Skip to main content

Artist Features

I Am YEG Arts: Biboye Onanuga

May 16, 2024

Biboye Onanuga is a versatile drummer, composer, educator, and tastemaker based in Edmonton. Steeped in the arts scene since he was in high school, he has become a sought-after player in the Edmonton music scene and beyond, whether playing with his band Good Information or organizing jazz magic at the music series New Standards. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts story, Biboye talks about putting a modern spin on jazz, facilitating spaces for music to happen with New Standards, and the value of collaboration in creating a sense of community. 

Was music always a natural fit for you? And what is it about the arts that made you feel like you belong? 

In some ways, drumming specifically was a really natural fit for me. I was a tapper as a kid, and I’m still a tapper. Because I didn’t consider pursuing the arts as a career, or even with post-secondary education, I was free to explore music and artistic communities with curiosity and openness that helped me naturally blossom in that space with no pressure. In some ways that makes it feel like I just belong in this space. I think music is an inherently communal artform. Like early days of playing in junior high or high school band and church settings, I got the sense of being a part of a whole just by playing music – I’m playing my role as a percussionist or a drummer, but I contribute to a broader sound, a broader picture that we’re painting together. Music is so communal, and it brings you into community naturally. 

What themes are you drawn to exploring in your music? 

In many ways my playing and my music are expressions of the ideas that I’m exploring in my mind. I picture music as a kind of playground for those ideas to play and take shape. The idea that I’m focused on these days is the theme of pace. I’ve spent the past five years or so reading and thinking about the pace that our modern Western world is designed for, and the adverse effects that I’ve come to believe that our lifestyles are having on our personhood. My music explores that and highlights what I think is a collective ache for slowness that I think we all share, and in some ways, it advocates for an alternative through sound. 

How did New Standards begin back in 2019, and what was your inspiration for starting the series?

New Standards started off on the heels of a different music series that my band Good Information had at the Common. We still have a series called RE:JAZZ where we take contemporary hip hop music, and we play it as a jazz quartet or trio. So, we basically put it into a modern jazz context. 

In 2019 I studied abroad in Finland, and being in Europe where I could say that broadly speaking, there’s a different taste for jazz and there is a different culture of appreciation for music. I experienced different jazz happenings in all of these different countries and I saw a lot of young people were really oriented around modern jazz that doesn’t shy away from modern approaches to making music digitally or with a backbeat. When I returned to Edmonton, I started a series called Common Thread that was put on pause by the pandemic pretty much right after we came back in 2020. But then in 2022, with a few friends – Gareth Gilliland, a guitar player; Sean Croal, a bass player; and my fiancée Maaike Kuypers who is basically my co-conspirator in all things – we decided to give Common Thread another go as New Standards, so that’s where it came from. We just knew that Edmonton needed a young person’s jazz jam that’s oriented around a modern approach to jazz. And when I say young people, it’s not a jam specifically for young people; there’s people of all ages and backgrounds that that come out to New Standards, but in some ways, it’s just an openness to newer sounds. 

As a musician and presenter, you collaborate with so many other musicians and artists. What do you like about collaboration and what have been some of your most interesting experiences? 

Related to what I said earlier, what I love about music is that it’s communal. And even my favorite musicians in the jazz umbrella, like Jordan Rakei and Ambrose Akinmusire, what I love the most about those artists is the broader community that they represent with their sound. Communities make ideas together and then individuals present them to the rest of the world. It’s like the idea is rooted in a community, and so when it comes to collaboration, I love that I’m part of a network in Edmonton that is sharing ideas and that every band has like a band sound”. Every artist I play for is not just that artist; the contributions from every single member make up the whole, and I love that. I play for a few artists that aren’t based in Edmonton, Odario probably being like the most significant and maybe my favorite band to play with, and I love that when I play with all these Toronto-based players, there’s a different musical concept that I’m wrapped up into. I love the spontaneity of being in a room with people and sharing musical ideas. 

