In keeping with tradition, a local musician will kick off the annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest, which will take place September 10 in Gateway Park. This year, D.C. native and proud Howard University graduate Akua Allrich will do the honors.
Having recently released her third CD, Soul Singer, of late Allrich has been awash in critical adulation. All About Jazz calls her "a vocalist to watch," and says, "she very well may be the next big thing." Capital Bop says her CD Soul Singer is "simply magical, bursting at the seams with jubilance and grace" and calls Allrich "one of the region's most captivating performers."
In 2012, The Washington City Paper's jazz critic Michael J. West named Allrich the top jazz vocalist in the D.C. area. "I've said it before," wrote West, "that if you hear (as you often do) that contemporary jazz seems to be missing soul, it's because all of the soul of a generation has been concentrated into Akua Allrich."
At the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, Allrich will take the stage at 1 p.m. She'll use her tremendous vocal talent and stage presence to create a vibe — a sort of synergy with the audience that will help set the tone for the day's festivities. To prepare for her performance, before she gets onstage, she'll get ready by breathing, praying, vocalizing and playing her piano.
"My intention is to build energy and inspire people," Allrich told the Rosslyn BID. "I want people to feel that they each have a voice and are just as important as everybody else. Whether they want to dance or scream, they are part of the energy, and it takes each of us to make it work."
The daughter of professional jazz musician Agyei Akoto, Allrich says music has always loomed large in her life. Her dad practiced all the time at home, playing piano and saxophone. Her mother, father, and some of their friends founded a private African-centric school in D.C. called Nation House. Allrich went to that school and grew up in it.
"My dad would open up the school each day by playing the soprano saxophone, and we'd run around and play with the music," she recalls. "Music was such a part of our lives. It was like another limb. Like a critical part of our bodies."
For a long time, Allrich resisted the magnetic pull of singing and making music that had always been a part of her. Inspired by her mother, who is a doctor, as a child Allrich dreamed of following the same path. As an undergraduate she didn't like the related coursework, though. Later, she moved on to obtain a master's degree in social work at Howard, along with a bachelor's degree in jazz vocals.
"Music was never in my sights, but somehow I got into the [jazz vocals] program at Howard and it stuck," she says. "It felt right and I excelled in it."
Even with her natural musical gifts, Allrich worried about making music her career. She wanted a family and feared that the life of a musician would make that difficult (she did marry and has two children). "That persona of the lonely jazz vocalist in the lonely jazz café scared me," she says. "I thought, 'I can't do that.'"
But as she began performing more, she started thinking she could make it work. In 2006, smoking was banned from D.C. nightclubs, and this had an impact on her thinking. Allrich is not a smoker and hadn't liked the idea of singing in smoky environments on a regular basis.
Her first major performance was in 2008 at the legendary D.C. club Bohemian Caverns. It sold out, with Allrich singing for a standing-room-only crowd. "I freaked out a bit," she says. She went solo that year. In 2010, she released her first album.
At Jazz Fest, Allrich will sing a mix of her own tunes and some jazz standards. She sings in many languages, and plans to take the audience on an "international journey" that will include music with Caribbean and pan-African influences. She is frequently compared to artists Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, and often performs their music.
"I'll definitely do some ballads and some up-tempo stuff," she says. "My intention is to make sure it's fun. I want people to have a good time."
To learn more about Akua Allrich and hear some of her music, visit her website.
To view a video of her performing, click here.
Related event: Rosslyn Jazz Fest 2016
Related point: Gateway Park