Teni (Yoruba meaning, “Lay the mat for the crown”) is a smokin’ hot talent. Her blogger profile reads, “Jazz singer and Afro-bohemian Artistic Director of the House of Makeda.” Essentially, Teni is a multi-talented African woman invoking her proverbial “woman’s prerogative” in actualizing her creative potential. Fashion designer aside, Teni is an Afrobeat music innovator; a female in a male dominated music genre, crafting sultry soul jazz joints/tunes with socio-political messaging in an era of inane Hip Hop braggadocian misogyny.
To be clear, we’re talking Afrobeat, not afrobeats.
Teni delivers her unique, mellifluent, spoken-word-esque lyricizing in dreamy, trance inducing vocals, that perambulate Afrobeat-marinated, jazz funk and soul grooves reminiscent of Fela Kuti’s “Upside Down (1976),” featuring Sandra Akanke Isidore. Her inaugural CD, Afrodisiac, is auspiciously coincidental in name to the record label, Afrodisia, which released Fela’s “Upside Down.”
Released in 2012, Afrodisiac contains 10 tracks of what was believed to be lost in decades past; the aptly termed “good music.” Teni teamed with legendary drummer and Afrobeat pioneer, Tony Allen, to produce a millennium dawning, feminine interpretation of Fela’s brainchild. She’s backed musically by the “uncut funk” of a versatile 10-member jazz ensemble, the Afro-Renaissance. Self-described as a fusion of Fela Kuti, Sade Adu, Nina Simone and Bob Marley, Teni composes and produces her own lyrics and music, and is highly adept on keyboard.
Teni christened her CD Afrodisiac as a play on the word aphrodisiac – a “turn on.” As she explains it, she’s from Africa, representing Africa and hoping to “turn on” the world with her African music. Beyond her sensual singing and stunning sexiness, her brief illumination of representing Africa turned me on to find out more about her as an African woman and Afrobeat artist.
I linked up with Teni at a popular waterside lounge, on Lagos’ Lekki Peninsula Phase 1. Sitting on the deck overlooking the Lagos Lagoon, she shared with me candid reflections regarding her incredible music and who she is as a 21st century African woman.
Teni, congratulations on the success of your debut CD, Afrodesiac. It’s “funky fresh” as we used to say in the 1980’s. Most often, I’ve heard the term Afrobeat associated with your artistry and your interpretation of it on the single Lionheart is brilliant. I’ve also heard the terms Soul, Jazz, Funk and Fusion in relations to your sound. How would you describe your compositions and performances, and what drew you to this type of music?
I definitely describe my music as Afrosoul, but it also has Jazz, Funk and the Blues. I like music of all genres and I like that to come across in my compositions. I like to make music that’s eclectic and universal; music that anyone can like. Whether you’re a Nigerian living in Lagos or an American living in Ney York – wherever you’re from – I want people to be able to connect with my music. I like to draw from classic genres; Soul, very classic, Jazz, timeless music . . . I’m cooking my own soup.
With artists like D’ Banj, Davido, Tiwa Savage and Wizkid, dominating the Nigerian club scene, how is your work being received around the country?
Some people tell me, “You need to make more commercial music.” Other people appreciate it. Nigeria is a huge country, so I believe I will find my audience. I believe there are people who will be able to appreciate the kind of music I make. Not everybody likes the sound you’re hearing in the clubs. A lot of people are tired of that sound, so I think it’s important to introduce new sounds; something they can feel and hopefully get into in time.
With so many different types of venues available for performances; ranging from small and intimate to large auditoriums and arenas. What fits best for you?
I love to perform in intimate venues, but I’ll perform on any stage. My preference is an indoor, kind of small, intimate lounge, where you can get a good sound. I love it when we’re in an intimate setting and everybody can hear me.
You have a unique vocal delivery; sailing, soothing and seductive. Many say characteristic of Sade Adu, one of your influences. How did you develop your distinctive vocal style?
I don’t know if I really developed it, but I just started singing and that’s what was coming out. I think it’s just natural, but my vocal is definitely inspired by Jazz, as is Sade’s, but more minimalist and a lot of pure notes. I didn’t want to do R&B because I thought it would be reminiscent of African American music and I wanted to make something distinctive; I want to stand apart from the crowd.
