ListN Up: Alicia Waller (April 10, 2020)

ListN Up is a series of weekly artist-curated playlists. Born from a desire to keep artists sharing and connected during times of isolation, ListN Up is sponsored by American Composers Forum/innova Recordings, with new releases every Friday on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN.

Alicia Waller is an American soprano, vocalist, songwriter, and bandleader who seeks to spread the joy of singing through inventive performances that integrate a range of diverse musical traditions. With a voice that has been hailed as “splendid and luminous,” as well as “flexible and virtuosic,” to hear her is to encounter an incredibly versatile musician with an insatiable appetite for artistic exploration. In February 2020, Waller released her debut E.P. Some Hidden Treasure, as frontwoman of Alicia Waller & The Excursion. The original songs, which are a fusion of American jazz and soul, were released on innova Recordings, the label of the American Composers Forum. The artist’s work and process were recently featured in the documentary short, What Moves You, by SkyHour.  

My artistic world is very much defined by an interest in identity and the search for the various ways in which collective identity—culture—makes itself known through music. This global fascination of mine is pretty unbridled, recognizing precious few geographical boundaries. It extends to as many peoples and vernacular music forms as I can manage to encounter. Yet, even more recently, I cannot help but notice my curiosity shifting inward towards home, family, and self. But this reflection is not as insular as it might seem. As I look toward the self, I find that I am in fact searching for something much larger, and deeper—ancestral reconnection.

Ancestral reconnection for me takes the form of rediscovering the African Diaspora through sound. I am nursing a desire to concretize, for my own understanding, the genetic code that the Diaspora has imprinted upon all of her descendants around the world. I am curious about the things that we Afro peoples remember, and the ways that we represent our remembering in our musics. 

This, then, describes the thematic scope of this playlist. I am including some of the musical forms, songs, and places that are shaping the early stages of my rediscovery period. I invite you to join me in listening to music from Cape Verde, Brazil, the U.S. and U.K., and Cuba.

Her Arrival by Christian Scott

I was only recently introduced to the music of Christian Scott, which is surprising as he’s been pretty prolifically active. Scott practices what he calls “stretch music” with his ensemble, which is meant to encapsulate their intentionality with “stretching” outside and beyond traditional jazz perimeters. This number is the first track on his most recent album, Ancestral Recall, where Scott endeavors on his own ancestral reconnection. I find its open harmonies, enveloping percussion, and soaring trumpet thrilling; and could think of no better way than this to open the playlist.

Water No Get Enemy by Fela Kuti

I don’t think it’s possible to propose a discussion around the music of the African Diaspora without mentioning the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist, Fela Kuti. I’ve been gravitating to the music of Kuti for the past couple of years. I was, and continue to be, struck by the cross-Atlantic connection that he articulated so stunningly across all of his work. He took the music making that was happening stateside in the U.S. in funk and jazz and returned it home to Africa, becoming the father of Afrobeat.

Soul by Alicia Waller & The Excursion

This is the first of my own selections that I am sharing on this playlist.Soul” is intended precisely as its title describes it, soul music. When describing this song in live performance, I often lean on the lyrical content, but its musical aim is what truly defines it. The song was written to articulate three distinct periods in Black American music: the blues, funk, and hip-hop. Each musical shift aligns itself to the evolving emotions of the narrator, whereby she seduces, refuses, and finally serenades her partner. 

Cucala by Celia Cruz

It is no secret that I have a great love for the Spanish language, and if it was a secret, then I have no problem with exposing this essential truth. By way of my continual journey to discovering the language, I have found myself seeking out the musical cultures of the Spanish-speaking world. While I have not been to Cuba, I do hope to visit one day to get the spirit of Afro-Cuban music in my bones. Every time I hear its rhythms, I hear something that I do not know but somehow remember. The rhythmic translation of the Diaspora onto Cuba’s shores is so striking to me, and there is none better to exemplify this of Salsa than the Queen herself, Celia Cruz.

Members Don’t Git Weary by Max Roach feat. Andy Bey

I had never really listened to a spiritual before arriving to music conservatory. I’d heard them in movies and school-assigned documentaries, but I had never listened closely. When I finally did, I loved the form immediately and wanted nothing more than to be a part of its great tradition. The first time I heard Max Roach’s “Members Don’t Git Weary,” I recognized it immediately as a spiritual—that familiar modality, the stretch of time upon rhythm and melody, and that story—the story that struggling folk always tell of the better days to come:

O, I’m going to march with the tallest angel
O, yes, march with the tallest angel
O, yes, march with the tallest angel
When my work is done

Members, don’t get weary
Members, don’t get weary,

for the work’s ‘mos’ done

The brilliance of Roach’s foresight to combine spiritual and jazz is a revelation to me.  It is essential listening for attaining any sort of understanding of Black music in the United States.

