Live Review: Nneka @ Scala (London, April 28)

A delightfully diverse not to mention hot and sweaty crowd packed out London’s Scala venue last Wednesday in anticipation of seeing future African folk/soul legend, Nneka Egbuna light up the stage. As her superb band teased the waiting masses with a low rumbling groove, the crisp voice of the petite and perfectly formed Nigerian songstress came through crystal clear on the mic to rapturous applause.

Still managing to look divine without a lick of make-up and her hair in a scruffy pony-tail, awe-struck members of the audience could be heard commenting on her arresting natural beauty. Nneka could easily go the way of many of her contemporaries and exploit her good looks to push record sales and the fact she does not, speaks volumes about her musical integrity and sense of priority; a bona fide feminist icon if ever there was one. Miss Egbuna is an artist that plays by her own rules and her very vocals embody this renegade philosophy.

Sounding like no-one but herself there really is no comparison; she’s carved a gritty but accessible niche all of her own. The band – with the main lady also occasionally playing the acoustic guitar – is as funky as you like. Sure, Nneka waxes lyrical on political and social oppression but like her 1970’s soul predecessors before her she knows you can keep the groove without undermining the seriousness of the issues at hand. On ‘The Uncomfortable Truth’ the band commenced with a smoothed-out acoustic vibe before launching into the explosion of pure sonic pleasure that is Nneka’s breakthrough track.

The crowd roared with recognition on ‘Africans’ and were richly rewarded when Egbuna and co gave a rendition that tapped into the tune’s dub roots to superlative effect. In between songs the lady from Warri, Delta State oozed easy charisma with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness. Her thick, undiluted accent is a welcome respite from the ersatz-USA kind (or Naijamerican as this reviewer calls it) favoured by some Nigerians. With absolutely no pretentions Nneka didn’t mind sharing the fact that she and the band were feeling their way through the set list, having not organised it herself. It’s difficult to imagine many other artists keeping it that real.

There’s also something about the universal, non-trivial nature of Nneka’s lyrics that makes others look like they’re messing around. As she explained the inspiration behind the Fela-esque ‘VIP (Vagabonds in Power)’, condemning the antics of corrupt leaders in the process, the Nigerians in the audience emphatically expressed their assent. Nneka eventually turned the whole crowd into honorary Nigerians for the night, doing their best impression of a Lagosian accent as she urged them to chant “Vagabonds in Power-ohhh!” whilst pulling at one’s ear in true ‘Are you listening?’ Naija fashion. Who wouldn’t feel proud, despite the country’s many woes, to hail from the land of the Green White and Green with a dynamic ambassador such as Nneka the Soul-Jah?

The performance of single ‘Heartbeat’ was reserved for the end of the night and being nothing short of sublime, was well worth the wait. A beautiful acoustic piano intro tantalised the audience, however they didn’t need the bassline to kick in before erupting into the deceptively catchy yet poignant chorus. Within moments, the already electric atmosphere became even more charged as the Scala went ape-wild. It was a fitting close to an amazing set.

If you fail to be enthralled by Nneka and her band, your pulse needs checking; she is without question a captivating performer. At Wednesday’s show the raw energy emitted from both artist and audience worked in perfect synergy. Certainly an early contender for live music highlight of 2010.

–Tola Ositelu

Photography by Neil Raja

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