A Chat With Afro-jazz singer on her Upcoming Maiden EP, AFRABA
It’s noon on a dry and hazy harmattan afternoon. I’m sitting in the garden of music sensation Adomaa’s family home in Accra, preparing to interview her. A few feet away, she’s chatting with some members of Vision Inspired Music (VI Music), the label she co-founded, which manages her and produces her music. This is an interview I wasn’t sure would happen, not because she’s inaccessible (because she and her crew are down-to-earth, genuine people) but because I had reached out to her just 4 nights earlier. It was a shot in the dark, coming from a nudge from my sister to interview Adomaa for Design233, and not sure I would get a response on such short notice. I had 5 days in Accra before heading back to New York. Since she has been on Design233’s radar for a while, I went for it and sent her an email.
So here I am, sitting with her, with images of her first mashup video on YouTube floating in my mind. The plan is to take pictures of her after our chat but Souza, VI’s videographer, photographer and graphic artist, takes over my camera and snaps away as we chat. It’s the perfect setting for a relaxing interview and I am surrounded by extremely creative and talented young people, one of whom is Adomaa’s sibling and VI Music’s composer and arranger.
2015 was a big discovery year for Adomaa. Her mashup video, Evolution of GH Music, a remake of old Ghanaian favorites from the 60s to present day, spanning Highlife and Hiplife, went viral overnight. It’s style was one never conceived before in Ghana’s musical history, catching the attention of Ghanaians all over the world. The Evolution of GH Music is, in essence, a history lesson on Ghana’s musical history, layering popular hits by ET Mensah, Osibisa, Kojo Antwi, Rex Omar and many more in a sometimes sultry and mellow jazz mix and sometimes uptempo rhythm. In between, she throws in raps by Reggi Rockstone and R2Bees! It’s also a reinterpretation of these songs, offering a fresh new way of appreciating them. Following this successful mashup, Adomaa and her team released others, which caught the attention of Ghana’s Stonebwoy. She has proven she has range and is moving into making original songs with her maiden Extended Play (EP) set for release on the 31st of January. Traffic Jam, her first single from the EP, was released in December, 2015. It’s dancey tune will definitely have you on your feet.
Adomaa, born Joy Onyinyechukwu Adomaa Serwaa Adjeman in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother and a Ghanaian father, spent most of her formative years in Nigeria. In 2004, she moved to Ghana with her family.
“…music is more than just turning a few words into melody. It’s a lot more than that. It’s about communicating with your audience, about getting them to feel something cause music is extremely powerful. It can change moods.”
Adomaa (January, 2016)
Design233: For most people, including me, it was The Evolution of Ghanaian Music that brought me to your FB page and got me asking, “Who is this amazing and creative songstress?” From that point until now when the video went viral, how has the journey to being a famous musician been for you? What was happening prior to that and how has your life changed since then?
Adomaa: It’s been an interesting journey so far. I’ve managed to meet and work with some influential people in the industry and the feeling has been surreal. Prior to putting up any of my mashups, I was working, actively involved in the production of a friend’s online show called The Amped! Show and also working as a journalist. A lot of things have changed since then. For starters, I think there’s a deeper appreciation of music for me now. Then it wasn’t professional. It was a hobby. But now, being in the industry, there’s a lot more in-depth understanding of what is going on.
D233: When did you start at GIJ?
A: 2008 to 2012. After that I went straight to working. I worked briefly with GhanaCelebretries online and then Viasat 1. But now I’m doing music fulltime.
D233: Why journalism?
A: I used to write a lot and when I was little, I always saw myself on TV reading the news. I didn’t think too much of it but life just happened and I found myself in GIJ, not because I didn’t want to do it then, but things happened to get me to that point. I still have a bit of it in me but my all-time passion has always been music.
D233: What was it like when you were working as journalist? Did you ever feel like it wasn’t where you were supposed to be?
A: No, no. I like to think of myself as an artsy person so there’s a lot of interests. Journalism was definitely one of them and like I said, music was a hobby. Things just happened and videos went viral. It was a bit of a struggle trying to balance it with the music.
D233: Were you expecting that?
A: No, not at all, but then it was good. At some point I had to make a decision because both are very demanding. So I made the decision to go with my heart.
D233: Who is Adomaa – your background, growing up, education, family?
A: Adomaa is a very simple, down-to-earth, laid–back young woman and I like to think of my self as a very creative artsy person. Almost everything to do with the arts, I kind of dabble in. I’m from a pretty large family – I have about 4 siblings. I say “about” because I tend to add a few more. I live with my cousins as well.
D233:At what point did you move to Ghana?
