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In 'Time Undone,' Kalu & The Electric Joint Get Back To Their Musical Roots


Finally today, we'd like to introduce you to new artists and new music from time to time, so...


KALU JAMES: (Singing) My baby's giving me a lot of hell. She said that I'm too nice and I love cheap thrills.

My name is Kalu James. It's actually Kalu Kalu Kalu because in the Igbo tribe, you go your first name, your last name and your grandfather's name.

MARTIN: The Igbo tribe in southeast Nigeria.


JAMES: (Singing) Yes, I got - oh, I got the love blues.

My dad is a chief in my tribe. His title was (foreign language spoken), which means the umbrella that protects the people.

MARTIN: As the chief's oldest son, Kalu was sent to the U.S. to study, work and send money back home.

JAMES: Most immigrants - music is not - or arts is really not the way you're going. In their mind, going to the land that's flowing with milk and honey, and you either become a doctor or lawyer, one of those professions. But I've always known that that wasn't my passion.

MARTIN: His passion was music.


JAMES: (Singing) I'm never going back. I'm never going back. I've got to testify. I got to.

MARTIN: Kalu eventually finished school and went full steam ahead with his music career, but his parents weren't convinced until they came to the U.S. and saw him play for the first time.

JAMES: I remember my dad being on the phone and talking to his friends, like yeah, you know, like - (laughter) people are coming up to him, and they seem to like it. I got the affirmation, I got the acknowledgement that any kid wants from their parents. Yeah, you're doing the right thing. And some people don't even get that. Some people never, ever get that.

MARTIN: That was the last time Kalu saw his father. About a year and a half later, he got a phone call. His father had suddenly passed away. For the first time in seven years, Kalu went back to his village in Nigeria.


JAMES: (Singing) Rolling through this sea of life.

Going back home to Nigeria - it was pretty much like, OK, this is what happens in the life of a young man - is a situation like this happens, and you come back home, and you take over.

MARTIN: Kalu had a choice - stay in his village in Nigeria and take over as chief or head back to the U.S. His family wanted him to stay, but it didn't feel right. So he got on a plane, went back to the U.S. still in mourning.

JAMES: I withdrew from a lot of people. I couldn't connect. People that were my friends had never lost someone, and I could feel the light that I had in myself slowly dimmen. And I could tell that this was actually affecting me to a point where I was being someone who I'm not OK with.

MARTIN: Kalu met up with his friend JT Holt (ph), who was going through his own tough time. The two of them started writing and honing their sound. It was their therapy.


JAMES: (Singing) Heart is broken. Will is shaken from the sound of the ticking clock.

That was that fire, which, was like OK, so you've made this decision. You have to make this work. For me, it was getting back to the roots of my music and making all the sacrifices that are necessary to keep that light, to keep that fire burning.

MARTIN: Since then, the band has thrived in Austin, Texas, Kalu's adopted hometown. And Kalu travels to Nigeria and sends money back when he can.

JAMES: I am very much at peace with where I am. I am spending a lot of time dwelling on the present because that's all I really have. And if the present is making music and connecting people and sharing the message of love and unity and tolerance, that's where I always want to be.


JAMES: (Singing).

The best thing I did for myself was to have that airplane ticket be a return ticket. (Laughter) That was the best thing I did.


JAMES: (Singing) Achieved my dreams within reach, yes.

MARTIN: That was Kalu James from the band Kalu and the Electric Joint talking to us about their album "Time Undone."


JAMES: (Singing) This time is undone. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.