It's taken over a decade, but with her current CD Pink Elephant (Stax/Concord), compelling Dallas vocalist N'dambi may have finally made the breakthrough that leads to wider recognition and commercial success along with critical praise. The disc is getting strong reviews for its mix of soulful, gripping vocals, sophisticated production, and clever, cynical scenarios and lyrics.
Now on a 15-city tour that brings her to Nashville for the first time Friday at Cafe Bella, N'dambi's current situation is another example of the dilemma faced by many black performers whose music cannot be easily placed into a recognizable genre.
"If I could I would have my music presented without a category," N'dambi says. "I enjoy so many types of music and have so many influences. I don't necessarily consider myself a neo-soul artist, but I understand that the industry needs a way of presenting you to the public and getting your songs played on radio.
"If there's any artist out there whose example I'd like to follow, it's Macy Gray. She's been able to get her songs on the radio and her music produced in a fashion that doesn't detract from her voice, yet fits into today's sound."
One of three female vocalists among Stax's early signees when the label was reactivated (the others were Angie Stone and Lalah Hathaway), it took almost three years from the time she inked the pact in 2006 until Pink Elephant was released last winter. While her striking contralto voice and delivery are clearly the first things that grab your attention, the studio touches provided by veteran producer Leon Sylvers III whose past clients include Shalamar, Gladys Knight, the Whispers, and Lakeside are also key ingredients.
"Leon wrote most of the arrangements and really worked with me in terms of getting the most out of my lyrics," N'dambi explained. "We weren't trying to imitate anything or anybody, but we did want to make songs we thought could get airplay, but also really reflect where I am now artistically."
The lead single "Can't Hardly Wait" is a scorching indictment of dissatisfaction and disappointment expressed with vigor toward an unreliable man. N'dambi frequently revisits the theme of duplicity, from the two-timing phony depicted in "L.I.E." to the self-deception spotlighted in "Nobody Jones," a catchy and powerful number about a woman constantly questioning herself, yet never seeking real answers to her problems.
But those tunes' dour sentiments are balanced by the sensuality and fire in the funk-tinged "Daisy Chain" and romantic "Ooo Baby," while N'dambi references her jazz roots on "The One." "The World Is a Beat" features N'dambi showing off her skills on drums, while "Mind Blowin' " pays homage via its arrangement and structure to Isaac Hayes, one of her all-time favorites.
Sylvers' subtle musical foundations continually mix and match past sounds (the bouncy foundations and electro-funk from the '80s) with contemporary aspects (hip-hop, driving beats), giving Pink Elephant ample satisfactory material for old school and 21st century urban music fans alike.
Though she cites Otis Redding, The Ohio Players, The Bar-Kays and the Staple Singers along with Hayes as prime influences, N'dambi didn't grow up regularly immersed in their tunes. Instead, she perfected her striking contralto delivery in the Baptist church that's been the laboratory for numerous masterful performers. The daughter of two ministers with very negative views about secular music, she says gospel was the dominant sound in her early life. She credits that gospel background with giving her the technical preparation for her current career.
"You learn in the church about feeling and communication through music, about the impact that music can have in people's lives," N'dambi says. "My first connection to songs and understanding the importance of lyrics and stories came through singing in the choir, so that's a key part of my life that I appreciate, even though neither of my parents wanted me to do secular music."
Yet a love of books and reading that was also cultivated during childhood led N'dambi to initially consider a career as a writer, and to earn a degree from Southern Methodist University in English and creative writing. But at the same time, she was doing session work as a background gospel vocalist, while also moving toward the world of secular music she'd previously ignored. Once she began doing theater, the transition was in full effect, and her early releases saw N'dambi exploring jazz, blues and older musical forms.
Her current style was also bolstered by a stint working as a background vocalist with Erykah Badu. N'dambi says secular music has ultimately proven a better vehicle for her work.
"With secular music you're able to tell more stories about the everyday lives of people," N'dambi says. "There are things you can say, directions you can take and ways you can utilize lyrics and music that offer me more freedom as a performer, although I'll always be grateful and thankful for the years I spent doing gospel."
N'dambi performs 10 p.m. Friday at Cafe Bella.
Portugese guitarist Andre Matos now resides in New York City, and his latest disc reflects a prominent urban sensibility, though it's a Brooklyn and Harlem vibe rather than one from Lisbon or Rio. The sonic mood is a toss up between '70s fusion and 21st century smooth jazz, plus occasional hints of the avant-garde in some of the CD's shorter interludes. Matos' electric guitar solos and riffs accent, layer and embellish Sar Serpa's vocal effects, spiced by colors and contributions from keyboardist Leo Genovese and saxophonist Noah Preminger. Matos can effectively deliver distorted flurries, fluid lines, barrages of notes and many other electric elements, but this session is more about group cohesion than individual brilliance. Though a couple more rhythmically assertive pieces would be a nice thematic change of pace, this disc qualifies as Matos' most distinctly jazz release.
A West Coast ensemble combining Brazilian vocalists with American instrumentalists and singers, Sambada's third disc mixes exuberant samba and funk with bits of rock and even soca on the opening selection. The group barrels ahead through 10 selections, with Papiba Godinho and Dandha Da Hora swapping lead and complimentary roles on compositions enhanced by robust arrangements. Anne Stafford serves as principal soloist, inserting bluesy sax or lithe flute contributions within the array of textures created by a five-member corps of percussionists. Sambada also tabs special guests like electric guitarist Camilo Landau, vocalists Dandara and Graca Onasile and turntablist Dee Jay Kikkoman, all of whom excel on "Casa De Mainha" and the flamboyant remixed finale "Sangue Africano" respectively. Still, it's Sambada's energetic front line that brings the heat and passion on this fine collection of upbeat, dance-oriented works.
