Uniquely Standard: Akua Allrich on Musical Heroines, the D.C. Jazz Scene, and Her New Album
Howard grad and D.C. native Akua Allrich has had a busy few years. In 2010, the soulful vocalist released her debut album, A Peace of Mine, and has been performing regularly since then. She's about to release her second album, a collection of classic jazz standards recorded at Bohemian Caverns and THEARC, and will celebrate it with an official release performance at The Howard Theatre tonight. Uniquely Standard treats jazz as it should be: recorded as live sets in a club where the audience's reaction is as integral to the songs as their musical accompaniment.
I recently chatted with Allrich about the new album, her take on the local jazz scene in which it’s rooted, and why the classic songs she chose still resonate today.
Washington City Paper: How would you describe the album to someone who isn’t familiar with your work?
Akua Allrich: It’s my personal take on jazz standards. My approach to music is one that is pretty uniquely me. Thus, the CD’s name. My approach is generally a conglomeration of my personal musical experience, which is jazz, soul, blues, and pan-African music. I guess the best way to describe the album is a soulful approach to standard jazz tunes.
JM: What was the inspiration for compiling the songs you chose?
WCP: Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba are two of my musical heroines. I do a tribute to them every year at Bohemian Caverns. I just felt like it was time for me to record it. People have been asking. I picked tunes that I love. "Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood" is one of my favorites. It’s not really a jazz tune, but it’s so soulful, you can’t help but love it. And "Lush Life"—that’s a tune that most vocalists and musicians shy away from because of all the changes. But it’s one of my all-time favorite jazz standards. Oh, and "Black Coffee." I just love singing that because it’s so bluesy. I’m a big blues lover. And songs by Miriam Makeba—she was a South African jazz vocalist, so I thought it was cool to pay tribute to South African jazz.
WCP: The sets were recorded at Bohemian Caverns?
AA: Yes, most of them were recorded there.
WCP: Why a live recording versus a studio one?
AA: I thought it was a good transition between albums, moving from my first one, which was a mix of different genres, to giving people a taste of me doing pretty much just jazz. And I love live music. I thought the album would give people a different side of me. Live is totally different from the studio, obviously, because the studio is almost contrived, I guess. Very put together. But live, you’ve gotta hit it and that’s it. If it ain’t right, it ain’t right, you know? I like to have fun with audiences, to do call and response. And I feed off the energy of the audience. Hopefully people take that away from the album.
WCP: And the types of songs you’ve chosen have been traditionally performed live, too.
AA: Absolutely. It’s cool to reference history like that.
WCP: You are a lifelong D.C. native. What are your thoughts on how the local jazz scene has changed and developed in recent decades?
AA: Oh man, it has changed drastically. When I was in college at Howard, it was really tough to get gigs around town. Musicians were struggling, jazz clubs were struggling, and it wasn’t so often that people got gigs in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. But when I got back into it—I took a break after I graduated, because I didn’t want to do the smoky jazz club thing—but when I came back in 2008, it was completely different. Competely. The music scene now is amazing. It’s bustling. U Street is always live. Back in the late ‘90s, it was pretty dead. It was a place you didn’t want to go to at night. But now people are out all the time. You can’t find parking. Clubs are patronized, which is awesome. It’s a great time for musicians and artists in D.C.
WCP: But jazz has historical roots in U Street area…
AA: Oh, absolutely.
WCP: What do you think has contributed to its resurgence in the last five or so years?
AA: There was been a slow gentrification over the last 15 years, but in the last five years it has sped up significantly. There are just all these different people coming in, and there’s a place for it now. People are seeking it. I came back into it at the right time and was able to tap into the local art scene. But on the other hand, I think there is a surge of artistic energy around the world, not just in this area. I think it’s a movement. You know, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on around the world, which always creates a need for artists to speak to what’s going on. I think people look for it. If you’re not an artist, you’re looking for that outlet from an artist. I kind of feel like D.C. is just one example of what’s happening around the world.
WCP: What role does your music play in this process?
AA: My goal is always to inspire, to provoke thought, and also to provoke a spiritual movement. To stir people’s insides and make them feel like they can make a difference. Love is always a goal for me to, to transmit love, peace and honesty. I don’t work in a perfect world, and I would like people to stand up for what’s right and good, and to be happy.
WCP: Do you see a strong reception from audiences to your messages?
AA: Oh my goodness, yes. Big time. When I do my tribute to Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba, I do a lot of their songs that were very socially charged. They had a mission to transmit what was right and to speak up for people being mistreated, particularly for black people and African people around the world. And when I sing those songs today, it permeates. When people come, they are screaming and chanting and crying and happy, and they thank me for singing these songs. We have conversations after the concerts. It’s wonderful.
WCP: What is it like to perform these old, socially charged songs in a club rooted to an area that’s also been very socially, politically and racially charged in the past?
AA: It’s surreal. It’s a spiritual experience. You are channeling whoever was there who was doing that same thing. Whether they were huge musicians or musicians who weren’t as well known, that energy is just there. I’m so grateful to [club co-owner] Omrao Brown and his partner for keeping it up at Bohemian Caverns. You can just get up there and do your thing, and the people come to receive it and to reciprocate that energy back to you.
WCP: There was a recent article on WTOP about D.C. jazz clubs and their struggles to reach both older and younger audiences. Have you ever thought about what audiences you are reaching?
AA: I can’t honestly say that I do. I guess the artist side of me rebels against... pigeonholing audiences. I think it’s not fair and not organic. I think that if you’re a musician, you just need to make music that speaks to you and then it’ll speak to someone else, too. I appreciate all spectrums of music. My dad is a jazz musician ... and I was raised with the classics and the people who started jazz and the progenitors of R&B because that’s what my parents let me listen to. But then when I went out with friends, I would listen to the radio ... hip hop and soul and contemporary stuff. So as an adult, it all comes together on its own, and I use it all.
WCP: You often use African and other world music sounds too. What does that inspiration come from?
AA: I consider myself an African woman. I was born in the U. S. and my parents were from Mississippi, but we identified ourselves as African people. I was raised around the music and I danced African dance, and it gave me the ability to appreciate all cultures. And that shows in my music. It’s the same with languages. If you expose a child at an early age to a different language, they are able to be receptive and learn other languages as they age, much more quickly than an adult who was not exposed. I feel it’s the same way with music and art. I was exposed to all these different kinds of art that weren’t all necessarily American, and so it shows up in my music. Whether it’s accidental or on purpose, it just sort of comes out.
WCP: What else do you want to add about the upcoming album release?
AA: The performance at Howard is the big mama. I’m so excited to perform there! Let me tell you, when I was a kid, my dream was to perform at The Howard Theatre. I said to my mom, I want to perform there. So this is really an awesome opportunity for me.
Akua Allrich will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at The Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW, accompanied by Kris Funn on bass, Carroll Dashiell III on drums, Agyei Osei Akoto on congas, and Tim Green on saxophone. $17.50–$22.50.
Photo by Handirubvi Wakatama