Interview: Bukky Leo – The Afrobeat Time Traveller (June 2020)

There are only a bunch of musicians who can claim to embody the history and evolution of a music style. Bukky Leo is part of this restricted club. His career and possibly life are indeed manifestations of afrobeat. So much so that, if you’d like to approach the quintessential Nigerian music, know more about it or just enjoy its vibes, you can’t do without listening to his tunes.

After almost five decades of career, Bukky is blowing into his saxophone louder than ever. He’s just published three new albums (one Remix EP Africa Onjẹ, one collection dedicated to Fela Kuti and Evolution with the late Clifford Jarvis) and the upcoming months will bring other releases under his name (revisiting his 2012 release Anarchy and adding a second chapter to Evolution).

Not long ago, we had the pleasure to meet him at The Post Bar in Tottenham and had something more than a nice chat with an afrobeat institution. We retraced his career, the afrobeat story and discovered how the two developed side-by-side in London.

The long story started back in the early 1970s when Bukky Leo moved from London to Lagos… 

“It’s a long story… I thought I was going to become a guitarist because I loved Jimi Hendrix. I used to love and play “Hey Jude” too. When I was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, in my household, we always had ‘story time’. Storytime means that we were used to meeting in a house to narrate and listen to stories. We were telling and singing our stories, and there were many kids. I remember that all the kids from the neighbourhood used to come, and they were like an audience. So that was possibly the first time that I sang and played in front of an audience.

Then I started to listen to people like Junior Walker, Motown soul sax player. I loved the way he played the saxophone, and that sound was reaching me more than the guitar. Then, of course, it was also about Fela Kuti. I was used to going to the Shrine, and there I saw Fela playing. In fact, I met Fela before, when he was playing highlife in the Central Hotel. This was around the mid-1970s. When we moved to Nigeria from the UK, we were living across the road to the Central Hotel, and Fela used to play highlife there. But I was too young to go in there, so I remember I used to sneak in after the shows. We were used to getting in, and I remember we were seeing Fela shouting about money or something… So, of course, then I decided that I was going to play saxophone”.

His first meetings with Fela changed everything. And since then Bukky grew fonder and fonder of the saxophone.

“I remember there was a guy called Wayes, who was playing highlife with Fela, and we became friends. He was living on the beach in Lagos. One day, he invited me to his house and said that he had a spare saxophone, one that he didn’t play. So, I could use it, and he could teach me on that one. He taught me the major scale, and when I was able to play it, he told me “you can have the sax, it’s yours now. Do your studies”.  Since then, I was used to going to Kalakuta Republic to play. I remember I was going there in the afternoon, and sometimes Fela was sleeping. So, some of his wives were coming to me saying “stop playing saxophone, Fela is trying to sleep”. It was ‘sleep time’ for him! Of course, it’s just laughable thinking about it now because he wanted me to play, but not when he was sleeping, so not in the daytime”.

Lagos in the mid/late 1970s was arguably the place to be if you were into music. It was not only about highlife and the dawn of afrobeat, but above all, it was about jùjú music…

There was a lot of jùjú music at the time. There were musicians like Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, tons of them…and they used to play at parties. People who were attending those parties were still used to ‘spray’ musicians, which was a common thing at jùjú events. When you were inviting jùjú bands to play at your place, people were ‘spraying’ them with money. There were those ‘big men’ bringing a lot of money and putting them on the faces and bodies of the musicians. Then, there was always somebody on the side to collect that money. I think that was also the way they were used to paying musicians.

Anyway, I remember at that time we were used to going to a place called Wakeman Street, which is near Herbert Macaulay Road. We used to meet with the other guys there, to smoke, hang out, you know…and Tony Allen was there too, and he heard me play. He said to me “I like the way you approach the saxophone; I’d like you to come and play in my band”, which was called the Mighty Irokos. And well, I said yes and then Tony and I became close on a personal level. We were playing afrobeat together. This was the time when Tony left Fela’s band, the Afrika 70, because he didn’t want to work with any of Fela’s people. He wanted new,  fresh blood. We had really good fun together“.

Since then, Bukky always looked at Tony Allen as a guide and mentor. The two shared far more than a stage or a studio. They shared life and had been in touch until the very last day of Tony, which sadly occurred on the 30th of April…

I really got in touch with Tony Allen and started talking with him when both he and Fela moved to the Shrine. Which was literally across the road from where Fela was living, the Kalakuta Republic. At that time, as I said, Tony was just leaving the Afrika 70 to start the Mighty Irokos and that happened to be a really good coincidence for me, a good time if you like.

Because since then, we stayed in touch until his very last day. He gave me a lot of guidance. When I moved back here to London, he was one of the first people I spoke to. He didn’t stay very long here in London though. London was ok for him, but not really his cup of tea. The London scene was ok as well, but not ready for him at that time. 

