In Conversation with Bumi Thomas
Bumi Thomas is a contemporary African acoustic jazz-folk-soul singer and songwriter, whose style is inspired by her multicultural heritage. Born in Glasgow (Scotland) and raised between Kano and Lagos (Nigeria), Thomas is based in London (United Kingdom), and is a graduate of fine art media and visual communication from Bath Spa University. Thomas’ music is inspired by the her journey through life, the human experience, and her desire to drive positive change through art and music. In her own words, “My musical journey is essentially about transcending boundaries, and is an exploration of the relationship between art, experience, and emotion. My work also encapsulates my evolution as a woman.”
Thomas has captivated audiences through her live performances, from London cafes, bars, and jazz haunts to the Royal Opera House. In addition to pursuing an active music career, she is also a painter, freelance photographer, and founding member of the London-based F.R.I.D.A project (Female Revolution In Dance and Art), which creates a series of photographs inspired by the life and legacy of feminist cultural icon Frida Kahlo. In this interview with Omenka, she discusses her music, influences, and most recent projects.
At what point did your interest in music begin?
Music has always been a part of my life. From hearing my grandmother’s voice to the jazz, funk, calypso, and highlife records my dad would constantly play at any invitation. Music was always present, shaping me in some fashion. My parents owned a jazz club in Kano in the late 80s. I distinctly remember the soundtracks to their dinner parties. The voices of Harry Belafonte, Sam Cooke, or Miriam Makeba in the dry harmattan brought a certain charm to the passing of seasons. I was eight when I had my first piano lesson, an introduction to classical form and basic scales. My piano teacher, Mr Bluid, realised I had an ear for improvisation and began to teach me blues and jazz chords. These are some of my earliest memories of playing and appreciating music.
In your biography, you cite Björk, Yinka Shonibare, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Sade Adu as your influences. How were you able to blend these influences to create a distinctive sound that bears no obvious similarities to any of these artistes?
Yes, in many ways, my sound embodies some inflections and sensibilities of these great musical and visual muses, though interpreted differently. Their influence constitutes the bedrock of a very rich and deep artistic heritage, one my musicality and process has certainly been shaped by. I turn to Sade for groove, mood, and emotional honesty; Miles for depth and form; Nina for courage, intensity, and deep rooted authenticity; Yinka for conceptuality and process; and Björk for pure, unbridled creative energy. Recently, I have been reflecting on demystifying originality. The creative instinct is fuelled by the ability to take pre-existing elements and combine them in a way that creates a new experience for the artist and the listener.
You identify as British-Nigerian, having been born in Glasgow to Nigerian parents and having lived in Kano and Lagos (northern and southern Nigeria respectively) in your formative years. How have these three different locations influenced your music and you as an artist?
This is a matter of nature and nurture. I have been blessed to see the world from different points of view. We are shaped by our internal and external environment. The elements of all the spaces I have inhabited and the nuances within them have left an indelible mark on the person I have become, my forms of expression, and the subjects I choose to explore as an artist.
Many labels have been placed on your genre, the most descriptive being a “cross between soul, acoustic and folk.” In your own words, how would you describe your sound?
Those aremy words. I have played around with others: EndoSoul, Panasonic NeoBlues, fusionistic, organic dreams, Folkstroke (lol). My sound is a fusion, one that is constantly evolving. It is universal. At the core of it all, my intent is to create healing music to touch the heart and stir the soul.
You are also a photographer and a poet. Please take us through your creative process, including the role of these other forms of expression, individually and collectively, on your music.
Yes, I am a multidisciplinary artist. My creative process is very intuitive. When a concept comes into the fold, I often imagine it visually and sonically. Methodically speaking, I work from a brief, deconstructing the elements and fusing them back together. I like to have a thread or theme that ties the expression together. Musically, I tend to work more with moods and melodies. In every discipline, timing is everything.
The pace, textures, and colours each song conjures help me see the direction of the piece. Like storytelling, there is a beginning, middle, and end. The light, shadows, and contrast add depth, defining key moments in the journey.