Sodade by Cesária Évora

I was introduced to this recording in the best way for one to be introduced to a great song, by recommendation. I had been delving pretty deeply into Portuguese music at the time and took to chatting with as many Portuguese people as I could about their music and culture. One kind soul directed me beyond Portugal to Cape Verde, telling me of “one of the most beautiful voices” I’d ever hear. I do not speak Portuguese exceptionally well, but I instantly recognized “sodade” as “saudade,” the Portuguese word that all Portuguese speakers hold closely to their hearts and means something like bittersweet longing, or nostalgia. It was fitting to me that saudade be interpreted and made anew via the heart and voice of the magnificent Cesária Évora.

Zé do Caroço by Leci Brandão

This is one of the first recordings I ever made upon stepping outside of classical music. I’d come across a beautiful rendition of Leci Brandão’s “Zé do Caroço” by Seu Jorge. Like a good student, I translated the text to learn more about the song. I was floored. It told of a young man called Zé in a Brazilian favela who audaciously encouraged his community to empower themselves with knowledge and education. The song says that Zé bota a boca no mundo, meaning “he put his mouth out to the world.” I thought this phrase was one of the most beautiful descriptions of courage that I’d ever seen, and it reminded me of the civil rights leaders that I knew about in my country and others around the world. Hearing this song marked the beginning of my desire to investigate and share parallel human stories by singing songs about them.

Money Is King by Leyla McCalla

Of all of the songs on this playlist, selecting for Hatian-American cellist and singer-songwriter Leyla McCalla was hard to do because I am a fan. There is something about her vocal phrasing that I find extraordinarily unique, which is often the case when listening to singers who are also gifted instrumentalists—they always arrive with a secret sauce. To me, McCalla seems to be concerned with substance foremost in her music making. She’s always telling stories. In this song, she’s relentless on the subject of capitalism all while strumming a friendly tune on her banjo, saying:

If a man has money today
People don’t care if he has kokobe
He can commit murder and get off free
Live in the governor’s company
But if you are poor people tell you “Shoo!”
A dog is better than you.

Tive Razão by Seu Jorge

I came to this song on a midnight bus ride between Washington, D.C. and New York about ten years ago. I was in college at the time and dreaming of living in Manhattan. My friend handed me her iPod so that I could discover new music while she slept, and recommended that I try Jorge’s album, Cru. “Tive Razão” (I Was Right) is the first selection on the album. I listened to it nonstop from the NJ Turnpike on down to H Street without a clue to what he was saying—but thrilled by how he said it. There are just some artists that make you excited about being an artist and creating. Jorge is one of those artists for me. His lyrics are witty and meaningful, his guitar playing mastered, and the baritone of his voice stunning and expressive. May you enjoy him as much as I do.

Across 110th Street (Demo Version) by Bobby Womack

I don’t much care for being asked about my musical influences. Of course, the question is par for the course in being an artist, but I find it to be an almost impossible inquiry. My thoughts are ever-changing and influences so entrenched that it’s sometimes hard to remember which artist or artistic discipline lent me what, and when. But I do remember Bobby Womack. He happens to be my mother’s favorite singer, so I listened to him a lot growing up. There was one particular disc she played often, a compilation of his best songs. It included the studio recording of “Across 110th Street,” and the demo version. The studio release is perfectly executed. His vocal performance is incredible and the disco era orchestration magnificent. But I never could quite get past the demo. It prioritizes everything that I most love about music—noisy harmonic and rhythmic tension, an achingly compelling storyline, and singing that is as beautiful as it is fearless. This recording is one of my favorite auditory experiences of all time. It is a service to the legacy of Black music, culture, and storytelling in the U.S.

Black Man In A White World by Michael Kiwanuka

This is a song for dancing. Yet, I only ever dance to it in private because to dance to it in public is disquieting, and dangerous. It is a song that is easily misunderstood as divisive, but it is not. It is simply painfully honest in its reference to power dynamics in our post-colonial world. When I listen to it, I cannot help but hear it as a celebration of 150 years of Black music—boasting call-and-response and spiritual-esque lamentations, and adding a dash of funk and R&B to the mix. It’s not often that I walk away from a song thinking so adamantly about its production value, but here British artist Michael Kiwanuka expertly executes the instrumentalizing of production, allowing the song to dance between acoustic and studio performances. It’s breathtaking, and I’ve only gotten to the instrumentation. Lyrically, Kiwanuka lays bear the realities of Black manhood, saying:

I’ve been low, I’ve been high
I’ve been sold all my lies
I’ve got nothing left to play
I’ve got nothing left to say

I’m in love, but I’m still sad
I’ve found peace, but I’m not glad
All my night and all my days
I’ve been trying to run away

I’ve lost everything I had
But I’m not angry
I’m not mad

Oh it’s alright
I’m nobody
I’ve got something on my mind
Making me sad
Making mad
Oh it’s alright

Want more from Alicia Waller?

Learn more about her debut EP Some Hidden Treasure via innova Recordings.