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ESSENCE Fest 2012

2nd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Now celebrating its 18th year, the Essence Music Festival ( July 5 – July 8 ) is ever-changing while its magical core remains the same. Just as she did at Essence’s first year, when the event was presented as a one-time occasion to celebrate Essence magazine’s 25th anniversary, Soul Queen Aretha Franklin performs on the Superdome’s main stage ( Sunday, July 8 ) and will undoubtedly wow the crowd as she did back then and throughout her illustrious career. The audience that night was filled with people of note with the city’s own Irma Thomas, the Queen of New Orleans Soul, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson sitting front and center. A sprinkling of New Orleans musicians were in the orchestra that backed Franklin and many have been called on again this year to add their talents to her ensemble.

Favorites of the fest, like the spectacular Mary J. Blige, who closed last year’s event in stunning and heartwarming style, and the ever-popular Charlie Wilson make their expected and welcomed return to the big arena.

The superlounges, the four intimate venues that circle the Dome on an upper level, have always given the experience of attending the festival an extra flavor. They are where acts presenting a variety of styles, such as festival regulars the Stylistics and local artists like returnees the ReBirth Brass Band, can be found. One native New Orleanian who has performed in the superlounges is making the jump to the big stage. Ledisi will make history by becoming the first artist from this city to headline a show on Essence Festival’s arena stage.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment to be on the main stage for years,” says Ledisi, who though she moved from New Orleans to Oakland when she was a child, definitely considers New Orleans her home. She would travel back-and-forth between the two cities and continues to return to visit her many relatives and friends who live here.

“It’s kind of like my hide-away,” says the Grammy-nominated vocalist who will experience her big moment on Saturday night. “I’ve been dreaming about this forever.”

Ledisi, whose name means “to bring forth” in the Yoruba language, came from a musical family and was particularly influenced by her mother who was an R&B vocalist. Her New Orleans roots remain strong and evident in her music. It’s there in her liveliness, earthiness and rhythmic approach to what she calls her “version” of soulful rhythm and blues as has been heard throughout her career and on her 2011 Grammy-nominated CD, Pieces of Me.

“A lot of the musicians in New Orleans, we carry ourselves very high – meaning with some class,” Ledisi says of her continued musical connection with the city. “It’s like we’re ready. It’s a little arrogant but it’s okay because we always come with it.”

Ledisi sees herself sharing these attributes with two artists that she loves, Kermit Ruffins and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.

“We have a smile to our music,” she observes. “It’s a little smirk like we’re excited about what what we’re going to do. Even Louis Armstrong, he always smiled and Mahalia always smiled a little. There’s a smile and a yearning at the same time.

“We put our whole heart in the music that we do and I love that. We just go fully for it. It’s flashy. That’s how I perform. Being from New Orleans, we study a lot of jazz growing up and blues with Fats Waller and zydeco music. Things that make us move. The beat is everything to me. I have a lot of drums in my monitors so I can hear and move off of the rhythm.”

Ledisi has enjoyed quite a journey since her first public appearance at age of eight singing with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra.

“I would mimic opera singers on the radio when I was a little and loud girl with big eyes,” she explains with a laugh. “I would just be singing arias so my mother put me in an after school program.”

She cut her first CD in 2000 on her own LeSun label, was picked up by the prestigious Verve label in 2007, appeared in the movie Leatherneck staring George Clooney and performed in Broad­way shows including “The Wiz” and “The Color Purple.” She has just released a book, Better Than Alright: Finding Peace, Love & Power, in collaboration with Essence magazine.

“Things have always happened to me because of the singing,” she offers. “I chose to become a recording artist because that was my first love.”

Ledisi will be fronting an eight-piece band at her debut on Essence Festival’s main stage. She promises lots of dancing, costume changes and videos that, she says, will make the show more in keeping with a pop artist than an R&B act. Being from New Orleans, she plans to “sneak” a bit of jazz into the repertoire that will, of course, be full of her self-penned chart-toppers and hit stylistically on the music from artists that she loves like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. In other words, Ledisi will perform her “version” of R&B that has driven her success.

Essence Festival began with three nighttime all-star concerts at the Dome, expanded out to the Mississippi River with the daytime Empowerment Seminars at the Convention Center and this year has added yet two more events.

A free Festival Block Party will take place from 3 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. at Champions Square throughout the festival weekend. Hosted by Doug E. Fresh, local artists include vocalist Kourtney Hart, rapper Dee-1 and F. Stokes Friday through Sunday respectively plus a host of deejays. The Dome will also rock out on Thursday with a bill targeted at younger audiences with our own The Roots of Music, Diggy Simmons and the OMG Girlz.

Essence Festival continues its aim as a Party with a Purpose. It’s now grown into a big, big party with a purpose.

This article was originally published in the July 2, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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