Q and A: the Nigerian Can-do spirit impressed me—Sam Jones

British Council Nigeria partnered with Sam Jones, a UK based music producer, to deliver a Live Show Production Masterclass for aspiring and emerging sound engineers.

The masterclass is a 6-day training to help young music technicians demonstrate how a live show is planned and executed.  This means recording, mixing and implementing their production inputs within a live performance.

Sam Jones’ recent projects include mixing for Africa Express and other West African musicians and artists including: Orlando Julius Afrocubism, Kanda Bongo Man, Seckou Keita Band, Jaliba Kuyateh & The Kumareh Band, The Endless Journey, Femi Kuti & Positive Force, Diabel Cissokho, Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra.

Alongside the commercial work Sam does, he runs an organisation called SoundThread, According to Sam, identifies with the social and economic development possibilities offered through the music creative economy.

We spoke to him at the end of his masterclass, his second in Nigeria.

British Council Arts: This is your second time in Nigeria. What were your first impressions of the country? Has the subsequent visit changed these impressions?

Sam Jones: I was told on my last trip that good, well-articulated live music was hard to come by and so was very pleased to see, Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly music showcase in Freedom Park, Lagos. I have always be such a huge fan of the scene here and was an honour to work with it in now both a studio and live setting. I look forward to coming back soon.

BCArts: What would you consider you struck you’re the most about the country and its people?

Sam Jones: I love the way things work in the most informal ways. This indeed has its good points and its bad, but people just get on with it, I feel there is a lot us Brits can learn from that can-do attitude.

BCArts: You were involved in a British Council sponsored workshop for Sound Engineers this time; last time it was a workshop for upcoming music producers. What do you think about the British Council’s interest in these types of empowerment projects? Do you think it is reaching those who really need it?

Sam Jones: For me I’m very interested in market relevant training. Empowering only makes sense when there is a need or a ripe market. I realise that British Council has identified these as areas of growth and feel with the right connections between opportunities and training there can be significant impact.

BCArts: Nigerian mainstream music is at the moment a big deal across the African continent, as someone who has travelled widely within the continent, have you encountered it elsewhere? What was the reaction of the people to the music like?

Sam Jones: You know pure Afrobeat is loved everywhere and I realise that we’re now in the age of afrobeat(s) a departure from its 'golden age' and better placed alongside the MTV-Base generation. I fear the longevity of homogenised ‘afrobeats’ might not match up to the same legacy of its namesake; (although I realise I am showing my age here). Observing musical flows and circulation's is very interesting. You observe in places like Tanzania for example the music consuming public attempting to assimilate Congolese Rumba as their own. Although it has become their pop music, it’s still from the Congo and it’s interesting to observe people forgetting this as it’s so engrained into their society. You don’t get that with Afrobeat, or any of its HighLife variations. The talking drum is used although its heritage is Nigeria and this is evident. Instruments such as the mBira are less defined although Thomas Mapfumo did wonders for routing it to Chimurenga he was never as successful as Fela when it came to genre defining identity and musical nationalism 

BCArts: You had what was considered by many fans as very successful sound engineering during the Afropolitan Showcase in June, what would your say contributed the most to your success?

Sam Jones: Musicians always feel they know what is best for them. In many respects that right. Although when you suggest a different way of doing things, a way that would ultimately prove to give a better result at first it can be very difficult to persuade them and channelling the status quo. When you have examples of why one would do things differently then it’s only a matter of time before a new level of professionalism within live production can be realised.

When the engineer becomes the ‘yes person’ there is compromise and the sonic excellence will suffer. When there is a two way conversation and negotiation between artist and engineer then this partnership yields the best results. Us as engineers had to articulate a new way of doing things. For example it sounded so good because a) we put all musicians on ears (in ear monitors) IEM’S which kept the stage noise down. We convinced the instrumentalists to not play through amps which again brought sonic control. But above all of this we were prepared, sound checks ran to time and there was a mutual respect for each other (that is engineer and musician). 

BCArts: do you think your students, those who attended the workshop, can replicate that level of success?

Sam Jones: Yes although more work needs to be done in the area of initiative and confidence. This is not only in regards to the technical aspects of engineering but also ‘the craft’ of the engineer. Their people skills and production ethics, this can be exemplified although not taught, and is only perfected through practice and commitment to bring about a sea change in production professionalism. Anyone can learn to plug things in but being a problem solver for example takes initiative and making sure production runs professionally takes confidence and experience.

It’s also felt that better access to kit is extremely important and also the know-how when it comes to maintenance. 

BCArts: What are you taking away from the country and its people?

Sam Jones: That I want to come back and continue investing into the music scene as I see so much potential for a place which birthed some of my most favourite music. 

BCArts: what advice do you have for the British Council, especially with regards to its creative industry related activities in Nigeria?

Sam Jones: Through our 5 years of experience we have worked in over 15 countries and partnered with organisations such as the British Council, Hivos and Goethe. Although these programs have built capacity, inspired innovation and created new musical works, it’s felt there remains a disconnect between these programs and real change due to a range of barriers such as organisational limitations standing in the way of innovation. Its felt more can be done to make programs market relevant. Maybe the answer is aligning more with business development opportunities. 

Nigeria, home of some of the most innovative music and one of the most vibrant live music sectors in the whole of Africa, fails to deliver on public demand due to poor quality sound systems, which few know how to use or maintain, and so they fall apart. Yet the public still want to hear live music, but due to few opportunities and a serious lack of resources, any sound skills training has limited impact.
It is true that the creation of cultural works celebrates the diversity of humanity, but how might we further maximise the benefits and impact of these programmes? Our research shows the majority of participants are looking for an opportunity to become part of sustainable business models which empower and puts their skills to use.