Seeing – and hearing – is believing with soul and jazz artist Ola Onabule.
A White Rock audience that had only local sound tech/musician/impresario Phil Davey’s word for Onabule’s talent came away from his show last year at Coast Capital Playhouse with a smile on its collective face.
The British-born singer and songwriter had the crowd – young and old – laughing, clapping and singing along to tunes they’d scarcely heard and dancing in the aisles.
It wasn’t just his smooth-as-silk delivery and wide vocal range – or even his artistic projection of his own poetic lyrics – as impressive as these were.
The magnetism of his stage presence and his dry humour sealed the deal, marking the difference between a promising performer and one who has well and truly arrived.
Onabule is back in B.C. until Wednesday for a series of concerts presented by Davey, including a Nov. 25, 8 p.m. date at the Bell Centre for Performing Arts (6250 144 St.).
Raised in Britain by Nigerian parents, he’s paid plenty of dues; performing for years as a back-up artist with such greats as Gladys Knight, Diane Reeves, Patti LaBelle, Roberta Flack, Natalie Cole and Roy Hargrove, while marketing his own self-produced albums.
That experience is paying dividends at the world’s most prestigious jazz festivals and concert halls, while his debut at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2009 has opened the door for more North American touring.
He has a relaxed attitude to the business, preferring to have his manager handle most of the strategy of cracking the North American market.
“That’s a difficult one,” he admitted in a phone interview from London. “I just kind of turn up and do the date. I’m very ill-equipped to set goals and meet targets.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious side to his music, or an awareness in his songs, however upbeat, about clear and obvious injustices in the world – such as racism, sexism and the gulf in living conditions between industrialized and Third World nations.
That side of Onabule was brought into focus in a recent documentary about his career, aired on CNN’s African Voices, which has inspired a new project, a PBS special to be filmed in the U.S. next spring.
“When the songs are being written, I try to plumb the depths to find the truth within,” he said.
“It’s a view of the world through my eyes. I try to present myself honestly, my flaws and faults and misconceptions, so that people are seeing something of themselves. I like to discover something people can identify with – a fully-rounded sort of song.
“The things that concern me are the same things that concern all of us. I have a voice and a platform.
“The role of a singer is to be a troubadour, to sing about the issues of the day. Maybe it’s the African in me.”
The concert, in which he will be joined by pianist Ugo Delmirani, guitarist Nial Tompkins, bassist Jonathan Harvey, drummer Louis Palmer and saxophonist Duncan Eagles, will feature material from his new album, Seven Shades Darker, which will be released internationally in early 2012.
Onabule chuckles when it’s remarked that he seems to be having as much fun on stage as his audience in the auditorium.
“I do enjoy doing it,” he said.
“I like casting my mind back five, 10, 15 years ago, thinking about how far I’ve come, how many places I’ve been and how many concert halls I’ve played. If I can keep on doing that, and doing more of it, it’ll be great.
“I look at Tony Bennett, who’s still out and about at the age of 84. That guy is living my life. That’s what I want to do when I’m his age and I’ll be happy doing it.”
For tickets to Friday’s show at the Bell Centre ($45), call 604-617-8453, 604-507-6355, or visit www.bellperformingartscentre.com