N'Dambi: True Colours
One of contemporary soul music’s most critically-acclaimed artists, Texan singer/songwriter/keyboardist N’dambi returns to London in September to perform in support of her Grammy-nominated latest album ‘Pink Elephant’, her first release for the rejuvenated Stax label.
The ninth of eleven children born to a Baptist minister and missionary, N’dambi was born Chonita Gilbert in Dallas, Texas and got her professional start in music at the age of 18 as a background vocalist for local gospel singer Gaye Arbuckle, with whom she toured for two years. Following which she got her first taste of the music industry proper while travelling the world as backing-singer for fellow Dallas homegirl Erykah Badu around the release of said neo-soul icon’s seminal 1997 debut LP ‘Baduizm’.
Inspired by her friend’s new-found global acclaim, meanwhile, N’dambi (a name taken from a Central African language in which it means “most beautiful”) next decided to launch her own solo career independently with the release of her 1999 critically-acclaimed debut album ‘Little Girl Lost Blues’. Which - having sold over 70,000 units worldwide largely through word-of-mouth - in turn was followed by the 2001 two-disc set ‘Tunin’ Up & Cosignin’’ (which focused on a more live and jazzy sound) and 2005’s ‘A Weird Kinda Wonderful’, which - containing funkier and more rock-influenced tracks - was released in Japan only, resulting in it becoming a highly-sought-after collectors’ item on eBay.
Meanwhile, as a result of her underground cult success as an independent artist, 2006 saw N’dambi prestigiously signing to the now-reactivated, legendary Stax Records - in turn resulting in the 2010 release of her aforementioned latest LP ‘Pink Elephant’. A mature, intelligent soul set which - produced in Los Angeles by the seasoned Leon F. Sylvers III (best known for his chart-topping, early-Eighties soul/disco productions on the likes of Shalamar, The Whispers and Lakeside) finds N’dambi’s famed storytelling skills in peak form on standout tracks like the Rod Temperton-flavoured, head-bobbing ‘Nobody Jones’ (the tale of a girl with big dreams who won’t let her humble beginnings stop her); the pounding, funky ‘L.I.E.’ (the story of a man leading a double-life along New York’s Long Island Expressway); and the scorching sarcasm of the hooky, cheeky ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. Which - driven by its naughty, insistent punchline “I don’t know why I keep fuckin’ wit you” - perfectly expresses the inability to turn a listless love loose!
All of which more than caters to the fiercely-loyal international fan-base an ever-charismatic N’dambi has slowly cultivated over the last 12 years. As her organic, authentic approach to life and music is expressed powerfully throughout ‘Pink Elephant’ via her signature smouldering deep contralto. Whose instantly-distinctive tone has over the years been influenced by acts ranging from Seventies self-contained male funk bands like The Bar Kays and Ohio Players, to such cultural female soul and gospel figureheads as Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson.
… Cue an articulate and warm-mannered N’dambi meeting-up for the first time with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis over early-evening drinks at Universal Music’s bustling Kensington HQ. As - sporting her trademark, striking brown Afro - she discusses, in slow Texan drawl, her aforementioned latest LP; her strict, church-oriented upbringing in Dallas; and her introduction to the music industry through her friend and fellow Texan soul songbird Erykah Badu.
Naming her latest, fourth LP ‘Pink Elephant’
“The title was actually a take on the phrase ‘elephant in the room’. But in this case what I wanted the elephant in the room to represent was people understanding their purpose in life and their greatness and how, when they do embrace it, they should shine to their FULLEST! Because when you shine, you can’t dummy that down! It’s such an obvious thing that people are going to SEE it, much like they will an elephant in the room!... And then with pink being the colour of hope and strength, I just thought that putting the two words together as ‘Pink Elephant’ was a good way to embrace the whole message.”
What N’dambi wanted to achieve musically on the album
“I wanted to achieve something that would be in keeping with the legacy of Stax music, while at the same time presenting something that people could identify with right NOW… So yeah, I basically wanted to take something borrowed and something new, and put them together to create a hybrid of sound which is actually a hotchpotch of all my musical influences.”
With N’dambi being known as “a musical storyteller”, what inspires the stories behind her songs
“Generally my stories are inspired by just watching people LIVE - which is something I do a lot - and then recording the memories down in my mind. But then, in addition to getting inspired by, say, observing people as they walk by, I also like to read lots of books, I love to watch lots of movies, lots of television... So overall I am inspired by a LOT of things. Like the biggest story on ‘Pink Elephant’ is probably ‘L.I.E.’. Which was inspired by me looking at the Long Island Expressway in New York! Because, when you look at the signs, they have this short version that’s spelt out L.I.E. And when I thought about that, I felt it would be a good double-entendre to play on! So on that song I’m playing with this idea of this man who’s a salesperson who basically sells lies to people. You know, he works in Manhattan, he takes the Long Island Expressway to work every day, and then he goes back to his family and has this perfect life - two kids, a wife, a dog, the picket-fence... But at the same time he’s also embezzling money from the company, has a secret French lover and a Swiss bank account!... So yeah, I guess that song is a good example of me putting together things I might have observed, read and seen - and then letting my imagination go WILD!”
How growing up in a strict household in Dallas, Texas impacted on her early musical development
“Well, growing up was very strict and my life felt very much like a bubble. Like, while I did live in what you’d probably call a middle-class area, I was still only allowed to go so far down the street and I only knew so many people in my NEIGHBOURHOOD. And I actually think it was that limited perspective that ultimately made me stretch inside of my IMAGINATION. Because I’ve always been a daydreamer, I’ve always imagined things beyond where I live - and so I think it was actually those things that ultimately gave me my own set of blues that I ended up applying to the MUSIC... Because at the same time I also grew up playing many instruments - like I started piano at five, bayonet at 12... Which meant I was always playing music, writing music singing music - and all those things became just part of the fibre of my BEING. Because I didn’t know anything else BUT those things! Even if I tried to get away from them, they always came BACK! So in that way I’d say that the environment did definitely shape my ability to have this real connection to music. Because it was the only thing I had that I felt was mine, and that I could really hold ON to.”
How N’dambi now looks back on beginning her career in the industry as Erykah Badu’s backing vocalist
“Well, Erykah and I are homegirls from the same neighbourhood in Dallas. And so it was just kinda one of those situations where, whoever got a deal first would take the other on the road with them. And so when Erykah got her deal, she stayed true to her word and took me WITH her!... And you know, just being with a friend and watching as her career blossomed and seeing the whole landscape and how it takes shape really was a great learning experience for me. And what was especially interesting was that I was learning about the business without the whole thing necessarily directly affecting ME! Plus being part of something creative that Erykah was doing at the time which people felt was like a breath of fresh air was also really exciting and inspiring!... So yeah, that’s how I got my start in the music industry - singing backgrounds for Erykah when her first ALBUM (1997’s seminal ‘Baduizm’) came out! And then from there I just kinda decided to do it on my OWN! I started my own independent label, continued writing music and putting it down, put out my first three albums - 1999s ‘Little Girl Lost Blues’, 2001’s ‘Tunin’ Up & Cosignin’’ and 2005’s ‘A Weird Kinda Wonderful’ - independently... And then from that I eventually signed with Stax and released ‘Pink ELEPHANT’!”
N’Dambi performs at 02 Shepherds Bush Empire, London on September 25 0844 844 0002)
Words PETE LEWIS