We did a few things here when he was living here, but then he moved to Paris where things kind of fell into place for him and he stayed there for many factors, also outside of music. Let’s say it was a more adaptable place for him. But then in the long run, he was here most of the time. It’s almost like you can better appreciate London if you are out of it. In addition, visiting musicians are often taken more seriously than locals here, that’s how things have always been.

I learnt a lot musically from Tony and that’s what drew me to him in the first place. For example, he showed me that less is more and that if you have a good name, there’s no money that can buy that.

But then you discover more. There was far more than music. It was his personality, his outlook of life was so fascinating that, you know, it just makes you ready for when you’re in that position. It gives you the grounding and the wisdom to see and approach things. You could say he taught me life, about life, how to deal with other people and how to treat people the way you want to be treated. So much so, that I take people at face value now, until they show themselves. He left me with a legacy which is going to live with me forever. All that wisdom is just manifesting itself in me and for me, it is something to adapt to.

Personally, I’m just grieving and celebrating at the same time, the life of somebody with a big influence on me. I don’t care who started afrobeat. All I know and all I would say, is that Tony Allen is the best drummer Fela ever worked with and if Fela was alive today, he would tell you the same. And that is enough for me“.

Unlike Tony Allen, Bukky chose London as his home for all these years. However, when he moved back to the British capital in the early 1908s, the city was not only more than three thousand miles away from Lagos, but it was literally another cultural and social world. So much so that, Bukky took a while to get used again to its rhythm.

“When I came back here in London, I didn’t want to stay. I was coming from the Kalakuta Republic, not just Lagos, proper Kalakuta Republic, where everything was happening, and there was never a dull moment. Suddenly, I found myself back in London, and everything was shhhh…quiet. But my sister lived here, and she was the only connection I had, so I stayed. Still, I had the saxophone with me, and I eventually joined a band called Highlife International. We were playing highlife music, and I went on tour a few times with them. We also played for UNICEF. I remember once we played in Greece. We went there on an island in the sun for two weeks just to play two gigs;  it was like paradise.

However, when I arrived here, apart from going back home, I also wanted to go to the States because as I said, the scene was too dull here. But then that idea soon dissipated”.

© Emma Marshall

The reason was music. Bukky gradually grew into the London music scene. He joined some bands, he formed others, and he increasingly became a reference in the London African music scene.

“I started to get into the London scene, doing more and more gigs. I joined a band called Bushmen Don’t Surf and we were playing proper Bushman music. Then, I gradually got to know the London underground scene. I was based in Finsbury Park at the time and slowly got into the scene. I was finally starting to play African music. I remember there was a place called The Rock Garden in Coven Garden (where now is the Apple Store) and we were used to playing there a lot. I was playing afrobeat and afro-funk, but always bringing new influences because I always need to expand and refresh my sound”.

Since the early 1980s, when he joined Farenji Warriors, he started to enjoy some well-deserved popularity, bringing forward his sound and welcoming more and more influences from all over the world.

“By the way, even if I decided to stay in London, I still wanted to travel. That happened until I joined a band called Farenji Warriors, founded by a musician from a band called Amazulu, which was an all-female band. We were playing quite a fusion of styles, from East European music to afrobeat and soul. In 1983, John Peel discovered us and went crazy for our music. We did a session for him, and he chose to feature one song called “You Got It”, which was one of the songs I wrote and where I sing. As said, until that point, it was mid-1980’s, I still wanted to travel. But that was probably the moment when I decided to stay here in London because Farenji Warriors wasn’t the usual band.

We were very close; we were looking after each other. I still know the drummer, and I’m still in touch with him nowadays. I have got pictures of the band all over the places. We went on for more than ten years with Farenji and played all over Europe (Italy, the Pyrenees…). We also played at the Carnival in Notting Hill, in front of tens of thousands of people. There was a big stage at that time in Portobello Road. It was quite a different Carnival than today’s one. Anyway, we were supposed to play at the Carnival, but our singer, Rose Milner, disappeared just before our set. We were ready to go on stage, in front of a sea of heads, plenty, plenty of people…but we had no singer. That’s when the others looked at me and said “Hey Bukky, just start with the songs that you normally sing. Do that, and then we will see what happens after”. It was great. It went really well. I never thought of myself as a singer; I’m a saxophone player. But that gig went really well.

Then, we did other few things, and after a gig some people from Polydor showed up and came to us saying that they liked our music, but we needed to change it, narrowing it down because we were playing far too many different styles. We didn’t know that they were from Polydor and we didn’t treat them too well, shouting them that that was not going to happen, that was the kind of music we were doing, take it or leave it. Unfortunately, the band disbanded soon after. It was the time when the Acid Jazz period started”.

