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(Beginning Of Time - Dec. 18, 2023)

A few weeks before September 11th 2001, I moved to NYC to work at Spiritual Life Music. The office was located on the third floor of the infamous 56 Walker St., the last bastion of creative space left in Tribeca, it was run by Lenny Charles and was complete chaos, COMPLETE CHAOS. You knew its days were numbered, the property was worth too much and the building stuck out like a sore thumb. I will never forget my first day, I arrived at around 8:30am and spent the day with Christina, Kamati and Joe trying to figure out what I got myself into. Crazy Lenny had a “free speech” tv station ‘I.N.N. World Report’ across the hall and there were people screaming, slamming doors, bickering endlessly all day, Lenny throwing tantrums and his minions trying to herd his madness unsuccessfully. I put my head down and tried to make sense of how the label ran. By 4:00pm I was burnt, completely overwhelmed, and in the door struts a 6’3” Nigerian whirlwind, his top hat probably leveling off at 6’9”. It was Funmi Ononaiye. He looks me up and down, clearly like why is there a 21 year old skinny white kid from Boston at my desk, and goes “what’s he doing here” with a scowl. I felt smaller than small. He rustled around his 6 bags he was always carrying, threw them on the couch and said “im going to get wheat grass”. Around an hour later he returned (he grabbed a fish sandwich too from the place on Church St. he went daily), I was scared to death, beyond uncomfortable. He sat next to me and quizzed me on music, trying to gauge if I had any clue and if I didn’t where he needed to start with my schooling. It was the beginning of one of the greatest musical friendships I ever had, there are few people I have learned as much from and their certainly is no one more willing to share ALL the jams they know. He played nothing close to the vest, and was disgusted when others did. After I left for the day around 7pm, his day was just starting, he would be at the office all night, burning cds of all the new music for our staff and then hitting the streets to go to clubs, studio sessions, mastering studios. We were polar opposites, on completely different schedules, but every morning when I got in there would be a pile cds of forthcoming stuff on Spiritual Life to listen to but also a pile of burnt albums of stuff he knew I should hear. ‘Paul, listen to those, they are “Congo!!”.’

Funmi Ononaiye Dope Jams

He was completely free - a nomad- it was inspiring, often times frustrating and exactly what that office needed. One day he would be waltzing in with Salif Keita, the next James Hurt, Cheick Tidiane Seck or Antoine Roney, monsters of the jazz and world music fields, you never knew what you were gonna get. On down days we would write the promo sheets for the new releases, mostly him talking and me typing. Any which way his chaos brought the calm to the office, it was the antithesis to spreadsheets and budgets. On Thursdays we would make our way to the first floor of the building where Daniel Moreno and friends did their weekly jam session ‘Speak In Tones’ and Funmi held court with the titans of underground NYC jazz world. He knew everyone, you would walk down the street and you would stop twenty times with him to give everyone a pound. The real mayor of NYC.

Funmi Paul Nickerson Spiritual Life

After Spiritual Life ended we lost touch for awhile, but sure enough one day he shows up on Myrtle Ave. at the shop and it’s like no time passed. Instantly he is pulling records out of the bins playing obscure album cuts that he knows I know nothing about. He really cared more about the sharing of music more than anything. He had his hand in so many things that no one really knows about and he could have cared less about getting credit for it. From the success of the stuff on Atlantic like Ten City, Michael Watford and Bas Noir to the masterpiece of a compilation ‘U.D.M’ on Atlantic featuring ‘Outta Limits’ and ‘Sunday Afternoon’. He is also probably single handedly responsible for ‘Knights Of The Jaguar’ becoming the anthem it was in NY by placing it in all the right hands during his time at Dancetracks. After reconnecting, he was around a lot more, hanging out, smoking weed, laughing (god, that laugh), playing at the shop parties with his 6000 cds (pre-usb). It was beautiful, always. And once the shop closed we lost touch again.

Funmi Ononaiye Dope Jams

In the midst of covid I am out mowing the field and my phone rings, Funmi. “Listen man, this lockdown shit is bullshit, we need to bring music to the people, my friend has a place in Ft. Greene, we need to do a block party there” I bit but was hesitant, “Im down to do it but do you know how to get the permits?”, I will never forget his reply “fuck that, we are doing this renegade style” and renegade style we did. He knew he was on the right vibrational path that he had a protective forcefield around him. We never got trouble from the cops once during those parties, in fact the complete opposite, they were thanking us. His presence had a disarming quality about it, and he knew how to use it. Those parties, especially the Juneteenth one, are some of the most special I have had anything to do with. Our 9-year old son Willow, who was 6 at the time, still talks about them and Funmi on a weekly basis. Funmi met him there and they were instant friends. I don’t think anything could sum up his presence more, he was child like. He spent more time Upstate with us, playing the parties here and just enjoying nature and the calm I think.

There are some many songs that will forever remind me of him, “1er Gaou” by Magic System, “Comanche” by Jorge Ben, “Bacalao Con Pan” by Irakerre - crazy techno jams like “Silvery Sounds (Technasia Soft Mix)” by Sound Of K. But the one that gets me the most that we talked so much about is ‘1983 (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)’ by Jimi Hendrix. There is a hook in it that sounds like he is saying “Walk Me Out Of Style” and we would talk about whether it was because Hendrix was so effortlessly cool that to truly be free and forgotten he had to be “walked out of style”. Funmi was as Hendrix was, effortlessly cool, and has now been walked out of style, truly free.

Funmi, all of my love. Always.

Funmi Ononaiye
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