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REVIEW: THE SANDRA NKAKE MIXTAPE

 

By Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

Saturday/Sunday, June 20-21, 2009.

 

 

 

Sandra Nkaké is from Cameroun. She was born in Yaoundé on November 15, 1973. Her mother frequently flew back and forth between Africa and Europe. Before she could walk she was flying, and before she could talk she heard both French and English.

Her mother listened to BB King while pregnant with Sandra. Years later, when Sandra was carrying her child, she heard BB King and inexplicably was emotionally overwhelmed and started crying.

At the beginning of her college years she went to the premier French university the Sorbonne, with the intentions of becoming an English teacher but then stage, film and television began to offer an alternative. Music came later, but you would not know it from watching her perform or by listening to her debut album.

To debut at 35 in today's youth-oriented music industry is a rarity. And in this case, a delightful rarity. Mansaadi (which means Little Mother) is an accomplished outing—the songs are well formed, the arrangements full of little surprises with varied textures and off-kilter touches that reward repeated listening.

 

What Sandra Nkaké has is taste. She is gimmick-free, in that she doesn't rely too much on just one technique. Her stylistic diversity stems from minimalist albeit highly effective use of a horn section to subtle arrangements in setting famous poems to music (“Souffles” by West African poet Diop). It makes for an album you can listen to repeatedly without boredom.

Sandra evidences wide ranging interests and understanding of the different cultural traditions and impulses that come together in her music. For example, she delves into a classic of French culture when she covers “La Mauvaise Reputation” by Georges Brassens, a World War 2-era poet and songwriter who is considered both influential and radical. But then she also does covers of material by Prince and D’Angelo (the last track, “Higher”).

Note that Sandra is totally comfortable with both French and English - a true multi-culturalist. And her diversity goes beyond language, she is also adroit in handling diverse styles and genres of music. One second, the jazz or the funk influences are evident, and then the opera and European folk elements surface, and without hesitation, all of that may be chucked aside as Sandra Nkaké employs the sounds and languages of West Africa.

 

I find it interesting that black music from the Diaspora is increasingly the worldwide major music of choice for popular expression, especially among the youth and the conscious elements of a given society. Sandra Nkaké epitomizes that trend of a black-based music that reflects diverse cultural traditions and orientations.

What I most like is that Nkaké’s music is organic. The tapestry of sounds grows directly out of her life experiences rather than from some market driven effort to be different, to be other than what she actually is.

Moreover, this music celebrates the sensual while uplifting the mental. These songs offer an extraordinary union of fierce intelligence and uncompromising passion. I am particularly impressed by Sandra’s range as a performer. The album gets the full studio treatment but even her most stripped down performance is a rich and satisfying delight.

 

I’ve included performance recordings to compare and contrast with the studio versions. Live Sandra uses a sampler to multi-track her voice, laying down beatbox and backing vocal loops and then singing and improvising atop the tracks. A number of musicians and vocalists are using this technique. Sandra is so good at it, that her vocals come off as though they were a live performance of a large ensemble.

I hope that Sandra Nkaké is able to sustain this level of innovation and complexity over the years. Time after time, we have seen artists arrive with a bang but fade out with not even so much as a whimper. It is not easy to maintain an edge, to keep pushing, and keep pushing, and keep on pushing.

Because of over a decade of experience performing, acting and dancing, I believe Sandra Nkaké has a great shot at becoming a major artist.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a writer, musician and film-maker based in New Orleans, USA.

 

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