song of confusion - it's pidgin for chaos. All it takes is a couple of days hanging out on the streets of Lagos with Keziah Jones, and you quickly understand that the word is in fact the most apt and accurate way of describing life in the de facto capital of Nigeria. It's a hypercity where 13 million souls live cheek-by-jowl in an area extending some 300 square kilometers, living in haphazard shacks, rundown flats and precipitous alleys, amongst ruptured sewers and teeming bridges and thoroughfares. Three hundred square kilometers of misery and injustice in a country that is the world's sixth largest oil producer, the country with the greatest number of dollar millionaires in Africa. Keziah Jones has his own unique slant on this confusion: "Kpafuca is your coun-ti-ree and your coun-ti-rees-eco-no-mee /when you've been kpafu-organised/ kpafucal-ity, it's so simple to define it/ just find a place (e.g.: Nigeria) and "kpafucize" it /(...) Are you living in a kpafuca nation for survival?". From the very first notes, this is a song that sounds like a declaration of intent. An agile, muscular bass winds amongst the brass stabs, with the tenor sax leading the way. The gravelly voice comes in - intonations in the Nigerian style - deconstructing English with elegant ease. Although not of the same mould, you are immediately reminded of the golden era of the 1970's when Fela was inventing afro- beat in Lagos. There's nothing accidental about this homage to Fela, an artist Keziah holds in the highest respect for his music and for his vision of the world. In Lagos, Keziah Jones often meets up with Fela's former keyboard player Duro, and together they jam away with other local musicians including his friend the bass and guitar player Joey Ducane. He has also played with Fataï, the ageing guitarist, once one of the stars of the 50s high-life scene, now back in the studio thanks to Olakunle Tejuoso, another friend of Keziah's, who runs a busy record shop and label. In such an environment, Keziah Jones takes away as much as he gives in return: "I do my work in Europe, now it's time to be useful here, time to try to build something that will last. Open a kinda house, where old-time musicians will be able to meet musicians from Europe, to do concerts together... Helping to keep the heritage alive, opening music from Nigeria to the world." Then he adds, with a smile: "I want to found a funky church, a place to go to listen to Coltrane in the morning, Fela at night. Music is a spiritual path... that's all Fela talked about before his death".
It's a spiritual path that leads to the land of the Yoruba, in Abeokuta a background Keziah Jones shares with Fela Kuti and Nobel- winning author Wole Soyinka. The path leads to the pantheon of orisha, gods in a complex cosmology, and plunges into the intricacies of ifa, the system of philosophy and divination. Orin O'Lomi, the magnificent ballad with which the album closes, is a delicate homage to this world suffused with respect for ancestors, life and the living world. The track opens to the gentle strains of traditional percussion and a raw acoustic guitar, with sound evoking the murmur of the bush. Then Jones' vocal begins, almost appears to float on this "water song", a singing style used "when washing in the morning or as a mark of respect for an opponent before combat". Keziah's voice betrays boundless melancholy, charged with a profound sense of oneness with the land and country. It's the first time that he has recorded a song written in Yoruba: "When I write in that language, I am seized by a sort of solemnity. The 'me' exists no more... you have to expunge the self, acknowledge that you are part of a whole that's greater than you are." Orin O'Lomi is also a tribute to his father, now buried in the house at Abeokuta, a man who was once a rich industrialist and balogun, an advisor to the Yoruba king of Egbaland. A man of his times who never forgot his heritage.
Keziah Jones dedicated three years to the composition of his latest album, endlessly flitting between subject matter, lyrics and music, until finally the three merged. Considering the originality of many of the melodic structures, this in itself was no mean achievement, but the results are worthy of his ambitions. Keziah was never less than an outstanding musician, and with this new album he has gone to great lengths to provide substance to the sophistication of his melodies and the diversity of his themes. On Wet Questions, a young man's profound sensitivity timidly revels in an acoustic funk of rare smoothness as an almost Prince-like vocal delivery speaks of hurt and solitude. Some of the tracks are unashamedly romantic, but it's always held in check. Take Neptune, for example, the guitar sound is so bright and shiny that it's almost aquatic; the lightest of brushes on cymbal and snare pave the way for a cello part that delicately fleshes out the song, providing a love song with all the emotion and passion that might be desired. The guitar on Femiliarise is tenderness itself, gently ringing out the sound of the most intimate of relations. With its upfront swing, little Motown touches from the organ and chorus, there's a certain well-intentioned teasing about Beautiful Emilie, the girl who has trouble deciding who she is and communicating with the world around. The overall impression is of infinite care lavished on ensuring a seamless match between subject and music. From the minimal blues of The Black Orpheus - guitar and vocal gloriously unaccompanied - to the bossa vibe underscoring Autumn Moon - with Sarah Ann Webb's vocal providing a sensual counterpoint - every track inhabits its own fully formed world. Lyrics at times willfully ignore the strict confines of meter, melodies are crafted in an abstract world of polytonality, and yet the coherence never wavers. Jones relies less on the famous slap technique of his that allows his guitar to double up as bass and percussion. For this outing, his approach is concerned with the oneness of the performance as a whole. Black Orpheus - more acoustic and more lyrical than before - is a step forwards from his previous albums Liquid Sunshine (1999) and African Space Craft (1995). This feeling of unity has never been as strong since his debut album, Blufunk Is A Fact (1992), and much of the credit must lie with the band Keziah Jones has assembled. Bassist Otto Williams rehearsed endlessly, learning just what it is that makes the 'Jones touch', and youngster Nathaniel Ledwidge, on keyboards, left his traditional churchified venues to follow quite another calling. Sarah- Ann Webb appeared on Keziah's first album and drummer Richard Cassell toured with him following the release of Liquid Sunshine. Along with the funky touch generated by the brass section under Jason Yarde, these combined talents form an ensemble of far greater power than the previous three-piece line-up. It's a group wholly in tune with Keziah's music; music that's complex, direct, and emotionally intense. Every tiniest detail is held up to the light, thanks to the wonderful production work of Kevin Armstrong and the sublime mixes of New York hotshot Russel Elevado. Black Orpheus was recorded in London and mixed in Paris and New York, and at every moment Elevado's subtle, discreet mixes gets to the essence of every track, his lightness of touch respecting the spirit of the work.
The wrongheadedness of those who, as the years and albums succeeded each other, compared Jones to Hendrix, Coltrane or Terence Trent D'Arby is now revealed. Black Orpheus is a Keziah Jones record. Although the title is taken from the film Orfeo Negro, the myth of Orpheus transferred to the favelas of Brazil, and though its subject matter is the difficulty of returning to the maelstrom that is Lagos and the confusion that reigns in the mind of one of its sons who left too early and stayed away too long, one thing is certain: Keziah Jones is not lost; he's found new strength, new determination. Just listen.