A: We moved around a lot because my dad is a pastor and he used to get transferred a lot. At a point, we moved to Ghana briefly for about six months. Then we moved back to Nigeria. Permanently, we moved to Ghana in 2004.
D233: So most of your life has been in Nigeria?
D233: So do you speak any of the languages there?
A: I used to speak Yoruba fluently when I was very young but I think the constant speaking of English diluted it. When your dad is Ghanaian and your mom is Nigerian, the common language would be English. I speak a bit of Twi, broken, but it’s there and Yoruba as well.
D233: So how many languages do you speak? One a half?
A: (Laughter) You could say that.
D233: What do you take from these two cultures into your music?
A: There’s not much difference between Ghanaian culture and Nigerian culture. Most people already call the two countries siblings. There’s not much difference at all.
D233: Well there’s the love-hate relationship, but your parents found the love side (Laughter).
A: I know, right?(Laughter)but anyways I am an Afro-jazz artiste. The Afro is very important to me because I’m African before anything else, so whatever music I put out, I make sure there’s a representation of both. Whether it’s my Nigerian-ness or Ghanaian-ness or a bit of both, it’s always there, and the two go well together.
D233: So you moved here (Ghana) in 2004. How old were you then?
A: I think I was about….Naa, I won’t say (Laughter)
D233: (Laughter) I was trying to get it out of you!
A: You almost got me.
D233: When did you become aware of your talent and realize you wanted to be an entertainer?
A: I grew up in a musical family. Sometime I teasingly call us the von Trapp Adjeman’s because everyone sings – my mom, my dad and my 4 siblings all have music as their thing. So I’ve always known it was there but I didn’t know I was going to take it as a career, until recently when I had a few friends pushing me saying I should take it more seriously. One thing led to another and now we’re sitting here.
D233:What preparations did you make towards being a musician? Did you have any formal training in music?
A: No, I have zero training in music. I am a professional bathroom singer. (Laughter) I’ve been singing for a very long time in the bathroom just for myself and I , (Pause) Uh, like I said I got the push from a few people who had randomly heard me. Until then, I’d never sung in front of anybody, not even my parents. So I joined the choir. My choir director pushed me hard because he felt I had a lot of potential. He actually played a key role in who I am now because I had terrible stage fright. But it’s gotten a lot better.
D233: What was your first major performance?
A: Oooh! My first major performance was Platinum Night, last year. At that time I was still part of The Amped! Show and they got a gig for us to play at Platinum Night and it was Uh! It was terrifying ! It was my first time in front of a real crowd, cause in church you know everybody. It was really bad, I couldn’t stand. My legs were so shaky I had sit, my eyes were shut tight and I was sweating but it went well.
D233: Do you remember what you did?
A: It was a solo. I did a jazz rendition of Bust Your Windows by Jazmine Sullivan
D233: With your dad being in ministry, was there ever a conflict with your singing secular music?
A: No. I had that conversation with my parents. This was meant to be a fun project. We were just fooling around and it happened to turn into a big thing, so I had a conversation with my parents. My dad mentioned that he’d been seeing me on TV and a lot of people were asking about it, “So is this a thing, Is this what I want to do?“. I said Yes. “So why this?” I explained to them that for me I don’t see gospel as a genre. I see it as a message. Gospel is about the message you’re putting across. I am an Afro-jazz artiste. Jazz is a genre so I don’t consider myself a gospel musician. Not saying I wouldn’t do anything gospel related. There are a lot of songs I would want to put out that are very gospel-themed, but I wouldn’t call myself a gospel musician. In fact, on the EP, there’s a particular song addressing this issue, because I get asked this a lot. I can’t wait for that song to come out. I think it will clear the air on everything, musically.
D233: What role does family play in your musical career?
A: Oh a huge role! They are like my backbone. Everybody needs peace of mind to follow their dreams. You are going to face challenges in whatever career you choose, and if have too many burdens, especially family pressures, you won’t be able to pursue your dreams. I have my family’s support like a 1000%. My dad donated his study space for us to use and he studies in the dining area now. That is how supportive they are. My family is everything, actually.
D233: What is music?
A: For me, music is more than just turning a few words into melody. It’s a lot more than that. It’s about communicating with your audience, about getting them to feel something cause music is extremely powerful. It can change moods. You can be sad right now and listen to something and then all of a sudden, you’re happy. It’s very important to know what you’re doing as a musician because you’re literally playing with people’s emotions. You have that power to control people’s emotions. It’s very powerful, I feel like musicians are probably the most powerful people in the world so it’s very important to know exactly how to use that gift.
D233: How would you classify your style of music?
