Born in Nigeria and raised in Southern California, Mary Akpa brings a blend of grounded freedom to her music—a seamless blend of soul, jazz, electronic, and African influences. She has spent much time touring both domestically and internationally, including performances in Germany, Istanbul, France, and Iraq and has written with and for several artistes, recording 2 jazz albums, and 2 electronic/down tempo albums, as well as released her debut EP, ‘Brave’. In this interview, she talks about her influences drawn from Nigeria’s rich diversity, as well as her upcoming album and expectations for her upcoming concert at the BC Garden Café, Ikoyi in Lagos this February.
You’ve been coming to Lagos increasingly, why?
Nigeria is special to me for different reasons. I’m obviously Nigerian and it has to do with the fact that I was born here, but left Nigeria quite young. I was a little over three when I left for the United States and didn’t come back until I was in my early twenties. Along the way, I felt I was missing so much, as well as an opportunity to connect with roots. It also felt like there were parts of me that I had known but only discovered by being here and reconnecting with my roots, culture and people, and so that just keeps me coming back. This draws me back to Nigeria and every time I’m here, it’s weird because I love it more even with all of the challenges. Nigeria is magical to me.
Has this inspired your new album?
Yes, a hundred percent. I don’t know how yet because it’s not complete, and can never speak fully on a project until then because though one always has an idea of what it might sound like, especially with a few songs in, at the end it could take on a completely different life, so I try not to impose too much on it, but will say one thing I know for sure is that Nigeria is a big focal point of the project, as is obvious in my decision to return to record with Nigerian musicians as opposed to recording in the United States with American musicians. To bring things full circle, I want it to put the spotlight on Nigeria in this particular project. I am always asked ‘why do you sing like this? Why are you so rhythmic?’ All of these things are from my culture, so instead of dancing around it, I decided to go to the source.
Are we going to hear infusions of local languages, as well as about Nigerian food, clothes, and fashion?
I don’t know yet but it wont be as blatant or direct as that. It will just be infused with the spirit of things that are Nigerian coupled with Nigerian musicians to change the tonal and rhythmic centre. Even as listeners, we don’t realise that we interact with music with everything that we are—where we are born, how we are raised, as well as our culture, food, traditions, smells, and sights around us. They inform the way we play music (sometimes unconsciously). One of the criticisms I received from an instructor when I used to sing jazz was that my scatting is very syncopated with African rhythms, specifically West African. I didn’t plan to sing that way, it just naturally came out. Creating the album in Nigeria is going to inform that, but in addition using people from that same culture to play the music, as they will bring those things with them. It will flow naturally even though I am incorporating specific Nigerian instruments. As a focal point, and in reference to the influences I will be drawing from, I certainly plan to incorporate the talking drum, as well as a style of picking the guitar that is characteristic of highlife or juju music.
How would you compare the scene here in Nigeria with that in New York and California where you are based?
I don’t think I can compare them because I’m still new to the music industry in Nigeria. I am obviously not new to music, but this is my third music-related trip to Nigeria so I can say that I’m still learning.
Has everything you wanted to make those trips successful, been available in Nigeria?
I think everything is available, but sometimes I don’t know where to find them and so had to include a third party. However, every time I’ve come to Nigeria, I have mostly left happier and inspired and sometimes with the feeling that I didn’t want to leave. This says a lot.
Are you thinking about collaborating with any Nigerian artiste?
Yes. As of now, all the musicians on the record are Nigerians with the exception of my co-producer who is American, but will be coming to Nigeria to work on the project with the musicians here. There are a few artistes that I would like to collaborate with, I don’t have access to them yet, but I’m reaching out.
Tell us a bit more about your forthcoming concert ‘Harmattan Colours’ at the BC Garden Café in Lagos, as well as the inspiration behind it?
I remember it was my second solo trip to Nigeria, which fell in the Harmattan season. Everyone was complaining about the dust. I recall that although it was annoying to have to dust things all the time, the soil had this rusty orange colour that added a beautiful haze over everything. It acted as a golden rusty filter and I think everything looked better with it. It’s like seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses, but in this case, Harmattan-coloured glasses. The haze falls only in this part of the world at this same time of the year. It’s simply magical and I want to pay homage in some way.
Are you going to perform some of your songs from your new album?
Yes. I am going to be performing songs from the project that I released last year, as well as the one that I am working on now.