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Live: Nneka at Gramercy Theatre

Photos by Dan Harpaz (shot March 27, 2012).

by Dan Harpaz

While riding the train to the Nneka show at Gramercy Theatre, I wondered if I would be able to identify any Afrobeat/reggae/soul concert-goers along the way. What would give them away? Would I find dreadlocks, or deadheads, or skinny jeans, or oversized nonprescription glasses, or Che Guevara shirts? Who are Nneka’s fans? The answer revealed itself when I approached the crowd in front of Duane Reade on 23rd street. While some of the aforementioned stereotypes dotted the audience landscape, her fanbase defied demographic or cultural cubbyholes. As far as I could tell, the only common thread among Nneka’s fans at Gramercy Theater was a shared love of soulful music within a group wedged between adolescence and early retirement.

The opening band, a group of NYC transplants from Sierra Leone called Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew warmed up the tame three quarters capacity crowd with a high energy set including catchy ragga originals such as “Laba Laba,” “Rapapumpum,” and rasta-rock banger “Jacky Jacky.” The band then went classic with a modernized cover of the 1972 Cameroonian Afrofunk “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango (the originator of the “mamase mamasa” hook made famous by Michael Jackson in “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’”). The group consisted of tight musicians, including a shredding acoustic guitarist, heavy-handed drummer, funky bassist, hype-man Aklazz, and lead singer/rapper Bajah. Never missing a beat, Bajah frequently reminded the audience of the band’s Sierra Leone roots and introduced each of their more serious numbers with background on pervasive sociopolitical issues concerning African blood diamonds and child soldiers. As audience members poured into the pit at Gramercy Theatre in anticipation of the headlining act, Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew closed out their set moving the audience physically and emotionally to the infectious hook “hold somebody touch somebody, tell somebody that you love somebody.”

Following an unnecessary introduction by one of Nneka’s crewmembers, a petite woman sporting an afro, canvas jacket, and patterned harem pants walked to center stage. As the headlining group’s guitarist struck his first few chords, Nneka closed her eyes and set the tone of the concert with a spiritual rendition of “The Uncomfortable Truth.” After the opening number, the band’s keyboardist began playing an extended introduction to “Shining Star” while Nneka delivered a serious monologue to an entranced audience about spreading the positive message of love in defiance of “obstacles, trials and tribulations, and fear, the biggest enemy of mankind.” Never didactic or grave, Nneka provided relief by adding, “Let me not bring your vibe down, because I am here to build you up. It’s okay, you are welcome to my public therapy.”

Bringing the audience on an emotional journey through reggae-inspired anthems like “Lucifer,” biting rap-rock tracks like “Soul is Heavy,” and soulful crooners such as “Do You Love Me Now,” Nneka proved herself as much a master of performance as she is a talented songwriter and true soul artist. She was also downright funny. After teaching the crowd of New Yorkers the phrase “I am solid” in her native tongue, she approved, noting, “You did better than Boston.” Nneka’s charms continued to win the audience over during her introduction for “V.I.P. (Vagabonds in Power),” a Fela-spirited song about the social and environmental tragedies that occur daily in the Niger Delta region. Nneka explained, “I use this platform here— this piece of wood that is higher than that one there [pointing at the floor of the pit]— as a way of raising awareness of these issues. I feel responsible because when I was a child, nobody ever listened to me… and all the frustration and agitation, I would leave inside me. Now all of a sudden, I can hear a pin drop when people hear me speak, which is strange. Obviously now I have to say everything that has been bothering me.” The audience laughed. Nneka continued, “Many other people who do not have the opportunity— courage to speak their mind… I will be their mouthpiece… if it is not me, it will be somebody else. All this here [Nneka gestures towards herself] is just vanity. Cut a long story short. What I’m trying to say is that we all have our individual responsibilities.” After driving her point home, Nneka asked the audience to participate during the call-and-answer chorus by singing “Vagabonds in power-oh.” Poking fun at the audience’s American accent, Nneka cheekily imitated a “woo girl” by responding, “Do you get me? Really? Like, seriously? Oh my gosh! American accent is one of my new things.”

Among the highlights of the night was a version of “Suffri” in which Nneka’s bassist referenced the earworm melody from White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” A pleasant surprise also came in the form of guest singer Clef Nite, a local Deacon Records studio guitarist with considerably less live experience who performed an endearing, albeit slightly awkward six minute Afrobeat sing-a-long. Adding to the chain of unexpected treats, Nneka brought back Bajah + the Dry Eye Crew to jam and sing with her on stage for the first of two encore songs. Rounding out an incredible night, Nneka sang crowd-pleaser “Heartbeat,” concluding with an extended, heavily dub-delayed vocal solo that would leave concertgoers’ ears ringing with satisfaction.

4 Comments

    Nice! Sent me on a pretty good youtube adventure!

  • Nice review. It’s a rare gift to be able to entertain a crowd with more than just great music, and sounds like Nneka sure as hell delivered that night! A little bit of social justice and criticism, some heartwarming personal anecdotes, a whole lotta life wisdom, and of course a moving performance coupled with a solid song list. What else does one need on a random Tuesday night?

  • She sounds interesting… I’m going to check out her music now! Good job!

  • Awesome!

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