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Akua Allrich: Washington Rising

Franz A. Matzner By

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Artists can be so self-absorbed. But at the end of the day, as an artist you are speaking for people. You are speaking to people. You can't just throw shit out there and say, 'take it'; you have to give people something they relate to.
A native Washingtonian, vocalist Akua Allrich's music flows with a free, natural energy as engaging as her equally ingenuous personality. Although she graduated from Howard University's music department roughly a decade ago, Allrich has only recently thrown herself into forging a musical career. She originally opted not to pursue a singing career and turned instead to the challenges of raising a family and teaching in a private school. In the past few years, however, Allrich has returned to the stage to sing jazz vocals, much to the pleasure of Washington, DC audiences.

Possessed of a strong voice, wide range and vivacious stage presence, Allrich has accomplished much since making that decision. She has developed a compelling musical style fusing jazz, R&B and African influences. She has grown a loyal local audience and established herself in the increasingly vibrant Washington scene as a performer capable of not only packing the house, but bringing the audience to their feet. She has proven herself a flexible and bold performer willing to take risks, as evidenced by her recent performance at DC jazz hub The Bohemian Caverns, where she thrilled the audience with a unique blend of music celebrating the music and civil rights activism of Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. She also recently released an album, A Peace of Mine (Self Produced, 2010), debuting both her vocal and compositional talents.

Unconventional in approach—both to music and building a career— Allrich is busy proving that there is no one path to success. She is also helping shine a light on the burgeoning musical culture of Washington, DC, to no small degree by anchoring her expression in the proud African-American tradition and unabashedly political roots of the city.

All About Jazz: You were born and raised in Washington, DC?

Akua Allrich: That's right. Northwest. An uptown girl! I grew up close to Silver Spring.

AAJ: How would you describe your early years?

AA: My early years? I was always a good girl. My parents were cool. My daddy is a musician. Music, culture—African culture in particular—art, that was my reality. I didn't know there was anything else until I was grown.

AAJ: Then you found out that everyone else's parents were really boring.

AA: They were totally different. It was like speaking different languages, even though we were all speaking English. It was different from other people's [upbringing], but it was great for me! My mom is a doctor. I call her the superstar family physician of DC. Everywhere we go someone is like 'Dr. K!' Everyone knows her.

AAJ: What kind of musician was your father?

AA: A jazz musician. He plays the saxophone. He has not played in a while. He had a stroke last year. He had a band called Nation they put out two albums. He played the saxophone that was his main instrument, but he went to school for music education so he is well versed in many instruments ... piano, all the woodwinds. But saxophone was his thing, alto and soprano.

AAJ: So you grew up listening to jazz, but have also absorbed a lot of African influence. Your album and the performance [I attended] were certainly infused with it. That developed right from the beginning?

AA: Oh, yes. I was born into it. My dad—his stuff had a lot of African influence. He was very vocal during the civil rights movement, in the '70s. He was really about social justice. He had a lot of poetry in his music. I grew up on Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. Any and everybody that most people don't listen to, that's who I listened to!

AAJ: The African interest, is that because of a family lineage?

AA: No. My mom and dad both claimed their Africanity in college. They both went to Howard University and so we were raised as African people. They are both from Mississippi, raised in Miami, and came up here to Howard University and that was it.

I was raised in the Akan tradition which is from Ghana West Africa. My parents are very methodical people—they don't just go along with fads or just a movement. They decided that this is our lifestyle, we are claiming ourselves as African people. So instead of being generalists, they decided to stick with one specific culture because at that time we didn't have the resources to trace our lineage. They were pulled to the Akan tradition and West Africa and that is how they raised us. That is how I got my name, Akua, which [means] female child born on Wednesday. That is what I have known since birth.

AAJ: Does the Akan tradition bring with it a particular musical tradition that you then followed?

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 church—a lot of people grew up singing at church—but 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 happen—with 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?

AA: No, no, no. I just sing. I love languages, so if it is in a different language, I will [study] and ask others for help to learn how to pronounce everything. I don't want to ask someone after that speaks the language and hear "you have got it all wrong, you aren't saying anything!" I like the challenge. And I also like to express culture and different cultures. That is what I enjoy. I may not know every word, but I will make sure to research the meaning of the song.

AAJ: In your performance, you seemed to be pulling not only from the traditionally American jazz tradition, but from the African jazz tradition as well. This is clear when you are singing Miriam Makeba pieces, but it also seemed to be the case on other tunes.
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