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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Performing in Tel Aviv at this weekend's Music City, Nigerian soul singer Nneka has built a devoted fan base on the back of a reputation for incandescent live performances and a magnetic stage presence set off against her small acoustic band.
The Israel show comes in the middle of a three-month sweep across Europe, including a headline slot at the world famous WOMAD festival in England later this month. And, Lenny Kravitz asked her to open for him earlier this year. But her modesty belies the reputation that precedes her.
"I do not see myself as a performer, but just as somebody who shares her heartfelt feelings with others," she says. Her shows, she continues, are neither for herself or her audience, "It's for God," she says. "It's for the spirit of this air that brings us together. It's for the spirit of God. Which is all of us."
Nneka Egbuna was born in 1981 in Warri, a town in Nigeria's oil-rich south, to a Nigerian father and German mother. She discovered her affinity for music at an early age, singing at school and in her church choir. However, she felt creatively stifled by the dominant conservative mores of Nigeria.
"It restricted my freedom and my movement, which is not good," she says. So at 19 she moved to Germany, to study Anthropology at Hamburg University and work to develop her music.
This move, across continents and cultures, threw up significant challenges; which paradoxically were the making of her career. She didn't speak German and had few friends, but an epiphany emerged from the initial isolation.
"Music kind of found me in the loneliness," she recounts. "I learnt, when I moved to Germany, that I didn't have to stick to the things that people told me in Nigeria. I needed to get to know myself and think for myself. To understand what I believed in, to see what I'm really all about."
She started writing and recording with German producer DJ Farhot. An early breakthrough came when she opened for Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul in 2004.
Her first album, 2005's Victim of Truth carried much momentum with its infectious blend of reggae and R&B. Compared favorably with Lauryn Hill's classic The Miseducationâ€¦, it was described by London's Sunday Times as "the year's most criminally overlooked album."
Her influences vary, from contemporary urban music to Bob Marley, Afro-Beat legend Fela Kuti and Nina Simone. "I like artists with a certain vulnerability about them, an honest way of presenting themselves," she says, adding that she is wary of being typecast musically.
Nneka prefers to concentrate on the message of her music. Her lyrics are dominated by themes of social and political awareness and of delivering a universal message of justice and hope.
One constant refrain is the fight against corruption and social injustice in Nigeria, a poignant theme given the contradiction between Nigeria's status as a major oil producer and the economic challenges faced by much of its population. "Heartbeat," the lead single from her second album, 2008's No Longer At Ease, is typical.
"It refers to the Nigerian leaders and the Western World, what the Western world is doing with Africa, and what Africa is doing with itself. It's about people using the name of love in vain, using sweet words for their own profit," she explains.
Nneka performs with the American group Groundation as part of the Music City event at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Grounds' Beitan 10 on Friday, July 10. Tickets cost NIS 180 in advance and may be purchased at: leaan.co.il; misterticket.co.il; (050) 714-9671 or NIS 220 at the door.