Music lives in Akua Allrich’s spirit and the ancestors guide her artistry along the way. Throughout the span of her busy day, vocalist, composer, and educator Allrich can be heard rhyming her words with ease, humming the indigenous tunes of Miriam Makeba or belting out impeccable lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald.
“When I’m singing, I become a bridge of energy and message. I try to be a conduit of message for my ancestors and the universe,” said Allrich.
Audiences can witness Allrich tap into the ancestors in her return to Baltimore’s Creative Alliance for “Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba Tribute,” on Feb. 16, which she’s been performing there since 2008.
Allrich said she’ll be “singing for royalty” that night.
Not only is she excited to take the stage, but she told The Informer that the show will honor not only celebrate the artistry and lives of the legendary singers, including Nina Simone, who was born on Feb. 21. However the week of the performance is also significant as her late father Kwame Agyei Akoto was born on Feb. 14.
Allrich didn’t always intend to sing on stage, but she wasn’t far from the arts growing up. A D.C. native, dancing, drumming, playing piano, and learning from her magnetic father, an internationally celebrated jazz musician, author, and educator, was key to Allrich’s formation.
Kwame Agyei Akoto: Allrich’s Father, Source of Inspiration
Akoto was a talented saxophone player and studied music education at Howard University.
He later started the band Nation: Afrikan Liberation Art Ensemble with his wife and Allrich’s mother, Akua N. Akoto, as well as Akili Ron Anderson and Kehembe Eichelberger.
The group released their first album, “Rise, Vision, Comin” in 1976. It is filled with spiritual jazz intertwined with Pan-African rhythms to deliver a positive and communal message through poetry, vocals, instruments, and visuals.
“It was about telling stories and telling our stories. They were empowering African people from a broad spectrum to honor the fact that we are African people, even separated by waters, we are African people,” Allrich told The Informer.
The band members all hailed from Howard, and their music centered on honoring their African ancestry using a total Black Arts concept to deliver their sacred message. In a dedicated effort to establish a Black studies track at Howard, the group was a leading agent during the university’s 1968 student sit-ins.
Akoto demanded the music studies offer jazz, and the university complied, bringing on legendary jazz master Donald Byrd. It was her father’s efforts that pioneered Howard’s jazz program– the same one from which Allrich would later graduate.
The legendary band members later founded NationHouse, where Allrich serves as a director of programs and teaches music at one of the oldest independent African-centered schools in the nation.
With its founding in July 1974, the visionary institution is celebrating its 50th year.
Her father is one of Allrich’s biggest musical influences. It’s clear how much Allrich loves and emulates Akoto, who died in 2019.
When she talks about him, her almond-brown eyes light up and her wide smile deepens. He taught her how to balance technique with the ability to improvise in an authentic and clear style. His music was always “message music,” she explained.
“He was my first music teacher. He was my first piano teacher, and his approach to music has always been about being a vehicle of spirit,” said Allrich.
With her father’s guidance and a community that embraced her talents, Allrich followed in her father’s footsteps in many ways.
She started singing as a student at Howard in 1996. Her godmother, Eichelberger, was a music professor at the university and recognized Allrich’s vocal talent. Allrich auditioned and was accepted into the university’s jazz program and began taking vocal lessons and performing on campus.
She was still on a pre-med track with the goal to become a doctor like her mother, but a difficult biology course redirected her to her artistic path. In her laughing words, “the universe and my ancestors had other ideas for me.”
She graduated from Howard with a performing arts degree in jazz studies and later returned to her alma mater for a master’s in social work with a focus in mental health. Although she didn’t pursue medicine or social work, she said music is healing in a different way.
“I talk to my students about the things that we’ve gone through as African people and how we’ve used music to get us through it. It is healing. It’s also a conduit, by which we can actually live and enjoy this existence as human beings,” Allrich explained
How Allrich Tapped Back Into Her Musical Roots
After starting a family and working at her mother’s medical practice, Allrich’s husband urged her to start singing in 2008.
She did background work inconsistently, but it wasn’t until she was 28 that Allrich began singing professionally. She released her first jazz album, “A Peace of Mine”, in 2008. The album showed the full range of the singer’s voice: from her soft honeyed lilts to her soulful tones that seem to come from somewhere beyond her body.
Allrich teamed up with her musical partner Kriss Funn, a bassist, composer and Peabody Conservatory professor, to start the group Idol Beings.. The pair began their friendship in 1997 as students at Howard and always made music together “in a way that made sense.”
The duo’s title is a play on words; instead of being “idle,” they create music and aspire to become idols.
They’ve recently released an EP titled “Universe” together. Allrich said it was an opportunity for the two to explore other genres outside of their jazz traditions. It incorporates blues, and rock ‘n’ roll, and features Tyler Leak, a dynamic drummer.
Funn said making music with Allrich is always exhilarating because she leads with her voice and ideas, but is open to being inspired by the music and flow with the sounds.
“Akua embodies the soul of many that come before her. You can hear a pinch of your favorite vocalist, no matter the time, period, genre, or continent in her performances,” Funn told The Informer.
Allrich said she hopes to spend the next chapter of her life continuing to grow her non-profit, Nich Cultural Arts, which supports artists of African descent and youth to express themselves through music.
Allrich said music is information, and it’s a wonderful tool of learning and understanding any material.
“When you are singing a song you are telling a story. And it is inevitably going to touch somebody’s heart in the way that it needs to touch them. I become a vehicle of message.”
Source: Washington Informer