Watch most music clips involving female singers and clothing appears to be an optional extra. With rampant sexuality comprehensively whipping a good voice in the marketing stakes, Sing The Truth comes as a pleasant aberration, the focus being squarely on three exceptional singers.
Angelique Kidjo is the irrepressible powerhouse of Afro-beat. Dianne Reeves is among the most sophisticated contemporary jazz singers, and Lizz Wright, the youngest, effortlessly melds jazz, r’n’b, gospel and folk into a soul-food whole.
Beginning as a Nina Simone tribute in 2004, Sing The Truth has become a wider celebration of distinguished female singers. For Sydney Festival it spotlights the work of Miriam Makeba, Odetta and Abbey Lincoln, with the singers backed by an all-star band led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and including pianist Geri Allen.
Makeba, the South African known as Mama Africa, was the Dark Continent’s first singing star to break through in the west. Odetta brought her operatic voice to bear on spirituals, blues, folk and more, and Abbey Lincoln was a towering jazz singer. All three were not-to-be-denied activists for civil rights.
“All those women have paved the way for us to be where we are today,” says Kidjo, whose telephone manner is just as feisty and bubbly as her stage presence.
“Miriam was the first African star that made me realise that as an African girl I can have an international career,” she says. “Before her they were all white males, African American males, African males and African American women. She gave me a different perspective of what I can achieve if I decided to join her in that journey to help bring the beauty of our culture to the world.”
Wright was especially touched by the power, majesty and political resolve of Lincoln. “Abbey Lincoln’s voice brought a lot of ideas together for me,” she says, her own voice as mollifying as Kidjo’s is plucky. “It reminds me a lot of the older women from my father’s church. And her songs, even when she was covering someone else’s work, were always haunted with this beautiful intensity.”
Given that Kidjo’s concerts become parties, while Reeves’ are more like recitals, I ask Wright which way the gigs go with the three of them. “Well, we have a party, a recital, some meditation and some church,” she replies. “We have some very beautiful dreamy spaces, and we laugh at each other, too. There’s so much to celebrate and there’s so much covered. I’m really happy for all of the influences that we collectively bring to the table, and I am really humbled to have so much respect, kindness and just interest from these women, who really are not my peers. I won’t want to call them elders, but they certainly are guiding stars for me.”
In her younger days Wright met both Lincoln and Odetta, the latter in the first Nina Simone tribute at Carnegie Hall. “At one point I was on stage singing with Odetta and Tracy Chapman,” she recalls, “and I realised the power in this little, peculiar woman. She just cracked the building in half with this big thunder. I was young and I was very excited about my body, and I remember her telling me: ‘You need to cover up.’ Those were the only words that she said to me. And I certainly haven’t worn a dress like I wore that night!”
Kidjo can barely contain her enthusiasm for the rapport between the three of them. “We just clicked like we were sisters,” she chirps. “We can look at each other without talking and know exactly what we’re thinking. It’s only usually with my family members that I have that kind of feeling. To be able to experience that in my work with two women like them makes the world worth it for me, I have to tell you.
“It’s not about ego, it’s about how we tell the stories. We all stay on stage. We’re out there for each other. We hold each other. We cry together. We laugh together.”
As a child Kidjo wanted to be either a human rights lawyer or a surgeon, and then she realised she could more or less combine the two thanks to the effect of her singing her songs. She says that she, Reeves and Wright are lucky to be able to concentrate on their music and escape the worst excesses of the marketing machine. “We’re not going to get naked and get sexy and put some stupid short dress on so that you can just see that we are women,” she declares. “We are women in every way without showing our bodies.”