October 1, 2022

Niyonu nurtures the spirit | New Haven Independent


Niyonu Spann had his eyes closed, his hands stretched out towards the audience. The gesture reflected the music swirling around her. In all of this there was weight and desire, but also strength and freedom. It was the intoxicating sound of an experienced hand flying into uncharted territory, as on Friday night at the State House, Spann, a musician with a decades-long career, launched new music with a new ensemble, digging ever deeper and expanding musical comedy. and spiritual ideas that had fueled her all her life. Backed by a small choir of singers – Foluke Bennett, Paul Bryant Hudson, Ingrid Lakey, Cindy Mizell and Diane Spann – plus a band of John F. Adams on keys, Carl Carter on bass, Chris Wright on drums and Eric Rey on conga, Spann created music of deep grooves, rich harmonies and poetic lyrics that spoke to the mind. Mizell delighted the audience with a steamy version of Marvin Gaye What’s going on?”

Philadelphia-based Niyonu came to State House to officially release her latest album, spiritual fuel, released in 2021 (and boasting a roster of New Haven musical talent including Paul Bryant Hudson, Jeremiah Fuller and Dylan McDonnell, plus album art by Kwadwo Adae). But she was also there to launch the Nuyoni Singers, a hugely talented group that took the songs of Spirit Fuel and brought them to heartbreaking and liberating life.

We’re going through an interesting time,” Spann said near the start of his first set. Our very first rehearsal with Nuyoni was the first week of March 2020. And literally, it was the last rehearsal we had in person in over two years. That meant the State House show was our first time playing live. This was greeted with a round of applause.

It’s time for us to remember and tell our stories,” Spann added.

Spann’s own story begins in Newark, NJ, during the uprisings of the late 1960s, faced with burning buildings and crumbling neighborhoods,” his biography officially reads. Its environment fueled my activist-artist spirit. I was raised in a family where music and social justice carried equal weight. My sister, Diane and I would run to the piano after school. My father and his father, both named Roosevelt, were jazz guitarists and pianists. I loved walking to grandpa’s house, full of sweets and sheet music. Maman (Fredretha) was a favorite soloist in Jersey gospel circles while loving European classical music, especially opera. As a family, music oozed out of our pores, but discussions of social justice movements loomed large around the dinner table.

She found a spiritual home at church and an artistic orientation at an arts high school, where I let my creativity express itself through my pen, my piano and above all my voice. She learned from community elders – black Muslims, nationalists and other everyday street educators. It was a moment of realization. » Born Denis, I found myself obliged to take a new name. I wanted it to reflect my new commitments and my spiritual depth. As I declared my devotion to the Great Spirit (then I would have said, God”) and for the liberation of my people, I was given the name Niyonu (the compassionate one).

She studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music but also found that I couldn’t separate my music from my spirituality or my commitment to abolishing systems that devalue some while uplifting others. The works of great musical influences burned in my soul: Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack, Earth, Wind & Fire as did writers and poets: Nikki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe.

After graduating from Oberlin, she became a high school music teacher. In 1994, she founded Tribe 1, a group that sang original music with complex harmonies and rich percussion. She released two albums in 1998, one with Tribe 1 and one under her own name. Tribe 1 toured the United States and once in Nicaragua for 23 years, playing one last sold-out gig in Philadelphia in 2019. Nuyoni formed in early 2020. Thanks to Covid, it just had to wait some more two years before going on stage.

But first, poet Tai Amri Spann-Ryan – Niyonu’s son – performed a short and punchy opening set, reading his book of poems, Beautiful Ashe. The poems spoke movingly about the hardships of being Black in America and finding the strength to face those hardships by connecting to ancestral spirituality.

The Nuyoni Singers then quickly took the stage, hitting the crowd with the stunning opener The thrust. Participating in the slow, almost marshy rhythms and vocals of funk and neo-soul, the song set the tone for both sets of music to follow. As the lyrics spoke of an inward spiritual journey, an exploration of self and ancestry, and a push toward creating a better future, the singers’ voices blended into a whirlwind of vertiginous and flexible harmonies. The band could step up to the dance beat whenever they wanted, as they frequently did.

But the singers could also create dense soundscapes with their vocals, setting up complex harmonies, ping-pong vocal lines, throaty, sticky calls and responses, over heartbreaking band rhythms that kept time and provided a counterpoint. Along the way, Niyonu treated the audience to the world premiere of his latest video, Stuck. Paul Bryant Hudson delivered an intimate and passionate version of his original song, John.” Mizell gave the audience a raunchy take on Marvin Gaye. Two full sets of music passed in the blink of an eye, and the band bowed to rapturous applause, from an entertained — and fed — audience.