I am learning that space is such a powerful part of expression—ensuring there is enough room for each aspect to sit and grow in relation to the others—the poetics of space.
You refer to the Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, as an inspiration for your music, and, with songs like “My Baby” and “Walk with Me,” you take on the subjects of love, relationships, dreams. What does love mean to you? How influential have these songs been, considering the growing rate of failed relationships and marriages?
Wow, that is a fully loaded question, I find myths of origin and history very compelling. I also love how emotions and nature’s elements are personified so vividly. They give us insights into the archetypes of being, femininity and masculinity, the struggle for balance, the harmony of our strengths and weakness, tales of love and triumph, good and evil, loss and gain, tragedy and perseverance. Within these polarities lie the resilience of the human spirit, the choice to act with compassion or forgiveness when faced with cruelty. Love is the most powerful emotion, the divine spark that burns in all souls.
A great expression of love is the ability to love and nurture yourself. This teaches us how to treat others and set boundaries against things that otherwise test our values and compromise integrity.
A lot of marriages and relationships break down when we fail to recognise or appreciate the beautiful fragility of those closest to us or when we become unkind to others because we have learnt to be unkind to ourselves. I certainly hope my music helps to create a space for healing, where people can reflect on what’s truly important to them and appreciate the purity of life.
Why is it important to you to highlight the space women occupy in our society through your music?
I use my music to draw attention to the essence of women, highlighting their trials, celebrating their achievements, excavating their stories and invaluable contribution to humanity.
When the feminine and masculine principle work in concert with each other, we begin to glimpse a world of great balance, a beautiful symbiosis. Through art, we can simulate the worlds we choose to inhabit, societies of the future: how they can look, feel, function, and the role the female voice plays in weaving the narrative of that reality. Call me idealistic.
Women were expected to bear the emotional weight of neutralising and processing complex emotions. As we evolve as a species, we begin to unpack intergenerational trauma caused by repression, oppression, and the role some patriarchal ideologies have played in preserving many sociocultural dysfunctions.
We are forced to re-evaluate our emotions and discover how they better serve our psychological well-being when expressed honestly, constructively, and with sensitivity. Women and men have very proactive roles to play in this synthesis.
In “Free as a Bird,” you sing about trust (“…concealing more than you need to show”), while “Don’t Lie to Me” is about unrequited love and deceit (“Only time can heal and console me. Why do you tell me we are transparent, when you don’t love me?”) Were these songs inspired by personal experiences?
Yes, mine and the experiences of others. It important to share our stories. It is cathartic; it aids our healing and the healing of others. Too many of us suffer in silence.
Congratulations! You recently performed at Ladies on the Green, alongside Louise Golbey. Please tell us about it.
It was a fantastic show set in the idyllic Good Neighbours in South London and curated by Kadija Kamara, another amazing British-Nigerian singer/bassist. Louise, Kamara, and I played intimate sets from our repertoire about life, love, celebration, and solidarity. It was a beautiful night and a joy to perform with these kindred artists.
Photo credit: Tatiana Gorilovsky
What forthcoming projects would you like to share with us?
Well, I am currently recording my next EP Broken Silence, and can’t wait to share this gorgeous record with you! There’s an upcoming show at the October Gallery in Holborn on June 21, where I’ll be responding sonically to the collection ‘Hidden’, the debut show of the amazing Irish-Nigerian sculptor LR Vandy. Plus, there will be an incredible performance at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles in October as part of the touring exhibition I am featured in with the brilliant British-Moroccan photographer Hassan Hajjaj.
Visually, my photography project ‘Self-Portrait’, inspired by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, is a delve into the feminine psyche, exploring themes of transformation and rebirth. Kahlo is used as a conduit to resolve the tension between trauma and restoration, transition and intention, hope and manifestation.
This is an intimate series of portraits that reveal the matriarchal essence as the presence of legacy and the passing of the baton from one generation to the next.
August 23, 2019