London born, Nigeria raised Ola Onabule has developed into one of the most unique and respected singers in Great Britain over the past decade. His four octave voice and his ability to bridge elements of Soul, Jazz and World music have won over critics and created for him a loyal following. However, much deserved exposure and recognition on the other side of the Atlantic has thusfar eluded him.
Onabule left law school and a potentially promising legal career to enroll in an arts college and pursue a career in music. He taught himself guitar and began jamming in multiple bands around London. He soon became a popular songwriter and solo performing artist, and was signed to Elektra Records (UK) in the early 90s. The contract went nowhere, and he spent the next several years singing on commercials and providing backup vocals for artists such as George Michael and Simply Red.
In 1994, fed up with chasing a major label deal, Onabule started his own Rugged Ram Records and released his first single, "You'd Better Believe." It received a positive response on British Jazz and Soul stations and led to the successful release of his first album, More Soul Than Sense.
The impressive scope of Onabule's compositions gave an aura of depth far beyond the music of the average popular artist, sounding both experimental and yet quite engaging and soulful. And he impressed critics with the strong lyrical content of his music. Most immediately captivating, however, was his voice. A husky, fluid instrument, sounding at times almost operatic and at other times like a jazzier Frankie Beverly, it covered a variety of styles and a stunning array of octaves.
In the decade following his debut album, Onabule established a strong reputation with both British soul fans and with artists on both sides of the ocean, as he worked with Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight and Al Jarreau and self-released three more albums, From Meaning Beyond Definition, Precious Libations for Silent Gods and Ambitions For Deeper Breadth. In 2003 he was commissioned to write an aria for the Royal Opera House.
In 2004, Onabule released his fifth solo album, In Emergency Brake Silence, in the UK and in early 2005 he released it in the US, his first album to hit the States. In Emergency is another fine Ola Onabule album that provides a good demonstration of both his versatility and his engaging vocal talent. The opening cut, "Soul Town," is a great slice of jazzy soul performed beautifully, and alone would be worth the price of the album. But Onabule follows it nicely through the first five songs, particularly on two strong Frankie Beverly-type cuts, "Thanks" and the passionate "Heart of Lead" (the latter of which has been playing almost non-stop on my iPod during the last week). The disc bogs down a bit in the middle on a couple of less impressive rock-oriented cuts, but finishes very nicely with the midtempos "You Can" and "Need to Know" and the closing ballad, "Forgiven." Onabule's uniformly strong vocal performance makes the mediocre material sound good and the better material sound great. And his backing band is top rate throughout the disc (I especially love Pete Adams' Hammond on "Savoir Faire"). For Ola Onabule's sizeable fan base in Europe, In Emergency Brake Silence will justifiably be well received as another fine addition to his catalog. For U.S. Soul Music fans new to his music, it is a great introduction to a very talented and unique artist. Highly recommended.
By Chris Rizik