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Ola Onabulé: Music's best-kept secret?

From Atika Shubert, CNN
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Ola Onabule shaping his music
  • Ola Onabulé is an acclaimed Nigerian singer and songwriter
  • He blends Afro beats with jazz and soul while his lyrics often tackle tricky issues
  • He's blazed his own trail in a career that has produced seven albums

Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

London (CNN) -- Armed with a silky-smooth voice and an uncompromising spirit, Nigerian singer/songwriter Ola Onabulé has won admirers around the world.

With a career spanning nearly two decades, the Nigerian singer has often been described as one of music's best-kept secrets. Onabulé says that although he can hear "the hidden compliment" in that phrase, he works hard to do even better.

"It's not right that I should be a secret, I mean this isn't a profession in which to be kept a secret," he says. "You stand on a stage and put it out there because you want as many people as possible to hear your song or your idea or your message."

His musical style blends his African roots with elements of jazz and soul, while his passionate singing moves between the heights and depths of emotion.

Ola Onabule's unique musical style

In tune with his wide-ranging vocal skills, Onabulé's songs encompass a wide range of topics, from personal experiences to social-minded commentary.

"I write songs about why in my dear continent we spend as much time as we do harking back to the things that were done to us in the past when, although they are incredibly valid these sentiments, there is also the argument for as much time to be put into finding our way out of this difficult situation," says Onabulé.

Born in London to Nigerian parents, the velvet-voiced singer moved to Nigeria at an early age. The vivid memories of pounding African drums and spicy Nigerian food followed him back to the United Kingdom where he returned just before he turned 17.

That transition wasn't without its challenges, says Onabulé, as he spent the first couple of years trying to figure out his place in the world while bridging his different cultures.

"I spent a very long time working out where I fitted in the whole scheme of things," he says.

"Subconsciously I think I very much wanted to be a Nigerian, wanted very much to be an African and I had to work out a way of negotiating how I could do that whilst knowing that for survival purposes also I had to assimilate as much as possible into where I found myself in amongst here."

I'm very keen for Africa to change its course, to find its way.
--Ola Onabule
  • Music
  • Nigeria
  • Africa

Initially set for a career in law, Onabulé abandoned his studies to follow his passion for music and pursue a rather more uncertain career as a singer.

His talents didn't go unnoticed and in the early 1990s he was signed by record label Elektra. However, his encounter with the system of big record companies didn't last long.

"I learned through bitter experience what I definitely, absolutely wanted and what I didn't," he says. "(There was) a lot of kind pre-described, focus group-type artist development where you'd bring a song in and people take their metaphorical scalpels out and shave bits -- 'the kids won't love that, the kids won't love that' -- take bits off."

When the deal fell apart little more than a year later, Onabulé says he knew "without a shadow of a doubt that I wanted as much autonomy as possible and that would mean walking my own path independently."

Onabulé's perseverance saw him eventually building his own studio and setting up his own label. He has seven albums under his belt so far, and his latest offering, "Seven Shades Darker," was released earlier in 2011.

As in his previous works, Onabulé's African roots are evident in his latest album and influence the message he is trying to convey.

He says: "I'm very keen for Africa to change its course, to find its way and really find a way of standing shoulder to shoulder with the league of nations.

"If I switch on the news and I see another sad story about Africa, I wonder, I want to write a song that says how come we haven't managed to get across the fact that repeatedly on the United Nations' happiest countries lists the top 10 counties are almost always African? I mean how come we don't get that story across? How come it's always the representations of poverty and corruption, brutality?"