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.

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."

Then she lets out one of those little-girl giggles. Yes, it's hard to believe.

Pulling the Radish
Do not believe everything you read in The New York Times. In its South by Southwest roundup, which appeared last week, Times pop music writer and professional Marilyn Manson sucker-upper Neil Strauss wrote that among the bands that had performed at the conference was Radish, which Strauss said had been "recently terminated" from its deal with PolyGram subsidiary Mercury Records. But the so-called Paper of Record is wrong: Radish is still signed to Mercury. It just doesn't feel like it.

Or, to put it in the words of Radish frontman Ben Kweller: "It's so fucked right now."

Kweller and a label exec both say the band has managed to survive the Universal Music Group-PolyGram merger that has caused the firing of thousands of employees and the dropping of hundreds of bands, including such Dallas-based acts as the tomorrowpeople and Slowpoke. But Kweller says the band might as well be off the label, since "the right hand doesn't know what the left hand's doing anymore." Meaning, the band's pretty damned good second album--originally titled Discount Fireworks, since rechristened Sha Sha because it's more "fun, summery, Zappa-esque"--was originally scheduled to be released this month, but has now been given a release date of the fifth of Nobodyknowswhen.

"It doesn't seem they're so psyched about it," Kweller says, hinting not too subtly that there are other labels interested in signing the band should Mercury choose to release Radish. "I'm not too into Mercury right now. But V2's totally psyched. TVT's totally psyched. We might be leaving Mercury. They've been holding us too long and not moving. I would be so psyched to be with an independently owned record label that still has pull--like V2 or DreamWorks--a label that has money and can promote records to the fullest but isn't part of the corporate chain."

Either way, the record--which is a giant leap forward, the sound of a young man's voice breaking...everything in the room--won't be out anytime soon. It still needs to be mixed, and Kweller is going to excise five songs from the 17 Radish recorded when the band briefly featured ex-UFOFU guitarist Joe Butcher. And to make matters even more difficult, Kweller is leaving the countryside of Greenville for the countryside of Connecticut. In July, Kweller's moving to a farm 15 minutes outside of New Haven to live with his girlfriend, a handbag designer with a successful business of her own. Last Friday's show at Trees will be the band's last local appearance for...well, a very long time.

"We're ready to give everything we have to this record, but after that, I'm gonna do a solo record," Kweller says. I'm not breaking up the band. I'm just growing up. That's all. It's all good, baby. My songs are becoming more me--me and acoustic guitar, me and piano. I'm ready to be Ben Kweller."

And who isn't?

Digital round-up
Sooner or later, we'll get around to reviewing every one of the following CDs, which is not a threat. But you should be aware of some notable area releases that are in your local mom-and-pops now or headed there in the next few days. Most of them are pretty damned good, which only goes to prove my theory that local music is undergoing a secret renaissance. Feel free to use that phrase during conversations with your friends.

Among them are brand-new discs from The Baptist Generals (a five-song self-titled EP on Hot Link Records), Meredith Miller (madami'madam, on Binkey Records and reviewed in this week's Out Here section, page 86), Cornhole (Hornswaggled, also on Hot Link), and ex-Adam's Farmer Jeff Whittington (Twenty-Five Pin Connector, out on Pukka Records America). Doosu will perform April 3 at Trees to celebrate the band's first record in three years, Aqua Vita, out on Aden Holt's One Ton Records.

Centro-matic's new 16-song disc, Navigational, is finally out on Idol Records, as is Mazinga Phaser's four-song EP Counting Breaths, which features one studio track and three live songs (or one really long song). There's also a new disc from an Austin band called HairyApesBMX, which features the likes of Mike Dillon (ex of Billygoat and every other Dallas band that once used a percussionist), Zac Baird (keybs, used to play with cottonmouth, texas and Whitey), J.J. Richards (bassist with Billygoat), and drummer John Speice (also formerly of Whitey). The band's debut, Expatriape, is being released by the Lawrence, Kansas-based V&R Records. HairyApesBMX plays the Curtain Club April 23.

On the compilation front, Jeff Liles and Perla Doherty's label HEIRESS-aesthetic is in the process of handing out freebie copies of the 31-track double disc Static Orange. The collection, split into "passive" and "aggressive" sides, features new and previously released tracks from the likes of Tele, Reed Easterwood, Pleasant Grove, neon girl, Lewis, Orchid, Valve, Buck Jones, and Legendary Crystal Chandelier. KNON-FM (89.3) has also released the second volume of its Texas Blue Radio series, featuring the great Joe Jonas, Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat, R.L. Griffin, Randy McAllister, Cookie McGee, and nine other acts.

Scene, heard
Hagfish plays its final show ever April 2 at Trees, with the Commercials opening. Good-bye, fellas, and good luck.

Send Street Beat your product to rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com

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