It is Saturday night at Village Market’s Tamambo Tapos Bar in Nairobi. With a microphone in her hand, musician Denise Gordon belts out Wangu We, a gutsy, earnest rasp about love.
With three back-up singers by her side, Gordon’s voice is easy on the ear. It is not many musicians who can sound better live than on their album.
“I am very proud of Denise. While she was growing up in New York she never said she wanted to become a singer. She only took to singing seriously when she came to Africa,” says Gordon’s 87-year-old mother, Naomi Gordon.
This is her sixth performance at Village Market since she launched her debut album, Wangu We, in 2006 at a concert in New York City’s Thomasina’s pub. Robert Kamanzi produced the album.
Many of her fans usually ask why she never did it sooner. “I would have been happy being a back-up singer for Mariah Carey. That was the most I aspired to,” she says. “What I am doing now I never thought back then.”
Unlike other musicians, Gordon started her music journey late in life. The 50-year-old American realised her music dream in Africa. She attends voice classes at Nairobi’s Brookhouse School and is a regular visitor at producer Kamanzi’s studios.
“She is a performer and a go-getter. Though she did not have prior experience, it is quite unusual for someone to discover their passion in music at her age,” says her voice instructor, Gacigi Kung’u.
Her songs have endeared her to her close circle of fans in Nairobi. She fuses English with Kiswahili. Maisha and African Flava are some of the songs she wrote with Africa in mind.
A friend, Regina-Re, a renowned TV personality says: “She is energetic and passionate on stage. She brings her songs to life.”
She first came to Kenya in 1979, as a volunteer with the American Peace Corps and stayed for six weeks.
A week ago, Gordon sang at the Divas Valentine Dinner attended by MP Martha Karua.
“I sing because I have a talent, I sing because I love to sing and because I love writing songs. I love the reaction from the people who hear me sing,” says Gordon.
The balance between her passion in music and her consultancy in humanitarian work is what she strives to achieve everyday. She has previously worked in Senegal, Mali, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Her interest in music was nurtured in Queens, New York. Her father, a communication officer with an oil company, was an ardent singer who squeezed time to sing after work in bars for fun.
She sang in public for the first time at her school’s graduation when she was 13.
While in Kigali in April 1995, where she had gone for a rotary event, she discovered her talent.
“It was a piano bar band and they were doing American top 40. They kept on playing and I would say, ‘I know that song’, I found out where they rehearsed and went down to the rehearsal,” says Gordon. She regularly practised with the band and eventually became a vocalist.
“They were very welcoming. I wasn’t being paid. After a while they found I was serious about it,” says Gordon.
The artiste, who once did a curtain raiser for South African reggae musician Lucky Dube, has also shared the stage with Gladys Knight and Lauryn Hill at the world famous Apollo Theatre in New York.
Gordon says and wants to set up an arts centre. She is working on music by divas such as Miriam Makeba with Regina-Re and June Gachui.