In terms of [interesting experiences], at New Standards we feature a jam that’s entirely improvised. Every single night at New Standards in a totally improvised two-hour jam where people tap in and tap out, there are moments where if I had a microphone or a recording setup, I’d be capturing pure gold in musical form happening every single week. If you just put people in a room and you ask them to play, magic will appear in front of you. So that’s maybe what I love to see about collaboration; when you put brilliant artists together, beautiful things happen. 

In your work with the Youth Orchestra of Northern Albera – Sistema (YONA), you play a vital role in inspiring the next generation of young musicians. Tell us about your role, and why the organization is special to you and the city. 

In so many ways I’ve worn almost all the hats possible at YONA. I’m a sub now and I started on their sub list, and then I was a site manager running one specific school situation, and then prior to going full time with music, I was covering my boss’s maternity leave serving as the lead for the organization. So, I’ve seen how YONA is important in all contexts. If I were to distill it, I would say that the belonging that you asked me about earlier, that’s kind of what YONA inspires. Part of the purpose of YONA is that it’s a conduit for friendships and community amongst young people, and music is at the core of it. I don’t know if I can come up with a better tool than music to be that conduit for community, love, friendship, and belonging that young people are always looking for. And then on the musical side, it’s something that I wish I had earlier exposure to. There’s a real breadth of music and also a seriousness about music – it’s not just something for fun, it’s something that you can pursue and it’s something that you can put work into. The students are exposed to great music in terms of what they’re listening to on a week-to-week basis and getting to play, but also great teachers that have great experiences as players and teachers. 

Tell us a little bit about what you’re currently working on or hoping to explore next. 

One of the biggest things on my docket is my band Good Information. We recorded our debut album Hurry last year, so we’re putting in the work to get that released. And the other is New Standards. What I love about New Standards is that in being a weekly series throughout the year, we have like 45 different nights of music. In some ways, if you go every week for a three-month period, it’s like you’ve taken in a music festival just over an extended period of time. New Standards is a lot of work and we’re always thinking about new ways to extend our programming beyond our weekly night. Some of the thoughts that we have right now are to put on a festival of sorts – we love the Edmonton Jazz Festival and we’re all kind of involved in it, but we’re thinking, what if we had another festival or a different kind of festival celebrating improvised music in Edmonton? Another project we’re working on is a big band show because I think that’s something that’s considered really traditional in the jazz umbrella or jazz understanding. So, what does a modern big band show presented by New Standards look like? That’s an idea that we’re playing with. 

Personally, I’m hoping to play in more sonically sparse projects or bands like more pop, folk, or indie music. I don’t feel like I’m in a box. I love jazz and more exploratory groove bass music, but I think it would be great to play in more sonically sparse projects. And in May I’m going on my first tour in Europe with an indie band called St. Arnaud. And in June I’m playing a ton of shows in the Vancouver Jazz Fest and then also a ton of shows for the Edmonton Jazz Fest. 

About Biboye Onanuga

Biboye Onanuga is a versatile drummer, imaginative composer, and passionate educator based in Edmonton. Steeped in the arts scene since high-school, he quickly became a sought-after player — recently completing his music degree at MacEwan University. Frequenters of live music will find Biboye hard to miss; whether behind the drums as a sideperson, with his band Good Information, or organizing shows through the music series New Standards.

Alongside leading the jazz-hop band Good Information — Biboye is frequently seen playing with Odario Williams (Toronto — Host of CBC Radio Canada’s Afterdark’), Tanika Charles (Montréal) and Motorbike James. Good information has become a significant part of the local music scene and a resurgence of young jazz enthusiasts through their distinct shows. Most significantly, their RE:JAZZ” series, featuring the music of popular hip-hop artists arranged for their jazz context.

Currently: Biboye leads the team behind New Standards; a weekly music series bringing artists and listeners together around creative improvised music. He is also set to release Good Information’s debut Album Hurry’ and both &’ — a project that fuses music and poetry to explore the beauty in juxtaposition and false dichotomies. A believer in music for social-change, Biboye supports accessible music programming through the Youth Orchestra of Northern Alberta — Sistema (YONA), where he serves an instructor with the organization.