Music

Natu Camara’s Songs of Healing

The West African singer-songwriter appears as one half of Afropop Spectacular at Cal Performances.

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At the end of guitarist and singer-songwriter Natu Camara's setlist at Berkeley's big house — Zellerbach Hall — the Ivory Coast native raised in neighboring Guinea will transport the audience to her childhood and Tchadil, her grandmother's tiny village. In the village there is no electricity, but the moon at night shines so brightly that a needle on the floor can be seen. Children gather in a circle and begin clapping. Soon, kids all over the village hear the rhythms and hurry to join, swelling the circle to 20 or 30 villagers. A single child moves into the circle's center. Solo dances, accompanied by hands clapping and soulful songs, unify and uplift the community.

As one half of Afropop Spectacular, presented Nov. 8 by Cal Performances, Camara splits the playbill with Sudan-born, Brooklyn-based Alsarah & the Nubatones. The evening offers rich programming: in the 1990s, Camara formed Ideal Black Girls, one of West Africa's first all-female hip-hop groups. Performing music from her 2019 debut solo record, Dimedi (Child), Camara blends Afro-rock, pop, and soul, sung in multiple languages including English, French and Afrikaans. Meanwhile, Alsarah mixes propulsive rhythmic structures, electronic features, classic East African pop and Middle Eastern oud to highlight the vocal harmonies of Alsara and Nahid, her sister.

Ideal Black Girls became Guinea megastars in 2002 with the best-selling. album Guinèya mou monèra ("it's not a shame to be a woman"). Touring Africa and speaking at concerts to young women and girls about completing college or social and workplace equity, Camara became an advocate for women and children's rights.

"I grew up in Guinea and when I was around 16, a lot of my friends got married," she said in a phone interview from Conakry, Guinea, which is her part-time home when she is not in New York City. "They came from school to weddings. One of my friends has six children and when we see each other, there is sadness. The ones who finished school are working — and still have families, but also, independence."

With three likeminded rebels, Camara founded the all-girl band. "There are some children who will be the rebels." At first, it was a problem. "A girl singing, that was bad. Girls singing rap, that was girls doing bad things, like drugs." In reality, the band members went to college, toured, traveled, succeeded.

Interrupting her work with the band to join her husband in New York, Camara experienced devastating loss when he died of pancreatic cancer. Alone, with little English, she listened to cartoons, bought a translator tablet, found employment. Suddenly, she said, "From being super famous, I was earning $7.50 per hour, working and standing in a store all day."

Five years later she had a hard-driving, good job with Ralph Lauren. "My mother worried. But she managed it because she said I was one of those kids who was born to be on the planet. If I survived this, wherever I went, I would be OK."

But she wasn't OK. After "six years of silence" and smothering sadness with work, Camara picked up the guitar — inspired by a songbird at her window and a woman with a Life Alert chain she encountered in Central Park. She quit her job, started jumping onstage at small venues in Harlem, began writing music again. "Every sadness, every falling down, took me to another step," she said.

That led Camara to the dozen songs she is performing on an international tour; most from her new album. The exceptions are "Malaka," a song from Tanzania, and "Ka Hirde," which translates, "Dance of the Night." During a long ago tour, the audience calling for an encore was standing. Camara sensed they wanted to dance, but with only a second guitarist at hand, she wondered, "What to play without my band?" The memory of her grandmother's village emerged in "Ka Hirde," a soul-rock song that had people clapping, dancing and jumping. "Back in the days of my grandmother, they used to say it's a healing song. After singing it, no matter how they felt, they feel better. I feel it every time I perform it, so it must be true."

Indeed the song's combination of looped rhythm and lyricism is mesmerizing. It's music in which to get lost and not want to be "found."

Other songs on the set list speak to social and political issues, reflecting the advocacy and music she admires in mentors: Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, Fela Kuti, Baaba Maal, and others.

"Every strength and determination I have came from my background," Camara said. "In New York, I see strong women like me. Children in Guinea should have opportunity to go to school, to express themselves without seeing themselves as bad."

A visit to a village while on tour in 2010 she said "hurt her heart." Young girls were doing household chores while their brothers rushed off to school. Joining their siblings hours later, they missed vital curriculum. "I left and said I was going to find a way to change this. I do it one by one, mentoring girls. I have 25 young girls, from age 12-18. There are questions they have that they can't ask parents. We talk to them about medical self-care, how to express themselves, why to ask questions in class when boys are — because they are of equal value."

The initiative she now calls Natu's Foundation also plans to engage young boys in learning about the equality of girls. "There are many different parts I can bring together. We're going to get 100 girls, train them, and after college, they will commit to mentoring five girls each. Those girls will then mentor others so we will grow the program like a tree, a plant."

Nov. 8, 8 p.m., $28–56, Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, UC Berkeley, 510-642-9988, CalPerformances.org

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