Akua Naru / The Fleece, Bristol | 2nd of May

Akua Naru / The Fleece, Bristol | 2nd of May

By way of background:

In 2011 Akua Naru released her debut album The Journey Aflame, a proclamation of intent that set her marker in the ever-shifting spheres of hip-hop, soul and jazz. The record, a complex and intriguing musical bildungsroman, landed Naru much acclaim.
In 2015 she released The Miner’s Canary, a work that heightened the already potent political focus of her music.

At the end of last month came Naru’s most recent offering – The Blackest Joy – a mesmerising, sprawling body of sound that evokes at every turn that which its title suggests – a hardy, positive resistance against persecution and judgement. Race, nations, gender and emotional suppression are again but of a few of the ever-present themes. Comparisons to 90’s artists like The Roots and Lauryn Hill feel sincere and justified.

On Wednesday, Akua Naru performed in Bristol at The Fleece. Lights of blues and greens flicked across the stage as she appeared before the crowd, barefoot, following an instrumental intro from her (supremely talented) five-piece band. Quickly the room-commanding energy of the outfit, and most especially Naru, took its hold. In what form? At first, chanting and inclusion – back-and-forths – then thick hip-hop afrobeats, grooving hips in a dancing scene, then a quiet but poignant word with us. This surprising and refreshing fluctuation – all in a matter of minutes – continued throughout her set. Early on she claimed ‘i’m so deep inside the music I forgot about the crowd’: on one hand you sense that Naru lives her sound, that she both loses and finds herself within it, but on the other there is a constant focus on depicting a message, on an unbridled political assertion. These performative elements never fully abandon her, even when she encourages us to let ourselves go.

A major root of The Blackest Joy is Naru’s grappling with (and ultimate grasp of) permission to feel happiness and to feel power. A number of songs from the record – which have ‘hardly been performed live before’ – are hyped, frenetic affairs when given to a crowd. This is true of Serena, which marked the night’s first display of Naru’s ridiculous flow, a flow that so aptly accommodates both the jump-up sections and the reflective, sensual spoken-word passages. (Again, it is these styles and genres and cultures playing up against each other that successfully lend Naru her ‘own sauce and own flavour’). Black Genius, the first song of her new album, features the sonorous, husky voice waxing lyrical about empowerment. It also featured an excellent keys solo. The guitarist, a seriously good player, brought African vocals for the start of My Mother’s Daughter, a grooving track with brilliant jazz sax. Made It cuts across celebratory verses with a gospel feel chorus. (Love) Right Now boasts a fine high voice a ‘rhythmic Jenga’ front and centre. Kaya started off with the funkiest looping reggae-rock vocals, backed by Rhodes, building, building to Naru’s skippy flow. ‘Rock with me now…roll with me now’ (a live-only feature, it would seem) and the crowd obliges. Otherwordly, dark synth in stretches too. The studio versions feature more effects, backing spoken vocals and monologues, though Naru brings plenty of the latter to a live audience too. It is a genuinely significant body of work, one of heritage, resilience and a marvelous fusion of styles.

The scene slows and calms but the ride is not done, and it takes us to another track, one which celebrates ‘all the strange thoughts’ of ‘friendship’. The warmth in the room edges up, metaphorically and otherwise.
Naru’s most recognised track is called Poetry: How Does It Feel? It feels damn good. A subdued, sexy, at times oddly saddening piece of, well, literature, that leans more on ethereal keys and minimalist soulful tradition than anything else. Not a peep to be heard during much of that.
‘We love the funk’ backs a lively song, and the words aptly arrive at the height of the set’s groove. One dude in front of me swung his arms increasingly, carelessly, joyfully.
An extended horn interlude from the saxophonist Julian, during which I note only ‘the slowest sexiest sax in all of the land’. It gradually summons the ride and toms and turns to bebop improv. The guitarist in his cream fur hat plays a giddying soulrock solo (i don’t know how to do the ever-meandering genre hybrids anything close to a service here).

An encore of Joy, weaved and played and bellowed to us. These gritty exaltations were reciprocated by many.

Though Akua Naru’s artistry carries great weight on its own, the energy and undulations are aided hugely by the players around her, and their serious devotion to her assertive, powerful messages > ‘Are we ready to get it right’? > Naru is a fan of philosophising – scratch that – Naru feels it’s an essential duty of hers to philosophise and engage. This infectious trait emerges sometimes between the marvellous music in intimate addresses and passionate phrases. It emerges sometimes merely in the talents and craft of the woman herself, a fiercely conscious Master of Ceremonies. It emerges always. Listen to the albums, they are great.

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