Witching Hour: I Got Life, And I Got Freedom: Exploring Personal & Social Change Through the Music of Nina Simone
Englert Theatre — Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.
When Sharon Udoh first heard Nina Simone’s music, it was a revelation. “I was struck by our similarities,” said Udoh, who performs under the moniker Counterfeit Madison. “Here was this dark-skinned black woman who was a classically trained pianist, just like me, and with a similar vocal register. My head was spinning.”
Udoh, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, was born in 1981 in Cincinnati, Ohio and first played the piano by ear at the age of 4, after watching her older sister practice the instrument. The child prodigy then began performing in the Pentecostal church her mother attended; she later adopted the pseudonym Counterfeit Madison (later also her band name) so that her mom and other members of the congregation wouldn’t know she was playing secular music in clubs.
On record and in live shows, Counterfeit Madison’s mixture of rock, soul, prog, jazz and pop takes all the best qualities of those genres and goes in new, unexpected directions. On her group’s 2017 album, Opposable Thumbs, Udoh’s versatile voice shifts with ease and grace from the aching balladry of “Song for the Loyals” to the boogie-woogie sassiness of “I Hope It’s Alright,” leaving room for some gospel-infused art rock during the album closer, “Slow as Molasses.”
It’s fitting that she was drawn to Nina Simone, whose androgynous voice had a melancholy tone, much like Udoh’s. Likewise, Simone’s piano technique inventively mixed European classical music styles with African-American jazz, blues and soul. A groundbreaking singer and master pianist, she was also known for her take-no-shit attitude towards a white-dominated society (and music industry) that wanted to put her in her place.
“When I first performed a concert of her songs in 2016, it was a different moment,” Udoh said. “Barack Obama was still president. It now seems so long ago, even though it’s been less than three years, so I think those songs have an added resonance now.”
Simone’s songs invoke the broad range of emotions stirred up by the struggle for racial equality — from the black-is-beautiful uplift that sends “Young, Gifted and Black” into the ether to the unvarnished rage of “Mississippi Goddam,” inspired by the 1964 bombing of an African-American Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children.
“Oh, but this whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die, and die like flies / I don’t trust you anymore,” Simone sang. “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality.”
Four years later, during a concert held the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Simone told the audience, “They’re shooting us down one by one. Don’t forget that, ’cause they are, killing us one by one.”
“The King is dead, the King of Love is dead,” she mournfully declared, adding, with a sardonic laugh, “I ain’t about to be nonviolent, honey, oooooh no.”
“Her music is more relevant today than ever,” Udoh said, “especially in light of the continued brutalization of black people by the police, along with a fear of outsiders that is being stirred up with the politicization of immigration.”
Not only did Simone craft brilliant compositions, but when she played others’ songs, she made them her own. Her cover version of the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” sounds otherworldly, yet grounded in heartache, and when she sang “I Shall Be Released” in 1969, the Bob Dylan song gained new layers of significance. Taken together, her covers and originals paint a rich, complex portrait of life as experienced by a black woman in America during the 20th century.
As a black woman in America in the 21st century, two and half years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Counterfeit Madison will offer her interpretations of Simone’s music at the Witching Hour Festival. I Got Life, And I Got Freedom: Exploring Personal & Social Change Through the Music of Nina Simone will be presented at the Englert Theatre, where she will bring the past into conversation with the present in ways that might point us towards a better future.
Udoh’s own encounters with racism serve as a reminder that all is still not well in the alleged land of the free — as do Simone’s songs, which are practically crying out to be heard in this day and age.
The progress America made toward racial equality in the 1960s and ’70s has been eroded by a backlash that suggests that we haven’t actually traveled that far from the moment that prompted Simone to sing, in 1964, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.”
During a performance at the 2018 Mission Creek Festival, Counterfeit Madison floored the audience at The Mill, which went bonkers for this largely unknown opening act. Everyone loudly demanded an encore until the schedule-conscious festival organizers finally relented, lowered the house lights and let the group play one more spectacular song.
Udoh attributes her performance style in part to her time witnessing those Pentecostal flights of religious ecstasy as a kid. And while her set of Simone songs is more on the subdued side of the performative spectrum, it’s still charged with emotion and electricity.
“With these shows,” Udoh explained, “I decided to keep my own voice, the way I usually sing, but I wanted to channel her piano style.”
For Witching Hour, she plans to play “Young, Gifted and Black,” along with “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and other songs that, Udoh said, have the power to heal and spark social change.
“America is gripped by fear, by racial fear,” she said. “And I truly believe that we cannot move past this without a very personal, individual revolution of the mind. Nina showed us how this can be done, and her music is more alive now than ever.”
Kembrew McLeod highly recommends Nina Simone’s RCA records, released between 1967 to 1972, though there are plenty of other great places to start. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 273.