Cabaret is best served in an intimate setting so the Turbine Room at the Powerhouse was the perfect spot for cabaret diva and jazz singer Mama Alto to deliver her beautiful tribute to the iconic American singer Dr Nina Simone, who was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933.
Channelling a gift for interpretation, a love of torch songs and a hunger for equality, Mama Alto’s homage to Nina Simone was a rewarding trip down memory lane with the towering vocalist and her diminutive pianist and musical director Tiffanni Walton (aka Miss Chief) returning to the Wonderland Festival for the third year in a row.
“Dr Nina Simone was one of the most important and unique voices in music history,” Mama Alto says from the stage. “She was a singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist. Her music spanned jazz, blues, folk, R&B, gospel, and pop and tonight we’re going to explore some of those songs. . . Songs that earned her the title, The High Priestess of Soul.”
And in this this stunning tribute to her idol, Mama Alto performs selections from Nina Simone’s vast catalogue to illuminate the singer’s enduring virtuosity, her fire, her power, her genius and her anger. From a song book of hundreds, Mama Alto selects a handful of gems such as ‘Feeling Good’, ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ and ‘Sinnerman’ to name but a few. In true cabaret style, the songs are interspersed with fascinating anecdotes about the life and times of the extraordinary jazz vocalist who went on to release more than 40 albums throughout her career.
From the moment she introduces herself and her pianist – Mama Alto is clearly in control. Her relaxed, easygoing banter, self-deprecating wit and unwavering confidence is absolutely mesmerising to watch – giving her the opportunity to quickly build rapport with her audience. And while her selection of songs, her looks and statuesque frame is impressive, it is her voice that wows everyone. “I have the same vocal range as a female alto or mezzo-soprano so I know it’s a bit confusing for some people to hear a counter-tenor voice coming from a male-looking body,” she says.
Mama Alto is first and foremost an accomplished singer and cabaret artiste who also happens to be a transgender and queer person of colour, working with the radical potential of storytelling; displaying strength in softness and power in vulnerability. She does not attempt to embody the looks, style or dress of the artists she portrays. Instead she presents herself in a truthful and authentic manner. All you see is an exceptionally talented, near seven foot tall singer in a ball gown singing from the heart.
As the evening unfolds, Mama Alto quickly casts her spell, bewitching the audience with her soaring vocals, delicate refrains and anecdotes about the remarkable and feisty Nina Simone. For 60 minutes Mama Alto is Nina Simone and you are with her on an enthralling musical journey of discovery. Bravo!