We’ve been taught to think of American soul music as this miraculous exteriorization of the human spirit, but Kelela is proving that the miracle can be worked in reverse. Her tomorrow-sound comes out of the greater soul tradition, but her singing, with all of its intimacy and discipline, flips the polarity. Instead of pushing the inside out, she draws the outside in. Maybe instead of soul music, psyche music.
Never has Kelela’s interiority felt more visible than on “Aquaphoria,” an ambient mix that she and her collaborator, Asmara, released on SoundCloud in June. Whether the singer is drifting through a chiming Jaco Pastorius riff or a mutant Autechre drone, her voice seems to be making more space within the music and inviting us inside.
And while the title “Aquaphoria” hints at the idea of the mythical underwater nation of Atlantis as an Afrofuturistic utopia — a notion previously memorialized in Sun Ra’s cosmic jazz and Drexciya’s visionary techno — it also describes the big-time joy of hearing each of these songs liquefy into one another. With her mixture of blurred words, circular phrases and vague vowels, Kelela always moves the ambiance forward, vocalizing in a way that feels as delicate and diffuse as inner monologue. Let’s not forget that we each carry a limitless, three-pound waterworld inside of our heads. The human imagination is liquid.
Over the past year, Kelela has been testing the adaptability of her voice. She performed with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in October, and on Sunday night in Washington, the District native put on a grand homecoming show, helping celebrate the opening of the Kennedy Center’s new Reach pavilions with a stunning performance alongside the Bandwagon, the esteemed jazz group featuring pianist Jason Moran, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits.
With the trio matching Kelela’s careful touch, the first words to float off the singer’s lips presented another little aesthetic paradox: “Falling into the sky.” It was the opening line of “Waitin’,” a song about the delirium of longing, but while presenting immersion as a type of ascension, she sank into the Bandwagon’s music by rising up to meet it. Between tunes, however, Kelela framed her position more straightforwardly. “I write breakup music,” she said. “Tears and fears.”
But tears are liquid, too, and so many feelings slide around on them. During “Frontline,” she recounted a romantic disintegration in a voice that was stung and defiant: ”I ain’t gonna sit here with your blues.” Then Moran pivoted to his electric piano and joined Mateen in a groove so exquisite, Kelela couldn’t help but break the mood. “I love my life,” she said to the crowd, smiling.
It felt like another invitation into her brain — a place where love, sorrow, resentment, desire, triumph, grief, gratitude and so many other feelings are continuously splashing around in a simultaneity of emotion. Sink into her music, and it’s easy to feel the same way.