France and Nigeria-Based Singer/Songwriter Asa Redefines World Music
Asa / Photo by Lauren Dukoff
Singer/songwriter Asa was born to make music. From her birth and later years in Paris to her formative years in Nigeria, music has remained her constant companion. In an effort to grow as a musician, she secretly enrolled in music school, bought a guitar and carved out a distinct sound that's unmistakably Asa—a blend of reggae, folk, soul and jazz. She weaves many themes throughout the 10 tracks of her self-titled debut, and the way she communicates emotion is further heightened through her use of English and her mother tongue, Yoruba.
LAist recently sat down with Asa at Caffe Etc. prior to one of her recent gigs at the Hotel Cafe. Over espresso, she opened up about the meaning of her name, the beauty of Nigeria and her thoughts on Los Angeles.
LAist: What led you to choose the stage name Asa? What does the name mean?
Asa: It means "hawk," though when I go to France, they call me "little falcon." The origin of the name comes from when I was a kid. I'd go missing a lot. I was always wandering and exploring, and if my mother wasn't watching me closely, I'd disappear. It was hard to find me, especially in the marketplace. When they found me one time, an old man gave me the name "Asa," because he said that I was as fast as a hawk. Since then, I've been Asa.
You secretly signed up for a music school when you were younger. How did your parents react when they learned what you had done?
They didn't take it too hard, because it was my choice. If I was going to go to Peter King's music school, then I would be responsible for my fees. So I began working. Thankfully, I was living with my grandparents, so accommodation was taken care of. I started earning money by working as a session performer. Sometimes I'd do backup in studios, sometimes I'd go on a tour. I collaborated a lot.
What attracted you to the guitar in particular?
I've loved the guitar ever since I was a kid. I love Bob Marley and I love the way he held his guitar. When I was young, I never got the opportunity to have one, because of course, my father would rather buy food and send us to school. It wasn't until I was 20 that I got one.
How did you first come into contact with producer Cobhams Emmanuel Asuquo?
I met Cobhams five years ago through my manager, Janet. At that time, Janet was doing a documentary on me, and she told me she wanted me to meet this blind producer. Before then, I was frustrated because I wanted to find someone who could take my music to another level—away from just the guitar/voice thing. When I met this guy in the studio, we just jelled. We wrote a song the first day, and since then, we've been very good friends.
What's the most important thing he's taught you about music?
I've learned so much from him about how to make music spread—to make it beautiful, to give it flesh.
Your music often addresses social injustice and people have often talked about the juxtaposition in your songs. For instance, your lyrics provide social commentary but the music is often upbeat. Have you found that to be the most effective way of getting an important message out there?
I think that's one way, and I've now realized that that's the spirit of my music. When I was writing, I was just being happy. I was feeling hopeful and positive. I figured the best way for me to avoid pointing fingers and to not feel guilty—because we're all guilty of one thing or another—was to break it down and show it as it is. I don't believe in aggression.
Asa - "Fire on the Mountain"
I read somewhere that "Fire on the Mountain" is the name of a game that little kids play in Nigeria. What inspired you to use that name in your song?
Yeah, it's a game we used to play. "Fire on the mountain...run run run." But the song title is a metaphor. Whichever way you look at it, there's fire—trouble. Things are not always rosy and things are not always beautiful. Every day we hear of bizarre things and we can't help but wonder, "Where is this world going?" We have to remind ourselves of that sometimes.
What was your mother's reaction when she first heard the song you wrote about her, "So Beautiful"?
She cried. I was in Paris when I sent the CD to her. It was really touching. My brother told me she cried for days, and she's now using it as her ringtone!
You sing in both Yoruba and English—sometimes both in the same song. How do you decide which language to use when you're songwriting?
It just comes, and it depends. For instance, if I'm writing and I want to express something in a love song, and I want to get very emotional, the best way to do it is through my mother tongue, Yoruba. I think it's one of the most beautiful languages in the world. There's something irresistible about it.
Your album reached double gold and debuted at number one on the digital charts in France, yet there's no French on the album. Do you ever sing in French?
On stage I try to interpret one of the songs in French. They're asking me to sing in French, and I'll do it when it comes naturally. I only speak survival French right now. I only know enough to get me out of trouble. (laughs)
Last year you won the Prix Constantin award in Paris. Is it true that you sang your acceptance speech?
