Before Ndidi Onukwulu – known as Ndidi O – takes the stage she meditates.
“I find that is the best way for me to present,” she said. “The magic comes when you live in the moment that is in existence.”
Onukwulu looks to make more of that magic at Sidney’s Mary Winspear on Thursday, Sept. 2 as part of the Seaside Sessions, an eight-part series organized in partnership with FACTOR Canada, a non-profit dedicated to providing assistance toward the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.
Each performance will be filmed in 4k in front of a live audience. Fans can later experience a 45-minute recording on YouTube for free or purchase the extended 90-minute version.
The program highlights emerging and underrepresented Canadian talent working in a cross-section of genres, and Onukwulu’s personal biography and music cut across multiple boundaries. Soundproof Magazine described the daughter of Nigerian jazz musician Ezeadi Onukwulu and a German mother as a “funkier Billie Holiday” while No Depression found similarities between her work and that of Phoebe Snow, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman.
So how does Onukwulu describe her own sound?
“I would say that my music is blues-soul with a hint of folk in there,” she said. “But it’s definitely blues. I consider myself a blues artist.”
Traditional blues was acoustic and very much about story-telling, she said. “It pre-dated folk, but that is where folk and country and all these things came from, from early 1920s, 1930s-blues. So I carry that tradition, but I am a bit more modern.”
This modern take, captured in five studio solo albums and other projects, has earned Onukwulu critical acclaim from leading publications like No Depression, two Juno nominations and the Western Canadian Music Alliance’s Blues Artist of the Year for 2019. True Blood, a critically acclaimed fantasy-horror-drama on HBO, is among those that have used Onukwulu’s evocative sound, which has also found an audience in Europe, especially in France.
But this cosmopolitan reach also comes with misconceptions about her identity.
“There is a really strange misconception about the lack of diversity in Canada,” she said. “When you see people of colour abroad who are from Canada, people have a hard time understanding this, especially if you are doing Americanized music.”
Being so close to the U.S. makes it difficult to draw out the differences between American blues-soul and its Canadian take on it, she said.
“If I had to say what Canadian blues-soul was, there is a level of isolation and what we sing about isn’t traditionally the same,” Onukwulu said. “Issues that exist in the United States don’t exist up here for Black people. So your template is different.”
The Canadian version offers a more eclectic sound and story-telling approach, one that draws on country’s enormous distances.
Onukwulu has experienced this level of isolation and distance for herself, growing up in Burns Lake, geographically in the middle of B.C., but a long way from Vancouver, New York and Toronto, key stations along her route as an artist.
Her early experiences helped shape Onukwulu.
“Growing up in smaller places and being like one of the only Black people there, isolation is just something that ends up happening to you,” she said.
“You learn to create worlds and create stories and I think that is one of the greatest benefits of being in places where I didn’t have community and I wasn’t invited into community. I created worlds within myself and those worlds are ways to make stories and that translated into my music and my other writings.”
Like many artists, Onukwulu performed virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, having found herself shut out from stages for about two years prior to her most recent July concert in Calgary.
Currently completing a collaboration with Trish Klein of the Be Good Tanyas and working on a new solo album for release next year, she looks forward to performing in Sidney as part of the Seaside Sessions. They are not only a way to reach new audiences, but also reintroduce herself to existing ones, she said. And as in the past, she will not suffer from any butterflies.
“Being on my stage is my favourite place to be,” she said. “Performing live is my absolutely favourite thing. There is so much joy for me to put on a show for people and engage.”
For more information about the show, see marywinspear.ca/event/ndidi-o.
Other announced artists performing as part of the Seaside Sessions so far are PIQSIQ, Tanika Charles and Witch Prophet with more to be announced later.
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