THE FIRST OF three free Weekend's Weekends summer concerts hosted by The Post and the Weekend section, featuring a variety of music from top local talent in our community, is Friday. The concerts are at Carter Barron Amphitheatre in cooperation with the National Park Service/Rock Creek Park. Tonight's Nu-Soul Night features alternative rhythm and blues band Oktbrwrld, soul crew Zwei with Sol Edler and neo-soul songbird Deborah Bond with her band, Third Logic.
Carter Barron Amphitheatre is at 16th Street and Colorado Avenue NW. Free tickets for Weekend's Weekends will be available on the day of the show at the Carter Barron box office beginning at noon. Tickets also will be available starting at 8:30 a.m. at The Post, 1150 15th St. NW. There is no scheduled rain date. Picnic areas are available in the park around the amphitheater. For more information, call 202-334-4748.
It's not that Oktbrwrld is vowel-impaired.
According to the group's co-founder, guitarist Elnathan K. Starnes, when Oktbrwrld formed in 1997, "I was just looking for something that looked original visually, like, 'Hey, you've only got one vowel in your name!' "
Pronounced with implied vowels, the name has a deeper meaning, he adds.
"October is really the harvest of the fruits that were cultivated during the summer," Starnes explains. "How we parallel with that is we cultivate what has come before us -- Bob Marley, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Motown, funk, rock -- and we make that into a new sound for today's world. We're paying our respects to our musical ancestors."
"We used to say we couldn't afford the rest of the vowels, a reflection of our humble beginnings," says singer Nina Lane, noting a more serious tip that the name was "something that would give a sense of what you can find inside of Oktbrwrld -- a rich harvest of music."
Starnes, a native of Hawaii, came to Washington in 1990 to attend Howard University, where he majored in fine arts and jazz studies.
"My goal at the time was to study music and start performing, and I envisioned an alternative R&B group with two women singing the leads," he recalls. "Back then, R&B bands had a lot of male energy, and I wanted to do something different, not just follow that routine."
It wasn't long before Starnes was halfway home, after spotting theater major Lane in a production by the revived Howard Players, a group that specialized in plays about the African American experience written by students and others. Lane was appearing in a production as a member of an a cappella ensemble ("I was a huge fan of Sweet Honey in the Rock," she says), and according to Starnes, "with the sound that was coming from them, it would not make sense for any of these women to not be heard by the world."
Lane, a Washington native, first teamed with Starnes in local funk-soul band Koko Boom. "I always sort of knew when I heard him play and the message he was trying to put out that he was someone I would want to work with," she says. But over the next few years, Lane was so often away from Washington -- in New York, and later, Africa -- that a frustrated Starnes asked, "Are you going to be still for a minute?"
As it happened, Starnes also took a break from performing, and "when I got back into the scene, I had developed how I wanted to write songs and how to shape that voice that I was hearing in my head." Soon after, Starnes and Lane hooked up with guitarist and songwriter Adwoa Spencer and bassist Oumar Diallo, and Oktbrwrld began to harvest its varied inspirations.
"We speak the same language though we are bringing different flavors to the group," Lane says. "Nate is from more of a blues, rock and funk background, Adwoa from gospel, blues and funk. Oumar has more of an international flavor with his reggae and rock influence, while I'm definitely an old-school R&B baby layered with blues and gospel. We all love the sound that we find when we come together. We support one another musically but also stretch each other. Each one of us has a niche and pushes the others to grow in that direction, but not so much we throw each other off the square."
Starnes and Spencer do most of the writing; Lane handles many of the lead vocals, though everybody sings. They're at pace with being called "neo-soul," with Starnes suggesting that "anyone liking Mint Condition, Jill Scott and Floetry, Kindred or Erykah Badu would love Oktbrwrld. Or Norah Jones, when we do the unplugged set when we're just playing acoustic guitars."
