Lady sings the Blues

Chonita "N'Dambi" Gilbert is a back-up singer no more

The girl--and that's what she looks like, no older than 18--sitting on the couch bears little resemblance to the 29-year-old woman in the publicity photo below. For a second, the mind considers that they're not even the same person, that perhaps this is some sort of elaborate, ha-ha put-on.

The woman in the photo is all pout and luster, a star no one knows. But this girl sitting here--she's so meek, so quiet, hidden behind black-rimmed glasses and braided hair and clothes that look thrown on at the last minute. Chonita Gilbert barely raises her voice, speaks in such hushed tones that a tape recorder perched inches away from her struggles to pick up what she says.

No way is this the same woman heard on Little Lost Girls Blues, the debut CD by N'Dambi. No way is she capable of those big, round, deep notes that ride on the backs of ghosts named Ella and Chaka. It seems so inconceivable, this tiny woman responsible for such an enormous, engulfing sound--the jazz singer masquerading as soul sister, a woman who speaks R&B but makes it all come out sounding very Blue Note, circa 1954.

Just as it's impossible to believe this is the same woman who, for the past two years, has been by Erykah Badu's side on stage, sporting that enormous Afro and aiming those c'mon-c'mon-baby teases at the male members of the audience.

"That's me," says Chonita "N'Dambi" Gilbert, almost sheepishly. Her smile isn't quite as small as the rest of her.

Gilbert has one of those irresistible stories, one too good to be true, so, of course, it is. Girl grows up in church, daughter of a preacher and a missionary, never thinks about singing for a living, takes day jobs she hates, then one day becomes back-up singer to a burgeoning platinum act (and--oh, yes--old friend) and finally decides to go it on her own, without platinum friend's help.

Gilbert's debut CD wasn't even meant to be an official release, merely a shop-around demo. Only it was too good to stick on a shelf somewhere, too good to leave solely in the hands of major-label talent scouts too deaf and dumb to sign a good thing when they hear it. So Gilbert and her boyfriend-turned-manager started their own label, Cheeky-I, and turned a demo into The Real Thing--an album so flawlessly funk-bop that Little Lost Girls Blues sounds as though it were made for a million bucks by old pros. Yet it was made for next to nothing, recorded and performed solely by Gilbert and collaborator Madukwu Chinwah, perhaps one of the finest--and certainly among the least known--musicians in Dallas.

The result is something near perfect--uplifting, soul-searching, rafter-raising, heartbreaking R&B-jazz-pop-etc. as performed by a woman who spent her childhood struggling to get heard over the rest of the choir. Little Lost Girls Blues, which ranges from acoustic-guitar-and-vocals miniatures to full-out made-for-the-big-rooms pop songs, is a shoestring-budget mini-masterpiece, every instrument recorded by Chinwah in his bedroom studio and every vocal laid down by Gilbert on damned near the first take.

Never does the record feel as though it were done on the cheap, the product of cut corners. It's good enough not to judge on a curve: Yeah, it's top-notch, for a local demo. The album is just too big for that...and too small as well, too intimate; think Chaka Khan covering Anita Baker before Baker sold (out) her soul to pop. Chinwah hits it out of the park when he describes Gilbert's as "the other side of feminine vocals," deep, husky, alluring, but never at the risk of getting too schmaltzy, too pretty.

Gilbert grew up near South Oak Cliff High School, the daughter of a preacher (her father had a pulpit at Oak Cliff Baptist Church) and a missionary (her mother has since been ordained). She spent what seems like her entire childhood in the church choir, from age 2 on. "I didn't know that it was anything special to sing," she says now. "I thought everybody sang." Hers was a household filled with the sounds of gospel and country, and her favorite singers became Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle. She would never--never--listen to jazz as a child, and discovered R&B and soul only when her parents told her not to listen to such music.

"I remember one Christmas we were getting ready to go visit my grandmother in Teague, Texas," she recalls. "I decided I would get in the car early and set the station on K104 and turn it down low on the back speaker, so that when we got on the ride, I could listen to it without anyone knowing. Every time I heard a song, I would remember the music. I may not know all the words, but I always remembered the music. I knew I liked it when it was wrong."

Gilbert wanted to attend Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. She even got in, though as a piano player--she was something of a prodigy, having played the instrument since she was 6. But her mother wouldn't allow Chonita to attend Arts Magnet, insisting she go to the Business Magnet instead. She could always be an artist, her mother said, but better to have some business skills behind her just in case she made it--or didn't. "I was very sad," she says about not being able to attend Booker T. Washington, where Erika Wright was going to school before she became Erykah Badu.

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