An eclectic mix of rock, soul, jazz, funk and afro beat, creating the undertone for some eccentric and sometimes subterranean spoken word, almost describes the sound of Benin City. A band on the rise, in sighting and entertaining the young and old of London’s music aficionados’ and unknowns.
Already a resident at E4’s udder belly held annually at the South Bank centre in London and continuing to experiment and push the boundaries of conventional spoken word and poetry.
I took some time out to chill in the Embankment Park and talk to Musa from Benin City.
Musa: “If you trying to make a change you should start with yourself”
sunchild: Musa welcome to the Consciousness Lounge
Musa: Thanks! This is a really nice coincidence actually because I have been reading Desmond Tutu’s book. I mean Mandela was a great hero but also Tutus integrity is just something else, being that he was on the outside there doing the hard work as well, while Mandela was on the inside. So yeah, it’s a remarkable coincidence.
sunchild: Yeah man, so can you tell us a bit about yourself and the band? I was lucky enough to see you guys
Musa: perform live at the E4 Udder Belly and I thought the performance was sick!
First of all in Benin City there are six of us. Two poets or spoken word artists; myself and Joshua Idehen. Joshua was born in Benin City and that’s where the name of the band comes from, we also have Theo Buckingham on drums, John Cottele on electric cello, Faye Treacy on Trombone and Tom Leaper on sax.
The band is about 3 years old with the current members.
I used to be a City lawyer and I left to become a poet, and that’s when I met Josh in a poetry cafe, which is about 4 years ago now. We started making music together and did an electronic music project called PIP (Poem In-between People). We put an EP out and it did alright, well it did pretty well and it got some radio coverage etc.
Then we started Benin City about a year after that and we have been going ever since.
The theme of our music is that we try to focus on the human condition or the human experience; I mean you talking about consciousness. I guess that’s what we call it as well. We have strong political convictions of our own but I think everyone in the band would regard themselves as socially liberal but beyond that we don’t tend to preach. We try to look at things that make us excited or anxious and put that in a form that people can relate to. The message if there is one is not to be judgemental. We try to show not tell.
sunchild: Tell us a bit about your sound?
Musa: It’s difficult to describe it because we all listen and are influenced by so much music, just looking at your t-shirt is one, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, then there’s the likes of Menahan Street band, Wild Birds and Peace Drums, Bjork, Michael Jackson, Prince, James Brown, and Outkast. We have probably worked with every genre of music apart from heavy metal only because we haven’t quite found the vocals that would work for that. So in terms of how the sound ends up, it could be anything. I mean we have tried applying genres to our music, like we have tried funk, afro beat etc but we’re not any of those things really because we’re so broad that we don’t really have a genre and we’re learning to be comfortable with that.
sunchild: So what’s the song writing process like then?
Musa: So many songs have evolved in different ways, sometimes the band will jam, or sometimes Josh will start singing a hook and then the band make a tune around that or we might come into the studio with a bass line we have been humming into our phones and say listen, can we try and make something around this. Or we might go on a poem we have written and say, listen here’s some lyrics can we chop this up, because as a spoken word artist if you get a response from your piece acappella, and put it with music, it can be powerful and really take it to another level. It’s really trial and error, there’s no two songs that would have had the same genesis, it quite organic in that way.
sunchild: So where would you say your inspiration comes from?
Musa: I’d say from learning, from reading, from interacting with people, or going out. I mean I always say, the well of creativity is not bottomless you have to go out and replenish it. So when people get writers block, I say actually it’s a positive sign it means you’ve exhausted the sum total of your experiences to date. And that’s great, what it means is go out and have more experiences. Go out and meet people; laugh, drink, have a joke, read a book, listen to a tune, do it all at once. Get a bus journey that’s different, try a different type of food, you just do things you haven’t done before and that will fill the well of creativity and when that is full, get back into it. I am currently refilling my well. About 5 years ago I read about as much I could read in my life. I read all kinds of books like classical literature, novels, non-fiction, a bit of economics the whole lot and cramming it in and now my well is kind of empty again so I need to get back into reading, going on iTunes and buying some classics and some of the newer stuff; immerse myself.
