Over more than 35 years, Ella Andall has been in the music business, she has sung in Europe, Africa, and throughout the Americas—in intimate spiritual ceremonies, theatres, concert halls, sports stadiums and everything in between. She’s performed for the Dalai Lama, Winnie Mandela, inspirational writer Iyanla Vanzant, spiritual leader the Ooni of Ife, late Nelson Mandela, and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and shared the stage with Miriam Makeba. This is the story of a music goddess, who promotes Yoruba ideals all over the world…
Ella Andall never intended to be a professional singer or songwriter
She had every intention of pursuing a career in medicine. But she grew up in a family of artists—poets, singers, and musicians. She was raised on the sound of her mother’s and grandmother’s voices, the strums of her father’s cuatro, the Yoruba of Orisha prayers. And she always sang. “I have always listened to my own voice,” she says. “Because there is something that I wanted to feel, that I wanted to hear, I wanted to give…and I like the sound of my own voice!”
So do many others. Andall’s voice is among the most distinctive and arresting in Caribbean music, with a tremendous range of pitch, colour, and tone. It is at times the mournful wail of a grieving mother, as in “Missing Generation”, “People of Conscience” or “Shame”. At others, it has the piercing and blood-pounding immediacy, authority and ferocity of a warrior cry, as in “Woza (Rise Up)” and “Say My Name”. But always there is an infectious spirit of optimism, resilience, and sheer love of life.
Andall was born in Grenada—one dare not ask the date—and moved to Trinidad when she was eight or nine. She found Trinidad extremely different from Grenada. For the first time, she encountered a discomfort with “blackness”, and distrust of anything “too African”. But she had been raised in a home and a family that had inherited the West African traditions of her ancestors, and she studiously resisted any attempts to remove her from those traditions, even refusing to sing in school choirs where she would be made to sing differently
Andall is an olorisha, or Orisha devotee
It is a way of life that celebrates the ancestors and the divine in nature, with various aspects and forces of the natural world represented in the Orisha, who are each a manifestation of God, or Olodumare. Two of Andall’s CDs—Oriki Ogun and Sango Baba Wa—comprise oriki, or praise songs, sung in Yoruba, to specific Orishas. Two more collections of oriki, in honour of Oshun and Eshu, are due out later this year. Many of the oriki have been passed down through the generations, while some are original compositions. When the Orisha are invoked through chanting and prayer, you can witness—or experience—the kind of manifestations which Andall’s performances are known to produce. You don’t even need to be an Olorisha to experience a manifestation—the Orisha do not discriminate by creed, colour, or any other classification.
Her earliest recordings, including classics like “Different People”, were written by Garfield Blackman (Lord Shorty and then Ras Shorty I), the progenitor of soca music.
All this time, Andall had been gaining international success while defying any kind of musical definition. Despite the popularity of her singles, she faced a great deal of resistance within the Trinidad music industry and calypso fraternity.
With her suites of oriki to Ogun and Shango, her recordings have filled a void
Oriki Ogun has become the soundtrack for every context calling for an authentic African vibration. Trinidadian filmmaker Yao Ramesar used her music in his film Sista God, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. “I have always loved her music,” he says. “For me she ranks right up there with Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald.”
But what drives Andall is not fame, or financial reward
“I am driven by people,” she says. “People make me happy! I do the music so that I can create a change. I understood from quite young how powerful the music is.”
In the home that she and her husband share in Arima, there is a constant turnover of people and the phone is almost always ringing. “My home is like an open house for children of all ages. My oldest one, as she calls herself, is 64, but she comes and we exchange ideas and help one another.”
Does she have down time, private Ella time? “I am working all the time—but I do sleep! I find time to teach children, because my thanksgiving is giving back to the younger ones. I find time to counsel husbands and wives, young and old. I find time to pray, and to teach prayers.
“There’s a phrase we speak in Yoruba: iwapele—divine, noble and upright character. I want to be as great as I can be, the example, so people can follow, so children can follow, and so the world can be a nicer place—or the spot of the world in which I live”.
Adapted from Caribbean Beats