AkaBella
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AkaBella

Martinez, California, United States

Martinez, California, United States
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by Bryan Osper

The human voice is a most spiritual and mysterious force. The first instrument of expression in the history of our species has always been the means of our deepest forms of communication; be it with each other, between a human and the Earth, or through a song which is sung as a message to the gods.

On a musical level, the power of a beautifully realized harmony and the strength that lies in the manipulation of our most natural and unique instrument is undeniable. Always moving, it is at times overwhelming.

The five ladies of AkaBella are experienced in the exploitation of this truth: that the human voice just might be the most powerful instrument on the planet; as is evidenced in the recordings presented on their debut EP, The Beltane Sessions.

The album was recorded over a two-night span at the Arcata Playhouse in late April of 2009 (hence the reference to the “Beltane,” an ancient Gaelic festival observed at the beginning of May). The girls performed the same songs both nights to a hushed (though enraptured) audience, with slight variances, and later chose the best renditions for inclusion. The result is a musical joyride through the ages; a cross-cultural journey of spiritual and literal expression presented through the purity of five female voices in harmony.

Evidenced within is each of the girls’ personal connections with various traditional and contemporary songs from many different cultures, many of them sacred, but a few of them playful, somber, even lustful. There is a type of spirituality evident in this music that unfortunately seems to be lost in most contemporary popular music. All comparisons to traditional a capella spiritual singing aside, the girls’ respect for the sacred essence within the context of these songs is clear.

The AkaBella girls are very serious about their music and they have all had individual experiences in studying music for different lengths of time, through different focuses and with different degrees of intensity.

Verena Reece, for instance, has probably had the most experience studying certain types of traditional African music, including traditional Zimbabwean and West African music, and is therefore a crucial element to the presentation of tracks such as “Monono/Bukatiende," “Yemaya” and “Wolambo."

“Wolambo” is an homage to the keepers of the musical flame of ancient West African musical traditions known as djalis, one of whom has a close connection to much of the West African music that has been played in this town over the last 10 years.

While most of the songs included on this disk are the girls’ arrangements of traditional songs from around the world, there are two original tracks: Nola Pierce’s “Blackberry Wine” and Melody Walker’s “12-Bella,” the latter of which was the first original sung by the group and a song that has become a sort of theme song for the ladies who conceived it.

“12-Bella” speaks of the rhythms of the universe and the philosophy of the inevitable relationship of “3” against “4." Here this idea is expressed through the poly-rhythmic dimensions of a 12/8 time signature and the imagery of the breakdown of all things “12” in our world, including the relationship of “three months to each season/four seasons in a year/how loud does the goddess have to whisper in your ear?” and their own analogy of the dichotomy of female/male relations. Profound stuff. Not to mention the harmonies and their execution on this track are spine-chillingly deep and powerful.

While there are many tracks that borrow from the rich heritage of the African Diaspora, a few trace the eastern European tradition (with harmonies so rich and complex that there is not room here to analyze them) and there is even a traditional Japanese song included on the album, as well as a couple of traditional American gospel tunes.

Lorenza Simmons brings us a chilling version of “Soon I Will Be Done,” a lament about the end of one’s life and the string of endless troubles that come with it, and the ascent into the after-life. It's hard to listen to this track with dry eyes, especially when it comes to Nola’s verse, to which she brings a bluesy soulfulness that reaches right to the heart of the song and strips it down painfully yet blissfully. When it comes to singing the blues, there are many things that you can’t learn from studying traditional vocal techniques. This is to be expected in a music that is often sung by common people with no musical training, and Nola has certainly “unlearned” herself some deep bluesy rootsiness that never fails to leave me dripping with musical ecstasy.

At the end of the album Nola leaves us with a musical treat too sweet to spoil by telling about it here, suffice it to say that it is a classic tune by one of the most popular singers of all time, which has of course been stripped down and re-imagined through the potent vision of these five gifted women.

These goddesses are whispering, and I’m listening.
- North Coast Journal


AkaBella is striving to be truly worldwide, their repertoire now includes songs from five of the seven continents.
"We sing songs from almost every continent, we don't do anything from Australia or Antarctica yet. So, we've been trying to think of an Australian songs to do," AkaBella member Melody Walker said, "As for Anarctican tunes, we may be out of luck."
As the bands name suggests, the group sings in the style of a cappella, which for the uninformed simply means without instrumental accompaniment.
It takes a strong voice to perform without instruments to rely on. Fortunately, AkaBella is made up of five strong voices.
Nola Pierce, Verena Reece, Lorenza Simmons, Lauren Smith and Walker all met in HSU's music department and formed the group after finding common grounds in the members' love of folk music of all cultures.
"I know it sounds cheesy, but we really do love all the songs we sing," Walker said. "Each style has its fun points and its difficulties."
According to the groups press release the name AkaBella isn't simply a play on a cappella though, "AkaBella can alternatively be read A.K.A. Bella: 'Also Known As Beautiful.'"
The singing quintet is focused on exploring beauty in all its forms and specifically works to help empower women everywhere to realize "their own beauty outside the media's body-image cage."
This is what they hope to do when they perform at the third annual Northern California Women's Music Festival on Sunday in Mendocino.
The festival is listed as a "celebration of women's music, comedy, crafts, teachers, activities and food."
This fits well into what AkaBella is all about.
"This group has been a conduit for such amazing female energy that it seems like we want to share that," Walker said. "We have seen women and girls react to our energy so positively and that just fuels us to keep on doing it."
The members of AkaBella have individually performed at many of the local music festivals including Reggae on the River, Earthdance, the Benbow Summer Arts and Music Festival and the Humboldt Folklife Festival.
They all also manage to keep busy working with many different groups in the area. Always keeping side projects so they can experience all the different aspects music has to offer them.
Simmons performs with the reggae band Massagana, Smith performs with WoMama, Walker and Reece play samba music along with Bloco Firmeza and Pierce sings with the FreeLove Circus.
Many of the songs that AkaBella performs are spiritual in nature but the groups doesn't try to limit the way that the music is expressed and how it can be interpreted.
"We each have our own spiritual feelings and we experience the songs in different ways. We try to be sensitive to each other's experiences of the songs as well as the cultural significance," Walker said. "Most importantly, we aim to keep our intentions pure and simple: we are just sharing music."
Sharing music and the love of music is what AkaBella is all about. They have traveled the world to increase their versatility and knowledge of other cultures in hopes of spreading the music farther.
"We hope each person who hears us leaves with a smile on their face and a song in their heart." - Times-Standard



