Sunday, November 23, 2008

Brimful of Asa

[previously published in Arise magazine October 2008]

French-born Nigerian singer Asa combines soulful melodies with serious issues, finding her inspiration in the most unlikely places. Here, she talks about the immense love she has for Nigeria - and Africa

Where's the best place to write a song? A nice, quiet enclave, where you can achieve maximum concentration? Not if you're Asa.

"I write in rough environments where I can get inspired, like the bus in Lagos," says the honey-voiced chanteuse, who grew up in the south-west Nigerian city. "They call them molué – they look like school buses in America, you know, the yellow and black ones? Except these ones are bad, bad, bad, bad. It's like they've picked them up off the junkyard and forced the cars to come back to life. But there's so much drama: they're always overcrowded and there's so much noise – hawkers hawking their goods, the preacherman in the corner trying to catch the attention of the people…"

But Asa, she explains, isn't the first singer to be inspired by these incredible, sense-clashing modes of transport.

"Fela [Kuti] sang about it. He said, of course we have 49 people sitting and 99 people standing." She laughs. "But it gets me thinking. You have the reality right in front of you. It might not be fun, because someone might be stepping on my foot or taking my space, but you look back on the day and you laugh. And that's the story of Lagos."

And the story of Asa? Born in Paris, she moved back to Lagos with her family at the age of two. By seven, thanks in part to her father's record collection, singing was a habit that she felt incapable of breaking. She found an opening as a young artist at the French Cultural Centre in Lagos, which helped her learn and hone her craft. It was as part of a French jazz group that Asa returned to the country of her birth and where she's now based, although trips back to Lagos are leapt upon whenever there's a break from touring. Oh, and just in case you didn't know, the name's pronounced 'Asha'.

Despite those cramped writing conditions, the bespectacled 26-year-old still manages to give her music an expansive calmness that makes you want to stretch out your arms and close your eyes; perfect for lying on the grass in a park with an untouched weekend on the horizon. But that's not to say she deals in frivolity or fluffiness. The carefree refrains on her self-titled album, released earlier this year, disguise some serious subject matter, as the bleak world described in her track 'Fire on the Mountain' ("So little Lucy turns sixteen… / She has a lover in her daddy / She can't tell nobody") and anti-slavery melody 'Jailer' demonstrate.

No temptation to write love songs then? "Growing up in Lagos, you have no choice but to wonder and ask why – there are so many questions," she says. "It's just natural. These are things my peer group always talked about. There are so many issues we were meant to assess or fight for. I grew up with it every day – I see it, I hear it, I live it."

In line with the aims of THISDAY's Africa Rising concerts, Asa sees her music as a way of showing the world a more positive side to her country and Africa in general. "As a Nigerian in a foreign land, when I tell people where I'm from, there's always two things that come up: oil and violence. It really saddens me that that's the only idea others have of this amazing country. I just want to tell people that not everything that comes out of Nigeria, or indeed Africa, is bad."

Asa calls her music "soul, but with a fusion of folk, jazz, hip hop and reggae", namechecking musical greats such as Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye as just two of her many influences. But showing how important roots are to this Franco-African singer, Asa also includes Nigerian Yoruba culture in the list.

"My roots are my identity, they're very important," she says. "When I sing I want people to ask 'who is she?'" They undoubtedly will.

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