Akua Allrich: Washington Rising
AA: It has its own traditions, but not for me in terms of expression musically. I think it has everything to do with how I interpret music and the types of music I am drawn to. But not in terms of my musical expression, no. I get more from jazz because my dad is a jazz musician. My cultural and spiritual expression is one piece of it. We are Africans, but we are also African-Americans. So jazz and black music in general were in our house.
AAJ: And are you carrying that tradition on with your family?
AA: Yes, I am. But we have all kinds of stuff! My husband is Haitian, so that is part of it also. It is very rooted in African cultural and spiritual expression. The way I was raised gives me an open mind, a way to be receptive to other people and their cultural expression...because I think as Americans we can become very close-minded but when you are exposed and raised to a tradition that is fluid, instead of very rigid I think it led me to be receptive to all types of music.
AAJ: Have you ever traveled to Africa?
AA: I've been to Ghana about four times, and to Zimbabwe. I want to get to South Africa. I want to go to Nigeria. All right, I want to go everywhere.
AAJ: Was that when you were younger, or over the years?
AA: Over the years. My first trip to Ghana, I was 14. The last time was in 2007.
AAJ: What was your impression from these trips?
AA: The differences in people, but at the very core you are still the same. And the music is just intense. It is intense for me. I feel it in my spirit. It is awesome every time. When you get past personalities, you can soak up any culture.
AAJ: People often say that music plays a more central role in daily African life. Is that something you found to be true?
AA: Honestly, I think it is the same there as it is here. It just sounds different. We've carried over the same traditions here. That plus the way I was raised makes it easy for me to go there and be immersed in the culture and still feel at home. There is homesickness, but I can absorb this culture and have it be part of me. There is some kind of music for everything, and it's great.
AAJ: Let's go back and talk about your musical training. You were immersed as a child, but at some point you must have transitioned to serious studies.
AA: I started piano when I was about four, but it never stuck. I use it as a tool, but I don't really play. I didn't decide to sing until my second semester at Howard University. People would say I had a good voice, but I didn't go to churcha lot of people grew up singing at churchbut I never did that. I started second semester, my godmother told me to sign up for singing.
AAJ: So you did not originally start in the music program?
AA: No, I started as a biology major.
AAJ: What went wrong?
AA: Fs! Fs went wrong...I got Fs. I wanted to be a doctor like my mom, but the universe said, "no, you are not." So I decided I would do music therapy, something with therapy in it. And they didn't have jazz as a base, you had to do classical musical. But I wanted to do jazz, so I ended up in the jazz vocals program. I was surprised when they accepted me because most of the people [there] had been singing forever. And there I was, just starting, just singing. My godmother was very instrumental in that because she is a teacher there and wanted me to do it, so I tried.
AAJ: Since then it has obviously become a major focus of your life.
AA: In school, definitely. I graduated in 2000. I sang for about a year, but I didn't like it, I didn't like being in a smoky club. I thought I would get lost in the sauce of the music business. And I wanted a family, so I said, "no, I'm not doing this." So from 2001 to 2007, I didn't sing professionally. In 2007, I thought, I have my babies, they banned smoking in clubs, let's try this again. The banning of smoking was instrumental to me!
AAJ: It is interesting that you say that. People always associate that atmosphere with the jazz scene to such a large degree.
AA: I am glad you are saying that. I could not do that. But when they banned smoking, I was able to try again. I had my family. I had my husband. So we were both ready. He was gung ho. Ever since then it has been poppin'! I think I had my first solo gig last January 2009, and it has been moving ever since.
AAJ: That is very inspiring, considering the dominant story line you hear is quite the opposite. You can't have a family. You have to be a tortured artist. If you are a woman, you have to choose between family and music, and if you are a man, you have to drink...
AA: And ho, run around....
AAJ: You are proving that this is not the case.
AA: I could not do that. But I was so passionate about music that I had to find a way to make it happenwith my family, not at the expense of my family.
AAJ: Let's go back to your music. You sing in many different languages. Zulu, Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, others I can't pronounce and so skipped. Do you speak all those language?