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Jazz-soul Lisa likely to raise festival finale roof

Kenyan singer-songwriter Lisa Oduor-Noah… “Every musician is a storyteller.”

IN an unusual departure from conventional festival programming, the final concert of the 2023 Canberra International Music Festival is likely to raise the roof of the Fitters’ Workshop in Kingston.

For instead of a line-up of premier classical instrumentalists, this year’s finale will feature two of the hottest properties on the international jazz-soul scene, Kenyan singer-songwriter Lisa Oduor-Noah and Aron Ottignon, NZ-born master of jazz and roots who now works from his Berlin studio, in between collaborations with Caribbean and Afro-beat superstars. 

“It’s more like a pop concert” director Roland Peelman says, with more than a touch of glee at upturning the musical tables.

I caught up with Oduor-Noah by phone to Nairobi and found myself in the hands of a seasoned musical artist who’s shared a stage with Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Beyonce and Pearl Jam and partnered with Blinky Bill, Kato Change, June Gachui, and Sauti Sol.

“Every musician is a storyteller,” she tells me. “We have to connect with people and I try to do this in more intimate performances.

“I’ll be performing some songs from my albums, songs to explain to people what the music of Kenya is, and I’ll be singing in several different languages.”

Oduor-Noah was to come to Australia last year, but became entangled in the backlog of visa applications to enter the country, also encountering scepticism as to whether she was really an artist. 

“You’d only have to Google to find out that I really am,” she says, but all is well now.

“I grew up with the divas, Aretha, Gladys Knight and Mariah Carey,” she says, adding that her parents used to rock her to sleep to Lingala music, a fusion of African rhythms with Latin American influences.

Kenya has 42 to 43 separate tribes, but her mother tongue is Luo, originated from the River Nile region. She speaks English, Swahili and sings in French, but it pleases her that she can understand a lot of what fellow singers from neighbouring countries are saying. 

Oduor-Noah cut her teeth singing traditional songs in school choir festivals from age nine when she went to Nairobi’s Loreto Convent Msongari.

Her school days are long behind her and there followed years of singing in her church’s youth worship team, when she thought that music was “some kind of a hobby”. 

Studying in Boston from 2015 to 2018, she says it was “a lot of fun… I loved my teachers and I also learnt to be kind to people, because you never know who might open the door for you.”

“It gave me more tools and it’s changed the way I hear melodies which will help me in producing music for my own albums,” she says.

Musical notes were no longer “ants on the page” and she came to appreciate the extraordinary gifts of the great classical musicians of whom she says, “now, I know what they were doing”.

“I like all different kinds of singing and there’s a lot of soul in me, but I really enjoy jazz because you can explore it, you can create your own colour palette… I guess I bounce between jazz and neo-soul,” she says.

Music festival artistic director Roland Peelman… “Let’s throw some light on childhood… It’s becoming difficult for kids to be socially together.” Photo: Peter Hislop

There’s more to a festival than a finale and while Peelman has fitted a lot in, including a focus on Ukraine in two concerts, the stated theme is “The Child Within”.

Refreshingly, he refuses to let themes straitjacket him, but this year he recognised there wasn’t a lot for young people in the festival. 

“Childhood has been hijacked through social media, the way we talk openly about child abuse, innocence has been hijacked,” he says.

“I thought, let’s throw some light on childhood… It’s becoming difficult for kids to be socially together, what with having to learn and sing online – how the hell do you do that?”

A centrepiece will be “The Children’s Crusade”, Benjamin Britten’s setting of Brecht’s 1939 poem about children who became orphans of war. That will be sung by the Luminescence Children’s Choir, while actor Christopher Samuel Carroll will recite the poem. 

Family has also been on his mind, with another concert called “Sibling Revelry”. He draws attention to the extraordinary phenomenon of siblings in the musical world – Peelman starts counting them, Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, Lili and Nadia Boulanger, Martin and Peter Wesley-Smith and now, in a new commission by Flora and Theo Carbo, two young musicians from the Melbourne jazz scene.

2023 Canberra International Music Festival, April 27-May 7.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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