The image of the Bohemian musician is alive and well in London-born, internationally raised singer-songwriter U’mau Otuokon. This is no gimmick, mind you. The easy-going mannerisms, positive energy and Bo-ho raiment are all the artist’s own.
The daughter of a diplomat, U’mau’s slightly transatlantic inflections betray an intercontinental upbringing, one which saw her living in far flung destinations such as Russia, Cameroon, Spain and Canada. Along the way she picked up some Spanish and French as well as smatterings of her parents’ indigenous Ibibio and Efik tongues of South-Eastern Nigeria.
On U’mau’s debut album Sound Journeys of the Lost and Found you can hear influences from West Africa, Central and South America, the Middle-East, as well as more conventional western R&B rhythms. I imagine her nomadic childhood must have had a knock-on effect on her art; an insatiable restlessness maybe, to try new things…
She responds with wide-eyed recognition, “It’s really scary that you should say that because that is something that I’m beginning to pull in on. It colours my world but I also think it’s becoming an issue. I’m thinking, ‘Right, U’mau you just have to calm down…dig a bit deeper, settle down with something.’ I do feel there’s so much to try, so much I want to do.”
U’mau’s peripatetic early years are, not surprisingly, dotted with tales of adventures in mischief with her brothers and sisters, such as being chased off the land of churlish neighbours, threatening to shoot them for stealing fruit from their exotic gardens. She obviously has a strong affection for her fifteen siblings. Nevertheless being the middle child in such a large family, she must have felt a little lost in the crowd. “Nobody cares,” she jokes, “Who? Oh you!’ I’m not mummy’s baby; I’m not daddy’s baby. You’re lucky if you get a look-in.”
Perhaps that was a motivating factor in pursuing a career in the arts; to finally get a little bit of the spotlight? U’mau appears indifferent to the notion.. “Maybe,” before adding, “I don’t like too much attention.” And there’s nothing to suggest this is false modesty.
Prior to studying music U’mau started on the comparatively unglamorous path of financial services and accounting. Yet her dad’s record collection-which included Paul Simon (whom U’mau ‘loves like mad’), diverse Brazilian rhythms, Africando, Fela Kuti, Efik Hi-Life singer Inyang Henshaw – as well as the traditional Makosa music to which she was exposed whilst living in Cameroon – left their indelible mark on the budding troubadour.
U’mau – Sound Journeys of the Lost and Found LP Sampler:
As a young adult she made tentative steps towards realising her musical ambitions. She joined a six-piece vocal combo called ‘Second Chance’, itself comprised of former members of the Jesus House church youth choir to which she previously belonged. The experience was enjoyable albeit short-lived.
“We ended because it wasn’t a lifetime project and I think people wanted to do other things. We were all very, very different and our vibes were very different. We were in a sense stifling each other. It’s hard to find a middle ground where someone is so far from you it’s going to take you very far from where you want to be or should be to meet them half way.”
In her late teens U’mau began a dalliance with the guitar (she describes her relationship with the instrument as one of love and hate) after some very generous church brothers and sisters chipped in to buy her a six-string. She had the odd lesson with proficient friends such as guitar-don Femi Temowo. She recounts fondly the time spent under his tutelage.
“He started me off with some stupid chords and I just thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ I didn’t even know A Minor and A Major in simple forms and he was giving me some weird ninth chord.”
U’mau eventually decided to enrol on a music course at Goldsmith’s University, South London. It was at the prestigious institution that she met an inspirational lecturer, one Neil Luckett who further helped her find her artistic feet.
“At the end of term Neil organised a [students] gig for fun which I thought was really sweet…he really pushed us. He also works with a collective. He got me involved in some of those gigs and he pushed me forward and said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do a 10 minute set, you’ve got to a 15 minute set…oh, you’re doing a 20 minute set now!’
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’m going to sing for five minutes!’ But it helped me. He helped me do some demos as well. He’s a really great guy. I think he saw that this girl needed a bit of a push. He encouraged me a lot because I was so shy and scared.”
It’s clear that studying at Goldsmith’s was a very special time for U’mau.
“I learnt a lot technically which I think is going to take me the next ten years to really assimilate and put into practice. It opened up a lot of new repertoire for me. But I think the thing I got out of it most was that I met amazing musicians.”
The discussion turns to the benefits of an artist having a sound academic knowledge of music. U’mau sees the advantages, but doesn’t believe the institutional route is the be all and end all.
“I think if I had to choose between theoretical knowledge and intuitive’ she muses, ‘…If I could either be a guitar and singing virtuoso but always have to read from script or be so-so but purely intuitive, I would actually choose intuition. There’s so much power and life in that.”
