What is the likelihood that a woman from a remote Guinean village, where child brides are routinely taken by older men, would go on to become one of the most popular hip-hop artists in Africa and then a feminist rock bandleader?
In an era where unlikely heroes are busting out of the least expected places, singer/guitarist Natu Camara is paradigmatic. At her show on the plaza at the Brooklyn Public Library Wednesday night, she led a versatile, slinky band through a catchy, high-voltage mix of politically-charged songs and wound up an increasingly ecstatic show with a dance jam that went on for well over half an hour.
The steady upward climb to that final, sprawling, soukous-flavored outro was as provocative as it was fun. As the sun sank behind the library, the crowd was sluggish. “What’s up, you didn’t have enough coffee?” Camara laughed. “You afraid of corona? OK, then stand behind the line!”
That was the only time she touched on that issue, but she pushed a lot of other buttons that would have gotten her in hot water or worse where she grew up. The former member of the first Guinean all-female hip-hop group, the Ideal Black Girls, spoke truth to power, stepping in place and whirling in front of the band when she wasn’t fingerpicking her big sunburst Gibson guitar.
She began Momi Hidda, her broadside against young girls being married off, in the gentle imploring voice of a child speaking to her parents, before picking up at the end with a righteous wail.
The band behind Camara shifted gears seamlessly through a wide swath of genres. Bassist Kayode Kuti played fat downtuned lines, bent notes and bubbling vats of tarpit melody, often in tandem with the vocals. Drummer Oscar Debe kept the labyrinthine rhythmic shifts on the rails, abetted by a nimble percussionist, while keyboardist John F. Adams moved from lushly orchestral string patches, to reggae organ, phantasmagorical jazz piano and some wry P-Funk style portamento synth. Lindsey Wilson added soulful, often impassioned vocal harmonies; there was also a lead guitarist who played loopy phrases, or simple accents to bolster the beat.
Camara went into brisk late 60s-style rocksteady for Arrabama Di (What Are We Going to Do About It?), a cheerily insistent tune sung in one of seven languages. Her English is strong, and she’s funny. “What is a monster?” she asked the crowd. “You give him your heart, and he squeezes you!” And with that she launched into a vengeful minor-key vamp, soaring up to the top of her register at the end.
Likewise, Wa (an onomatopoeic word – it means “cry”) grew from a muted, gentle couple of verses to a scrambling, triumphant dance tune. My Hiding Place, she explained, was meant more as a metaphor, a philosophical home base as a place of refuge. The best song of the night might have been White Bird, a brisk, resolute dance-rock anthem inspired when a bird landing conspicuously on her windowsill. She took that as an omen, walked away from her dayjob, and the rest is history.
The dance numbers after that offered tribute to Miriam Makeba: Camara had seen her in concert at an early age, had an epiphany and decided to defy the authorities and make music her career. It goes without saying that at this point in history, we need more performers this outspoken and fearless.