Multi-faceted artist getting notice in Twin Cities scene

Mankwe Ndosi
Singer, songwriter and performer Mankwe Ndosi has been operating for years in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

One of the most multi-dimensional, multi-talented artists in the Twin Cities is someone whose name probably doesn't ring a bell, but after operating for years in the trenches of the Minnesota art scene, Mankwe Ndosi is beginning to be discovered.

There is very little Mankwe Ndosi can't do as an artist. She dances. She makes theater. She performs spoken word. To say that she sings is an understatement. Check out "Interlude," a track on her debut 2009 release "Do-Gooder Blues." Nearly every sound you hear originates from her voice or instruments she's made.

Some performers are micro-artists; they burrow into thoughts or emotions. Ndosi is a macro-artist, bent on connecting individual struggles, revelations or beauty to universal truths. The worldview that informs her work comes in part from being the daughter of a Tanzanian immigrant. When her father was a grad student at the University of Minnesota, he led an international student group on campus. Friends from around the globe were visiting all the time, and Ndosi used to hide under the table, listening to the cadence of their voices.

"I've always had a sense that where I was wasn't the only place that there was, which not every kid gets," she said.

Ndosi has been singing since childhood. With a three octave range and a Bobby McFerrin-like dexterity, her voice can take the lead, be in the background, or supply percussion.

"I think I'm always interested in playing with the vocabulary that's used inside of singing," she said. "To be able to think about the voice as an instrument to be used not just for message delivery, but also for texture, for coloring, for fragrance."

Nearly everything Ndosi creates, as a musician, songwriter or performance artist has room for improvisation. You'll never see her do the same show twice. That's why Ndosi feels the energy from the audience is just as important as the energy from the stage.

do-gooder's blues
The cover of Mankwe Ndosi's album "do-gooder's blues."
Image courtesy of Mankwe Ndosi

"Everyone's in that experience right then and that experience is never going to happen again," she said. "And that every single person in the room is part of making that happen."

If the 'in the moment' creation is so important to Ndosi's work, you may wonder why she finally decided to record her first CD.

"Because I wanted to test myself," she said. "I wanted to try something else."

Ndosi's career is gathering momentum. Last year, she spent five months on the road singing backup with local hip-hop heavyweight Atmosphere. She also sang on singer songwriter Mike Doughty's 2008 CD "Golden Delicious," produced by Dan Wilson.

Douglas Ewart isn't surprised by Ndosi's growing recognition. Ewart, a nationally known jazz musician and instrument maker, is a mentor of Ndosi's. He said audiences who latch onto her, especially pop audiences, will be in for an interesting ride.

"She has the potential to influence people into listening to other forms or other areas of music because she's so compelling, and she works with a wide variety of artists," he said.

Ndosi's next appearance takes her away from the rap arena and recorded music to Dreamland Arts Performance Studio in St. Paul this weekend. She'll be joined by four other vocalists in an improvised song cycle she wrote called "As the Rhythm Changes," which explores the routines that shape our interaction with the environment.

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