The lyrics and melodies started to form in Offiong Bassey’s heart and mind when she was an undergraduate at Yale, studying African-American politics and singing as a featured soloist in the college a cappella group, Shades.
She knew that when she made her own music, the sound and the words would have to draw on all the parts of her: the Nigerian and the American; the poet and the worshiper; the ardent fan of Fela Kuti, Jill Scott, and Lauryn Hill.
Her first solo showcase came in 2007, her senior year. But after graduating, Bassey did the safe thing: She went to work as a management consultant, advising first Fortune 500 companies for Bain & Co., and then schools and nonprofits for an education consultancy.
That musical dream could have drifted away as her career advanced. The long hours and business travel took their toll. “The creative side was dormant for a few years,” Bassey says. Until she couldn’t stifle it anymore.
Now, Bassey has released a self-titled debut album, painstakingly recorded and mixed during after-hours sessions over a three-year period, that is so polished and professional it sounds as if she’s been doing nothing but music all along.
With a jazzy feel, soul-filled messages, and a strong infusion of African roots, it has earned Bassey her first Scullers show, on Tuesday.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Bassey says. “Now is the time to put the music out there, to see the full potential of this project that I have given so much of myself to.”
‘It’s been a long time coming. Now is the time to put the music out there, to see the full potential of this project that I have given so much of myself to.’
Call it a coming-out party. In the last couple of years, Bassey, the Boston-born daughter of Nigerian immigrants, has gigged a bit around town, but sparingly, and mostly in other people’s bands — a funk show here, a Latin set there.
Meanwhile, she’s continued to hold down a full-time job, and a demanding one at that, as director of a nonprofit venture that supports leadership development for African-Americans in education reform.
She credits the move away from corporate work for freeing her to make her art, not in terms of time, but spiritually. “The work is in line with my passion and social consciousness,” she says. “I’m more easily able to access the creative aspects of myself, because during the day, I’m being fed in that way as well.”
Self-financed and independently released, but with a wider distribution deal slated for next year, Bassey’s album travels a rich landscape. She sings in English, Efik (the language in her family’s region of Calabar), and on one track, the Afrobeat jam “Conclusion,” she raps in Nigerian pidgin.
She wrote that song on one of her regular trips to visit family in Nigeria. “I write a lot when I’m in Nigeria,” she says. “Certain inspirations don’t come as easily when I’m not there.”
A Christian who grew up singing in church, with pastors for grandparents, she soars into American praise-and-worship mode on “It Might Be Hard,” and channels the Nigerian gospel tradition on “Efik Praise Medley.” She also sings traditional Efik rhythms on “Edidem,” and delivers a passage of spoken poetry on “Weatherman.”
Calypso and Afro-Peruvian grooves weave their way into other songs.
“It’s a testament to my cultural background and the eclectic influences I’ve had,” Bassey says. “All the songs are very much me though they are very different.”
Though international in spirit, much about Bassey’s album is pure Boston, beginning with Bassey herself, who attended Cambridge public schools and the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, went to church at St. Paul A.M.E. in Cambridge, and still lives in the area.
The musicians on her album were mostly students or alums of the Berklee College of Music. And producer Blethy Emmanuel Tiegnon, who worked on the project from the beginning, is in his last semester at Berklee, studying film scoring and music engineering and production.
Tiegnon, who was a music prodigy and a teenage star in a popular African gospel band in his native Ivory Coast, says the similarities in their roots helped him find ways to arrange and mix Bassey’s songs that honored her own eclectic background.
“When I met her she wanted a fusion of things,” Tiegnon says. “I had done a lot of this music back in Africa, so I revisited those things. Religion also matters. She is a believer and I’m a believer, and we had to connect on that level to understand each other.”
Tiegnon is also the director of Bassey’s live band, which for the Scullers show will feature nine musicians, including backup singers and a horn section.
Bassey and Tiegnon are adamant this is no one-off project, but the start of an ambitious collaboration. Bassey has many more songs ready to record, but she’s also eager to develop new artists and help them with the business side of their music career. “With the consulting background I have, I understand how to make deals,” she says.
What’s important to her now, however, is that she took the risk to listen to her creative calling, and now has the album and performance opportunities as her reward.
“I thought, woe unto me if I get to a point where I’ve done all the things people expected me to do, but haven’t done the thing I feel God has called me to do myself,” Bassey says. “I would have had no one to blame but myself.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.