November 20, 2002

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Close to the source
Oakland singer Goapele is creating a stir with Even Closer.

By Lee Hildebrand

UNTIL A YEAR and a half ago, when 25-year-old Goapele Mohlabane and members of her family pooled their modest resources to press 2,000 copies of Closer, Goapele's stunning debut CD, the Oakland singer's performing experience had been somewhat limited. She'd been rendering impromptu political songs a cappella at youth movement rallies since she was a teenager. Later she sang old-school soul songs over hip-hop beats with the DJ crew Local 1200 and, just as the CD was being released, did an international tour as a backup singer with Spearhead.

Although the disc was available only at Amoeba Music and Rasputin Music and at a barbecue restaurant on Broadway in Oakland, the initial batch sold out in a matter of months. That led to a second pressing of 1,000 copies and a buzz rivaling that accompanying Ledisi early in her career.

While her CD was clocking impressive local sales, she didn't have a band to back her at club dates. That began to change a year ago when the Heat – four instrumentalists and a backup singer – began to take shape. The band was more than necessary; singing over DJ-generated grooves may now be more a rule than an exception in contemporary R&B, but Goapele found it constraining. "The music can't move with you," the Oakland-born offspring of a New York Jewish mother and an exiled South African freedom fighter explains while sitting on the back porch of her family home in the East Oakland foothills. "You have to stay right in line with the limitations of the tracks, but if it's a great beat, it's all right."

An earlier incarnation of the band included a turntablist. "DJ Fuze [a onetime member of Digital Underground] was scratching, and he would drop an instrumental that I would sing over, and then the band would come in and pick it up," Goapele explains. "I really enjoyed it, but soundwise, it was difficult to get a balance. Now some of the things he would drop in with records, the band will just play."

Goapele may have shed some hip-hop trappings in her live performances, but two of the five new songs added to Closer's original nine to make up her recently released Even Closer feature MCs. Pep Love alternates leads with her on "Ease Your Mind," and Zion I and Casual contribute to "The Daze."

Even Closer was issued by Skyblaze Recordings, a label owned by Goapele along with her brother Namane and boyfriend Theo Rodrigues, both of whom are members of Local 1200. Although Goapele remains a cottage industry, this time around she's set her sights on having national impact. Thanks to a hookup with Red Distribution, "it's available everywhere," she says.

Even Closer has sold nearly 5,000 copies since its Sept. 10 release. Much of the action has been in the Bay Area, and Goapele says many local fans who already owned the first CD have purchased the new one just for the five extra tracks. It's also selling in southern California, where she's given a few performances and picked up some radio play.

As in the Bay Area, where KPFA-FM, KPOO-FM, and KALX-FM have been spinning her music since the release of the first CD, her southern California radio action has come primarily from community radio stations. So far none of the commercial outlets whose playlists are dominated by major-label product have put her music in regular rotation, though special mix programs on KMEL-FM in San Francisco and "The Beat" in Los Angeles have given her music limited mainstream exposure.

Goapele is planning a push beyond California at the beginning of 2003 and recently did promotional appearances – with DJ Namane supplying the backup – in New York City, Atlanta, and Paris.

Her first brush with the big time came last year when the Vermont jazz jam trio Soulive included her song "Romantic" on its acclaimed Doin' Something CD. Goapele wrote the tune with Soulive guitarist Eric Krasno when they were classmates at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Soulive used vocalist Stephanie McKay on its album, but both editions of Goapele's CD include her original with instrumental backing by Soulive.

The year and a half Goapele spent at Berklee played an important part in her musical development. Other than a brief stint with a Bay Area club band called Cleveland Lounge, all of her prior singing experience had been a cappella, with choirs, or with DJ tracks.

"It was all about live music – live jazz predominantly," she says of Berklee. "I'd sing songs with a whole band of students. Once that started jelling, it felt really good. It was like we could grow together and feed off each other and improvise."

The jazz training Goapele got in Boston is most evident on the introspective ballad "Things Don't Exist" and in the B-3-flavored funk of the aforementioned "Romantic." Other selections on Even Closer draw directly from hip-hop with their samples and loops, yet Goapele brings stylistic continuity to the set through her deliciously elastic phrasing and a glowing mezzo-soprano voice that some have likened to Sade's. All of the songs are collaborations between Goapele and writers, including Berklee buddies Krasno and Jeff Blasker and Bay Area musicians Mike Tiger, Amp Live, and Nate Greenberg, among others.

The most overtly political of the lot is a Goapele-Tiger composition titled "Red, White, and Blues." The song – an antiwar ode delivered by Goapele in emotion-choked tones, with Heat guitarist Errol Cooney offering a searing psychedelic flight that suggests Jimi Hendrix's deconstruction of "The Star Spangled Banner" – was written in reaction to Sept. 11.

"There's a lot of different views represented in response to what happened on 9/11," she explains. "I think it is a tragic thing that happened, and I chose not to look at it as an isolated event but to look at it in the context of a lot of things that have happened in this country, a lot of people who have died in this country and are dying every day, maybe in the name of war, maybe on the street because of gang violence, maybe because they're hungry and sick and there's not enough resources in this country."

Goapele grew up in southern California and the Bay Area as part of a close-knit community of South African exiles, and the struggle against South Africa's racist regime was the paramount influence on her developing political consciousness.

"The ending of the apartheid system and seeing Mandela walk out of jail after 27 years was amazing," she recalls. "I remember watching it on TV with my mom and my brother. It was, like, five in the morning, and they were showing it live. We stayed up so that we could watch it before we went to school. It was like we were watching history. Hugh Masakela had sung songs about that day when Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela would be walking down the street together – and it was, like, happening."

"I know Geronimo Pratt also was in jail for I think 27 years," she adds, "and was released a few years ago after all that time. I'm not even 27-years old. That's longer than my life that they were in jail. It definitely does give me hope."

Goapele performs as part of the second annual San Francisco Funk Festival, Thurs/21, 9 p.m., Justice League, 628 Divisadero, S.F. $15. (415) 289-2038.