As a new season gets underway for the Fortuna Concert Series it signals that Summer is nearly over. But with the cooler, wetter weather comes the promise of entertainment once a month at the Fortuna Monday Club from September through May 2010.

To send off the 2009-2010 season in a positive direction, a vocal ensemble by the name of AkaBella brings a wide range of music from the far reaches of the planet to the Fortuna stage in the Opening Gala this Saturday, Sept. 12.

The traditional gala champagne reception gets underway at 7:15 p.m. before the concert, with the entertainment starting at 8 p.m. at the Fortuna Monday Club, 610 Main Street in Fortuna. Tickets for the opening night gala are $12 for all seats.

AkaBella member Melody Walker explains that their name comes from the word, a cappella, a musical term meaning without instrumental accompaniment. In this case, this particular a cappella ensemble consists of five voices, or five young women who came together at Humboldt State University taking music classes. According to Walker, the five formed the group after discovering a common ground in their love of folk music of all cultures. The individuals that make up AkaBella include Nola Pierce, Verena Reece, Lorenza Simmons, Lauren Smith and Melody Walker.

Walker used the self-styled term, 'global vocals' to describe what the group does, “as it's essentially world-fusion a cappella,” she said.

Walker explained that the five were interested in exploring vocal styles other than what is traditionally offered in a university curriculum that includes classical, madrigal and jazz.

She said that they all been singing in various groups that included everything from reggae to punk, as well as folk traditions. “So eventually we were drawn together to try and do a fusion of all those influences,” she said.

According to Walker, they were inspired by other all-female vocal groups like Zap Mama, Sweet Honey in the Rock and Kitka, and enjoyed sharing what they knew with others and with children. “We love to perform in the local schools and expose the kids to songs and rhythms they may not have ever heard before,” Walker added.

To explain the global reach of AkaBella, members have studied the music of Brazil, Cuba, Zimbabwe and India, Ireland, Japan and Europe.

Walker said that, with member Verena Reece, they studied briefly at various world music schools including the Blue Tribe School of African Music and Dance in Albuquerque, and the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. Always wanting to enrich their repertoire, Walker said that the group's ambition is to tour the world, “learning songs everywhere we may go.”

And what does the future hold for AkaBella? Walker said that the quintet of voices is planning a cross-country research and performance tour for next summer as part of their new non-profit program, SongCorps.

”SongCorps is a project of the Ink People Center for the Arts in Eureka, and its mission is to promote multicultural vocal music locally and internationally. The cross-country tour will be a chance for AkaBella to delve deeper into traditional American music to eventually bring it to a global audience,” Walker explained.

Also, their new CD will be out in mid-October, but they will be accepting pre-orders at the Fortuna concert this Saturday.

Gala tickets are available at: Green's Fortuna Pharmacy in Fortuna; Fortuna Music Mart in Fortuna and Eureka; Becker's Insurance Agency in Ferndale; Berliner's Cornucopia in Eureka; and at the door.

Season tickets are available only by mail or at the door. Season tickets cannot be purchased at the outlet locations. Call 768-3118 for season ticket information. For general information, call 682-6092, or email fortunaconcert@live.com.


A quintet of artfully blended voices grace the stage at the first Fortuna Concert Series of the season. The members of AkaBella include Nola Pierce, Verena Reece, Lorenza Simmons, Lauren Smith and Melody Walker. - Humboldt Beacon


Discography

AkaBella EP - 2008
The Beltane Sessions - 2009

Photos

Bio

Not just another a cappella cover band...

AkaBella grooves. Soulful, ancient melodies float above intricate rhythmic textures in breathtaking five-part harmony. Elements of Reggae, Hip-Hop, R&B and Jazz meld with African, Balkan and Indian vocal styles to become a singular sound unto itself. Though the women of AkaBella have music degrees and intrepid travels under their belt, it is their synergistic style and energetic performances that have captured the hearts of their fans and led them to share the stage with artists like Toubab Krewe and Vieux Farka Toure. Whether or not you believe in magic, there is something that happens when these five women gather in harmony: it is enchanting. They are gracefully raw and ecstatically reverent, refusing to be pigeonholed by genre, gender or denomination. AkaBella moves people with their voices and audiences emerge dancing, clapping and singing along.

2009 has been a big year for AkaBella. We recorded and released our first full-length album The Beltane Sessions, and we started SongCorps, a non-profit program of the Ink People Center for the Arts, which will expand our research and educational outreach goals. We also were invited to play at both the Oregon Country Fair and California WorldFest, and competed in the Harmony Sweepstakes a cappella competition in San Francisco exposing us to audiences of thousands. AkaBella is currently booking our 2010 US research and performance tour.

Check out the new CD "The Beltane Sessions" on CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/akabella