Tunde Baiyewu – the Lighthouse Family frontman who has achieved in excess of 20 million global sales – was born in the UK to Nigerian parents, but returned to Nigeria aged 4, following the death of his father. Tunde was immediately faced with the challenge of a new language (learning Yoruba would later heavily impact his singing style), and a new way of life; from the streets of London to the starkly rural school at Etiki, with the daily responsibility of collecting water from the stream to wash school-clothes. The lack of a father-figure saw Tunde become “withdrawn, introspective” and that pensiveness can still be felt in his writing today. “There’s a need for me to withdraw into my own space,” as he puts it.
When Tunde Baiyewu was in his teens, his mother remarried. Tunde’s new stepfather was Olusegun Obasanjo: a household name in Nigeria, and the head of the country’s military. Obasanjo was to have a deep impact on Tunde’s life: from avoiding assassination in 1976 (when Nigeria’s president was killed) to speaking out against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the later regime of dictator Sani Abacha. Obasanjo was jailed, tortured and sentenced to life in prison for participating in an aborted coup attempt in 1995: the very year that Tunde’s ‘Ocean Drive’ album was released. Pressure from political parties abroad, including President Jimmy Carter, saw Obasanjo’s sentence reduced, until in 1998 Abacha died. Tunde’s stepfather was released and, upon Nigeria’s first election in 16 years, was voted president a year later.
Tunde has announced details of a brand new solo album, DIAMOND IN A ROCK; Tunde’s first new material in over eight years. A more soulful, personal and eclectic offering than his prior work, DIAMOND IN A ROCKsuggests that there is more than may have initially met the eye with Tunde Baiyewu
Work on DIAMOND IN A ROCKstarted a couple of years back with the Lighthouse Family now signed to Sony Records following a hugely successful UK tour. Tunde had written a number of songs for the band’s new album, but while trying to put the pieces together in a major label atmosphere, he was reminded of the creative tensions and compromises of being in the band and decided any new material couldn’t be fully realised if he didn’t have control of the process. Instead, Tunde walked away from the group and went back to his roots, assimilating a lifelong love of the likes of Bill Withers with a mix of African and Western rhythms and textures.
The record was recorded in Portland (or “the new Nashville” as Tunde’s producer sold it), featuring an array of local artists: the critically acclaimed Catherine Feeny provides backing vocals to several tracks, with musical turns also coming from the likes of guitarist Jon Neufeld (from The Decemberists’ off-shoot Black Prairie). Tunde’s effortlessly soulful voice shines throughout – still as immediately recognisable now as it was in the heyday of The Lighthouse Family. Lyrically, the impact of marriage and children has mellowed his songwriting, quite literally transforming the vitriolic ‘Words In My Mouth’ (it referred to the tensions that ended the band) into something more reflective and loving.
Now that Tunde is free from the constraints of a group, he has admittedly come into his own. Yet despite the staggering success of The Lighthouse Family, Tunde stumbled into music almost entirely by accident. He left Nigeria for the UK at 19, hoping to study at university. As a young, eager immigrant, Tunde took whatever job he could find, cleaning offices and then working within the same bank that refused to open him an account (England’s government had accepted this African, but not everyone had read the memo). Friends forced Tunde into expressing his voice and sent recordings to a local radio station, as well as some recording labels, without him knowing.
Tunde Baiyewu’s distinctive voice comes from this rich, complex past, and on DIAMOND IN A ROCK, he finally begins to use it in the way you sense he’s always wanted to. “Now is when I need to really truly say what I want to say, the way I want to say it, as best as I can.”