Wednesday, July 9, 2014

An Interview With Sly 5th Ave

Sly 5th Ave, Sylvester Onyejiaka, talks about his newly released album, Akuma.
Olivia Gibson station manager and radio show host at WRTC in Hartford, CT, recently caught up with Sly 5th Ave to ask him some questions about his new album, early influences, and touring with Prince.

In my recent interview with Sly 5th Ave, he shared his early love of music and the traditions of his fatherland. Twenty eight year old Sly is a truly talented and humble musician whose new album is filled with the rhythms of his roots.

What were your musical influences growing up?
I listened to a lot of Earth, Wind & Fire, and Stevie Wonder; my Mama was from Detroit, so I listened to a lot of black music up until 1990. My Father was from Nigeria; there was also a lot of traditional Afro-beat and Juju rhythms like Fela Kuti. I listened to it as much as I could; as I got older I became more interested in the Nigerian side of my family. Eventually at some point I became interested in jazz, I started playing saxophone and listening to Coltrane and Charlie Parker.

You grew up in Austin, was there a lot of Jazz where you are from?
Well there was a moderate amount of jazz. Musicians from all over the world come to tour Austin, but I was always underage and didn’t get to see a lot of it. Most of the music that I was exposed to was what my parents were playing, or through the church or the bands program at school. There are a lot of bands in Austin but I didn’t witness them till later.

When did you first start joining bands?
I guess as soon as I could be, at about 11 or 12.

What instrument did you first start playing?
I started with the saxophone, but I did have a little Casio keyboard; though, I didn’t take it very seriously until later. The first song I learned to play was the Pink Panther on the keyboard, which my Auntie taught me how to play. I was so excited every time I played the song. Then I decided to learn it on the saxophone, because it is actually a saxophone player that plays that melody.

Were you always in Jazz bands? Or did you and your friends ever try and have a Rock Band or something else?
When I was about 15 we had this band, it wasn’t exactly rock, it was more RnB, but my buddies and I had this band called “A Taste of Class”. We rehearsed for 2 weeks for 3 hours a day, we rehearsed a lot but we only rehearsed one song, it was Alicia Keys “Fallin’”. We had one big performance, all of our parents were there and it went well, but after we finished that song they asked for more. We didn’t have any other songs so we just offered to play that same song again.

That was really my only band experience outside of marching band or jazz band, or classroom stuff. Oh gosh and lots and lots of gospel.

At that time did you see yourself having a future in music?
Yes, I guess I did. When I was 14 or 15 I joined the jazz band at school and I realized that this was it, this was something I really wanted to do. Previously I had wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, because it was a lucrative future guaranteed. Then I decided I wanted to be a musician, I guess at some point I wanted to be a jazz musician, wanted to play around the world and then retire and be a professor. That was always the dream. Since I left the house I have been putting things together whatever happens happens, and it has been a fun journey so far. But there is still much work to be done.

How did you get your break? I know that you have been touring with Prince, how did these opportunities come up for you?
Honestly just pure chance, just being at the right place at the right time - I have been extremely fortunate in that respect. A mentor of mine, Phil Lassiter, took me under his wing and we were hanging out a bunch. He was teaching me about chord arrangements and all this cool stuff about music. Then one day we did this recording session of a live gospel horn section with about five horns and he posted it on YouTube. I guess his friend Andrew who had just started playing with Prince saw that and contacted Phil, who rang me up and said that he had news to share with me and I had to come right over to hear it. I went to his house and when he told me that Prince liked it I said “Shut up”, like I didn’t want to hear it, and I nearly walked out of the room because I thought he was joking. But thankfully it was true.

We were really lucky because there are like a million amazing saxophone players, especially in New York, you could probably line them all the way up 5th avenue to Harlem. Really, I was just at the right place at the right time.

What were some of the highlights of getting to tour with Prince and work with him?
Shoot, there have been a lot of highlights. I got to be on T.V. for the first time - that was really cool. The first show we did was at the United Center in Chicago, all three nights were sold out. We had just completed a month long boot camp, basically training for it. I had never played for a crowd of more than 1000 people; we walked out there kind of still auditioning because it is never set in stone when you work with Prince. But, we walked out there and there was a rumbling from the enormous crowd and it penetrated you to your soul. I was so scared- there were so many people and they were all looking at us. I had some big time stage fright there.

I got to play some amazing places and tour all over and we were treated really well. Pretty much every opportunity I get to come in contact with Prince was better than the last.

How long did you tour with him?
I have been touring with Prince on and off for about 2 years now. We are playing at the Essence Festival in a couple of weeks. Every time he calls back I am grateful for the call. It has been such an opportunity.

What was your inspiration for your new album Akuma?
It was all based on a trip to Nigeria in the fall of 2011, to bury my Grandmother. My Grandfather was the chief of the village and died a few years back; he had 7 wives, my grandmother was the first of the seven wives, and my father was the first-born son of the first wife. Nigeria is very much centered around the male tradition. So he was the overseer of the family once my grandfather passed. My grandmother was by association a chief of the village. The whole village, as well as many others from the extended family and area came to bury her. It was crazy about 1000- 2000 people came. For three days straight there was dancing, firing canons on the hour every hour, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifice - we got to watch my Father sacrifice a cow. Then we ate the cow so I didn’t feel guilty about the sacrifice, its not like we were wasting it. I also saw the biggest pile of rice I had ever seen. It was all crazy, it was just a huge celebration, there were bands playing and sounds happening and that was the inspiration for it all. We also traveled around to a few other places to see family.

That was only my second time to Nigeria and it was eye opening. The best thing you can do for any American kid is to make them leave America for a week and experience the rest of the world.
I came back and while I was there I had my blackberry and my saxophone so I would just sing melodies and record them or other sounds I heard on the phone. On returning, I was so inspired because I had been talking with my cousins and hearing about their dreams and the things they wanted. It is just so much more difficult for them because of corruption in the government and because of lack of resources. I was very inspired when I came back, I wanted to make something out of this experience. I sat down at the piano and started fleshing out these ideas that I had. My girlfriend suggested that I make an album, at first I was hesitant, but now I am so glad that I have.

At the time I was waiting tables and I just saved everything I could – all my tips. Literally I had a shoebox underneath my bed full of money. The day it came to pay for the recording studio I was sweating ‘please tell me I saved up enough’.  And I did, it worked out perfectly, the musicians were one of a kind, they were into the music and we just recorded it all in one day – there was just so much love that was put into it.

Well, it turned out very well; I really like the track “Deme”.
Thank you. That was featuring Denitia.

Was there any particular track that you really love?
Well I don’t favor them, but if I had to choose… well the most fun track to play is “Security”. When we play that live there is usually some special guest in the house so we get four horns going and just jam. It’s a crowd favorite too - people get up and start dancing. That is the best thing at a jazz show, to get people up and dancing.

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