Oktbrwrld, which provided the theme for NBC4's Sunday morning show "America This Week," is working on a follow-up to 2003's "It's All About the Band" and last year's unplugged album, "Raw and Natural." "It's definitely going to be more funky than the previous ones," Starnes promises.
Zwei's Reg Jones and Kuti Mack, who grew up next door to each other in suburban Maryland, didn't intend to become working musicians, just writers and producers.
"We set out to be Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis before we got wrapped up in this artist thing," Jones says. "I wanted to win ASCAP [songwriting] awards and the Grammy for song of the year!"
Jones and Mack started with a publishing company, BolaMarge (named after their mothers), looking to place songs with major artists. "At first, the focus was on selling songs, but when people didn't mind us singing our own songs, we learned how to play -- on stage, that is," Jones says.
The duo graduated to releasing albums on their BolaMarge label, the most recent being "2'sday Night," a live revisitation of their first two albums, "The 2" and "2'sday," this time featuring their band, the Bros. They've also released the debut album by backing singer Sol Edler, the neo-soul collection "Song of Solomon," and hope to have a jazz-funk project by their trumpeter Kyle Funn out next year.
Both will join Zwei at Carter Barron, along with some special guests, including Alexei Tsybine, who just graduated from Howard University law school second in his class and wrote Edler's "Step Further." According to Jones, that song earned the strongest audience reaction at a recent sold-out Lincoln Theatre show featuring Zwei and New York's Mint Condition. "It's good for people to get to see who the writer of the song is," says Jones, who hopes to make Tsybine part of an expanding music publishing venture. "We all met outside Bar Nun after a soul open mike and Alex and some friends did a street corner thing. After Alex heard Sol's voice, he fell in love with our energy, and we teamed up."
That's exactly the kind of street-bred community Jones and Mack envisioned when they set up their "urban independent" label and publishing company. It's why they themselves produced the recent Lincoln Theatre concert with Mint Condition, which reciprocated with a New York concert. Jones calls the self-contained (and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis mentored) band "musically our big brothers. Kuti had done promo for their last [major label] album [in 1999], and they always remembered us as their D.C. folks and contacts."
Having been dropped by its major label, Mint Condition is also pursuing an independent course with its own label. Jones says "a lot of people get overlooked [by the majors] but if you have a good work ethic -- and an understanding of the industry -- you can make your way, and there's an African American community busy buying concert tickets and CDs that will support you." Zwei plans to tap into that community for a national tour before starting on a new album next year.
As for labels of convenience to describe Zwei's sound, Jones says "R&B and funk is acceptable. We've done jazz, R&B and rock, but funk is what lays the edge to it. We are Prince's children -- whatever he's tried, we're going to try."
Deborah Bond moved from New Haven, Conn., to Washington to attend American University, majoring in journalism with a minor in music studies. But, Bond admits, the minor became more major "when I started meeting a lot of musical people at AU and decided I wanted to get a little more serious with it." From the start she was able to draw a good crowd to AU's Bender Arena -- by singing the national anthem before games by the men's and women's basketball teams. "I did that for three years and got a lot of great feedback, which pushed me to get more serious," Bond says.
She did some low-budget recording in Leonard Hall in more of a hip-hop/R&B mode. Four years ago, Bond received a grant from the D.C. Arts Commission to cut a three-song demo with guitarist "Robbie Rob" McDonald, bassist Aaron "Funky Chuck" Evans and drummer Kinnard Cherry, who began to work under the name Third Logic. Those songs appeared on her 2003 album, "DayAfter," which will get the remix treatment later this year as "AfterDay," after which Bond hopes to put the finishing touches on a proper follow-up.
"When we started performing together, we got a great response and decided to stick together," says Bond of Third Logic. They've played Blues Alley and New York's Blue Note and opened for Floetry at Warner Theatre. She described the group's sound as "a mixture of smooth and funky soul grooves with a little bit of U.K. soul influence -- Roy Ayers, Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavy-esque." Bond's smooth, velvety vocals fit perfectly into that mix.