At the forefront of neo-soul

2010-10-01 14:00

She is a long-legged gazelle, a striking glamazon and now a bona fide neo-soul star.

Liz Ogumbo made a name for herself as an international model who walked the New York, Milan, Paris, London and Hong Kong fashion weeks for labels such as Von Dutch, Donna Karan, Pelle Pelle and Betsey Johnson in the early noughties.

Once back home in Kenya, she opened a modelling agency and her own fashion label, and showed her wares at the Africa Fashion Week last year. Now Ogumbo finds herself behind the microphone as a singer.

She doesn’t describe herself as a closet bathroom singer. On the contrary, she comes from a musical family. The family entertained visitors at home and Ogumbo was the lead singer.

But when modelling opportunities ­presented themselves, she put singing on the back burner. However, in the ­recent past she has become a session singer at popular Nairobi party spots and business ­lounges.

She has dedicated this year to singing and has released her debut album, ­KenSoul, launched in Joburg last week.

While she insists she’s her own woman, other artists will spring to mind when you hear Ogumbo sing.

 She has been ­likened to Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Zap Mama, Lauryn Hill and Les Nubians.

“I am not bothered by those ­comparisons. I know I am original at heart. I am not a wanna-be.”

The truth is that Ogumbo is part of a movement of new African sistas who are at the forefront of neo-soul – Nigeria’s Asa, and South Africans Simphiwe Dana and Lira.

Her performances are unique. She is flirty and shows off her magnificent long legs in denim miniskirts and then covers up in long flowing gowns – all from her fashion range.

So, you can say she models as she sings. But that doesn’t take away from her gentle, breathy and raspy voice as she belts out in Luo, Swahili, French and ­English. Ogumbo is a complex songwriter.

Take, for example, the cheeky song Big Ass In Blue Jeans, which can be ­interpreted in a plethora of ways. However, when she breaks its meaning down, you may be surprised.

“I am still actively involved in ­modelling and I mentor some of these girls.

“I was part of the campaign to ban the size zero models.

“We face the same crap of drugs and size when modelling in Kenya. On this song, I encourage young women to accept their sizes because they are already the ideal body size. I discourage them from losing themselves. I want them to ­understand what ideal is. Most girls get it wrong when they are already ideal.”

Ogumbo has also written a book, The Modelling Industry:  Who’s the Ideal ­Model, in which she explores the myth of the ideal size. The book has not yet been published.

While on a leadership programme at the British Council in Nairobi, ­Ogumbo came across the South ­African word ubuntu.

This inspired a song of the same name. “As soon as people realise that whatever you do wrong to the other person you’re doing it to yourself too, the world will be a better place.

“I am not self­righteous, but I think there are basic things we need to do to make a big difference in
the world.”

The nuances in her music tell of a pan-African singer as she uses South ­African lingo along with Nigerian pidgin ­English and east African words.

“Music puts me in a ­comfortable place. I am like that butterfly that flew around and picked up these influences and ­experiences, and now I use KenSoul to tell my story.”

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