The Olatuja Project’s “The Promise” Fulfills a Vision (or Two)
Jazz, gospel, soul and traditional African sounds mix happily on husband-and-wife team’s uplifting debut collaboration
The word promise holds many meanings, all of them profoundly important to our lives. We promise to do our best, we promise to pay our debts and to take care of one another. We promise to keep our promises and we take offense when others don’t. And then there’s the more intangible promise that looks to the future with hope and anticipation: a gifted student or athlete who holds so much promise. We even say an artist’s next work promises to be even better than the last
one! Both definitions of promise are bound to faith and trust. Both are something that we hold dear.
The Promise is the ideal title for the new release from the Olatuja Project, the first recorded collaboration between Michael Olatuja (acoustic/electric bassist and composer), his wife Alicia Olatuja (vocalist/composer) and their virtuoso band. It fulfills the promises suggested by Michael’s 2009 debut, Speak, named the R&B Album of the Year at the 9th Annual Independent Music Awards and given a rave review by the BBC’s music website, which called it “the expression of a singular creative voice that taps all the cultures from which it is born.”
But even more than that, The Promise (World Tune Records) fulfills the couple’s collective vision to create music that fuses such traditional elements of African music as the Yoruba tongue, the talking drum and call-and-response vocals with the familiar Western languages of contemporary jazz, traditional gospel, R&B, neo-soul and a funky groove.
The Promise, produced by Michael and Alicia, takes the musical stew, Speak, to the next level, expanding on the earlier album’s rich sonic and lyrical tapestry. Its 10 tracks are inspirational and stirring, imbued with multiple, diverse colors and ambiances, abounding with a vast variety of textures and tales. As Michael says, “The songs flow like a single story,” and that story defines the special, personal and artistic world inhabited by the Olatujas.
As Alicia sings in the Yoruba-language chorus of the seductive title track, “A foretold promise has come to pass. It’s a miracle.” Indeed, both the music made together by these two gifted performers and the fact that they managed to find their way through this vast world to each other to make it, often feels miraculous. The roots of their relationship go back to their time together at the Manhattan School of Music, when Alicia called Michael to play bass on one of her sessions.
By that time, Michael—whose personal journey had taken him from Lagos, Nigeria to London and New York—was working to establish himself as a go-to bassist on the New York scene. Throughout the course of his career, Michael’s work has enlivened the music of Terence Blanchard, Phil Collins, Shakira, Lisa Stansfield, Rod Stewart, Gretchen Parlato, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Roy Ayers, Chrisette Michele and many others.
Alicia, meanwhile, originally hails from St. Louis. During her collegiate years in New York she performed many musical theater and opera roles, served as a soloist in the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and worked with Christian McBride, Chaka Khan and Bebe Winans. When they met and first played music together, Michael found Alicia to be “an amazing singer and a superb vocal arranger/producer.” Together they began writing for and producing recordings for other artists within several diverse genres.
With the release of Speak, Michael and Alicia, who have now been married for three years, began working together, with Alicia directing the singers and Michael the instrumentalists. From this, the Olatuja Project was born. Rounding out the band on The Promise are guitarists Femi Temowo and Liberty Ellman, keyboardists Oli Rockberger, talking drummers Kofo Wonder and Anyan Doshu, percussionist Thomas Dyanni and drummer John Davis. Jason Michael Webb and Etienne Stadwijk (ATN) each play keyboards on one track.
Not long after they began playing in public together, the Olatuja Project discovered that their music was having an emotional impact on audiences. An article in the Boston Globe last August detailed how one woman at an Olatuja Project concert was so overcome that she was driven to tears. Other fans have approached the couple to tell them how moving their music is.
“Music is audible emotion,” Alicia told the Boston newspaper. “You can’t hear inspiration or hope as a feeling, but when you put it to music it can evoke these emotions and speak to the person.” To that Michael added, “It has less to do with where we are and more about speaking to people’s hearts and how it changes their life.’’
The Promise is all about those interpersonal connections, the myriad of ways in which we each channel inspiration, emotion, hope, love and, yes, promise, into our daily interactions with one another.