Andy Ross []

Blufunk Is A Fact (1992) [Delabel]

  1. The Wisdom Behind The Smile (Ca$h)
  2. Walkin' Naked Thru A Bluebell Field
  3. Rhythm Is Love
  4. Runaway (Slavery Days Are Over)
  5. Where's Life?
  6. The Funderlying Undermentals
  7. Frinigro Interstellar
  8. Free Your Soul
  9. A Curious Kind Of Subconcious
  10. The Waxing + The Waning
  11. The Invisible Ladder/li>
  12. Pleasure Is Kisses Within
Blufunk Is A Fact
Blufunk Is A Fact
African Space Craft (1995) [Delabel]

  1. Million Miles From Home
  2. Colorful World
  3. Prodigal Funk
  4. Splash
  5. Dear Mr. Cooper
  6. African Space Craft
  7. Speech
  8. Cubic Space Division
  9. Funk 'n' Circumstances
  10. Man With The Scar
  11. Never Gonna Let You Go
  12. If You Know
African Space Craft
African Space Craft
Liquid Sunshine (1999) [Delabel]

  1. Hello Heavenly
  2. God's Glory
  3. Liquid Sunshine
  4. New Brighter Day
  5. Runaway
  6. Don't Forget
  7. Phased
  8. I'm Known
  9. Sunshineshapedbulletholes
  10. Functional
  11. Stabilah
  12. Wounded Lovers Son
  13. Teardrops Will Fall
Liquid Sunshine
Liquid Sunshine
Black Orpheus (2003) [Delabel]

  1. Afro Surrealism For The Ladies
  2. Kpafuca
  3. Femiliarise
  4. Wet Questions
  5. Neptune
  6. 72 Kilos
  7. All Praisies
  8. Beautiful Emilie
  9. Sadness Is...
  10. Autumn Moon
  11. Black Orpheus
  12. Orin O'lomi
Black Orpheus
Black Orpheus
Rhythm Is Love (The Best Of) (2004) [Virgin]

  1. Rhythm Is Love
  2. Million Miles
  3. Beautiful Emilie
  4. I'm Known
  5. Kpafuka
  6. Cutest Lips
  7. Don't Forget
  8. Femiliarise
  9. Pleasure Is Kisses...
  10. Cash
  11. Functionnal
  12. All Praises
  13. Speech
  14. Where's Life
  15. Cubic Space Division
  16. April Again
  17. Invisible Ladder, The
  18. Hello Heavenly
  19. Wet Question
Rhythm Is Love
Rhythm Is Love (The Best Of)
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