Soul Alone

The woman sitting comfortably in the uncomfortable chair doesn't have to do anything; she dresses up the office just by being in it. Shrink-wrapped in denim, N'Dambi looks like a star, wearing the casual elegance of the girl-next-door who just happens to be very rich or very famous. She's not either of those things, but she should be, and would be if we lived in a world that made sense instead of dollars.

In that world, fans would stop her in the street, asking her if she's who they think she is, asking for photographs and autographs, maybe just a hug and a smile. She wouldn't be sitting here talking about her new album, the fantastic, double-disc Tunin Up & Cosignin, a mix of old songs done in a new way and new songs that sound timeless. Too many people would want a piece of her time. She definitely wouldn't be here with only her manager-partner, Odis Johnson, in tow. There would be an entourage--assistants, publicists, stylists, friends, family.

Yet here she is, because this is your flight path when you're flying just below the radar. You pack into a 15-passenger van and make it happen for yourself, by yourself, talking to anyone who will listen, singing to anyone who cares. It's especially true for R&B performers like N'Dambi, when setting up shows is a jigsaw puzzle assembled by people who shouldn't have their hands on the pieces. As N'Dambi says, a start-up rock band may be able to luck into a few opening dates with a bigger act, catch a few breaks, but a soul singer rarely comes across such opportunities, not until it's too late.

"Everything is monitored by what's your name, who you're associated with and how can they make their money," she says. "They don't want another female opening, or there's too much competition, two males can't open on the same show--it's catty stuff that gets in the way of why you don't find out about the real good R&B performers until they're dead and gone. They're gone into obscurity, and then you start talking about Shuggie Otis and people like that, who did some good music."

She won't have to wait quite so long. At least you'd hope not. Already, she's beginning to escape the shadows, slowly, surely moving into the spotlight. Maybe you've seen N'Dambi before, in videos, on television shows, in the pages of Vibe and Elle and Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and Billboard or one of the other dozen magazines in which glossy photos and glowing write-ups of her have appeared. But you probably don't really know who she is yet, even if you've seen the pictures and read the words. She's not the next Macy Gray or Alicia Keys or Lauryn Hill or Jill Scott or any of the other new soul singers with whom journalists and record company execs seem determined to compare and contrast her. She's the first N'Dambi.

"We're all doing different things, but because people don't really have a good gauge of what soul and R&B music is, and they want to call it 'neo-classic soul,' and they have to build a category for you to make your music in, then we all get lumped in together," she explains. "I don't think Alicia Keys does anything like what Jill Scott does or anything like Macy Gray. They're all different kinds of artists. But they're all in one category."

More important than any of those recommended-if-you-like comparisons, N'Dambi (born Chonita Gillespie) is from right here, born and raised in Dallas. Grew up near South Oak Cliff High School. Was in the choir at Oak Cliff Baptist Church, where her father was a minister. Went to high school at the business magnet, even though she was a skilled enough piano player to go to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts. Graduated from Southern Methodist University with an English degree.

Here's why you probably don't know any of that yet: Instead of waiting for a record label to discover her, N'Dambi discovered herself, releasing her debut album, 1999's Little Lost Girls Blues, on Cheeky-i Productions, the label she started with Johnson. She went out on the road, putting herself and her songs in front of anyone who'd listen. When she was done, N'Dambi had sold around 70,000 copies of Little Lost Girls Blues, and her face turned up in more magazines than subscription cards or free AOL software.

But in Dallas, her hometown, this beautiful, talented, independent woman is virtually anonymous; the only "Independent Women" you're likely to hear on local R&B radio is the song by Destiny's Child. You won't hear the singer with a voice floating like smoke over the nightclub where soul, jazz and gospel get together after hours, singing blue notes above the choir, putting the sultry rhythm and been-there blues back into R&B. Which is a shame. Tunin Up & Cosignin is a late-night jam session with Nina Simone at the microphone and Stevie Wonder behind the keyboards (see: "Lonely Woman/Eva's Song," which opens up disc two); it contains 18 examples of a young woman finding her own way down a very old path. It deserves, demands, to be heard by everyone with ears and a soul. Dallas radio, typically, isn't hearing any of it.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain