New York is a magnet for talent. It’s the vibrancy, the freedom to take risks and the culture of creativity that do it. Siji (pronounced she-gee), a singer/songwriter and producer now resident in the city, thinks so too.
You hold in your hands his self-produced debut album, “God-given”. Siji (the name means “protection” in Yoruba) moved to New York from London a year ago and has steadily and carefully crafted an original body of work he terms a “spiritually tinged blend of soul and traditional African music.”
Consider his background: Born in London to Nigerian parents, Siji spent his early childhood in Lagos, immersed in the sounds and rhythms of one of the most frenetic cities on earth. For instance, where kids in San Francisco were tuning in to Sesame Street, say, Siji made do with the insurgent, politicized Afrobeat music of Fela Kuti and others. The music is in his blood.
At age 17, Siji returned to London to continue his education. It was there that his appreciation of music emerged with a determination to create. Teaching himself to play piano and acoustic bass, Siji began forming experimental groups one of which, Soul Minded, gave him enough of a footing to start performing live onstage. While completing his Masters in Engineering Product Design, Siji began cutting demos. Once the course ended, he decided to pursue a career in music.
In 1995, he formed a label, IVY Records and released an EP, “Facets”. That was followed by the single “My Lover’s Embrace” in 1997. Both releases garnered much respect on the influential London scene. Their impact led to a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music.
Fast forward to 2000, when he left London and moved to New York. Quickly he found a scene of supportive musicians and producers and began collaborating and performing with them at venues such as Bam Café and Joe’s Pub. One of these artists, Osunlade, was garnering success himself, having produced music for the likes of Musiq, Eric Benet and Patti Labelle. Siji’s music impressed him and he offered Siji use of his studio while he was away touring. “God-given” is the result of that time.
Upon listening, it’s clear who his influences are: Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, early Stevie Wonder. But Siji manages to cut a line through all of these with the lightness of his voice and the intricacy of his rhythms.
The subtle use of traditional, Nigerian instruments add a distinct organic flavor to his music and can be heard on the tracks “Glory” and “God-given”. Other standouts include the masterjamming “Sanctuary,” on which Siji drops a little nu-soul flavor with an addictive Moog riff and bouncy vocals that immediately draw you into the song. There’s the stirring opener “Heal,” the likely first sinngle “Bittersweet” and the assured “Chances Are.”
As well as songwriting, Siji still has his producing jones. He has just completed working with Salif Keita as well as several up and coming artists and has set his sights on collaborating with other artists such as Lauryn Hill and Jill Scott in the very near future.
New BBE signing SIJI talks to Andy Morris about taking over Osunlade’s studio, secretly recording his Dad and his new album Godgiven.
What¹s your full name?
Adesiji (which means “protection” in Nigerian) Awoyinka
Tell me a bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in Nigeria but I was born in the UK. When I was five I left to go to Africa with my parents. I moved back to London when I was 17 and lived in Tottenham. I came back here to further my education, which is what all Nigeria parents hope their kids will do. My father made sure I got a degree and a Masters.
What¹s your family like?
I come from a large family, 12 in all. I¹m the second eldest of nine boys and I also have two sisters. My elder brother¹s a management consultant and helped finance all my initial releases. He encouraged me, assisted me financially and really got me started because I’m not from a very musical background. My Dad was a re-insurance broker who then became an evangelist preacher. My Mum passed away a few years ago, but her spirit is ever present in the family and I’ve dedicated my album to her.
So how did you get into music?
I came into music late in life. I was always the child who was quick to entertain the guests by singing, dancing and clowning around . But I only started taking music seriously when I returned to England to further my studies. They had an old steinway under one of the lecture theatres and I was always on it. During my course in 1990 I formed a duo called Soulminded with a friend of mine named Israel. We went into the studio once and I was hooked. We produced a three-track demo and sent it out to all the major labels. Within a week this lady from Warner Brothers – Cynthia Cherry – called up. She¹d been impressed by the demo and tried to get us signed. Although nothing came of it, it gave me the encouragement to pursue it properly.
Is Godgiven¹ your first release?
