CFA Faculty Recital on Thursday, January 31,
at 8 p.m., at the Tsai Performance Center

Week of 25 January 2002 · Vol. V, No. 20


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From A-flat to Zimbabwe
A performance artist's inspiration -- 1000 points of sound from worldwide roots

By Hope Green

Nori NkeAka believes that if he had not become a musician, he would have been an anthropologist. "I've always been fascinated by the languages and customs of different peoples," says the New York-based performance artist, who will lecture and entertain at the College of Fine Arts on February 1, 2, and 3.

  Nori NkeAka (CFA'95) Photo by Nina d'Alessandro

An operatic bass singer who has also studied acting and movement, NkeAka (pronounced in-kay-ah-kah) (CFA'95) has an eclectic musical repertoire, ranging from early music to pop and rock. African and Western traditions come together in his lively multicultural programs, where he blends folk songs with classical elements and stories and dance with percussion and original poetry. He calls this intriguing mélange calaloo.

"Calaloo is a very delicious Trinidadian soup that gets its distinct flavor from an unusual combination of unexpected ingredients," he explains. "I think it's a very apt metaphor for what I do."

Born in Cameroon and raised in Nigeria, where his father was a physician, NkeAka learned to speak English, Ibo, and Yoruba. "I grew up reading 'Cinderella' and 'Snow White' and African stories all at the same time," he laughs.

"I had a calaloo upbringing." Civil war in Nigeria in 1967 forced his family out of the country temporarily, and they lived in refugee camps until the war ended.

NkeAka grew to appreciate the American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson and the South African singer Miriam Makeba, who was banned from her homeland for more than 25 years after testifying about apartheid before the United Nations.

"Everyone knows her in Africa," he says of Makeba. "She's called Mother Africa. We all listened to her as children. What struck me even at that age was that she sang music of all kinds, from Zulu to Brazilian, from American standards to the music of Southeast Asia."

NkeAka came to the United States to study singing, earning a bachelor's degree at the Eastman School of Music and a master's at SUNY-Binghamton before pursuing his doctorate in vocal performance at the College of Fine Arts. Phyllis Curtin, a CFA professor and dean emerita, was among his mentors. "She encouraged me to go into my history and culture and sing from that," he says. "It didn't matter to her, as long as I sang it well."

While at Eastman, NkeAka developed a popular series of afternoon concerts, accompanied by a jazz pianist, and soon added West Indian music, Negro spirituals, storytelling, and dance to the mix.

Later he appeared at larger venues, including the Out on the Edge Festival in Boston, Rick's Cafe in Provincetown, the Inside/Outside Program at New York University, and the International Arts Festival in Martinique. But he also had a thorough classical training. He has earned top prizes in the Leontyne Price Vocal Competition and the New York Vocal Artists Competition, and researched and performed the African-based classical art songs of Spain and Latin America. He premiered new works several years ago at the Des Moines Metropolitan Opera as a young artist, and performed at the Aspen Music Festival.

"Even when I studied opera, I was always interested in folk music because there's a certain emotional directness to it," he says. "A lot of European composers went to folk sources to enrich their music. Perhaps I'm creating something new, something healing. One of the things I hope to do through my performances is to break down stereotypes and create a kind of unity.

The stories embedded in the songs -- which are about relationships between mothers and children or about spirits or human longings or our favorite foods -- tell about cultural uniqueness, but also about the human ways we all connect."


Photo by Samuele Frigoli


Currently NkeAka teaches voice and oral literature at New York University while maintaining a busy performance schedule. In February he will appear at the Festival of African and African-American Music in New Orleans. And one of his many New York venues this spring will be the Museum of Modern Art, where he will perform for families as part of an educational program focusing on African culture.

Throughout the year he offers a menu of themed shows, such as Calaloo Con Salsa, an all-Spanish program, and Calaloo Rocks, which incorporates elements of Kurt Weill as well as Sting and the rhythms of Brazil. Another program, Experiences and Illusion, combines African and German cabaret music and also includes an excerpt from a drag opera he created while at CFA.

He will begin his visit to the College of Fine Arts with a Friday afternoon talk entitled Making Your Own Way: How Do I Get to Where I Think I Want To Go? He plans to describe what challenges awaited him when he embarked on a musical career, at first following a traditional route from the conservatory, then veering onto an unconventional course.

"I was in New York for five or six years and saw many singers who had lost the joy of singing," he says. "This led me to wonder, why do we sing in the first place, and how authentic are we being? Do we want to be Pavarotti? Is that a realistic goal for us? I'm challenging students to think about what kinds of questions they have for themselves."

Making his own path in music has not been easy. "I'm still very much my own manager," he says. "I am being challenged in areas that are not my forte -- for instance, being a businessman, building my résumé, schmoozing, being very organized, applying for grants, being a representative of myself. All of these things are difficult for me, but very necessary."

On Saturday and Sunday, NkeAka will offer a storytelling session and a program of African folksongs in unusual arrangements. He will spend part of the weekend rehearsing with CFA music students -- a guitarist, a percussionist, and some vocalists -- who will accompany him and his pianist in the folksong show. "I will send some of the music to them ahead, but a lot of it is improvised," he says. "On the final day we'll put together a performance and see how it all comes out."

NkeAka's appearances are as follows: visiting artist talk, Making Your Own Way, Friday, February 1, at 2 p.m., CFA Marshall Room; Believe Me, Believe Me Not! Stories and Songs of Wonder and Enchantment, Saturday, February 2, at noon, BU Art Gallery Foyer; and Calaloo Roots: An African Cabaret, with pianist Jerry Jean, Sunday, February 3, at
8 p.m., BU Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave. All events are free and open to the public.


25 January 2002
Boston University
Office of University Relations