Watering the Musical Seed: The Musical Journey of a Black Actor-Musician
By Tomi Ogbaro
It's hard to fathom that it's nearly been a year since the tragic killing of George Floyd. Since then a lot has changed. The BLM movement has made incredible progress and the world feels like a very different place. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
As a young theatre company we're very interested in how we fit into this global conversation. What are the issues surrounding race in our industry? And what can we do to help diversity thrive within the actor-musician community?
To keep this dialogue going we decided to reissue a fantastic blog piece written last year by our Associate Artist Tomi Ogbaro. In this piece Tomi reflects on his experiences as a black Actor-Musician and shares some of the cultural treasure troves that have shaped him into the artist he is today.
This is a special one.
So without further ado, let's hand over to Tomi...
Now, I found it difficult deciding on what to name this blog, the experiences of black artists are not all the same. Neither do my experiences speak for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. But, in my artistic journey and in meeting many black artists whom I have had the privilege to call friends, I have found many similarities in how we have arrived at where we are. I'd like to speak about my journey and enlighten others of those same experiences.
Tomi in rehearsals for The Bohemians'
2018 production of 'Wondertown'. Image by Sam Chapman.
I’m a Black Actor-Musician (Black not BAME) and a first-generation immigrant. Music was, like for many others, integral in my upbringing - this is not something I realised until I started training.Being raised around both a Muslim and pentecostal environment as well as a large extended family from all around Africa, my musical diet was one rich in diversity and it sowed the seeds for an innate musicality.
Many of my Afro-Caribbean friends also grew up with the music their parents listened to, whether that was the Big Band blast of Fela Kuti or the sultry tones of Dennis Brown, I see those influences in how they play and within the rhythmic approach they have to their music. Later on in life, my sister raised me on RnB, Grime, and Hip Hop which then evolved into a taste in Jazz and Neo-soul. Most forms of modern music can be traced back to black roots. All of these genres have influenced how I listen to and make music today.
Watering the Seed
A common through-line I’ve seen is that the seed is watered very often in one particular environment - I am talking about the church. There's an innate spirituality across many, if not all, Afro-Caribbean cultures and many of us spent long, long, long Sundays in the church every week whilst growing up.
Your preconceived ideas of the African musical church service is everything you're thinking and more. Every church varies but the bright keys, enthusiastic drummer and soulful singers tend to remain consistent between all of them. In my experience, add to this the very specific Nigerian guitar playing style, multiple congo players, bassists and so on and so forth. A ritual after church is the children playing around on the instruments, given free reign, those with the enthusiasm will spend ages trying to find what makes them tick, and if they're lucky their parents will nurture that enthusiasm usually in hope of benefiting the church in the future.
Sheldon Greenland, Alexander Bean, Michael Jeremiah and myself (all professional black actor musos) are all products of this upbringing to different degrees.
But there are also those who come from a more classical background such as Chioma Uma whose background is that of a classical pianist, but she brings that innate building block of rhythm and soul into the way she constructs music all the time. Partnered with her perfect pitch and theoretical knowledge, she becomes a musical powerhouse.
Chioma Uma in Camelot at The Watermill.
Photo by Pamela Raith.
For myself, alongside this pentecostal introduction to the workings of music, I found myself drawn to Disney musicals such as 'High School Musical' - a trilogy I will defend to my dying days! As I got older I began to watch bootlegs of contemporary musical theatre. In my working-class background, seeing theatre on a regular basis just wasn't on the cards, so I found solace in bootlegs and the £5 globe tickets when I started working. I didn't take learning an instrument seriously until I was 15, and had only three lessons before I self-taught myself everything. The theatre side of my growth like many others was nurtured through school and youth theatre at around age 16. I owe a lot to organisations like the Greenwich and Lewisham Youth Theatre, without them I truly don't think I would be where I am today.
Training and Reaping the Seed
I felt completely out of my depth when I started training. I was coming from a very non-traditional musical background with no thorough understanding of music theory or trained ears at my disposal. The first year and a half felt like playing catch up in a race you didn't even know you were running. Of course, it's not a race, and even if it is, the only runner is yourself.
Some black actors felt this difference to an extent, but many had good ears to guide them - something I had not developed yet. The great thing about my training was that there were classes where my strengths would be highlighted. The confidence I lacked in my Music Theory classes was balanced out by the confidence I felt in Musicality and World Music classes. Rhythm, feeling, and instinct were my entry points in many aspects of my training.
Good teachers will build confidence in your strengths and cover and train your weaknesses, ultimately making you a more well rounded artist. You're not going to be good at everything, and that's ok. A lesson everyone has to learn.
I struggled a lot with singing, something that as a black musician many people find surprising, but singing is one of the only classes where I really ever broke down. However, the ethos that everyone can sing was instilled in me from the first day. I found my entry point through genres I was comfortable with, learning what my voice could and couldn't do, and watching those with completely different voices from my own singing.
One of my biggest breakthrough points was in my composition strands, lacking the confidence to play music let alone create it. I struggled initially but using the rhythm entry point I was able to really showcase a piece that was...me. I called it “Ode to Rhythm”. I thought I was a genius.
My innate skills were partnered with instruction, theory, and classmates who excelled in areas I wanted to be better at. I am where I am today because of the help of my peers and teachers. Training is where the black actor-musician, or any actor-musician for that matter, gets the chance to bring all the aspects that are unique to them and truly perfect them.
Making sure the Flower Doesn't Die
Diversity is something I’ve talked about a lot, even going as far as writing my dissertation on it. People often ask how do you increase and promote diversity?
Outreach is an important part, without the resources I was able to get access to I truly would not have even considered drama school. I have witnessed first hand how the intersectionality of class and race can break spirits and rob the industry of fresh talent.
The arts need to be funded, drama schools need to do proper community outreach and make their auditions accessible, a space must be made in the industry where we can all feel comfortable. But that's a piece for another day.
Of course, none of this is exclusive to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, but many of the aspects of my journey are shared with my kinfolk.
There are curious, talented, and enthusiastic seeds out there waiting to flourish.
Don't let them die.
Tomi Ogbaro graduated from Rose Bruford in 2018. Since then he’s had the pleasure of working at the Watermill Theatre, The Regent’s Park and The Bolton Octagon alongside a slew of TV work and professional workshops. Primarily a bassist and drummer, he enjoys writing unfinished songs and all things Nerdy!
That's all for this month folks. If you enjoyed this blog be sure to check out our piece 'Putting on Theatre in Coronaville' which features the brilliant Chioma Uma who Tomi mentioned in this month's installment. Also be sure to check out our 'Busk It' podcast for your monthly dose of muso madness!
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Thank you for reading!
Until next time...
LA VIE BOHEME!