Yeah, I was speechless. I never thought I'd win and I was already happy that I was nominated. I'm not French, and I just see myself as someone who is passing through. These people have been so nice and accepting to me, and they have done so much to honor me. I usually don't cry, but with this one I did. I don't know if I want to see the video!
Asa / Photo by Andreas Terlaak
How do the music scenes in Nigeria and Paris compare?
It's different. But there's something the same about world music—and by world music I refer to music that's played all over the world. There's a same-ness in the popular music that you hear on the radio. And the music in both countries is vibrant.
Music in Nigeria is energetic. Lagos is like the capital—it's not the official capital, but it feels like it because it's more cosmopolitan. Everything that's hip is there. I listened to a lot of soul music, African music and street music as I was growing up. Street music is gyration music where you're singing on the street, hitting pans, making sounds and drinking local wine.
Then I went to Paris and saw such freedom of expression. You can see works of art on the street, which we don't have in Lagos. It's very conservative in Nigeria. In Paris it's arty, such as in the Metro and on the street.
So with these local and global elements, that's where I pull my music from. I never want to lose the local feeling, but I also never want to totally reject or lose that global aim. In my opinion, the purpose of music is to make people happy. They say it's the food of love, and it heals.
Your music has been described so many different ways—afro-folk, reggae-pop, nu-soul jazz and so many others. How do you see it?
Well, soul music/soul fusion, hip hop, jazz, reggae, pop…these are things that I've been exposed to and I'm grateful. Music and life don't have just one label. That's where sharing comes in, and really, all music is world music!
Asa's Self-Titled Debut
Performing alongside these people or opening for them teaches you to get to know different audiences. These are different people who enjoy specific kinds of music, and when you share your music with them, you need to be patient. If you have the opportunity to capture their attention, then it's an A+ if they're actually listening. It can be really annoying when people are talking and drinking while you're trying to perform.
So it's been interesting to go on tour, travel, see people in different parts of the world, and work with the time zones and the movement of the sun and of the earth. I just marvel at it all, and I'm so convinced that traveling is the best education you can ever give anybody.
I hope we can help people do that back home in Nigeria, because people need to be educated through travel. You have to try it—even if it's just to the neighboring country—to exchange cultures. This is what touring has given me.
Speaking of Nigeria, what do you feel is the most important issue the country faces today?
There are loads of issues in Africa. When it comes to the music industry, it's really hurtful because musicians can't earn from their music. It's all pirated, and you are actually expected to be thankful when it's bootlegged. You can't make a living. I've seen the way things are done in other places, and even though there's pirated music everywhere, it's not as bad. It hurts to see how well it can work in other places in the world, and yet in Africa, it's not happening. People need to take time to respect the artist.
Then there's the oil issue. There are people back home who are suffering in the oil region. I used to avoid talking about this, but sometimes I just wish oil never existed. We've lost such beauty and agriculture. Everyone's dreaming of this oil that we never see. Schools are not there. There are talented people back home, I must tell you. If Asa can do it, and if Cobhams can do it, then you can imagine that there are thousands more back home just looking for that opportunity.
Are there any charities in particular that you work with?
There's not one in particular, but I have collaborated with a few back home. I've done concerts to help raise money to send children in Nigeria to school. We have a lot of kids who are just on the street. I had the opportunity to go to school, and when you find a little child on the street begging, it's hard to see.
What's one thing about Nigeria that people in the rest of the world probably don't realize?
It's a beautiful country and the people are friendly. It's so much fun to discover places like Calabar. Africa is beautiful. We who live there often don't see it—we sometimes have to see it through outsiders' eyes to really appreciate it.
Asa / Photo by Lauren Dukoff
I'm reading The Russian Concubine. I saw it in an airport and just had to buy it. I have a stack of new books that are standing in line, waiting for me to read them. I love books.
It's nice to have you back in Los Angeles. How many times have you been here? What do you enjoy about the city?
This is my second time. The last time I was here, I stayed for one week and had a chance to walk a bit. Afterward, I spent one month thinking of moving here. The people are nice and the weather is great, too. I came here from New York and it was incredibly cold there. I felt blessed to come from the freezer into this warmth!
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Asa!