Even if the ‘jazz era’ in Bukky Leo’s career started only in the late 1980s, jazz has always been one of his passions. The musician has indeed always listened to the giants of the genre and embraced many of their sounds in his music.

“It was the late 1980s when the Farenji Warriors experience was over;  then I got into jazz. Actually, I have always been into jazz music. Always listened to those guys like Coltrane… but in the late 1980s, it was 1987 or 1988, another kid came up to me and said ‘Hey Bukky, I like your stuff. We got a new label, and maybe we can do an album together’. I said cool, let’s do it… That guy was Gilles Peterson, who had recently launched Acid Jazz Records with Eddie Piller. So, he approached me, and we did an album on his label.

We released the album in 1988, and it was titled Rejoice In Righteousness. I remember that when I got into the studio to record it, I was very surprised. I went there with my quintet, but they had this choir in there, like a proper church choir. So, Gilles told me “Bukky, you have to write something that you can play as a quintet, but with a choir singing as well”. I spontaneously thought about something, and we immediately recorded it. The music was properly jazz with some little influences based on some sort of afro-kind-of-thing. And that album went number one in the rhythm and blues chart. I became some sort of celebrity, which I really didn’t want to, to be honest. We went playing everywhere with that project. Not too far, mainly the UK, Europe, and the US. That’s because, at one point, I decided to apply for a grant to do a tour around England with another band called The Source, which was properly afrobeat”.

Despite jazz bringing his name across the Ocean, the afrobeat vocation of his music was stronger than ever at that time. That’s why Bukky went back to roots and embraced his Nigerian background once again.

“I felt the need to go back to basics, back to African music. It was the early ‘90s, and people wanted to dance at the time. There was a lot of jazz in London, but people were asking to dance as well. So, that’s why people wanted us to play afrobeat. With The Source, we did a successful tour, and when we came back, I booked a studio session. We were really tight. We were an 11-piece band with a big brass section playing original afrobeat tunes. That’s where the track ‘Precious Mother’ comes from.

We recorded the album, and we had someone from Warner Bros who was really interested in our music. He was the head of jazz and classical. He called me to his office; I remember there was this big, big table and cigars… He told me that he was going to send some people to attend one of our next shows and have a look at us. But then the guy moved to the US, and it didn’t happen, and I still want to release that album. One of its tracks was included in a compilation released by Strut in 2001, but one of my next projects is to release that album”.

Years after years, Bukky kept on dividing his time between afrobeat and jazz. The last few years saw him becoming a good-and-proper afrobeat torchbearer, bringing forward Fela Kuti’s message.

“In the following years, I went back to the jazz thing. I started playing with people like Clifford Jarvis, who was used to play with Sun Ra in the 1960s and 70s. Then, when I went to buy a saxophone in Boston, USA, I met Bob Moses. We went along pretty well, and we recorded an album together in his studio titled Spaceships over Africa. He’s such a lovely guy, and that was an amazing experience.

When I came back to London, I was approached by the Jazz Cafe to do a Fela thing. Before that, I hardly played any of Fela’s songs on stage. I was usually playing my own stuff, but these guys came to me saying that they wanted to organise a tribute to Fela Kuti and I was the right person to do it. It was a sell-out. So, they asked me to do it again, but differently. That’s how we did William Onyeabor’s tribute, and that went well too. That’s when we thought to record those shows. I started my own label, which is called Drift Recordings, and we released those live albums with my band, the Black Egypt. The reason why I gave the band that name is because of a trip to Egypt I did years ago, which really influenced me. It was an exploration of African culture and Egypt is not only part of Africa but also the cradle of the civilisation. So, I picked that name, and from there on I went on playing with my band. Now, we play both covers and originals because I always write new music.

That’s how in 2012 we finally released an album titled Anarchy for Agogo Records. They are a really good label and have a nice catalog, but there were some issues with the distribution at the time, so the album didn’t reach enough people. Still, we did some gigs in Europe”.

Anarchy is our pretext to fast forward to the present days. Bukky is indeed ready to re-release a second Remix EP from it including remixes from Orlando Voorn and Gilles Peterson. Next to it, he has recently released a “long-due” album he recorded with the great and late American drummer Clifford Jarvis. It goes without saying that, for better or for worse, 2020 is quite an eventful year for him…

We just published an album titled Evolution on my label Drift Recordings. It was released in early June and it’s a recording of a set we did with Clifford Jarvis, Jonathan Gee and Pete Kubryk-Townsend back in 1987.

Clifford was a man I was lucky to be associated and interact with. It was a privilege to know him and I feel very lucky and humble to have met and played with him. For that short time he was in London, he became part of the fabric of its jazz scene. 

