Earlier this year, 25-year-old Etuk Ubong released his debut album Tales of Life. The album is a strong step in a new and authentic musical direction called “earth music”.
The sound of the natural elements of earth, fire, water and wind fusing with jazz harmonies is heard in a positive and inspiring musical embrace.
Ubong says: “My principle in life is truth and purity. It reflects in my music. My compositions are based on nature, love and humanity and are composed to bring back the consciousness of love and togetherness, and the spirit of oneness and unity.”
Ubong grew up in Southern Nigeria, Akwa Ibom, where his grandfather was the traditional chief priest of the village. “Earth music” incorporates the Ibibio character of the musical style of the region, known as Ekombi and Nigerian spiritual influences such as Yoruba, the Igbo sound from the eastern region and the Hausa Sound from the northern region.
It is a jazz based music that mixes playful trumpet lines with stirring indigenous rhythms, such as the driving afrobeat, the triplets of Ariaria or the groove of Highlife. Ubong’s combination of a clear and resounding tone with sublime melodies is a delight.
The last time a young Nigerian jazz trumpet player came up with a new style, it was 1963: Fela Kuti’s afrobeat. And these are comparisons that Ubong is grateful for, but not bothered with.
He says: “The aim is to make sure that my music cuts across to everybody from the young to the old and they understand the essence and value of life. I am educating my audience so far and it is getting well known, especially here in Nigeria.”
Ubong’s love for the trumpet started at 14 when his mother introduced him to the instrument at church. This story is told in the love song for his mum Uyai Mi Margaret, recorded on his latest album.
The trumpet changed his life: “I regained my consciousness and said my life was going to be about music. People thought I was crazy as they did not want their kids to go into music as a career. It was a real journey but I had the courage and was determined and now they are my number one fans. There is always that point for everyone.”
After he found a trumpet, he soon found his mentor, Nigerian jazz musician Victor Ademofe, who introduced him to the American players of the bebop and cool jazz eras.
“My mentor taught me how to practise a lot,” he recalls. “I saw that this is not a joke. John Coltrane used to sleep by the saxophone. I imbibe that spirit in me. I don’t know where I got that kind of strength and energy from.”
Ubong went to the University of Cape Town to study jazz. His discipline to practise made him one of the most notorious wood-shedders in the history of the music school – putting in as much as 14 to 18 hours of practise a day.
Practise was his key to rapid growth and development in the technical skills of playing a challenging instrument like the trumpet, fast and high. And with this ability he now has the confidence to play with anyone, from the professors in Cape Town to Berkeley in the US and the young lions in Johannesburg.
In Nigeria, Ubong has worked consistently with some of the top bands. He worked with Femi Kuti for two years at the African Shrine. He played with Victor Olaiya in a highlife band for four years and with Buchi in a gospel reggae band for two.
He attributes his success to his four principles of life: reading in the dark, prayer, thinking and miracle, which he recorded in his 2016 EPK (Electronic Press Kit).
He summarises the journey: “Reading in the Dark talks about Nigeria before the British colonised the country. It also relates to every aspect of human life when confusion and all negative influences are upon us. And we got out of that darkness when we got our independence in 1960.
“Then we started thinking about the way forward, development and society and how we move onto the next phase in life. We couldn’t rely only on our strength or ideas. You need prayer to back it up in whichever religion you believe in. Prayer is the key. The victory comes by way of miracle.”
Ubong is getting a lot of international experience. He recently returned from a summer tour in London where he performed with British kora player, Tunde Jegede, two-time Grammy award winning percussion player Lekan Babalola and Nigerian British afrobeat ambassador Dele Sosimi.
He performs in a sextet with Lagos-based musicians. Together they display the cultural and traditional activities and characters in the music, including masquerades and the inter-relationship between traditional science and sound.
In Nigeria there is a growing appetite for all sounds jazz, with initiatives such as the Lagos Jazz Series, the Lagos Jazz festival, the Capital Jazz festival, Abuja Jazz Festival, and Tamerri Jazz Festival with regular live music venues such as Satchmo’s and Freedom Park.
As a self-managed and independent recording artist, Ubong is showing the next generation of original musicians that it is possible to make a career out of music, and he has many mentees coming to his house to practise with him and learn some of his secrets.
He says: “Once you have a good structure for yourself then passion, focus and consistency follow.
“The young ones must always remember it is never meant to be easy. It is never smooth. It takes a process of trial and error, but there is nothing like failure because the failure makes you stronger – that is how we move in life.”
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