Keziah Jones knocks on wood, “Nigerian Wood”

Reading time 12 min.

Keziah Jones will be playing in a series of concerts this fall in France, where he was discovered twenty years ago. In an interview with, the Prince of Blufunk gave a one in a million peek into his latest album, during his promotional tour in Paris. On this occasion, the Nigerian singer and guitarist unveils the songs of his latest album, Nigerian Wood. He talks about his two main passions : politics and love.

Keziah Jones knocks on wood; his hopes and aspirations, political, environmental and artistic among other things, are made bare. In his latest album, Nigerian Wood, the Nigerian singer chose to work with a 100% American production team. His collaboration with the talented drummer, Karriem Riggins, gives his album an afro-beat, soul, funk and rock texture. Keziah Jones unveils his most ingenious musical cocktail yet, this fall, during his tour de France, the very place, where he was discovered by an insightful manager some twenty years ago… A laid back Prince of Blufunk talks to on how Nigerian Wood was moulded into shape, as well as his passion for politics and love …

Interview of Keziah Jones
envoyé par afriktv How would you define Nigerian Wood in comparison to your other albums ?

Keziah Jones : In relation to the other albums, Nigerian Wood is a lot more developed in terms of musical development. My song writing is a lot better in terms of being able to blend my two main interests, being politics and personal relationships. For the first time I’ve been able to do this on one album in songs like “African Androïd”, “Long Distance Love”, “In Love Forever”. Production-wise, it’s a major difference from the previous albums because for the first time I used American producers, which means that I’ve got the best American techniques. The guy who produced it, a guy called Karriem Riggins, is also a beat-maker for people like Erykah Badu, J Dilla and Peanut Butter Wolf. He’s also a drummer from the jazz world, so all that pertains to the rhythmic aspect of my guitar, we were able to sit down and debate the best way to do it. He made an afro-beat rock-funk or an afro-beat soul-funk, like in “Pimpin” or in “Beautifulblackbutterfly“, or a strange rock I think we have in “1973“. At this point in my carrier, with the launching of my fifth album, I have proved all of the stuff I wanted to do. You would remember that I started at a very young age (Blufunk is a fact came out in 1992). So I’ve already laid down a lot influence, a lot of laws in terms of guitar work. I’ve proved my point as a great guitarist. Right now the guitar takes a little bit of a secondary position to my keyboards and horns because I wanted to make a holistic album. : We feel pretty much the influence of Fela in your work, and also of Jimi Hendrix and James Brown… Why these people ?

Keziah Jones : It was not so much that I chose them. I mean, they chose me. I was born in 1968. At that particular year, around the world, a lot was going on with our people. In Nigeria, Fela was honing his sound. By the time I was a young boy, he was already doing his afro-beat political music. At the same time, my brothers were listening a lot to the Jackson Five, Brothers Johnson, James Brown, Flying Stone, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley… Nigeria was also newly independent and wealthy with a lot of musical festivals taking place. There was the Fespac, where Stevie Wonder came, and during which Fela had his anti-Fespac at the shrine, while Malcom X gave a talk at the Ibadan university. People came through Lagos because Lagos was a cultural hub for Africa at that point. They chose me because that was the phonic and radio environment that I was growing up in. In 1977 which was just the end of punk and the beginning of ska, I heard a lot of punk music and ska, two tone music. And then in the beginning of the eighties, my friends and I listened to a lot of David Bowie, a lot of the new romantic music, you know that English music… So my influence is abroad and this music, that I call Blufunk, tries to reflect a lot of the stuff I grew up with as a child, which is African-American music, traditional Nigerian music, modern urban Nigerian music, like afro-beat, and English pop music of the late 70’s and the early 80’s. : How did you come to have your own style, the Blufunk?

Keziah Jones : It didn’t really occur till much later. I’ve been playing music since I was about eight. I played clarinet first of all and then I played the piano. But it [Blufunk] really wasn’t born until I picked up the guitar at around sixteen years old, and decided to leave school and come to London and find my way by living in squats (…) and playing on the streets. Blufunk came through at that particular time because it was on the streets that I decided to sharpen what it became. On the streets, you are playing for random strangers who are passing by, and you have to make them stop literally. And how do I do that ? I have to create some sort of spectacle. Because it was just me, I decided to make a sort of music that I could play all the parts at the same time. That’s what I call Blufunk […]: you play the guitar line, the bass line and the percussion line at the same time. So I accompany myself. And because also I had to compete with traffic and other musicians I had to sing thoughtfully and very loudly. It became a kind of blues-shouting with my voice and it became some kind of funk afro-percussions on the guitar. That is how the Blufunk got shaped. It got shaped in the streets of London and in the subways of Paris (…) and outdoors. Blufunk was also my mentality and my philosophy because my life at that time was living from day to day. Having no money and living in squats and crashing out in different places you have to adopt a very level, cool, ambient-mind state, which means that whatever you desire, whatever you imagine forcefully enough will happen. (Laughs) That’s Blufunk philosophy but if you just mean it as a guitar technique, it’s a way to play the bass line, percussions and guitar at the same time to make it a spectacle. : You care for politics but also for environment. Would you call yourself a political and environmental activist ?