I have been listening to a lot of grime at the moment because what’s amazing about grime is the urgency, the raw energy but there are certain grime artists though because of their stance on things I completely disagree with them. I mean some people might call me a hypocrite because I disagree with a lot of the things they talk about in their lyrics, e.g. like the views on homophobia or the prejudices. I mean Ghetts is one example; does he have views on homosexuality I find repugnant? yes. Is he unbelievably talented and someone I listen to and think ‘I greatly respect your art’? Absolutely.
So you can still listen to an artist and not always agree with what they saying.
Absolutely, because you learn from the technical skill and you respect the way they portray themselves, and the way they paint pictures is incredible.
sunchild: What have your major highlights as a band been so far?
Musa: Well we have had a few so far. We played live at the BBC radio studios twice on the Verve show. We played X-fm live and we have been playing South Bank for a couple of years in a row now selling out their 400 seat auditorium. Those have been real highlights, but there have been other things as well along the way, like we played at a Secret Garden party festival a couple of years ago. When we got into the tent the place relatively empty and people were lying down etc and by the end of it we got encored three times and the place was going absolutely mental but those are my personal highlights. I think the real highlights are when you come into a place where no has heard you before at all, and they have no expectations or heard any of your lyrics whatever and by the end of half an hour, people are excited and engaged, because for me that’s the sign of a real band.
I remember a band called Arcade Fire because our guitarist said that when he saw them for the first time there were 9 bands on the bill, and they came on second. He saw them come in and just absolutely blow the crowd away with their explosive live energy. When you can combine energy with content and make people generally excited about issues that are really important, and you can make songs about social issues from breakups to climate change (I’m really big on climate change by the way); you’re laughing. If you can get people excited about things that really matter, for example if you take a song like Jump around by House of Pain and make it about a social issue, you can imagine it. I mean I can’t speak for the whole band but that is definitely my philosophy.
sunchild: So what do you think the future holds for Benin City?
Musa: Well who can say? I mean, I would like to sit here and say we have this, and that, direction and plans but honestly our stuff is being appreciated in places by people who we would have never have thought that we could reach such a demographic. I mean we did a gig in Reading a few weeks ago and there were like 6 year old kids listening to all of it and they absolutely loved it and then we had older people also in the background also enjoying it.
That, to me, is really exciting because that kind of demographic is basically like walking into an airport lounge. So if you can get that kind of spread of people engaged in what you are doing, that’s incredibly positive. I mean we could sit here and worry about positioning and marketing etc, but the real key to it is to keep on making unique and touching music and everything flows from that. It’s all about the music; if we make fantastic music everything else will take care of itself.
sunchild: How can people find out about you guys, do you have MySpace, Facebook etc?
Musa: Yeah we have a MySpace, Facebook, the MySpace page is www.myspace.com/wearebenincity
You can search for us on You Tube etc.
sunchild: Do you guys have any plans of going out to Afrika or Benin City?
Musa: Well, it would be really good to do gigs out there. I mean those things would be amazing; like playing at events run by the Lake of Stars, the people who run the Malawi festival; it would be great to do those things. To go out there and send some really explosive energy out on stage somewhere but also it would be amazing to do gig in the Diaspora-type places like France or gigs in Berlin, places with big Afrikan communities and the Giles Peterson type crowd, people who love their world music. I think it would be a really exciting opportunity to get out there and see how it grows, because there’s no limit really, as long as we keep making music that’s engaging.
sunchild: Any thoughts or final comments, positivity to leave with the Consciousness Lounge?
Musa: Well, in terms of consciousness in my personal experience, the only thing as an artist that I think is important for any community is; “Try and connect with people”, and what that means is to try as honestly as you can to portray your experience, as part of the greater whole. For example, I may have never lived in Afrika but I might have something in common with someone from there, i.e. both Afrikan parents etc.
Consciousness for me is really about trying to understand the human condition, and to understand that when you dealing with social issues like poverty or corruption, or climate change, try to break it down to the smaller elements like ‘why does this happen?’
It can get a bit overwhelming trying to tackle poverty, but think about what are the root causes of it, like neglect, indifference etc and then try to address those things in your own life or home and then by doing that in lots of small ways, that’s what leads to a larger change. I think sometimes we’re very concerned with making big statements but actually it’s about the smaller statements. That’s the hardest thing, I mean what was that quote; “He who changes himself changes the world”? Basically if you’re trying to make any change you should start with yourself.
Peace and thanks