Composer and bandleader Femi Sofela is a supremely talented bass guitarist, but the instrument wasn’t the first one played. ‘My first instrument was lead guitar,’ he explained, as we discussed his musical background and debut album, ahead of his headline show at Band on the Wall on 5th June.
Femi was roughly sixteen at the time, and finding his feet with his first band: a group of ‘young guys having fun!’ When he switched to bass, he ‘fell in love with the instrument,’ and in the years that have followed, he has developed a demonstrable understanding of that which is essential to great funk, jazz, fusion and afrobeat bass playing. During his time in Lagos – initially studying medicine before swapping to pharmacy – Femi began to realise that a career in music was the path he wished to follow. The reception for his early performances only gave him greater confidence! He played with several combinations during his early career, but felt the urge to make his own musical statement and to lead his own ensemble of talented musicians.
In the liner notes for Pressure to Pleasure – an album acclaimed for its ‘classic afrobeats with a few surprises’ by Songlines – Femi states, ‘I was under pressure to produce a good first album.’ His executive producers were keen that he make ‘an analogue recording with musicians in the old fashioned way.’ so Femi set to work rehearsing and playing a handful of live shows, to ensure he and the band were prepared for the unforgiving recording process.
The album was mostly recorded between London and Lagos, but Femi explained that additional recording took place in South Africa, where his friend Ayo Solanke is based. ‘One of the tracks called Keep on Dancing – the horn lines were done by a friend of mine who is based in South Africa…he gave it that flavour’. The sound and feel of a location is greatly important to him: ‘that’s what makes me travel around, if I don’t get the flavour that I want, I’ll take my time.’
On the album’s multi-layered title track, Femi’s chops and appreciation for global styles are evident. Call and response vocals lead into a funky bass solo that Larry Graham would’ve been proud of, before a fearsome brass riff adds yet more melodic clout!
Like many artists throughout Nigeria and across the globe, Fela Kuti has been a significant influence on Femi. It was fitting therefore that he be invited to be a part of Lekan Babalola’s theatre project The Kalakutans: which focussed on the music and day to day running of Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic. ‘When Lekan approached me…I jumped on the wagon straight away,’ Femi stated. ‘Fela has been one of my inspiring mentors for donkey’s years…I never watched him live when he was alive, but his music inspired me a lot.’ Playing Fela’s music helped Femi to appreciate that, ‘with Fela’s music you can’t just jam: you either know it or you don’t get it at all’.
In addition to Fela’s music, Femi draws inspiration from immediate sources. ‘My life, the people around me…everything I see day by day’ – all have a bearing on the music he makes. We’re excited to hear the music of Pressure to Pleasure realised live by Femi’s seven-piece band and three-piece horn section, on Tuesday 5th June. Pick up tickets here.