Asa’s show at the Royal Albert Hall felt equal parts a commune group dance and an energetic rock ‘n’ roll showcase. Across the night’s majestic two-hour set, there were elements you would only find in both settings: unisonant chants, off-kilter dancing and spirited hair whips. “I love you, Asa!” a fan bellowed from the audience during one of the night’s few quiet moments. A resounding cheer erupted as the crowd echoed in agreement, drowning out whatever response the veteran singer had to offer.
Born Bukola Elemide, Asa’s music is nothing if not communal, and this is most apparent in her live performances. With an appeal that cuts across a swathe of demographics, you can almost taste the palpable feeling of joy at her shows, shared among all members of the audience, young or old. Asa’s debut at the esteemed concert hall was no different. In the pit, an excited group of friends – who probably hadn’t seen each other in a while and were reunited over their love for the precocious singer’s soulful music – joined hands and chanted along to the timeless Fire on the Mountain. In the box seats, an elderly couple was locked in a tender embrace, silently waltzing to the solemn guitar strums accompanying Bed of Stone, from Asa’s 2014 album of the same title. And far stage right, a girl dressed in all black rose up to passionately sing along to cult classic, Bibanke, eyes closed and tears streaming down her face.
The show reimagined Asa’s prolific catalogue, injecting an electro-percussive underlay to the singer’s traditionally doleful ballads. The sombre Ife got an indie-rock uplift as Asa appeared on stage at the show’s commencement, standing tall in glistening black leather gogo boots. The folky tone on 9 Lives was transformed by an arresting electric guitar solo, while show-closer Bamidele offered an electrifying rendition of the morose number.
After getting the crowd warmed up with older, soulful classics, – Torn, Preacher Man, Eye Adaba– Asa slowly eased into more contemporary pop numbers from her latest album, V. Wizkid-assisted IDG had the audience up on their feet swaying to the ice-cool instrumentals and her pristine vocals, while Mayana elicited an echoing eruption from fans as the chorus swelled. By the time the floaty instrumentals on Ocean began to fade out, one fan joked to a friend, “I can just go home now. This is what I came here for.”
If you’re ever lucky enough to attend an Asa show, one thing’s for sure: you’re going to get what you paid for – and more. Throughout the night, Asa’s dexterity as a live performer was undoubtedly clear and increasingly elevated by her evident synergy with her band, who she revealed have been with her for the last 15 years. At every instant, they acted as a single unit, reaching sonic peaks and troughs together. The magnetic pull between the quintet fuelled Asa’s vivacity as she pranced around the stage and offered erratic dance moves, which the crowd welcomed with squeals of delight. At the climax of Bamidele, Asa turned to liquid fire, egging on the lead guitarist’s impassioned strums while she twirled across the floor – a sight reminiscent of a scene out of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Watching on as Asa ignited a stage miles away from home, I couldn’t help but harken back to Afropop’s early days, and muse on how far we’ve come. Last year, Wizkid sold out three back-to-back nights at London’s O2 in a matter of minutes and is currently a headlining act at the world’s biggest hip-hop festival. Just last week, Grammy-winning Burna Boy made history with a sold-out show at the famed Madison Square Garden – the first Nigerian to do so. Across the board, Nigerian music is travelling far and wide and staking its rightful claim in the global pop conversation. And while these feats may seem easily attainable now, it shouldn’t be lost on us what they mean for the culture.
Before my mind could travel even further, I was quickly brought back to earth by shrilly cries from fans next to me as Asa swaggered over to our corner of the room and showed off her idiosyncratic dance moves. What a woman.
As the show wound to a close, fans were left fully entertained but still eager for more. Muted chants begging for an encore spread across the room – Asa responded with a cheeky grin. “You mean a lot to me, and it’s because of you that I’m doing this,” she told the audience with an earnest smile before her final exit. “It’s because of you that I have faith in what I’m doing, thank you.”
Makua Adimora is a London-based writer, researcher and journalist, with a keen interest in music and culture. Her works have been published in British Vogue, Dazed, The Washington Post & Al Jazeera among others. In her spare time, she can be found overspending at Superdrug or obsessing over the latest Don Toliver album.
Photo Credit: Sounds of Africa