From Africa to Margaritaville

Photo: C. Taylor Crothers/FilmMagic

Tom Freston, the 64-year-old MTV co-founder and former Viacom honcho, has among his hobbies these days the career development of a 30-year-old African singer named Ilo Ferreira, who goes by Ilo. On November 23, Freston and his friend Jimmy Buffett, 62, were there to support Ilo at his sold-out show at Joe’s Pub and his appearance later that night on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, which they’d helped engineer.

“Hopefully, lightning strikes and he gets a musical career,” says Freston. “We’re just trying to give him some exposure.”

How’d they get to know, and fund, him? “It was an amazing set of circumstances,” Buffett says backstage at Joe’s. “Freston gets fired and he doesn’t have his plane and he’s got me all fired up to go to the Festival in the Desert,” in Africa. So they have to take Buffett’s jet. The route to Mali “is from San Juan to Cape Verde,” where they stopped to refuel. Buffett thought, why not check out the local music scene while they were stopping through. “I went, ‘Let’s see if Cesaria Evora is playing; I’ve always been a fan.’”

Also with them was MTV Networks editorial director Bill Flanagan, 54. That night, the Cape Verde culture ministry hosted for Buffett and his traveling companions to showcase performances by the best local musicians, including Ilo. After seeing him play, they all “just looked at each other and said, ‘Man.’ I mean, you see a lot of people, but very few people you think have it,” says Buffett. The next day, they invited Ilo to lunch at Sodade, an empty upstairs restaurant, along with their traveling companion Chris Blackwell, 72, the man who discovered Bob Marley and today owns a production company, who’d skipped the dinner. “I said to him, ‘You need to go see this kid and tell us,’ ” says Freston. (Though when they approached Ilo, he’d never heard of any of them—even Buffett—though he’d heard of MTV: That got him excited.)

“When listening to music in a bar at midnight, you can think that something is the greatest thing in the world. Then, in the cold light of day, it isn’t,” says Flanagan. “Before we start flipping out over this guy, let’s invite him to bring his guitar and play us some songs at noon in the sunlight and see if he is as good as we thought.” Following lunch, “he started playing, and Chris says, ‘He’s really got it.’”

Afterward, Buffett suggested they give him a chance to record an album in America. (Because of his MTV job, Flanagan recused himself from further involvement.) Eight months later, in September 2007, Buffett flew Ilo to Massachusetts to play with him and the Coral Reefer Band, in front of 60,000 people at Gillette Stadium. He’s been sitting in with the group ever since. Blackwell, also a financial supporter of Ilo’s development, said take him on tour, “feature him while he works on his career,” says Buffett. “I’ve seen him at club level. I’ve seen him with an acoustic guitar. Chicks love him.”

Ilo, whose sound is an upbeat mix of influences from Paul Simon to Elvis, with some African rhythms thrown in, will soon leave Buffett’s tour to play his own dates. “Jimmy is a shortcut I didn’t see coming,” Ilo says, happily. On Fallon, he sang “Let Me Love You,” which he’d played for his visitors in Cape Verde. “But I had it in my mind where I wanted to go. The way I write my songs, I was thinking about the world, not locally. I was making my plans to get there, but Jimmy just made things happen”—he snaps his fingers—“from day to night.”

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From Africa to Margaritaville