The title track opens the record, its imagery reflecting people rejoicing upon the receipt of good news: “The promise fulfilled/The veil removed/As it was written/The bond renewed/The One has come to heal the soul/Through every word of a story told.” An important feature of the song is the gan-gan (talking drum), the premier drum of Nigeria. It’s played with a hook-shaped, wooden drumstick held by the right hand and the fingers of the left. The lead-talking drum in Nigerian music is known for quoting moral proverbs that have been passed down from generation to generation.
“Sumo Mi,” means “draw nearer,” is next. The song starts with an addictive vocal and bass ostinato, followed by piano and drums. “In this song we have a jealous creator calling out to His creation,” says Michael. “He is saying, ‘Come to Me, cling to Me and don’t look back.’ There are many voices calling us in life. Many draw on our focus and attention.”
The following tune, “Soki” (“a little while”), is one of the album’s richest both in terms of arrangement and content. Its spiritual message is simple and universally understood: rejoice because peace is coming in a little while. “People from every nation will sing and dance,” explains Michael. “They can see that the time when all wars, fighting, strife and conflict is about to end globally. Peace is in sight and its coming will cause unity.” The song unites rhythmic elements and influences from different African countries. It’s a mix of 6/8 time from Zimbabwe, Mali, Cameroon and Nigeria, harmonic elements of American R&B and gospel and more. “The goal was to blend everything in a beautiful way.”
“Odun De” means “a new year” or, more accurately, “celebration time.” The song is about forgiveness and the imagery of a relationship that was once sweet but has now gone sour due to resentment, a lack of forgiveness and bitterness. The chorus says, “It’s a new year, let’s forget about yesterday and enjoy today” with a clean slate.
“Iye” (“life in abundance”) tells of a lost, unfulfilled soul looking for purpose in life. In this search this person remembers that a word from the Creator can change any situation, because He has all the answers. In short: purpose and meaning in life are not found through materialism. “Tell me who can guide/Tell me who can save/Who can give unspeakable joy/I know His name,” the Olatujas write.
“Sunrise” says Alicia, signifies a new day. “We wanted to musically express the visual experience of the sun piercing over the horizon at dawn. It’s such a powerful yet silent moment that inspires the feeling of renewal. We portrayed this by the gradual layering of instruments in an unhurried fashion.”
“Hold Me,” says Alicia, “has a folk feel to it. The steel-string acoustic guitar provides a descending riff that sets up the beautiful canvas and scenery. This is the first song that Michael and I wrote together. I heard him play the bass line at home in the back room and instantly started writing to it. Some lyrics take time to materialize. However, with this song, every phrase flowed quickly and with ease. It wrote itself.”
“The Playground” is one of the album’s lighter, more playful moments. “It is about moving forward and leaving the past behind,” says Alicia. “It could be about someone who feels that his or her best days are behind, thus the person is stuck in the past. Holding on to past glories can sometimes be a hindrance.”
“Boju Woke” (“lift up your eyes”), in contrast, is a Brazilian bossa nova influenced tune with inspirational Nigerian Yoruba lyrics. It focuses on a person who is going though the eye of a storm and is about to quit. The message is to “look up” and find something to be thankful for, because gratitude and depression cannot cohabitate.
Finally, The Promise closes out with a vocalise (wordless number), “Holy.” Says Michael about the album’s finale, “Alicia and I found that there was something sacred and pure about having no lyrics. This is where the title came from. This is a short piece, which functions more as a closing interlude or a benediction.”
As they wrote the songs on the album, says Michael, he and Alicia found that their process constantly changed. “Lyrics ignite melody, melody inspires lyrics, both lyrics and melody inspire harmony,” he says. Overall, creating the music for The Promise was “very satisfying. There is a level of complexity collaborating with a spouse: a bonding requiring faith, patience and trust. We came up with refreshing and new combinations, with different genres smoothly coexisting in a blend of our musical backgrounds and experiences. This album merges the best of both worlds: the rhythmic complexity of Nigerian styles and the harmony and production quality of contemporary American music.”
“The music we are making together,” says Alicia, “is about divine inspiration, life inspiration and mutual inspiration between each other. The result is our united collaborative vision.”
In other words, a promise delivered.