NATIVE Exclusive: Abuja-based artist, Cheso is paying respect to tradition

For an all-rounder, Cheso isn’t one of those artists with “rich” musical beginnings. “I’m not one of those people that had music in their family,” he bluntly tells me over the phone. “My dad bought the keyboard when I was around 7 and it was just fascinating to play a few notes that worked together, I think that’s the most in terms of early background.” He went on to learn the rudiments of production and sound engineering from friends much later in life, before heading to the School of Audio Engineering in Los Angeles, where everything coalesced into his expansive arsenal as a singer, producer and audio engineer.

Adding a burning desire to make substance-filled music which will entertain and resonate with listeners to his technical skills, the result is ‘Respect to Tradition’, Cheso’s outstanding debut album and the follow-up to his 2016 EP, ‘The L.Y.L.Y Project’. The 10-track project finds the balance between surveying societal ills and relishing pockets of pure joy, with both sides tied together by Cheso’s immersive folk-heavy production and a rustic vocal approach that conveys gloom and cheerfulness in equally striking measure.

Without any doubt, the four-year gap between Cheso’s two projects has brought in immense growth for the Abuja-based artist, a lot of that owing to his self-professed perfectionism. “I started “Cunie Man” in 2016 and since then, it’s just been doing tracks to match the emotion,” he tells me about why it took so long to make the album.

As a result of its painstaking process, ‘RTT’ finds Cheso tuning his abilities and uniting them into a wholesome artistic identity. “Yellow Sisi”, which he describes as his “club song”, is a show of his ability to craft instantly catchy cuts, the sonically grand “Money” coins in on timely writing, and “Afro Music” is a plain-stated ode to the rhythmic beauty of African music.

Pulling in vivid influences from Malian treasure Salif Keita, Trinidadian calypso legend Mighty Sparrow and one of highlife’s greatest innovators, Rex Jim Lawson, Cheso pays respect to music informed by tradition without sounding like a staunch revivalist. ‘Respect to Tradition’ is a strong offering from the Port Harcourt-raised artist, who now calls Abuja his home, and plans to do great things from there. “Of course, the plan is to spread the music to the world, but I will always represent this place because it was quiet enough for people to actually hear me out.”

Our conversation with Cheso has been lightly edited for clarity.

How come it took so long to drop your sophomore album?

You know our industry has an album versus singles, and it is way more difficult to put out a full length as an independent artist even though we have way more creative freedom. I’m not really a singles guy. There are a lot of things I’d want to say at a particular time and I can’t put it in one song, if not, the song will either be overloaded or it will be too long. At the same, I am a perfectionist of sorts, and this album is one of the projects I started working on even before ‘The LY, LY Project’. I started “Cunie Man” in 2016 and since then, it’s just been doing tracks to match the emotion, because the album is about Nigeria and how the culture has moved. I couldn’t even do exactly what I wanted to do and pass the message in full, so I’ll still be exploring that going forward.

Did your early music background lead to that perfectionist streak?

Kind of. Here’s the thing, I’m not one of those people that had music in their family. I know my dad bought the keyboard when I was around 7 and it was just fascinating to play a few notes that worked together, I think that’s the most in terms of early background. I didn’t listen to a lot of music then and it’s a little of the same now—in fact, I listen to a lot of music through films, ‘cos they try to match emotions with pictures. It was in A-level, when I was living in Port Harcourt, where I met this guy called Bones, and then I was already playing around fruity loops, he’d take a bike to my house and teach me a couple of things. I didn’t have the full version of FL and I couldn’t save any of those things, so I would plot out the notes on a graph book and title it the name of the file, and that was basically the beginning.

When I was in second year of Uni in Ghana, I met this guy—his name is Inem, I don’t know his moniker—and I did a remix of one beat he had and we became fast friends, he’s still my guy till tomorrow. He knew more things about mixing and mastering than I did, and he put me through a couple of things. After that period is when I decided I would get into music after getting my architecture degree, I just didn’t know in what capacity yet. Then I went to School of Audio Engineering in Los Angeles, I now found out what sound really does. I had my music in bits and pieces, but sound engineering just furthered that for me and found out I could do a lot more stuff with production and vocals. It helped me be more meticulous and refined in process, and I think that brought on the perfectionist thing. Since I wrapped up production for this album, though, I’ve been trying to be more spontaneous.

What instruments do you play now?

I play the piano but I’m picking it, I’m currently taking classes because I want to be play like Yanni, even if that’s the last thing I do before I die. That man always has six pianos lined around him, I don’t know how he does it, and he has a proper audience. His shows are always filled, and that’s kind of a milestone for me, I want to get there with the African music I play. I don’t think he’s the kind of artist you will say is popping, but he has a crowd that follows him around and spreads the word, that’s what I want. Like, if I have an annual concert with one thousand ardent fans who I can play my music to and they enjoy it, I’m good.

