“Remarkable mastery and agility”
The Oxford Times
Having played on Grammy winning albums and performed with some of the finest musicians of our age, including David Byrne, Prince, Cassandra Wilson & Ali Farka Touré, Birmingham’s Nigerian-born afrobeat / jazz percussionist Lekan Babalola releases the single Whirlwind, taken from his forthcoming second studio album #MrLakaaye.
Featuring BBC Introducing WM’s Sound of 2019 talent, melodic rapper Jay L’Booth, on vocals, Whirlwind is a celebration of the warrior queen Oya – female Yoruba icon of wind and lightening, death and rebirth. L’Booth’s spirited yet relaxed vocal slips and slides over the rhythm, proclaiming positivity in many guises “embracing obstacles as she overcomes” and “letting the storm come until lessons are learnt”. With its teasing piano intro, the track’s sun drenched rhythm takes influence from Fela Kuti’s ‘Afrika 70’ period and features a bevy of Birmingham’s finest jazz musicians alongside west country clarinetist Kate Luxmoore, known for her unique interpretation of English folk tunes that spawned her publication The Somerset Songbook Revisited. Whirlwind’s strongly percussive arrangement drives the track effortlessly forward, while the melodic instruments shine with West African positivity. The initial inspiration for the song came about when Babalola teamed up with vocalist Jay L’Booth for a writing session last summer. For him, “music is about crossing boundaries and finding commonality on a global level. With Jay, it felt a natural pairing of both our talents; while the Yoruba concept of the warrior queen Oya was something that’s been at the forefront of my mind recently, in light of the female empowerment happening throughout the global zeitgeist”.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, where he learned much about Yoruba art and culture from his family and the church owned by his father, Babalola spent time with the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti discussing politics and history. As a teenager he organised an African art exhibition for which Fela Kuti was the patron and guests included Stevie Wonder and Steely Carmichael. After moving to the UK in his twenties, Babalola immersed himself in cultural studies and in particular French impressionism; which lead him to spending time in Paris, where he was also able to view African art from a European perspective. In 1992, while studying filmmaking, he was invited by Spike Lee to assist in the making of a Malcolm X documentary which was followed by three years of living in New York, where he performed alongside many artist including Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
On his return to the UK, Babalola went on to play with many notable acts including Prince, Ernest Ranglin, Branford Marsalis, Roy Ayers, plus David Byrne, Damon Albarn and Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor in the William Onyeabor Atomic Bomb! band. Babalola was the first Nigerian musician to win a Grammy for his work on Ali Farka Touré’s In the Heart of the Moon – and won a second Grammy for his work on Cassandra Wilson’s Loverly album.