There was a time when one would be hard pressed to cite an emerging African artist possessing both a socially aware message and the ability to make a lasting impact on the international stage. That domain seemed solely reserved for existing torchbearers Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, K’Naan and Tony Allen to name but a few. However with the arrival of her 2005 debut EP An Uncomfortable Truth, songstress Nneka Egbuna is firmly establishing herself a voice to be reckoned with. Recent collaborations with artists such as Nas, Black thought, Talib Kweli, Ms Dynamite and Chase and Status further illustrate the point that a star is well and truly born.
Following the critically acclaimed release of her latest record Soul Is Heavy, the 2009 MOBO award winner embarked upon a UK tour. I went along to catch her opening show at the Ruby Lounge in Manchester on April 13th. Upon arrival I was struck with how empty the venue was. Evidently, not enough people are aware of the immense talent that is Nneka, and it would appear that she is yet to build up a sizeable following in the UK. Moreover the intimate venue provided the perfect backdrop for an informal and highly personalised performance.
Wearing a cable knit cardi atop a signature tee emblazoned with the slogan “Africa is the future”, the pint-sized artist appeared on stage at around 9.20 pm to the sounds of heartfelt cheers before opening with a captivating version of Africans. Her four piece band consisted of a drummer, bassist, guitarist and pianist; a refreshing change in this day and age when many artists rock up with simply backing tracks and a DJ presumably due to budgetary constraints.
If anyone present was unfamiliar her body of work, then it should have been very quickly apparent that this beautiful woman packs a powerful vocal punch. Appearances are often deceptive as I have repeatedly discovered and this particular case was no different. One should not be fooled by her diminutive stature, for Nneka’s presence is large enough to fill a hundred stadiums. Her aura commands attention; and with grace, persuasiveness and passion we were drawn into a beautifully moving rendition of Shining Star, a performance that had me on the threshold of tears.
The audience was beguiled by her charm and humility and were soon under an enchanting spell as we were eased through Lost Souls and Lucifer; amidst interludes peppered with intimate revelations of thought processes and witty anecdotes which included an impromptu Igbo lesson. The standout performance of the night for me was undoubtedly her rendition of V.I.P which had the audience participating in a typically African call and response fashion. Nneka and band then led us through tracks such as Soul Is Heavy and Suffri with an introduction from the chorus of Eurhythmics track Sweet Dreams which had the audience singing along in unison. The ten track set was over far too quickly and before I knew it the songbird was exiting the stage, before returning for an encore which was a powerful rendition of God Knows Why.
Nneka has the ability to captivate audiences with her silky smooth, almost smoky vocals that are reminiscent of a young Sade, and she is infused with a spirit akin to late, great revolutionaries Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Her music speaks for itself and the artist clearly sits in a league all her own, unrivalled by any peer. A much-needed breath of fresh air in a sea clamouring with contaminated voices, it is my hope that this awe-inspiring starlet will continue to make music that causes people to lobby for change for many years to come.by