No, my first release was a vinyl-only EP called Facets¹ that I put out in 1995. I gigged heavily, playing Ronnie Scotts, The Jazz Cafe, Astoria, Smollensky’s and built up quite a following. When I had gathered together enough money, I went into the studio and recorded a full album called “Parables”. It was a live album but was never released. Once I recorded it, someone played it to the then head of Warner Chapel publishing who loved it and snappped me up for a publishing deal in 1996.
Warner Chapel insisted I don¹t release it independently and promised to help get me signed and get some more money behind it. The whole corporate thing. So I held back and let them do their stuff. And nothing happened. Apart from one 12″ single, My Lover’s Embrace which was released just after I got signed. I also got to visit New York for the first time in 1997. After waiting three years, I finally left Warner Chapel in 1999 but I learnt a lot from dealing with them. Major record labels are corporate, just like banks. They¹ll sign you for publishing, hope you generate loads of money from which they¹ll take a percentage. They do very little in terms of shopping your songs, trying to get you placed or exposing your music. There¹s a clear dividing line in the US between various genres of music, so you have to fit in one particular category for radio. Over here in the UK, it¹s a lot more relaxed.
How did you meet up with Pete Adarkwah and BBE?
Pete was always around, a face you¹d see DJing in the clubs. I used to go to places like Subterrania, The Wag and Café de Paris when it was at the peak of its popularity. Regarding BBE, I really like the music they¹ve put out. Pete has great taste in music and I share his vision, his ideas for the future of the label. When I was working on the early stages of the album, I asked whether he¹d like to listen to the album and he was really positive. Lately, I thought the new Spinna album was incredible and I really loved Jay Dee¹s Beat Generation LP.
Why is Godgiven different to mainstream R&B?
If you listen closely there¹s a spiritual element to some of the songs, with a blend of gospel, the spiritual, the African and the modern. It¹s an organic mix of all these influences, within the constraints of what I had at the time. At the time of recording I was in New York and felt very outside of myself. This was pre-September 11th and I was locked away in the studio for the most part. New York¹s a very big crazy city, but you can get lonely and isolated out there. So I basically just threw myself into my work. I fed into my surroundings, my state of mind at the time and poured it all out into the record. On 9/11 I was in the studio. I¹d had a late session, woke up and switched on the TV to find out what was going on. New York’s completely changed since the attack. Two days after it happened I went downtown to see what had happened and it was just empty. People took it extremely seriously, they’d never seen anything like it. Coming from the UK, having dealt with the IRA, you tend to just get on with things afterwards. It really got me thinking, as I do try to be spiritually aware, even though this can be difficult in the music business with all kinds of shady people with all kinds of agendas. For me music is a sacred gift, not one you take for granted or misuse. On “Sanctuary”, when I¹m singing in Yoruba, I remembered talking to my father years ago, about wanting to sing in Yoruba. He told me to listen to a few of the older Yoruba records to listen to what they’re saying. Very rarely will you hear anything profane or a curse word in a Traditional old-school Yoruba record. The language is mostly used in song to convey deep meanings and mythological tales. My Dad was like, if you’re going to sing in Yoruba, choose you’re words very carefully son.
How much did you think African music and afrobeat has an influence on your sound?
It¹s had a great deal of influence. Although I grew up with afrobeat, Juju, Fuji and I always had that music around me, I was more of a listener. I remember when I got into music years and years ago I had a friend who used to collect rare records. He came across loads of African stuff and suggested I try bringing some of those influences into my music. He mentioned it eight years ago and it really struck a chord with me then. But it was always a case of how do I go about it? A great deal of the Nigerian music that I really like and appreciate is very traditional. Afrobeat was cool but a bit more jazzy with some western influences. I really like the older guys who play the real earthy, traditional music with no modern forms of instrumentation or guitars. Just the drums and other percussion like “Haruna Ishola”. So it was very much a case of how do I get to do it?
On some of the songs on the album, you can hear me using the talking drums. I didn¹t want to do an all-out traditional Nigerian record, not yet anyway. I wanted to fuse some elements of traditional Yoruba music with modern European and American jazz influences. It¹s always a case of blending the elements. For example for three tracks, I hooked up with Kofo the Wonderman, a great talking drummer, originally from Nigeria but now based in New York. A friend of mine introduced me to him in 2000. He had a gig in Palm Springs California and I was playing keyboards for him. I was just blown away and thought that when I record my album, he’ll be one of the key people I’d love to work with. He’s really vibrant and can just pick up stuff so quickly. He did all his stuff in one take. He just told me to play him the tracks and as soon as he had listened to it, he’d do his thing. He’s got an album called ‘Kofo The Wonderman’ out independently in New York.