When we recorded the album, it was around the time Clifford was spending a lot of time in Hackney. I’ve always loved the way he played and valued the fact that we have somebody like him in our community. So, I could not resist asking him to try and play together in the studio. The studio we used (Hackney Studios) wasn’t really for commercial hiring. It was actually a music school. So, we had the opportunity to go there and call a few people like Jonathan and Pete.

After more than 30 years, I’ve decided to finally publish it now because it features songs reflecting our time. There’s a track called ‘Trouble in Mind’ for example, and that was kind of going through different emotions at that time, but now you can think what you will about it. When I say ‘trouble in mind’ everyone can relate to it because we all have trouble in mind, especially in these times. 

We still haven’t decided who is going to take Clifford’s baton when we play it live. We will cross that bridge when we get there. But there are plenty, plenty of options… When we did the octet version, Sebastian Rochford was playing the drum and by rights it should be him. He’s a fantastic drummer. By the way, if that doesn’t happen, there are other options…

© Emma Marshall

Back in January, Bukky also released the second chapter of Tribute to Fela. So we delved into what it means to deal with Fela Kuti and afrobeat’s legacy today.

With Fela is always more than music, it’s like an ideology going far beyond the music itself and the experience. His music inspires me to write better. It helps me to relate to what happens around, and every song means a lot to me, that’s why I’m always happy to play them. When I play, in between the songs, I usually talk a little bit. Sometimes, the things I say are controversial, but people always understand. They know that if you want to listen to Fela’s music, you have to hear his message as well, whether you like it or not. You can’t separate the two things. When people try to do it, they fail.

I don’t mind doing the Fela Kuti tributes, to be honest. Because, as I said, that’s more than just music. It’s a philosophy; it’s a political statement. I don’t mind doing William Onyeabor tributes either because he was this genius doing stuff far beyond his time. People discovered him recently here in Europe and the US, but he was famous in Nigeria, particularly in the East. He has never been too popular, but he was really big in the area where he was living.

I like the fact that there are people bringing forward afrobeat. I like the new afrobeat scene. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Europe, East Asia. I like many of the bands that came out in the last few decades, like Antibalas in New York. They have definitely got the spirit. Maybe they lack the background, but they’ve got the spirit. At the end of the day, if they know and remember the people who actually started the scene and made it happen, I respect them. For example, ‘Precious Mother’, the song that I wrote in the 90s, even if it was only a single track which was included in a compilation, there was a band in Sweden who covered it. I don’t even know how those people got to hear it. But they loved it and released a cover”.

Despite his absolute dedication to Fela Kuti and his memory, what makes Bukky’s mouth water is another album still with no release date. Universal Anarchy is indeed unfinished business for the saxophonist.

“Unfortunately, back in 2012, the original album didn’t reach enough people, so I felt compelled, but privileged at the same time, to go back to it, revisit it and add new mixes too. I always wanted to bring a new audience to listen to afrobeat to let it reach new people. I’d like the younger generation to hear original afrobeat tunes and understand how amazing they sound. That’s why we wanted to include different remixes bringing house and funk in it. At times, I even say that to hear the new mixes now is more interesting than listening to the original tracks. Personally, after I record something, I want to move away from it. But this new version of Anarchy brought me back memories of ten years ago. I can hear that they are the same tracks, still; they sound different, they sound new.

So yes, the album will be released soon, we just released a Remix EP and another one will com out soon on Drift to make some noise, but we are looking for the right label to release the full album with a dozen of song and remixes. We have also decided to change the title from Anarchy to Universal Anarchy to shine a light on the way people are revolting today, I’m thinking about the Black Lives Movement, Honk Kong, but also the protest for the environment.

I also feel that the people who played on the album deserve to see it properly published and distributed. People like Phil Dawson and Kishon Khan, who are still with me when I play live. Unfortunately, the line-up has changed a lot since the first release though. Some people who played on the first version of Anarchy are no more with us, like Baba Adesose, who was a wonderful percussionist and a great guy, really important for the London music scene’.

Since Universal Anarchy is also meant to reach a new audience bringing Bukky Leo and his music to new ears, we close our ‘afrobeat journey in time’ asking him to introduce himself to someone who has never had the pleasure to enjoy his sound…

“It’s funny because I’ve had, and I still have different names for different people. They still call me ‘Acid Jazz Record guy’ and more recently they say ‘afrobeat superstar’. I guess it’s all about what genre of music you’re more active playing and people name you in that way. But if you ask me who’s Bukky Leo now, I’d say it’s a new thing coming to them.  

What I’ve done in the past is there, but today I’m coming with new and fresh inputs. It’s a new genre. My music is not 100% afrobeat. It got tradition in it, but it also got influences. I love Latin music for example and that influences me, then you have soul, funk, jazz…all these things put together. Oh…and I also did a drum’n’bass album, which is still unreleased, but it’s very interesting stuff”.


Photos ©: Emma Marshall