Brilliant musician and expert DJ/remixer Moreno Visini switches professional identities from Zeb to the Spy From Cairo in this delightful excursion through traditional music of the Middle East. Visini's multi-instrumental ability (bass, oud, keyboards, to name a few) coupled with his extensive knowledge of every regional nuance and style enables the Spy to perfectly team with such master vocalists as Ghalia Benali and Farid Al Atrache. He also crafts a beautiful tribute to the great composer and oud player Mohamed Abdel Wahab along with "Ana Arabi," a proud affirmation of heritage and accomplishment designed to counter the current backdrop of suspicion and fear many peaceful Arabs encounter worldwide. Whatever previous expectations or stereotypes listeners may have regarding Kurdish numbers, belly dance songs or any of these styles will be shattered after hearing these performances.
This nearly 80-minute, 16-track rhythm and international sound sampler would be a cumbersome, disjointed exercise in the wrong hands, but master percussionist Jerry Leake and his assortment of tremendous musicians make his third disc as a leader a joyful, appealing and consistent presentation. While Leake displays his mastery on every conceivable drum imaginable, the idiomatic menu shifts from Eastern to Western, traditional to contemporary, vocal to instrumental. Even the configurations constantly change, with Leake heading combos or spearheading duets and trios while other players and singers, among them Leake's wife Lisa, supply electric and acoustic extras to his assortment of percussive layers and beats. Though it's ultimately a showcase for collective participation and response, "Cubist" proves an impressive showcase for Jerry Leake's percussive prowess.
A few weeks ago one of the characters on CBS' hit comedy The Big Bang Theory utilized as a running gag the art of throat singing, producing uncanny sounds by simultaneously singing both notes and their overtones. But Huun Huur Tu, a trio from Tuva, republic of the Russian Federation, perform this ancient art in a spellbinding manner, especially lead vocalist Kaigal-ool Khovalyg. Producer, drummer and synthesizer player Carmen Rizzo's concept for this recording features centuries-old techniques, sounds and instruments with contemporary electronic backing. Songs are constructed in a way that isn't melodic in the conventional sense, yet is still undeniably striking and memorable. While swirling secondary themes converge underneath, Huun Huur Tu deliver refrains, choruses and vocal effects on top of Rizzo's arrangements that are alternately frenzied and serene.
Tito Gonzalez got a late start as a musician, making his professional debut at 40. He also got a boost from a government agency in Cuba who helped him advance through the ranks as he developed a distinctive approach on the three-stringed tres. Though he now lives in California, Gonzalez and his 12-member band, plus special guests pianist Angel Labori and vocalist Felix Del Pilar, recorded this first-rate collection spotlighting son, the vintage Cuban form, in Havana. Gonzalez wrote all the lyrics and music, while band director Jose Dume Monterro crafted precise and explosive arrangements. The disc primarily features driving, upbeat tunes, but there are also a few sentimental change-of-pace pieces that demonstrate Gonzalez's versatility as a singer. These also give his excellent tres' fills and accompaniment more exposure. The music doesn't sound radically different from that made by Cuban groups of past eras, but Tito Gonzalez's current band plays their variations on it with edge and elegance.
Slovak vocalist Shina Lo's dreamy, sultry vocals provide much of the lure for Longital's music, with the rest of the band's appeal coming via an ambitious mix of Daniel Salontay's crisp, crackling guitar lines and a wealth of colors generated from Xi-di-nim's fortress of synthesizers, turntables and various devices. Longital's been around since 2001, though they adopted their current name five years ago. One minute they sound like a French lounge act, the next a spacy ambient crew. Longital also funnels other influences like rockabilly, pop and rock through tunes that sometimes extend as long as seven minutes, though most unfold in charning three to four minute montages. Their music has a catchy quality, and when Lo and Salontay harmonize in either acoustic or electronic settings their interaction adds energy to the proceedings. (March 9).
One of the first traditional Irish bands to be signed to a major label during the "world" music push in the mid-'90s, Aftan's brand of dashing Celtic fare has captivated audiences worldwide for decades. Yet during their extraordinary career they'd never made a recording with the RTE Concert Orchestra, an oversight rectified with this impressive collection that recognizes their longevity and also showcases their stylistic flexibility. Altan does jigs and reels, fiddle tunes, ballads, anthems and originals superbly. The vocal tone is set through the cool but soulful leads of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, who's also a wonderful fiddler. The group's other instrumentalists display the magnificent interaction and precise timing expected from a venerable ensemble whose 16 numbers reflect the breadth of Altan's influential and exceptional tenure.
My Name Is Khan, Karan Johar's film about the toll the events of 9/11 take on a Muslim family from India already dealing with other issues of relocation and cultural isolation, is ostensibly another Bollywood film. But this soundtrack doesn't string together reworked musical bits and fantasy sequences. Pianist Loy Mendosa brings an improviser's experimental vision to the project in collaboration with rock and blues-influenced writer Ehsaan Noorani and emphatic singer Shanker Mahadevan. There are ardent devotionals and passionate identity pieces, while Mahadevan and other guests such as second vocalist Adnan Sami and the spectacular Rahat Fateh Ali Khan add the majesty and fire of qawwali to this already intense set. While careful to balance the scales with lighter numbers like "Khan's Theme" featuring the Bombay Film Orchestra, Mendosa and company make this far from dispensable background music. It only raises a listener's hopes for Johar's production, now showing in local theaters.
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