So as an African musician who wanted to make music to express and reflect where I’m coming from, I thought Jazz would be more appropriate for me. As well, I’m heavily influenced by Fela Kuti and I wanted to make music that drew a lot of inspiration from his sound and I found that jazzy vocals went very well with it.
Your lyrics are not the typical Hip Hop party anthems and explicit R&B bedroom ballads. Your words are sensual, like on the funky rollin’ rhythm title track, Afrodesiac, and the sexy, soulful, celestial recording, Your Love Is The Key, you invite someone to, “turn me on just how I like” and “come fill my cup . . . it’s never enough,” respectively. What aspects of your personality seep into these erotic songs?
I’m a quiet person, quite reserved, but I’m a Virgo. So apparently we Virgos have this cool calm exterior and a burning within. I think my music embodies that and it’s subtle. I don’t like to be too overtly sexual, but sensuality, I think that’s a beautiful thing.
On tracks like the bouncy House Music number, Revolution, and the Reggae conceived tune, Wilderness, you eloquently drop a taste Pan-Africanist commentary, which is an Afrobeat fundamental ingredient. Few contemporary artists incorporate socio-political messaging in their music. Where did you gain your social and political awareness and how does it influence your music?
From Fela and Bob Marley . . . When you’re an Afrobeat disciple like I am, you can’t help but draw from Fela’s amazing social consciousness. Also, I think that I’m a sensitive person; I look around me, I see what’s going on in my society, in my environment and I think it’s important to speak on it in one way or the other.
We’re in the formative years of the 21st century and we’re seeing the rights and achievements of women increasing rapidly in many places. How do you see yourself as a female musician playing a role in the African women’s struggle for equality?
I hope I’m playing a big role, because I’m making music that I produce myself. There aren’t many women producers around, so I believe that in a male dominated industry I’m hopefully leaving a good example for other African women to empower themselves and be able to stand alone. For a long time, I was just making music in my own little corner; I wasn’t connected with any record label or big producers and it was just a very individual effort. It took a lot of time, determination and perseverance, because my parents weren’t into the fact that I was doing music. So it was something I had to do in secret, at first. I hope that somehow, I’ll be able to inspire the next generation of African women who are creative, because I’m also a fashion designer; I used to run a fashion business. So it’s all about creativity. Sometimes our society can be very oppressive and it can be very difficult to break out of that shell of what society dictates and demands, but I broke free and I’m quite happy. So I’m hoping others will follow suit.
The list of western celebrities who use their wealth and influence to draw attention to humanitarian causes on the African continent is lengthy. In your opinion, what should native African musical artists, male and female, be doing politically to help improve conditions in their respective countries?
I think it all starts with music; making music that will make people think, will open minds and that will increase our intellectual capacity. I think right now, most people are making songs about being in the club, buying a Bugatti (high-performance automobile) or whatever. I think there’s a lot of dumbing down going on. I think it all starts with the lyrics and the intentions behind your songs; a striving to express a higher ideal; something nobler. You can still do that in a club friendly sound and make people think.
You’re a talented and charming African female music artist, how is it you list Scarface, a gratuitously violent American gangster movie, amongst your favorite films?
Because I’m very gangster. Honestly, I’m inspired by gangsters. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, but I like watching gangster movies and I love listening to hardcore hip hop, because I find it motivating. In the past ten years or so, I’ve had to be quite gangster. I’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles and I’ve had to stand on my own. Lagos is not an easy city to navigate. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences here, so I think that’s where that gangster thing comes from.
Finally, Teni, when can we expect to hear new material from you and your extraordinary band?
I’m currently in the studio working on new music, which is quite interesting, because this particular song I’m going to release next is called, “Follow Your Heart” and I feature an upcoming, underground Yoruba rapper, Obadice. I wanted to do something where I was still singing in English, but have the Yoruba rapper so more people can connect with my music. I really want to be able to reach out to more people in Nigeria. Apart from that, I have a couple of songs I’m writing that are more club friendly, because I want to take Afrobeat and Afrosoul to the clubs. I want to get people everywhere I can. So, I’m actually interested to see how it’s all going to turn out, but of course, I’m still going to be doing the more soulful, jazzy, stuff. My new single, “Follow Your Heart,” is coming out in the next couple of months.
Teni’s music on iTunes is available HERE