A: I discovered at a very young age that I love very vintage sounds. I love jazz, blues, soul, classical music. I call myself an old soul probably because I wasn’t meant to be in this generation. But maybe I was meant to be for a reason. I blend a bit of that with African rhythms because I am Ghanaian, I am African and I want to ensure that, that is always represented in what I do. If it has to go to the world, I want people to be able to identify that this person is from here just from listening to it. I like to blend my love for the vintage with the African-ness so I call myself an Afro-jazz artiste.
D233: Your music videos and songs tell me, Here is someone taking a risk and stepping out of the norm. How did you create this unique sometimes-mellow-sometimes-upbeat blend of Jazz, Hiplife and Afropop?
A: I’ll give huge props to VI music, my team, because I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. Usually, the concept comes from here (pointing to her heart), but putting it together, is not me. It’s a team effort. Everybody is talented, creative and passionate about music, so when we get together and the creative juices start to flow, it’s always very crazy. At the end of the day, we go like Wow, we did this!
My brother is responsible for the arrangements. Basically, I give him the concept, telling him the mood I am looking for. He gets onto his guitar to work out a baseline and then passes it on to Reynolds “The Gentleman” who is the producer. From there, we get together, everybody brings their suggestions and before long, we’ve come up with something.
D233: You’ve mentioned that Lalah Hathaway, Corinne Bailey Rae, Asa and Efya are the musicians who influence you the most. What do you draw from these artistes?
A: I think I take their uniqueness, the fact that they are very unique in what they do and stick with it. It’s something I intend to emulate in this industry as I go along. The moment you begin to sound like everybody else, there’s nothing special about you anymore. Someone like Lalah, who’s been around for so many year, is still doing exactly what she started with and people can refer to her and draw inspiration from what she does. Efya, Corrine and Asa as well. I need to stay true to what I believe in and always make sure I don’t dilute it with what is trending no matter how popular it is.
D233: How many songs are on your upcoming EP, AFRABA?
A: There are going to be 6. TrafficJam! is already out. But there are 5 more songs.
D233: Which producers are you working with?
A: The same team. The Gentleman produced the entire EP and he’s the one who has been producing all the covers.
D233: Which artistes are featuring on your EP?
I’m really, really honored to have Maame Dokono (aka Grace Omaboe) on it. I’m so happy to have her. Kyekyeku is an amazing guitarist, He’s on it. Also Nana Asaase. He’s an amazing poet. A very good friend of mine called Robin, a very talented singer also signed to VI, is on it too.
D233: Wow! So you have a mix of artistes on it, actors, poets?
A: Yes, it’s a whole package. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it. (Laughter)
D233: What influenced Traffic Jam?
A: It’s one of those songs that came accidentally On two different occasions I was sitting in traffic. On one of these days, I was sitting in traffic after work and you know how Ghanaian traffic situation is – people are tired from work, stressed, trying to get home and cars are not moving. It was really stressful! And in that moment, as I was just observing the situation, one thing that came to mind – was the movie, August Rush and how writer created music from just random sounds. I thought that sometimes, even though some situations can be stressful and life tough, you might be missing out on so many rather simple but really epic things in life because you’re so stressed about the hustle and bustle of life.
On another day, literally as it is in the song, I was going to buy waakye and I just decided to throw that into the song.(Laughter). The morale of the story is: Life can be difficult and it can be easy too. But then in the difficult times, you should always remember to sit back, breath and enjoy what is going on around you because it’s short. One moment you’re here, the next you’re gone and you wouldn’t want to have regrets. You should take everything in as much as you can.
D233: Who in the whole world would you like to share a stage with?
A: If I had to pick one person in the entire world it would be Michael Buble, just because he’s a legend, just because I have a huge musical crush on his voice and he’s the one who kick-started my whole vintage sound. I loved music in general until I heard his voice. It made me love jazz and got me to do more research into it jazz and discovered Ella and all those other amazing people.
D233: On to fashion, do you work with a stylist? Who are your preferred stylists in Ghana or any particular ones you’d like to work with?
A: Yes, my cousin is a stylist and a fashion designer so I work with him a lot. People say I have a very unique fashion sense which I’m grateful for but I don’t really put much thought into it. I just basically put on whatever feels comfortable so it’s really good to have someone who know about the fashion industry to help out with that. The name is DoNeal Collections.
D233: Oh wow, keeping it in the family! (Laughter) What is your love relationship with Vlisco?
A: Ahh, Vlisco, Vlisco (Sigh and smile) I’ve always been a huge fan of their fabrics from way back and I’m not even saying this because I’m part of the brand but it’s actually true. The first time I heard about them was when I saw tis fabric with gold accents. It was new and I hadn’t seen anything like it in Ghana. Someone got it for me as my birthday present and I wore it till it faded. So I was extremely excited to be part of this brand.
