Refined Goapele gets 'Even Closer' to reaching goals

Debut album's rerelease shows unique bluesy style

Music: in concert, CDs

April 01, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Before you hear the voice, her name catches your attention: Goapele (Qua-puh-lay).

In Setswana, a South African dialect, it means "to move forward." One listen to the soul singer's impressive debut, Even Closer, and you understand that the name also describes the direction of her music. The artist, refined and picturesque, is not what you may expect. She doesn't really sound like anybody else on the scene right now. Critics have compared her to Nina Simone, Minnie Riperton and Chaka Khan. Those comparisons are fair; but, still, they don't quite fit.

Goapele is bluesy but not in that gutbucket, angst-filled style for which the High Priestess of Soul was known. Her sound is serene and warmly sensual -- not feathery or buoyant like Riperton's music. And although the Bay Area native possesses powerful pipes, they don't boom like Khan's.

Simply put, Goapele, 26, is her own artist crafting her own sound -- organic, earthy grooves awash with a cascading Fender Rhodes and gurgling organ lines, hard-edged beats overlaid with ethereal vocals and layered synths that, at times, feel dreamlike.

"I listen to all types of stuff," says the singer-songwriter, who plays the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday night. "I grew up to Miriam Makeba, Bob Marley, so many others. All that music I grew up on is still relevant today, and I'm hoping to make music that lasts like that."

Even Closer is a beefed-up rerelease of Goapele's independently issued 2002 debut, Closer. The new album, which hit stores in February, features five original songs that weren't on the nine-cut effort. The underground soul star put out Closer on her Skyblaze label, swiftly selling 30,000 copies of it. Earlier this year, Goapele signed a multi-album, joint venture with Columbia Records.

"Independent meant a family label," she says. "It was a very small and limited amount of people working the project. We were maximizing skills. Now with Columbia, there are more resources, international distribution. And that's really important to me."

Working with such little-known producers as Amp Live, the jazz fusion group Soulive and Shaka Ramsay, the dreadlocked beauty born Goapele Mohlabane offers uncluttered productions in which her engaging vocals sparkle and smolder. It's a rich approach she's been honing since childhood.

Goapele's home buzzed with music then: Billie Holiday, Etta James and Stevie Wonder were early favorites. Her mother is Jewish, her father a South African political activist. The two met and married in Nairobi, Kenya.

"What those two cultures faced historically forced my brother and I to be sensitive toward various cultures and social issues," Goapele says. "These issues were not only important, but the focus of our everyday lives. Even our musical tastes were diverse. We listened to Sweet Honey in the Rock, Hugh Masekela, Zulu Spear."

World beat influences aren't prevalent on Even Closer. But elements of soul-jazz and smoky '70s R&B filter through bass-driven, minimally programmed soundscapes.

"For me, live music is really important," Goapele says. "I wanted all the elements -- the programming and the bass, the live keys. I feel the album reflects the live and very produced sides."

The eclectic approach to the music may frustrate some listeners. The woofer-pounding "Ease Your Mind" featuring rapper Pep Love, isn't unlike an uptempo cut found on a Mary J. Blige joint. "Romantic," one of the album's highlights, rides a greasy, funky-backroom groove, bolstered by sharp, high-in-the-mix organ lines. And "Too Much the Same," a floating ballad, sweeps by on effervescent Fender Rhodes notes courtesy of James Hurt.

"The songs just built upon each other," Goapele says of the recording process. "One day, though, I hope to play the piano so that I can better communicate how I want the music to be. I would love to be more of an instrument in production instead of humming the notes I want."

Pushing forward -- it's all in her name.

Goapele plays the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday night at 7:30. Tickets are $20. For more information, visit

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