Title: Ballads & Blasphemy
Label: Buda Musique
Formats: CD, MP3
Release date: September 4, 2015
A former graphic designer turned full-time musician, Kuku is adept at bridging borders and boundaries. Born in the U.S. but raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Kuku returned to the land of his birth for college and a stint in the Army, then relocated to Paris where he has developed a loyal following in Europe. However, it is his African roots and Yoruba heritage that come to the forefront on his sixth release, Ballads & Blasphemy. The title references Kuku’s transition from a “believer” to a man who cites ethics, rather than religion, as his moral compass. Each of the 11 tracks express rationales for his “areligious existence,” and are subtitled with his own gospel truths. Alternating between English, Yoruba, and French, the songs are performed by Kuku on vocals, acoustic guitar and udu. Backing is provided by an ensemble of acoustic and electric guitars, double and electric bass, and percussion (cajon, congas, drums).
Opening with “Wáya,” a traditional Yoruba-styled song about finding a wife and parental pressures on marriage, Kuku is joined by legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. Allen returns on “Owó,” another song in Yoruba cautioning that the gospel of money has become the God of man. On “Evil Doers” (the gospel of divine negligence), Kuku questions those who preach love and peace yet kill in the name of religion. This theme continues in “Open Your Eyes While You Pray,” warning against false prophets who will “Take you for a ride while you sing Hallelujah.”
For the track “La Dernière Fois,” Kuku took his inspiration from the Spiritual “This May Be the Last Time,” arranging a version that encompasses his three homelands as he sings the verses in French, English and Yoruba with an African choir accompanying him on the chorus. On the video, dances enact “the incessant acts of violence that plagues humanity as well as mankind’s resilience despite the odds.”
Other songs in English include “Is It All a Game?” (the gospel of divine machination) which asks “why does evil reign–who’s to blame?” and the closing track “If There is a Heaven,” with Kuku singing “If there is a heaven how come no one wants to die / Man will stop at nothing for a shot at paradise.”
A deeply personal album, Ballads & Blasphemy takes us on a journey that questions religious dogma in the music and languages of three continents. Alternatively, Kuku seeks to establish “music, love, peace and happiness” as his “creed while on this earth.”
Listen on Spotify here.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss