New York Music Daily

Love's the Only Engine of Survival

Tag: nneka review

Nneka Brings Her Politically-Fueled, Eclectic African Reggae Sounds to the Mercury

Born in Nigeria, raised in Germany, Nneka has gone in many directions over the course of her relatively young career: through soukous-tinged African pop, roots reggae, stripped-down acoustic folk and more ornately jazzy stylings, all of them imbued with a fearless political sensibility. She sings her aphoristic, terse lyrics in a fervent voice that rises to a gritty, almost otherwordly wail when she goes up the scale. The effect is both ancient and in the here and now. She has a new album, My Fairy Tales – streaming at Spotify – and a show at the Mercury on June 23 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $15.

Nneka’s English is better than the songs on the album might have you believe (she titled her second album No Longer at Ease, after the classic Chinua Achebe postcolonial novel). And the songs are a stylistic grab bag, possibly due to having traipsed from studio to studio in making the album. This time out, her lyrics are more skeletal and opaque – several of them in her native dialect -and the revolutionary sensibility both more general than specific, and further in the background. The opening track, Believe System is something of a mashup of Afropop, roots reggae and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Babylon builds a hard funk backdrop around some lively mid-70s SW-style riffage.

The reggae-lite My Love, My Love goes deeper into its roots on the reprise that follows it, while Local Champion works a trippy, techy vibe with layers of blippy keys. Pray for You takes a disco groove backwards from cold teens electronics to a biting, guitar-fueled 70s vibe. Surprise veers between a propulsive soca bounce and electro-reggae, while the morose impoverishment tale Book of Job is an attempt to make a roots song out of samples and cheap keyb settings. And the last song sounds like it was assembled with Garageband in somebody’s bedroom. On one hand, it’s authentically African – this is what people do when all there is to work with is a secondhand dollarstore Casio. On the other, Nneka is an artist with ostensible label backing and access to topflight recording situations and gear. But she’s also a charismatic performer with a strong back catalog and the ability to transcend the limitations of these recordings onstage.

Nneka: Intimate and Intense

It’s easy to be cynical about artists who’ve been hyped, or who get RIYLs that completely miss the mark. For whatever reason, Nneka has been saddled with a totally off-base comparison to Erykah Badu: Bob Marley, or maybe Nina Simone would make more sense. What the Nigerian-born, German-residing chanteuse plays is part folk music from her home country, part reggae and part jazz, a sound that’s uniquely her own. At a show last night on the west side which was ostensibly a private event for media but quickly turned out not to be, Nneka held the touristy crowd in the palm of her hand, keeping them hushed and attentive throughout an intimate 40-minute set. As a performer, she’s charming, she’s funny and she’s extremely bright. Fingerpicking her electric guitar with a thoughtfully spiky edge, she was backed by an excellent acoustic guitarist who added a biting flamenco feel to some of the songs, along with several tracks of backing vocals, percussion and god knows what else floating out of her loop pedal into the mix from time to time. Which she owned up to, self-effacingly: “Who needs people, anyway? I’ve got about five of them in there,” she laughed.

As good a tunesmith as she is, she’s also a freedom fighter, a fearless, very articulate one. Her message of liberation is inextricable from her music, whether that might be personal, political, or both. The defiant irony of Do You Love Me Now, a bitter, increasingly agitated, vintage soul-tinged anthem, was the high point of the show. Beforehand, the singer took care to explain that it’s only a love song in a very cynical sense, that it’s meant to illustrate how some repressive regimes – as in Nigeria – equate respect with fear. She poses the question to the authorities, having given up on freedom in accordance with their wishes, “Now that I’m a robot,” she said derisively, “Now that I have no feelings.”

She took her time warming up with a track from her forthcoming album Soul Is Heavy, a hypnotically misty, folk-flavored twelve-minute vamp that with just the two instruments was somewhat skeletal, but fleshed out by a full band (as on her next American tour this March) would make a good platform for plenty of slinky jamming. She forgot the lyrics to the funky, crescendoing Camouflage the first time around, but turned it into a bonding moment with the crowd. And when she made a second attempt, the song’s understated refugee apprehension was impossible to turn away from. It would have been nice to see how she would have done the new album’s title track- a homage to murdered Nigerian freedom fighter Ken Saro-Wiwa – but that’s already been recorded and it’s up on youtube.