Keziah Jones : We have already had examples of how musical and political activism don’t work. Fela’s a perfect example. He tried to use music as an activist tool. What happens is that the musical aspect gets lost and the political aspect becomes more and more, and you get locked up for all your beliefs. Knowing Fela all those years, I think he got his work better by getting credit for one thing or the other, but trying to do both became more about other things than about music. But I mean, everybody has his position. I believe music can help things change but I think in terms of politics, it’s not so much like music is gonna cause a shift or revolution. It’s more like we all have to sit down and think about the best way to proceed. I’m not an activist [but] I do believe that the environment is probably the most important issue that is facing everybody and it’s beyond politics. And that’s the biggest issue. One of the songs on the album, “Unintended Consequences”, deals with that issue. But in terms of taking that to another level and being political about it, I do not believe, just like Fela, that politics is the best way to change the human situation. I believe more in the social aspect, I believe more in consciousness as way to change our environment. : Since we are talking about politics, I would like to know your views on Obamania. What do you think of the US presidential campaign ?

Keziah Jones : Well on a very basic level, it is very clear that the republicans are ideologically bankrupt because, as a result of the last eight years of George Bush, we’ve had so many problems. The main problem facing us, like I said, is environmental and they ignored that issue for a long time. That’s gonna come back and bite them in a big way. Senator John McCain who is a guy that has absolutely no charisma whatsoever is like 74 and is only going to do one term. If he dies in office, his vice president, who has no experience whatsoever, is gonna run the country. They are really trying to present it as a viable option. I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I think Obama is not a savior, but he is the perfect character right now in history, in the right place. His presence and his existence put people like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell clearly what they really are about, which is they are black republicans who are on the wrong side of history. Obama can make us more aware and much more able to shift the direction of America. Because where America goes, the rest of the world has to follow. I think that Obama as well as being a talented orator is also backed by a lot of big industries and powerful people. They know he is a sure shot. If he loses, then we know that there is some real serious “korokoro” (as we say in Africa) going on in American politics, like the republicans stole the elections (reference to the 2004 presidential elections). If they make Obama lose, I think the whole world would be in a major crisis. But I think he’s gonna win. And I think America needs him more than he needs America. : There was a huge debate here in France concerning colonialism and its positive effects. I don’t know if you have heard about that…

Keziah Jones : Yes I have. : Do you think that colonialism could be said as having had a positive impact on Africans ?

Keziah Jones : I think that is the type of position that some reactionary people use. Like in America there is a whole school of thought that believes that slavery was a good process for the African-Americans because now they are westernized black people therefore they should be thankful for the awful things that happened [during the slave trade]. Some old Nigerians, like my grandfather, believe that Nigeria was a lot better when it was colonized because the street lights worked, there were traffic lights, there was order. It is a conservative and reactionary view point and I am not surprised they [the politicians who initiated the text about the positive role of colonisation] think that way because, if you were born at a certain time you think a certain way, and you educate your children in a certain way. So if you have some people saying that colonialism was a positive thing, it is because they don’t have any alternative way to think. I don’t think it is a viable point to discuss because everybody in their right mind wouldn’t want to be colonized or enslaved. We are all born free and we all have the right to freedom. I can’t see the benefit of slavery or colonialism… : Back to the other focus of your life, relationships, I want to know why love is so important to you…

Keziah Jones : Well, as a Nigerian, the idea of love or romantic love wasn’t something that was given to you or shown to you as a possibility. There are rather duties and responsibilities. You grow up, you go to school, take your degree, you get married. You practically get a girl from the similar country you come from. Of course, having been able to be freed from a very young age I have my own ideas. I believe we should all be able to choose who we want to marry and love should be a spontaneous thing that wells from two people rather than putting them together and [having] them bore each other later as a result of duties… I have observed it in my family, I have observed it among my friends and people who habour this cultural view. The way you relate to other people is based on your culture or based on how you grew up. I do believe that ultimately we do need to find a way to communicate and relate to each other on a much more equal level between men and women, between cultures. And love is the underlying thing. I’m not [just] talking about sentimental things, I’m talking about real deep understanding and respect for each other. [This is what] I call love. : “My kinda girl”, was it a kind of appeal to get the girl you are looking for ?

Keziah Jones : It was actually a kind of ironic commentary on the idea of the ideal kind of woman. When you ask guys “what kind of woman do you like ?”, they describe a lot of qualities that sound like many different kinds of people, and one person can’t properly be able to do all those things. As a guy, I am guilty of that too. And it is a funny thing and I thought that I should write about that problem because as an African guy, and as guys in general, we are brought up to think a certain way, to behave a certain way. And so I told myself : “Why not put that into a song ?”. It is a question really rather than a statement in that song. : You participated in the albums of Angelique Kidjo and Amadou and Mariam. Do you plan to collaborate on the albums of Nigerian artists, like Ayo, Nneka, Asa… ?

Keziah Jones : I heard Asa play at the Bataclan [in Paris] on the 24th of September. I’ve known her from Lagos, Nigeria. We played with her live and I am inviting her to the Olympia when I play there. So there’s a possibility of working with her as an artist. Seun Kuti, whom I met in a festival in Reunion, is another guy that I think of in terms of pushing afrobeat in another direction. I would like to work with him and he’s expressed similar viewpoints. I worked on couple a couple of songs on Femi Kuti’s last album, which I think is gonna be out next year. I am open to sharing myself musically because I think it is in our interest that we all work together… Ultimately I’ll collaborate with many African people in the future.

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