Lady sings the Blues

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

Gilbert got married when she was 18, moved to Hawaii to live with her husband, and the two had a child. But she was away from Texas for only 18 months; she missed her family too much. She would be divorced by the time she was 21. When she came back to Dallas, she bounced around from junior college to junior college, then finally enrolled at Southern Methodist University. She graduated with a degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing.

Gilbert decided she wanted to be a fiction writer, never thinking she'd pursue a career in music. She submitted a collection of short stories to an agent, who told her that young writers would do better trying to sell a novel. If anything, she figured maybe she'd become a songwriter. Eventually, she'd take temp jobs and finally end up working at a bank, hating every second of the mundane career treadmill. The only thing that provided her any solace was the fact that she'd recorded a few demos. But even that was frustrating, as she could never find anyone compatible to work with.

That would change in 1995, when she found herself going to Onasale, a Deep Ellum art gallery run by her cousin. There, Gilbert discovered a burgeoning, underground music scene full of aspiring hip-hop musicians and soul singers who turned the gallery into a weekend boho refuge. Ty Macklin of Shabazz 3 was there. So, too, were Badu, who had performed with Gilbert in a musical at the South Dallas Cultural Center, and the Los Angeles-born Chinwah. Badu and Chinwah were old friends who'd been writing and performing together for almost a decade. They had met at KNON-FM when both were in local hip-hop acts--Chinwah in DK Mack (which released an album in 1988), Badu as part of the duo Suga and Spice. Badu even appeared on Chinwah's 1995 self-titled, self-released gospel record, and he would go on to co-write two songs on Badu's 1997 platinum-selling debut Baduizm, "Rimshot" and "Certainly." He is also working with Badu on her second studio album.

Chinwah, who can play more instruments than an orchestra, says the very first time he heard Gilbert sing, he was, quite simply, astonished. "I had never heard a female artist sing with that much soul and depth and musicality," he recalls. "I had to work with her."

Within 24 hours of first meeting, they had written their first song together, "The Meeting," which would end up four years later on Little Lost Girls Blues. Indeed, it's the album's highlight, from-the-gut jazz as performed by a woman who had never listened to Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan before Badu encouraged her to begin scatting during their early days at the gallery. "The Meeting" is a revelation, morphing into nothing but sheer vibe the longer it plays. Every vowel drips with transcendent feeling until the lyrics become a moot point. The song reveals everything on the surface, but gives you even more just beneath the burnished veneer.

By 1996, Badu had gotten her record deal with Universal and, as she'd always promised, took a few friends along for the ride. Gilbert, now known as N'Dambi (or butterfly), was one of them. By 1997, she was Badu's regular backup singer, going on a road that would take a girl from Oak Cliff all over the world, singing behind the woman who was going to save R&B from the faceless, voiceless assembly-line divas. She became known as "The Girl with the Afro," even had her own groupies, but never stopped recording her own music with Chinwah. Gilbert appears on Badu's 1997 Live album, where Badu thanks her for being "the reason why I sing." The two remain the closest of friends.

Yet Gilbert's association with Badu didn't lead to her own deal with Universal or Kedar Massenburg, who signed Badu to his Universal imprint. Not that she's at all disappointed, though she wouldn't mind making Massenburg regret his decision not to sign her. And to their credit, Gilbert and manager Odis Johnson will not put a sticker on Little Lost Girls Blues advertising N'Dambi as Badu's backup singer. They will let the disc, which is available at smaller local record stores and over the Internet (www.cheekyi.com), stand on its own merits.

"I know that Erykah wants to do so much for so many people, but she has so many things to do, how do you find time to really sit down and say, 'OK, now I'm going to start this label and make things happen for the whole community of hopefuls'?" Gilbert says, referring to Badu's desire to start her own imprint through Universal. "She's definitely going to start her own label, and I wanted to wait on that. But at the same time, I felt comfortable enough with what I was doing and comfortable enough in myself to start my own thing.

"I had gotten a little frustrated with the whole major music industry, because I would send my demos to people, and they would listen to it and the first thing they would say was, 'Well, what does she look like?' Immediately they thought, because my voice was so big and so round, that I was this big, big woman. Then after they would see what I looked like, they would say, 'That's good, but she needs to sing something that sounds more like something else.' That was frustrating for me, because I didn't want to sound like anyone else. So I decided it would be best for me to start my own label, because I wanted to hear me, and I thought at least 10 other people would want to hear me."

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