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Nina Simone - A Musical Life - Adelaide Fringe

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by Jon Cocks (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in the Adelaide Hills.
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Tribute to Nina Simone
Nina Simone, a tribute
Nina Simone, a musical icon


Nina Simone is the stage name of the musician born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina in the U.S.A. Her parents recognised her musical talent and she learnt classical piano at New York's Juilliard School of Music. She was an African-American singer whose dramatically styled, rough-edged voice created urgent emotional intensity in songs of love, protest, and Black empowerment, in styles that ranged the spectrum from jazz, gospel, and blues, to folk, pop and even classical music, an outcome stemming from her background as a classical pianist.

Various experiences throughout her upbringing in the U.S. South caused her to hate American racism with a passion and this was evident in the body of her work and her professional reputation. Ultimately she left America and lived in Barbados, Africa and Europe for the second half of her life. In the 1960s Simone added protest songs to her repertoire, became a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and performed at civil rights demonstrations.

Bonnie Lee Galea and band
Keeping the memory of Nina Simone alive


So, why is Bonnie Lee Galea, a white woman from Adelaide with a Maltese background, who doesn't play piano, reimagining Nina Simone, this iconic figure of popular culture from the twentieth century? If all art is derivative, are we forever to be looking at reruns? Or do we reimagine some art from the past and breathe new life into it? For me, it is an act of love. All artists strip their hearts bare and make their offering: this is me. Another artist, so enamoured with the work of an icon may feel inspired to give the work a new look. Millions of covers of original works can't be wrong. Sometimes the cover takes it to new places as Jimi Hendrix did with Bob Dylan's classic All Along the Watchtower.

The show is called Nina Simone, a Musical Life. Galea and her ensemble - Steve Todd on drums and percussion, Quinton Dunne on double bass and Richard Coates on keyboards do not attempt to impersonate Simone, or to dramatise her life in any way. Their goal is far more straightforward: to keep the memory of Nina Simone alive by fitting a representative sample of Simone's repertoire into a seventy-minute set. To that end, they have selected a number of her jazz standards, a couple of originals and a handful of her major hits and developed their own interpretations, admittedly of the Nina Simone versions.

rehearsal
the seventy minute set is representative of Simone's diverse musicality


This is a tribute show, and, as such, it works even on a bare stage at the Marion Cultural Centre, enlivened only on the back wall by a series of projected images of Nina Simone and various figures in her career. The Wonderland Hub stage at Hindmarsh Square is similarly basic. The versions of the songs are presented with no small amount of skill but do not aspire to take them in new directions. Galea and Dunne provide brief commentary in between songs on Simone's life and times.

As a singer resolved to present her versions of Simone's versions of jazz and blues standards, Galea had a strong lower or alto vocal range to power through the blues numbers like Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood and Sinnerman. The second song in the set was the Screamin' Jay Hawkins hit I Put a Spell on You, which tested Galea's range and allowed the ensemble room to get funky with the jazz riffs.

Galea is a performer who clearly understands her own range and in putting a personal stamp on her favourite Nina Simone works she never tries to bend a note too far or disappear into skat for any length of time. Her onstage, mid-song communication with Todd, Dunne and Coates is advanced enough so that no one is ever in any doubt when it is his turn to solo. Todd in particular had a very fine moment to himself with just the bongo, his bare hand and the snare doing the work. The focus shifted neatly among the three at times through numbers like Little Liza Jane, Lilac Wine and Love Me or Leave Me, with Galea repeatedly regaining focus as vocalist with deft timing.

This is a show not only for fans of Nina Simone's music but for any soul that is moved by the intensity and passion that drives soul music, the fun, the funkiness that is jazz and the raunchy, steamy rage at the world that are the blues. The set concluded with Song of Freedom, Simone's echo to the message of Martin Luther King, My Baby Don't Care for Much, and On The Chain Gang, three more different songs you would be pushed to find and yet three that illustrate the depth of talent that existed in Nina Simone, the breadth of musical styles her work encompassed and when you Google the Who's Who list of pop and rock stars influenced by her work the significance of her legacy.

Bonnie Lee Galea and her ensemble have created a set that gives the novice a taste, the dedicated fan a live reiteration and for all of us a well-crafted seventy-minute show that shows respect for a legend of world music.
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Why? Nina Simone was a legend
When: 3.30 pm, March 19
Where: Wonderland Hub, Hindmarsh Square
Cost: $42/36
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