"I'M A BUTTERFLY. I kinda float around, you know."
That's what N'dea Davenport tells me when I ask, "Where you been, girl?"
She chuckles. "At heart, I'm just a gypsy -- a stable one, though."
Calling from New York, the singer sounds warm and inviting, a little seductive -- bringing to mind those Brand New Heavies albums I loved back when I was a "deep" poet-manchild in high school. You remember N'dea: the sassy, stylish sista who fronted the multiracial acid jazz band from London. In the '90s, BNH was at its creative and commercial peak with such jams as "Never Stop" (a Top 10 smash in '93), "Dream on Dreamer" and my all-time favorite, the romantic "Stay This Way."
But when N'dea left BNH to pursue a solo career in '97, the effect was reminiscent of the time Chaka Khan left Rufus. The group became just a band then -- albeit a fine one. Without N'dea, though, the guys quickly fell off. The singer seemed to have a lot working for her: sexiness to spare and pipes of dynamite. Her self-titled debut, released in the summer of '98, was critically lauded. But not enough people heard the modern soul classic. N'dea has been MIA for about seven years.
Good news, though: The Atlanta-born artist is working on a new album, and she appears on Bridge to Havana, a new compilation of American pop and soul artists (Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Frampton, Mick Fleetwood and others) performing original songs with Cuban singers and musicians, including Edesio Alejandro, Luis De La Cruz and Carlos Alfonso. Although Bridge was released late last month, the project -- the result of a U.S. Treasury Department cultural good-will trip -- was actually recorded in 1999. (A concert filmed at the National Theater in Havana was released on DVD as a companion to the CD.)
"It was a real process of getting everything together for release," N'dea says. "It took a while to get contractually stuff together. But the experience of being over there was so rewarding on so many levels. It was like going to day camp with all these great superstars. We collaborated on the music in the courtyard of the hotel and shared our lives and experiences."
The CD sports slick production, sometimes coming off as run-of-the-mill American pop with subtle Cuban spices. But the collaborations are inspired nonetheless. The first single, "Feelin' Good (Vacilon)" by Gladys Knight and Edesio Alejandro, is a smooth Quiet Storm number, a style not usually associated with the gospel-bred soul legend. N'dea's song, "Que Importa" with Dave Koz, Rene Banos and Ernan Lopez-Nussa, is a lighthearted celebration of cultures that doesn't feel like one of those let's-all-have-world-peace-and-a-Coke numbers.
"The Cuban guys and I were laughing at the cultural differences and some of the things we have in common," she says. "It didn't matter that we were from very different worlds, and that's what the song deals with in a comical way."
In her gypsy-like travels, the singer-songwriter has experienced various cultures that have enriched her artistic scope. And those influences, she says, have bled into the songs on her coming album, still untitled.
"I want to do a quick, little snapshot of all those experiences musically," N'dea says. "The [new] songs have more of an electric feel. Being in New York brings that feeling of electricity."
She was in the city -- just across the street from the twin towers during the 9 / 11 attacks. She escaped safely. But the artist withdrew for a while, cutting back on traveling and recording to "rebuild." Getting her focus back about a year ago, N'dea started writing and performing nationally again. Although she's without a label contract, the singer is confident that she will find a way to get her music to fans and new listeners.
"I'm basically concerned with just the music now," N'dea says. "There's so much instability in the industry right now. I'm not concentrating on deals and offers too much, but there have been some. My main focus is my band and the songs. All good things will come in their own time. As they say in the South, 'I'll just wait on the Lord.'"
But I hope the wait isn't too long.
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