On her debut No, I Never, Ndidi Onukwulu proved she can wrap her silky voice around anything from country blues to her own rootsy salon sound. Now we have The Contradictor, all about focus, training that formidable silk edge on everyone’s private pain, and contradicting the anguish with a full, upbeat, resonance.
The Contradictor is personal and universal, built on Ndidi’s songwriting mining the extremes of intimacy, with the bigger sounds and tones she is most interested in uncovering. These are songs of heartache, heartbreak, and longing. ‘Not nice,’ as she says, but as full as
these can be. And as rich.
The album opens with the brass laden ‘SK Final,’ and moves breathlessly to the anthemic ‘The Lady & E.’ Other standouts are ‘Rise,’
which hearkens back to the blues of Ndidi’s first release, and ‘No
Everybody,’ that sneaks an anticonformity rock message under a reggae opening.
Joining Ndidi on the CD is a fearsome roster of world-class players: including Jesse Zubot (strings/mandolin), Paul Pigat (guitars), Steve Dawson (guitars), Roey Shemesh (bass), Barry Mirochnick (drums) and Tyson Naylor ( keyboards). Dawson produced the CD with Zubot producing some of the tracks.
Ndidi has one of those voices that you can't forget. Whether she's out on the down-low with a melancholy moan, or chasing hellhounds with a strident tone, it's a voice that can stop you in your tracks.
Onukwulu's full-time guitarist and sometime co-writer Madagascar Slim -- a three-time Juno Award winner in his own right -- says her voice is outstanding. "I really got excited the first time I heard it," says Slim. "She really does have something special." Put the voice together with her graceful, casual stage presence, and it's easy to see how she lures people into her lair of song.
Ndidi Onukwulu is first and foremost a blues singer. From the jazzy bounce of "Hornblower" to the hard-rockin' punch of "Hey There," from the spooky lament of "Wicked Lady" to the traditional voice-and-drum gospel wail of "This May Be The Last Time," she's steeped in the blues, and talented enough to make you feel it.
Typically, songs like "Water" and "Wicked Lady," drenched in vengeance and infidelity, mine a vein of dark, haunted blues with a deep edge. "I guess it's an aspect of my personality," says Onukwulu. "I have a dark side, and I look at things sometimes from a skewed perspective, which I'm able to tap into. I don't like to shy way from deep emotions. I don't really have any secrets. I don't hide."
Although Onukwulu is rightfully proud of her Nigerian heritage, its influence on her music is minimal. It helps to drive the funky rhythms of her blues, and her feeling for the oppression of some African peoples links to the spirit of the blues. "Blues is the music of the people, of the earth, of the oppressed," she says. Onukwulu readily acknowledges her early love of such blues greats as Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker. Live onstage, she
honors her heroes with tasty covers, like Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man" and Little Walter's superb "Mellow Down Easy."
Now a Toronto-based blues singer-songwriter Onukwulu was born in British Columbia, and grew up inspired by her mother, who encouraged her daughter to enter regional talent contests. Although her parents split up when she was very young, Onukwulu's father -- a drummer and soon-to-be recording artist himself, who hosts an
Afro beat radio show on a co-op radio station in Vancouver -- also had an influence.
Onukwulu left home at an early age and wound up in New York City to pursue her singing career. Starting out by singing a capella on the city's open mic circuit, she encountered some hip-hop and blues players. She'd sing on their albums; in return, they'd work on her songs. After leaving New York for Toronto, she sang in a rock band, then in an electronic one called Stop, Die, Resuscitate. It was great training for her voice, but Onukwulu ultimately stood by the music that first inspired her. "I could sing many ways, and I would," she says. "But when it came time for me to do what I want to do, music that I feel, that I'm connected with -- the sound and tones that I'm inspired by and understand -- it was the blues."
And she's found considerable success in the genre. She has performed at Toronto's Massey Hall in the Women's Blues Revue. She played a private showcase at the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals conference in Guelph, and so impressed a representative of Jericho Beach/Festival Distribution that she eventually landed a record deal with them. Onukwulu has played with jazz great Jane Bunnett at a "Global Divas" fundraising show, recorded and broadcast nationally on CBC Radio One (as was the Womens Blues Revue) and is regularly featured on various CBC broadcasts. In the summer of 2006, Ndidi Onukwulu toured in support of her first album, No I Never. She was accompanied on this tour with her band featuring some-time collaborator Madagascar Slim, bassist Tom Sertis and drummer Rakesh Tewari.
Of course, the blues has always been a music made to transcend the pains and sorrows of daily life. "I think that's why I love it so much," says Onukwulu. "It's what I do."