Nneka – Africa Now at the Apollo

Pictured above: Nneka and bandmate Diallo House.

Story by Dan Harpaz
Photos by Christina Saburro

On March 16th, crowds flocked to the Africa Now! show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY to experience a showcase of diverse African musicians.  Zolani Mahola, lead singer of South African feel-good opener Freshlyground, coaxed crowd members out of their seats as bassist Josh Hawks high-kneed his way to centerstage.  Next, Congolese guitarist/singer Lokua Kanza stole the show with his acoustic set.  Armed with only three backup singers, including his brother and daughter, Lokua captivated the audience with his golden voice and charmed the crowd with anecdotes and gratitude.  ”I don’t have my big Fela orchestra,” Lokua explained, thanking the audience effusively for their applause.  ”One time I saw a bluesy, strange guy on the subway.  I smiled at him… you never know – that one smile could change his life and give him hope… tonight I feel the tree of banana in here!” Lokua gushed.  The audience replied with a stand-up ovation.

Next, Nigerian soul singer Nneka mesmerized the audience with her hypnotic vocals and smoky, reggae-infused grooves.  The rhythm section led the band during an extended version of Suffri – a spiritual journey that took up a quarter of the 45 minute set. Diallo House telepathically directed the band through diminuendos and crescendos, thumping his bass as Nneka danced across the roomy Apollo stage with eyes shut.  Catering to the activist contingent in the crowd, Nneka rapped song “God Knows Why” – a politically charged song excluded from her other NYC setlists over the last year.  Guitarist Michael-Louis Smith wailed, wahed, and wowed the crowd; Diallo’s dreads flew as his fingers crawled up the bass; keyboardist Victor “Baby Boy” Gould colored the song with sound effects; and drummer Ismail Lawal punctuated Nneka’s incendiary rhymes, slamming his snare drum like John Bonham.

Finally, Ghanaian-American rapper Blitz the Ambassador landed the mothership in the Apollo.  The set began with an “in-flight” video projected on a screen, in which Blitz promised the audience a turbulent journey on the impending “Ambassador Airlines” flight.  Backed by horns, drums, guitars, and a DJ, Blitz soared across the stage, spitting fast rhymes, and tearing the roof off the sucker.  Images of Public Enemy, Miriam Makeba, and Fela Kuti zoomed across an animated TV screen as Blitz intermittently narrated the musical medley, emulated a DJ scratching vinyl, and sang his favorite hip hop and Afrobeat hooks.  ”In hip hop culture, the DJ is like a drummer… we talk with our hands,” Blitz explained as he wickyricky-rocked the mic.  By far the most interactive entertainer of the night, Blitz taught the audience the call-and-answer chorus in “Akwaaba,” which means “welcome” in Twi, a Ghanaian language.  The horn section danced in unison, blasting the main melody from Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy,” everyone chanting “Akwaaba” to the beat.

Although each band’s set only lasted 30-45 minutes, the night did not let down.  Based on the crowd’s reactions during his set, Lokua Kanza and his backup singers could have serenaded us for three hours.  Despite the lack of a true climax, I still discovered an array of African talent at the Apollo and left feeling as bright as a banana tree.

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