What¹s the meaning behind the Nigerian dialogue at the start of the album?
It’s an oriki, which is like a praise song or birth poem. In Yoruba tradition, when you’re born, your family gives you a praise name and song, describing your ancestral history and what you represent. Like when a prize-fighter goes into the ring and the MC shouts out “The one and only, the incomparable…” It¹s usually given when you¹re born. This was specially done by my father, although he didn’t know I was going to use it at the time! I said Dad, recite my oriki for me and I recorded him with a little microphone. He loves the album, especially for the Nigerian elements that he can relate to.
How did you end up working with Osunlade?
I met him through Bill Brown, head of Black Music publishing at Sony Music in late 97. Osunlade is very much into Yoruba culture and Bill said us two should hook up. Funnily enough the only two tracks we collaborated on for the album are ‘Feels Like’ and ‘The Day Ahead’ which we recorded together back in ‘98 when we first met. Other than that, it wasn’t so much a case of musically collaborating as Osunlade simply wasn’t around. The whole album was done in his studio in Washington Heights, while Osunlade was over in the UK promoting his album ‘Paradigm’ for Soul Jazz. He asked if I would like to look after his dog and apartment and said I should feel free to use his recording studio. I was like a kid in a toy store. It was a fully loaded studio, but he’s also got all the vintage gear, like the Fender Rhodes and the Moogs. I’d produced before but I’d never gotten into anything technical like sampling, recording and so on. The whole album was done with me having to learn to use all the equipment as I recorded all the instrumentation. I ended up bugging people by ringing friends up at two in the morning asking what button should I press!
What¹s going to be the first single?
‘Feels Like’ is going to be released in June. Some guys in Denmark called ‘Sunshine Coolers’ have also done a remix.
What other projects are you currently working on?
Recently I did my first ever remix with Osunlade for Césaria Évora. All we were given was a vocal track. Remixers need to be given more credit. All they’re given is a vocal track and asked to make music to it!” We rearranged it and did it completely from scratch. I also recently hooked up with Santos. He’s got an EP about to be released on Osunlade’s label, ‘Yoruba Records’. We got to indulge in the Afro Brazilian thing. I’ve also been writing for a couple of great singer songwriters in New York. There’s Melani Dowdy from Maryland, Phyre Hawkins’ whose a great singer and aspiring actress and part of the chorus on a track on the album. I’m also doing some stuff with Wumni (Soul II Soul/Masters at Work) and Vinia Mojica (Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli) who’s got a great vibe going. I’ve also recently worked with Salif Keita.
Which artists would you ideally like to work with?
A whole bunch of them. I’d love to work with Lauryn Hill. I didn’t listen to her latest album that much though because she’s kind of changed. I don’t know which way she’s headed musically right now, but she’s clearly going through her thing.
Any producers you¹d like to work with?
For me right now, I know where I’m heading musically and have got my own style. I want to find people who complement what I do. There¹s a guy called Alix Alvarez, whose done loads of remixes and he also got to record all my vocals for the album. He’s very musical and is someone I¹m looking to further work with. I also want to do some more work with Bill Lee, who co-wrote “Glory” with me for the album. Again he’s very musical and a very down to earth guy.
Finally, a few brief questions to conclude:
First record you bought? George Benson’s Give Me The Night
First gig you went to? Luther Vandross at Wembly Arena. It just blew me away.
What instruments do you play? Piano, a bit of the double bass, and percussion.
You describe ‘Feels Like’ as an ode to mistress music. Are you single and what do you look for in a woman?
I¹m single at the moment. In a woman I look for wit, intelligence and beauty, no doubt. A great sense of self is very important. It would definitely help if she had a spiritual side.
What are you listening to at the moment?
A lot of Miles and Ebenezer Obey, an old Nigerian musician. I heard a DJ playing all his old classics at a wedding and I hadn’t heard any of his stuff for ages! Again for me, I’m trying to develop my own unique sound and I think that whole African thing is something I’d like to explore further and use.
Sum up Godgiven in a sentence: Inspiring.