Numbingly sad at times, positively upbeat at others, Ndidi Onukwulu’s latest project, The Contradictor, successfully blends the disparate rhythms, timbres, and existential tensions of jazz, blues, rock, pop, folk, and gospel into a cohesive work destined to become a favorite among her growing community of listeners. Never predictable, the disc shifts sonic and emotional gears without the disjointedness plaguing so many “fusion”-type recordings.
Much of the cohesiveness can be attributed to the dynamism of Onukwulu’s voice, which possesses that rare ability to brilliantly convey the tragicomic dimensions of life. Something about the way in which she twists her narratives, slurs her words, and projects her moans adds a newness and sparkle to old stories about life, love, and pain. One suspects that the sonic properties and the lyricism of Onukwulu’s voice will evoke comparisons to her more famous singer-songwriter sisters like Fiona Apple, Amy Winehouse, and Nellie McKay, but make no mistake, this is a woman with her own individuality. It is clear from the outset that she recognizes the singularity of her voice and the essentiality of her story.
Not all of the material on The Contradictor sustained my attention, but there were several songs that generated hair-raising moments. All praise due to the disc’s first two songs, “SK Final” and “Lady Z”. The big band sound of the former perfectly anchors Onukwulu’s mesmerizing phrasing, which throws into the mix equal amounts of transparent swagger and bitter irony. Considerably slower than the opener, “Lady Z” illuminates the pain and contradictions of a former lover burdened by wounds so deep that love functions as an emotion to be conquered rather than shared. Count me as one of the those music listeners who usually shuns songs offering readings into the minds and hearts of ex-lovers — mainly because they all tend to be saturated with narcissism — but “Lady Z” definitely gets my nod of approval. To her credit, Onukwulu offers an honest reflection and projection of pain.
Which brings up the issue of her status as blues woman. All of the singer’s press material mentions her love for the blues in general and John Lee Hooker in particular. Quite openly, she speaks of her willingness to explore the dark side of the moon, the more painful dimensions of life. If we think of the blues as mood rather than just form, as writers Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and Amiri Baraka commanded of us, then Onukwulu definitely qualifies as a blues singer.
Let me make clear that my assessment of what and who she is is based on more than her articulation of pain. Why she has this blues impulse locked down also relates to her understanding of its sacred dimension. Ominous clouds hang over many of the songs on The Contradictor, but there’s also rays of sunshine, hope, and light in numbers like “Move Together”, “Cry All Day”, and “Rise”.
A sort of Pentecostal-inflected blues, “We Can Move Together” reminds us of the change that can come through human understanding and unity. The breathtaking “Cry All Day” bears witness to pain while at the same time exuding the triumphant qualities of the gospel impulse. “Rise” proclaims victory over anguish and paralyzing despair with the kind of assuredness present in the work of artists guided by the triumphant perspective of the sacred songs. Even though rock rhythms, sensibilities, and swagger pervade the cut, this song also represents Sunday-morning Pentecost. Thrashing guitars, smashing drums, and spirit-filled vocals combine to create an unbelievable energy certain to grab the listener’s attention and spirit.
Freely communicating her emotions, Ndidi Onukwula unabashedly reveals feelings many prefer to let percolate beneath the surface. If you are a fan of music that simultaneously entertains and soothes the soul give her latest outing, The Contradictor, a listen.