Kunle Ayo at the Vibrations Continental Showcase

Pan-African jazz guitarist Kunle Ayo co-headlines the annual Vibrations Continental Showcase alongside Senegalese star Cheikh Lo, SAMA-darling Simphiwe Dana and more.

Kunle Ayo at the Vibrations Continental Showcase

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 19 – 20 June 2010.

Football is good for African music, it seems. For years now, Cape Town emigre Mohammed Fall, who founded Vibrations Recording Studio as “the first professional black-owned studio in the heart of the city of Cape Town”, has hosted his annual Vibrations Continental Music Showcase. Two years ago, the festival boasted up-country talent like MXO, alongside our own Claire Phillips, Mpho & Uvimba and Phambili Marimba Band, but could not afford to fly in African continent musicians. Fortunately, Fall dreams big and the world’s eyes are on South Africa in 2010, so the Department of Arts and Culture came forward to assist with the 2010 incarnation. Cape Town residents and visitors alike would do themselves a disservice to see artists like Senegal’s Cheikh Lo (described as the “organic, spiritual side of Senegal to Youssou N’Dour‘s “sophisticated urban edge”), multiple South African Music Award winning African songstress Simphiwe Dana, the Latin and Mozambican-influenced ensemble that is Tucan Tucan, recent Canadian and European hit Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms, from Khayelitsha, and more.

Returning to the Vibrations Showcase is Kunle Ayo. Born AdeKunle Ayodeji Odutayo in Epe near Lagos in Nigeria, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and TV-host moved to South Africa in 2002 after passing through the country en route to performances in Brazil when he was playing with Nigeria’s popular Lagbaja. He soon established himself as a performer at prestigious events including the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the Joy of Jazz Guitar Summit with Jimmy Dludlu, Alvin Dyers and Louis Mhlanga, and alongside stars like Jonathan Butler, Judith Sephuma, the late Jabu Khanyile (Bayete) and international jazz luminaries Al Jarreau, Dave Koz and Kirk Whalum. In 2004 he won the Kora All Africa award for Best Male Artist (West Africa) and in 2005 he scooped a Channel O Award for Best Jazz Video for “Slowly But Surely”.

Despite his role as a music anchor on DSTV and his popularity up-country and in Nigeria, Ayo is somewhat less know in Cape Town, largely because he does not often perform in the city, “Yes, I know,” he says in a rich and good-natured baritone, “It has been a long time, and it will be good to be back.” Local audiences would do well to wonder what they can expect from the multi-genred musician, who as released albums of jazz (“Live At The Standard Bank Joy Of Jazz”), Nigerian-tinged tunes (“A Taste Of Home”) and popular sounds which draw equally on Afro-pop and gospel traditions (“Ayo (Joy)”, “Sincerely Yours”, “Beyond The Border”).

“I am releasing my new album shortly after the Vibrations Showcase concert, sometime in July,” Ayo says. “It is called ‘Best Of Both Worlds’. I am a product of Nigeria, but you can’t hear my music without hearing my South African-ness. The music is a blend of both worlds as I am a blend of both worlds. To listen to it, you will hear Nigerian influences and South African influences. We are fun; we are for having a good time, and hopefully I can do the same when I come to Cape Town, as well as giving the audience something to listen to before the album drops.”

His route to music was an interesting one. Although trained as an accountant, he always had a penchant for music after his father gave him a guitar as a birthday gift – “After that, I was really inspired and encouraged to pursue music,” he admits. He smiles as he recalls his earlier instruments, the drums and the thumb-piano before he finally picked up the guitar as a twenty-six year old student. Stints in gospel bands followed, along with experimenting with the cool fusion guitar sounds popularised by George Benson and Jonathan Butler. “My parents are Yoruba and that is how I grew up, so of course I was also playing with the influences of Juju and Highlife music, and the Afrobeat mix of jazz that was invented by Fela Kuti.”

Ayo wears both his Nigerian and South African identities with provide, but the duality is not without its complexities. Any emigre experiences the trials and tribulations of moving to a new country, but Ayo also admits to the unique difficulties of being a Nigerian foreigner in South Africa.  Describing his path as “a long, hard road to travel” in an interview with Nigeria’s “This Day” newspaper, an interview highlights the hurdles he faced after “his compatriots had fouled the environment with many unscrupulous acts that painted a crooked image of the Nigerian” but “after a while, the establishment in South Africa… was convinced that he was not using music as a cover to engage in nefarious activities”. Happily, Ayo persevered and local caution thawed and has grown to become a popular performer. “We have been able to open the doors for an exchange of music,” he says, noting that the Nigerian Consular General once gave him the “unofficial title” of Nigeria’s Music Ambassador to South Africa.

“I do go back and forth to perform, but the fact is that the Nigerian appreciation for art is not the same as here,” he explains. “So, as a businessman, I have to be realistic about what puts food on the table. Nigeria likes you to come and do your stuff, but when the issue comes of whether they want to pay for your services…. I say these things, and this is why I have moved to South Africa, but I must also say that my calling, as it were, is as a propagator, as someone to start a Nigeria and South Africa movement; to push it even further. When you understand the people in Nigeria and the people here, and you hear a new set of sounds, with Nigerian rhythm and music, and fusing that with South African tunes and melodies; then you hear the future.”

Kunle Ayo co-headlines the annual Vibrations Continental Music Showcase, supported by the Department of Arts & Culture, and also featuring Cheikh Lo (Senegal), Simphiwe Dana, Tucan Tucan (Mozambique / Cape Town),  Nomfusi & The Lucky Charms (Khayelitsha), Bongani  Shosholoza, Zoe and Mpho, with choreographed percussion from the Red Zebra ensemble, on Friday 25 June at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (Auditorium 1, 6pm to 1pm, R300 from Computicket.com). Musicians’ workshop hosted by Lo, Dana and Mpho at the Vibrations Recording Studio (Longmarket Street, 10am to 12 noon; enquiries  021-4612385.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 19 – 20 June 2010. Find out more on Tonight.co.za

Please click here for more info on the event.