D233: So you’re a brand ambassador?
A: No, not an ambassador. An influencer. Basically talk about the product on social media to get people to purchase it but’s mostly on social media. Basically I think Vlisco is an amazing product, They have this new lcollecton they came out with the Voila For you. Which is amazing! The fabrics are amazing and they also have this in-house tailoring service where as soon as you buy you can just go and they’ll have your measurement taken and have it done for you. It’s been amazing working with them and they’ve sponsored quite a number of my shows. So they’ve been great.
D233: You seem to have great chemistry with your band to be able to create the magic you do. How did you meet them?
A: We had auditions for band members a few months back when we started. We have those who I work with occasionally but the official band for the label is Fra. I met them a few months ago at Piano Bar where I had a gig. They are amazing, probably one of the best bands I’ve heard here in Ghana. It’s been awesome working with them and they played for the whole EP.
D233: Where do you play or sing most of the time?
A: I have a regular gig at Piano Bar at Teshie Nungua every Sunday. Apart from that, I get some people contacting us for gigs.
D233: What is your obsession with butterflies? (Laughter)
A: (Laughter) I was asked this question during an interview, that if there was a symbol I could use to describe the entire music me what that would be. I thought for a second and then it just came to mind – the butterfly. It fits so well. Looking at the life cycle of the butterfly when it starts as an egg, it’s exactly like me, when I started of in my bathroom and no one knew about me. If you see an egg on a leaf somewhere, there’s no way of knowing that someday it would become a butterfly. The caterpillar stage is me at the point when I started to push myself a little bit more, to start singing infront of my family, then taking it to church, listening to other musicians and learning from them.
The cocoon stage, represents the hardships and struggles because it hasn’t been easy singing in the choir, where my music director, Pastor Williams, God bless him, was tough on me because he saw great potential in me. But it was necessary. If the butterly doesn’t go through those stages, it wouldn’t come out as it’s supposed to be. So, generally looking through the process of the butterfly, it is exactly my story. It describes my musical journey. So why not the butterfly.
D233: Where is Ghanaian music and African music globally and what are your hopes for it?
A: I think we can do a lot more. Like I said, it’s catching on fast with the world. In terms of me and the kind of music I do, it’s my hope that people would jump onto it because it’s different and I’ve had some reservations. Blending something foreign with the local to create another thing, one can never be too sure how people would take it so it’s my hope that it catches on and it becomes a thing in the future to add to the authenticity of Ghanaian music in general.
D233: I think you’re on the right track, having successfully taken these old Ghanaian songs I hadn’t heard in a long time and putting a spin on them. I talked about this with Kyekyeku during my interview with him, that it would be nice for someone to remake some of our old songs, because in a way you’d be paying homage to them and giving them longevity.
A: Yes, true.
D233: What is in store for 2016 and the future?
A: 2016 is about Afraba, it’s about the EP. I can’t wait for that to come out.
D233: Does Afraba mean little child?
A: No. I was actually really happy to find out that it meant that in Fante but I had no idea. After I identified with the butterfly, I wanted to use it as the title of the EP but not directly because that would be too ordinary. I did a little research and found out that in Twi, Afrafranto is butterfly and in Yoruba Labalaba is butterfly. So, I took Afra from the Twi interpretation and the –ba from the Yoruba word and put it together. Then I found out that in Fante, Afraba means child. I thought they went well together because I’m new in the industry .
D233: That is beautiful. Any tours lined up?
A: We have plans to do a college tour, maybe a high school tour. There are talks of a few other ones we are not too certain about but I know definitely the college and high school tours will be coming on later on in the year. And outside Ghana?
D233: And Outside Ghana?
A: A few offers have come in. We are looking at organizing ourselves properly and strategically.
D233: So we’ll see you in New York?
A: Amen to that (Laughter)
D233: What is your ultimate goal?
A: There’s this song I heard from Beyonce that encapsulates it properly: I want to leave my mark so everyone will know that I was here and I want everybody to know I gave my all, I gave my best, I led someone to happiness, I made the world a better place just because I was here. So I think it’s about finding my purpose, which I now know is music and using that to influence people and to make the world better.
Design233 wishes Adomaa and VI Music the very best for the future. Watch out for the release of Adomaa’s maiden EP, AFRABA, on 31st January, 2016.
All portraits and concert images of Adomaa provided by VI Music
Thank you to Adomaa and Vision Inspired Music (VI Music) for making this interview possible on such short notice, especially Awusi and Evans. A big thank you to Souza for the interview photographs. You made our work much easier.
Thank you to Pauline, my sister, for encouraging me to contact Adomaa.