I’ve never seen you perform live, but I’ve heard stories and seen clips. Is the performance something you give particular thought to when you’re making music?

For me, music-making and performance are two entirely different things, but they’re linked. When I’m performing, the idea is to kinda create something new even if the music has been made, it has to give a feeling and experience that’s different—better—from the recording. The thing is, artists often perform the same song to different crowds and I can’t give the same feeling every time and everywhere I perform. The goal is for people to see me at a show in Lagos or Abuja in November/December, hear that I’m doing a show in Ghana in February, and decide to show up if you’re in Ghana at the time or you have the resources to show up, because you’re sure that you’ll have a different experience.

When I’m with my band and we’re trying to come up with routines, it’s always different. If the ideas are the same, I move musicians around—from keyboard to guitar, drums to percussion—just because they will interpret the music differently. It’s always about being innovative with performances, so that the song sounds fresh every time.

Beyond Yanni, who are your other musical inspirations?

I was watching “Ali”—the 2001 film on Muhammad Ali—and “Tomorrow” by Salif Keita came on, that song encapsulated the moment and I was in awe. I immediately went to research Salif, his lineage, his story as an outcast because he’s a person with albinism, and I went to buy everything in his discography up to that point. At a point in my life, he was the only person I listened to, for up to six months. He has so much influence on me, like “Cunie Man”, if you take any of Salif Keita’s big songs with his old band, you will hear it—it’s just that my voice and singing style is different.

Another person is Mighty Sparrow, he’s from Trinidad and he’s phenomenal storyteller. There’s this song that drew him to me, “Sell the Pussy”, where’s he singing about selling cats but it’s clear that he’s singing about sex work. He made me feel like you could sell two ideas or stories in a song that’s not hip-hop, ‘cause that music is closer to African rhythm. I chose these influences because of this album, other projects will have other influences. For this project, I had these guys in mind because their music isn’t affected by pop music, they had their own distinct element that was rooted. Beyond those two guys, I love how Ladysmith Mambazoo pull harmonies together, there’s Koffi Olomide, there’s Rex Lawson—he influenced “Yellow Sisi”, which is basically my club song.

There’s a fascinating skit on the album on culture and religion, two very touchy subjects in Nigerian society that you also sing about on the album. Why did you pick those two things?

That was my dad on that skit, actually. Culture is the way of life of a people over a period of time, and I feel like a culture of peace is marred by a few things, and the major ones are religion and politics. We are multicultural people with a large population, we’ve sunk into the ‘Giant of Africa’ idea and there’s an illusion that we’re the best. We are in landmass that’s smaller than Texas, we have an economy that is smaller than, say, Arizona, but our mouth is larger than…I don’t even know. That’s the power we have and I’m not even knocking that, because there’s no way to pique interest if your voice is not heard, but what we use our voice for is useless. Religion and politics amplify those things, and we let them divide us even though we have more power together.

With religion—I’ll talk about Christianity specifically, because that’s how I grew up—many clerics are manipulating people into thinking there’s only one acceptable way of life and spirituality, so we have people that are blindsided. A lot of these people encourage giving to the church more than giving to your neighbour who is in need. In addition to politicians who don’t care, all of these things make us sceptical of each other, and even when we come together it’s to compare ourselves with others and not to unite and work for progress. The more time goes, the more difficult it gets to make peaceful solutions together.

Let’s talk about the Abuja music scene. Where do you fit in with the moves to create a self-sustaining ecosystem within the city?

The Abuja movement is at the infancy stage with regards to structure, but I’m particularly pleased that there’s no “commercial” sound here and that gives us room to grown on our terms. There’s a lot of trap music going on with Psycho YP, Zilla Oaks and the other guys (Apex Village), and when you go to the shows you’ll find that artists of other genres are doing fairly well, everybody is making moves. Most of Abuja is independent, many of them by choice, and when you look at the dynamics of the city as a chill place compared to Lagos, artists can think and create without being harassed or distracted. I feel like this place will be a proper stronghold in the next five years.

I’m not originally from here but I’ve been accepted here, and this is now like my base. Of course, the plan is to spread the music to the world, but I will always represent this place because it was quiet enough for people to actually hear me out. For now, the missing link is to find a way to improve the profitability of the niche music, ‘cause I make this folk music. It’s just to keep building and find the right people who can help with marketing this sound, whether it’s to folk fans or people who love other genres but can identify with the music in one way or the other. So, with this album and the plans we have going forward, I believe that it will open doors for more Abuja artists to know that they don’t have to conform.

Featured Image Credits: Instagram/chesoofficial

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