Album Review: How Omawumi Became a Jazz Singer on ‘Timeless’

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A third album is a true test of trajectory. For the Itsekiri singer, Omawumi, she is one of the biggest voices in the Contemporary Nigerian music salon. The boom of her vocal cords came to us by way of West African Idols a few years ago. After singing through a season of Reality Television, she emerged one of the finalists. She brought to stage an infectious vivacity and we knew she was poised for stardom.

Three albums later, her musical journey is nothing short of an exciting tour, perhaps the thing that makes biopics meaningful. If her first album, Wonder Woman, was modestly received; her second album, The Lasso of Truth, rode high on the wings of a massive single. Till date, when you hear the word “Kokonma“, the introductory refrain of her remake of the late Herbert Udemba’s Bottom Belly, your feet will be persuaded to dance.

Now, that was four years ago. There has been mostly creative quiescence, if not for the occasional single. There was Megbele, that Itsekiri highlife anthem, big on horns and guitar licks, dedicated to her father. There was Play Na Play, a duet with Grammy winning Beninoise veteran singer, Angélique Kidjo, which is playful and meaningful in the same breath.

Omawumi’s Timeless contains 11 tracks and features three artistes. Besides having few and strategic features, the album lasts about 49 minutes but this doesn’t remove anything from its creative poise. The album starts with a statement; that Angélique Kidjo featured song comes forth as a worthy gambit. It is clear from scratch that Timeless is markedly different from Wonder Woman and The Lasso of Truth. Omawumi has outgrown both superhero argot and mannerisms she adopted on her first two outings. Her creative journey is heading ultimately towards Jazz.

Dolapo is a scintillating jazz cabaret number. When you hear the big sound, you can direct a musical video in your head. Omawumi wearing sequins, big hair precariously close to the cardioid microphone. Her band members looking prim in suits and professionally stroking music out of their equipment. Dolapo is about a scorned female lover singing about the folly of her erstwhile male lover, who seemed to have been bedazzled by the guiles of the eponymous Dolapo. This song pushes sarcasm beyond delight and gives Shakespeare a post-humous high-five.

On Ololufe, Omawumi revisits one of Fela’s most realized love songs immortalized in his LA 69 sessions record. Omawumi brings calm and a measure of poise to this tune. While remaining faithful to the entire musical composition, she only translates its lyrics from Yoruba to a more accessible English language.

Omawumi’s Timeless is a tribute to the great music of her predecessors. Omawumi’s vocal register journeys from Billie Holiday to Ella Fitzgerald to Nina Simone to Aretha Franklin to Mariam Makeba to Angélique Kidjo whom she features on this album. Omawumi’s gaze is multi-dimensional; she is looking inwards and outwards simultaneously. Inwards, she is looking for that vocal essence which you may find in tunes as earthy as Megbele. And outwards, she is cooking tunes that are as cosmopolitan as I No Sure.

Omawumi’s charge on this album is simple: to make Timeless music.  Note that her ideal of timeless music is a sum of her musical influences and expectations. She is bent on making music that she will curate as tribute to her most positive influences as well as to sing songs that, for the lack of a better word, satisfy her soul. Omawumi’s lofty dream is to make music of the highest cabaret standard. She moves back in time to the golden era of Caban Bamboo and Kakandu but this is merely a detour; her eyes are set on America, New Orleans, home of Jazz. And if there is any medium in this musical séance,  it is Fela—not of the Afrobeat stock but Fela the transitioning maverick fusing jazz and highlife into an irresistible cocktail ahead of its time.

Omawumi features Salif Keita and Uhuru on that timeless number, Africa, originally credited to Keita. Beyond contextualizing the song for an Anglophone audience, she is also bringing it to a young Millennial listener-ship. It may not start a conversation about Pan-Africanism just yet, but this song is also about African pride, what Macron and his cronies may term Third World Pride. But if you don’t have the melanin, you can’t get what I mean. Omawumi’s claim to jazz is also staked to black. And the music that erupts comes from a legacy of pain, servitude and fortitude.

If that legacy of institutionalized subjugation is timeless, so also is the music that wills it away. This may not be the 1880s or 1960s. This is the 2000s and Black suffering is still real. Perhaps this is the journey that Timeless takes towards a consciousness.

It goes beyond music for the sake of music. Timeless is music that trivializes the zeitgeist. Timeless is music that motions towards nostalgia and memory. It is music that pays respect to the Jazz era.

Music Critic. Dancer. Poet

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