Nneka, 1.27.10

Imagine my surprise—and thrill—when I walked by the Red Devil Lounge and saw this name on the calendar! It was a lovely feeling, to know that someone unique was practically coming to my door, and to know that I’d get to experience something from my Europe trip nearly two years ago all over again. I saw Nneka at Liege, Belgium’s Les Ardentes festival in July 2008 with my dear friend Audrey, who actually insisted we see this woman perform, and I’m glad I did. Nneka is a wee tour-de-force, standing much shorter than I remembered but taking no crap from anyone. Her music is political, first and foremost, and soulful, after that.

She hasn’t changed much since the last time I saw her, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I do wish that this eighteen months had brought her a bit more success. Les Ardentes is the Belgian equivalent of Outside Lands or Coachella, so to see her occupy a tiny San Francisco stage was a little weird. She has the ability to command much more of an audience. I suppose the venue choice is a testament to America and its stubbornness—to a certain extent, none of us will be able to fully understand her music, because we can’t comprehend how or why she wrote it. She hails from Nigeria, quite possibly the exact opposite of America in every respect, and her tales of corruption and messages peace do refer to specific events in her home country. But up until January 2009, her music might have hit closer to home than we thought, and while we’re in a better place now, it still may reach something if we give it more of a chance.

She sang many of the songs I remembered from her album like An Uncomfortable Truth, Suffri, and Heartbeat, but she did sing them with more maturity and less album coloring. Nneka has an interesting way of singing that’s incredibly difficult to describe. Her note transitions are almost mechanical, and she rarely wavers out of her semi-compact range. But she knows exactly how to use her voice, and it is beautiful each time. She also has more of a sense of humor than I remember her having, perhaps because she has had more intimate audiences since that festival. And San Francisco’s Nigerian community (all 5 of them?) made it out to support her.

The Red Devil Lounge, besides being the most convenient venue to my apartment, is pretty adorable. Yes, it is kind of red on the inside, and yes, there is a little devil presiding over the place. He sits atop the bar like a gargoyle, but he looks more lucky than evil. And even though the lounge is cramped, it’s set up rather efficiently. The upper deck is narrow, but the guard rails make for perfect lean-and-listen action. And the sound engineers have their own little nook, facing the stage directly but out of the way of all the patrons. For such a small space, the sound is decent. I found this out the hard way when the meek-looking opener, Bhi Bhiman, opened his mouth and a wail practically came out. But he redeemed himself with a song entitled “God is a Warriors Fan.” Yes, indeed, Satan loves the Lakers. And I love the Red Devil Lounge.