Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Cabaret of Emotion: Ndidi Onukwulu's Escape

The Vancouver songstress Ndidi Onukwulu (pronounced In-DEE-dee On-noo-KWOO-loo) integrates jazz, rhythm and blues, world, folk, and bluegrass – to name a few genres – into a sound that is silky and soulful, whimsical and relevant. You just have to picture a young Billie Holiday crossed with Cat Power. Escape (Emarcy/Universal Music) is her third album following up on the successful No I Never (Festival Distribution, 2008) and Contradictor (Outside Music, 2008). Recorded and released in France in 2011, Escape arrived on our shores last winter and offers listeners a continuation of Onukwulu’s natural niche for song. But this time with a more polished, mature, and even French togetherness.

Intrepid as she is prolific, Onukwulu (who grew up in Burns Lake, British Columbia) has spent several years living out of suitcases. The daughter of a Nigerian musician, she has slowly been building a name for herself in both her homeland and abroad. After exploring the music scene in Vancouver, she moved on to New York City and Toronto, while more recently locating to Paris, France, to work on her latest album under the production of Craig Street (who also produces Norah Jones). While still in North America, Onukwulu earned a rising star award from CBC radio. She also secured a Juno nomination for her sophomore album under the Roots and Traditional Album category. Escape is guaranteed to build on this momentum. The album is sophisticated, rich, and optimistic both lyrically and musically. Escape opens with the swinging and rhythmic song "Whisper," which is quintessential of the heartiness of her pieces. While the instrumentals include the basics, they are delivered to sound full bodied; rivaling the power of a much larger ensemble.

Singer Ndidi Onukwulu
I imagine that Paris, particularly Paris is the springtime, must have served as a muse for Onukwulu on the record. You can feel this particularly in one of the strongest songs, "Around The Corner." The song carries an upbeat dose of optimism about waiting for a literal or metaphorical spring. “Breeze be easy we’re just trying to breathe / Been a while since we’ve seen smiles on the street.” The jazzy blues that infuses this infectious pop song carries a promise of easier days. “Flirtatious afternoons, hearts on our hands / Ready to be given without any, without any demand/Isn't it time we moved on.” Onukwulu evokes images of city sidewalks coming alive with the hustling of lightly dressed pedestrians; baring some skin on a quest for lust after a long winter.

But the song I enjoy most is "On The Metro," which discloses Onukwulu's private thoughts regarding an attractive stranger sitting next to her on the subway. “I like the way you chew your gum / I like the look in your eyes / I’m so glad you sat next to me / I like way you move your hands.” These are the musings you think about when encountering a Craigslist Missed Connection entry. Private thoughts. While much of the album focuses on the brighter side of life, the title track offers a haunting, rhythmic, juxtaposition to the rest of the CD. A deeper voiced Onukwulu narrates the track through a rhythmic bass line. A more serious tone also accompanies the writing this time as she remarks, “Escape as the worlds and do what you please/Letting life pass by,” which shows her full dexterity as an artist.

Displaying a modernist sensibility, Ndidi Onukwulu's Escape is a solidly rooted work filled with crushes, spring romance, and private musings. Delivering a virtual cabaret of emotion, Escape is her strongest effort to date.

Laura Warner is a librarian, researcher and aspiring writer living in Toronto. She is currently based in the Canadian Broadcasting Centre’s Music Library.

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