Two singers I had never heard in concert performed in the area last month, and I was so glad I changed my plans at the last minute to go to the shows because they were amazing.
One is South African singer Lira who performed at Ramshead in Annapolis July 25. The other is singer and harpist Rashida Jolley a former Miss D.C. who performed at B. Smith's in Union Station July 17. These young women's musical styles are very different, but they both have touching stories and both were personable and humble when I met them.
"I'm a hugger," said Jolley with a large smile as she worked the crowd at B. Smith's. Jolley had performed her first single a few days earlier on the Mo'Nique Show on BET and had spent the past 18 months traveling around the world as the harpist for Lady Gaga's Monster Ball Tour.
The soft-spoken Jolley was anything but low key when she stretched stiletto-clad heels on each side of her harp and began to sing in a deep, powerful voice, while rocking her head with abandon to the rhythm of her harp, seemingly oblivious to the appreciative crowd.
"My dad was a jazz guitarist and my greatest inspiration. He died eight years ago and when I perform, I think of him and can hear him saying, 'dig in,' " said Jolley. She added that her mother, an entertainment attorney, always told her she was destined to play the harp.
"My mom said God told her I was supposed to play the harp. … After my first lesson, I fell in love with it," she said. "It wasn't a cool instrument and I got teased a lot as a child and wanted to give up, but my parents encouraged me to follow my dream."
And she is, with a CD in the works and a close-knit family of six siblings at her side for support. In fact, it was Jolley's younger twin brothers, who are drummers, who heard that Lady Gaga needed a harpist and drummers for her world tour.
"They didn't audition, but passed the information to me. I didn't know what would happen, but felt the experience of auditioning in New York for Lady Gaga would be great, and I got it. The tour was a wonderful experience and these guys are great," Jolley said, as she hugged her brothers with tears in her eyes.
Although Lira is not new on the international scene, she is not as well known in the states. She's released several platinum albums in South Africa, was the first South African to have a video on VH1 and received album of the year and best female artist awards at the South African Music Awards in 2009 and 2008. Her performance at Ramshead was part of a short U.S. tour, which included gigs at the Kennedy Center and in Los Angeles, to promote her new album, "Return to Love."
Lira grew up in Johannesburg listening to artists such as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder and South African legend Miriam Makeba. Their influences can be heard in her soulful ballads and upbeat dance songs that are a mix of soul, jazz, Latin and African rhythms, sung in English and her native tongue.
At Ramshead, Lira performed songs about love, hope and life in general and said, being a person who experienced apartheid in South Africa, she also writes and sings about the struggles people face globally.
"As I travel the world, I see that we all struggle and that connects us," Lira told the audience. "Miriam Makeba — thank you Momma Miriam — struggled and I was blessed to have met her in 2007. She said to me at that time, 'Always be yourself.' "
Something Lira is definitely doing with style, finesse and humility.