Later we touch on the subject of Sade’s forthcoming UK tour followed by a mildly pedantic (admittedly most of it on my end) fan’s evaluation of their classic albums. U’mau cites Love Deluxe as a prime example of heart-over-head music;
“There was nothing theoretically amazing happening [on Love Deluxe] but it was so real, so beautiful, and so magical. I believe that’s what music is; the intangible almost becoming tangible.”
If U’mau admires Sade, she goes positively giddy for Prince. She still rues missing his 2007 shows at the 02 Arena. “I hate to use this word because of what it has become but Prince has the X-Factor,” she reflects.
“He does have that magic. I like quirky and weird and he is just that. He disgusts me because he plays all these instruments so well. I love the way he throws things together. There is something that he brings…I’ve never analysed it or put a label on it…but there are some things where you feel, ‘That was a very Prince move.’ There’s just something about his voice. He can sound like 50 different people at the same time and you know it and you feel it and you think, ‘Wow!'”
Believe it or not U’mau would not describe herself as ‘a diehard fan’ but she admits, “There’s a big place in my heart for Prince. When someone shows such brilliance in places and is able to bring it on every album it’s enough for me to have that total respect for him.”
Closer to home U’mau has an impressive array of musicians on her debut including jazz drummer Troy Miller who has worked with the likes of Michael Olatuja and the Dunamis Collective, backing vocalist Ayesha Pike who regularly supports acclaimed jazz songstress Elisa Caleb and of course, the much sought-after Mr Femi Temowo. A close friend for many years, U’mau never stops being in awe of his guitar skills.
“He’s just disgusting,” she gasps in mock indignation. “He doesn’t stop getting better. You think; there’s nowhere else to go. You’re hitting the Ozone layer now. He really has that [spirit of excellence]; that’s what I love about him. He really inspires.” U’mau also greatly appreciates Femi’s overall professionalism both as a session guitarist and musical director.
“When he takes on that responsibility he does it with so much integrity. He doesn’t mess you about. He puts his heart into it. He will barter for you just to make sure he does what he set out to do. I love that integrity about him. Obviously he has great respect for music.”
Listening to Sound Journeys… the care taken to create diverse soundscapes is evident. Nevertheless U’mau maintains the true goodies should be saved for the live experience.
“The live show is the [main] thing,” although she concedes, “The recordings keep the songs alive to a certain extent. You can’t be playing your whole repertoire. It would just kill people. It’s good to have that keepsake; this picture of a time of where [the artist] was or a sound. They’re both good. If someone who’s better as a recording artist can’t do the live thing for whatever reason but they have something really special to give in that recording then by all means…”
This desire to be even-handed punctuates our interview. Whilst not exactly sitting on the fence, U’mau is keen not to isolate anyone with her opinions. She’s wary of jumping to conclusions, too. “God is holy. He’s the one making the judgments, not me” she says, “I have no right and my knowledge is so limited.”
This sense of fairness could be an extension of her love of ‘old fashioned acts of kindness and idealism’ according to the bio on her website. Intrigued, I probe her on what this means.
“I think a lot of us are on autopilot. A lot of people are role-playing; they’re not alive inside. You can’t really connect and there’s not a lot of compassion. Nowadays people are very materialistic; everybody’s too cool. I still love it when people can get excited…they have the inner child.
“For me, one of the most amazing things in this world is Sesame Street. Honestly, I love that programme! I hear that song ‘Rainbow Connection’ that Kermit the Frog sang in the ‘Muppet Movie’ and there’s so much power and truth in that. Things like that are so pure. As long as you’re looking for light, sincerely looking for light- not looking for power or to boss someone else or manipulate- you will get light and spread light. Those simple things-maybe silly things-really bring beauty to life and they draw me to people…”
U’mau has plans to spread this kind of goodwill further afield. On the album’s opening track ‘Might As Well’ and in her bio she makes reference to her vision for the ‘United States of Africa.’ Could she be harbouring vague political aspirations as a means of helping to make it a reality?
“No political aspirations at all, none whatsoever.” U’mau is quite adamant ‘I don’t understand people who run for any kind of office. It’s frightening. I can’t handle that kind of responsibility’. She smiles ‘I think I’m quite lazy; I just want to have fun’.
So the United States of Africa is purely ideological?
“Yes but I think it’s something that can start on the ground. We as Africans are so interesting, so colourful. I think because of our environment, our climate and our proximity… If we saw fewer differences, if we kind of pooled our resources and stopped looking to other places…”
Again, U’mau is careful not to be too categorical.
“I don’t want to sound like a know everything. I used to be one of those people who hated it when people said ‘Africa’ and put us all together like one country. [But] we can work together without losing our identity.”
Photo credit: Seyi Ogunbona