Leo Mantis, a young Nigerian musician, mastered Ukrainian listening to Okean Elzy tracks, and now Svyatoslav Vakarchuk is producing his debut album

The distance between Lagos, Nigeria, and Ternopol, Ukraine, is 8.5 thousand kilometers. Lagos has the Atlantic Ocean and the population of 13 million, while in Ternopol there is a narrow river of Seret and some 200 thousand people. Yet, Leonardo Obodoeke (the musician’s real name) was not the one to be discouraged by the gaping differences – in 2012, he came to Ternopol to study surgery.

Five years later, Leo feels at home in Ternopol. He is fluent in Ukrainian, knows every monument here, offers to meet at the Moloko, a downtown department store, a regular meeting point for the locals, and says hello to every second girl in town. Leo has recently released his debut video Lysty produced by Svyatoslav Vakarchuk – in just a couple of days it was viewed over 100 thousand times on Youtube. Not only does Mantis sing in Ukrainian – he also writes music and lyrics of all his songs. His music is romantic with a hint of African blues, the vocals are low and husky in that sexy way.

When he first came to Ukraine, Leo heard Okean Elzy’s Ya tak khochu playing on the radio in the taxi. “I loved the tune”, says Leo simply. The taxi driver, unfortunately, didn’t know the name of the band, so it was only a couple of months later, at the Ternopol Medical University dorm, that Leo learnt about the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy. In just a year and a half, Leo learnt Ukrainian listening to OE’S tracks.

Leonardo is used to living in a multilingual environment. His home country of Nigeria has about 500 languages, Leo himself speaks seven. “First, it is Isoko, my mother’s language. Another one is Igbo, the native tongue of my father’s tribe. I also speak the language of Yoruba tribe, mostly used in Lagos, and Nigerian Pidgin, an English-based Creole language, spoken by some ethnic groups in Nigeria.” And some English, Ukrainian and Russian, of course.

Mantis promises his next song will be in Nigerian Pidgin with “lots of Africa” in it. Meanwhile, I really hope he will not wait too long to release Nebo, the song he played to me with his musician friends at a studio in Ternopol. It is a meditative track with Leo playing the drums, chanting in a shaman-like manner over and over again, “Podyvys, yake nebo”. I have never heard two different cultures intertwining so closely in one song.

Leo will soon graduate and become a gastroenterologist. He is not sure yet how he is going to juggle his job and musical career: Mantis spends all his weekends at a studio in Kiev, where he is working on his first album.

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