Kenya Templeton breaks into song the way some women switch from Spanish to English and back again. Like the smell of your mama’s cooking or a song on the radio, Kenya’s voice is somewhere between magical incantation and time machine. Suddenly I see a little girl mimicking Sarah Vaugh to learn jazz. Talk about listening to learn. She had the voice to pull it off.
She didn’t get formal musical training unless you count the choir director who had an MFA and taught her classic hymns. I made the assumption she grew up with a rocking’ gospel choir. Only partly right. She grew up with it all. Her father played trumpet in the US Army band. On the record player at home? Tower of Power. A solid wall of horns. His chosen genre: funk.
Her mother’s voice was more formal, each word enunciated. Every “t” or “p” or “g” crisp and understandable. No mush mouth.
I caught up with Kenya between two gigs – Christmas music and the great Sarah Vaughn. We sit outside on the walkway to her front porch. It’s cool. Temps in the 40’s. We both wear masks. There is more than a little laughter.
I met Kenya four years ago. We played opposite each other in OnQ Performing Arts’ production of DAYS OF ABSENCE. Quentin Talley cast me as the TV correspondent. Kenya played the nurse. I was the only white member of the cast or crew. The rest of the Black cast was almost all in whiteface. We played at Spirit Square’s Duke Energy Theater, the smaller venue behind the McGlohan. It was the first production since the uptown disturbance following the police shooting of yet another black man took yet another life. One night in the McGlohan there was a late campaign rally for the future occupant of the White House. Strange, tense times.
Kenya converted to Judaism in New York after a Hasidic Rabbi approached her in the airport to inquire about a book she was reading. She doesn’t go to Temple in Charlotte. She said she does not feel welcome. I ask her about that. A Black woman converts. Now don’t you know I had sooooo many questions!
Kenya was patient with me. Patient – and kind – and warm. I learned a lot. I’m betting you will too. Her final song, a cappella, clear on that cold morning, gave me a whole new kind of chills.
The @ManListening podcast with Kenya Templeton’s singing and stories drops this Thursday, New Year’s Eve.