Upon taking a first look at Chris Ndeti, it’s obvious that she’s a talented young lady. In fact, she admits that she’s a rarity – a black woman fronting a group of men while playing an acoustic guitar.
Beyond obvious comparisons to 1980s Grammy sensation Tracy Chapman and, more recently, neo-soul guitarist/vocalist India.Arie, Ndeti (pronounced en-detty) is an Augustan and a self-admitted “regular girl” who happens to have lots of talent.
Ndeti can be found these days performing at local venues in both Aiken and Augusta – most recently at Buffalo Wild Wings, Shannon’s and Polo Tavern and at the Augusta Pride Festival – with her band, Mama Says. They also performed at the 2012 Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in Thomson.
The group’s next big gig starts at 6:30 p.m. at the Columbia County Fourth of July Celebration Thursday at Patriots Park. Admission is free.
As lead vocalist of the three-year-old band, Ndeti and her trio of sidemen are on a mission to rewrite Augusta’s traditional focus, which typically finds leading ladies fronting bands solely with microphones.
In Mama Says’ case, Ndeti and her acoustic guitar, offer a unique twist, backed by her powerful soulful vocals reminiscent of a blend between Aretha Franklin and Odetta, the folksy-blues queen who found huge crossover success in the 1960s.
Ndeti says she enjoys a variety of music genres, thanks to her Kenyan father, David Ndeti, and her mother, Lorraine Ndeti, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I have lots of influences,” said Chris Ndeti, who was born in Charlotte, N.C., raised in suburban Atlanta and moved to Augusta five years ago to work as a recreational therapist focusing on Alzheimer’s prevention.
Mama Says includes veteran musician James Heath on bass guitar, Chris Powers on electric and lead guitars and drummer/vocalist Craig Snow as the funky foundation.
Heath says Ndeti is a talent with a bright future.
“There’s no doubt, Chris can someday make it on a national stage. She sings with power and soul, has stage persona and, importantly, she’s easy to work with. And she writes her own songs. That’s pure talent,” added Heath, an Augusta native who worked with Millie Jackson, Percy Sledge and The Commodores.
At 30, Ndeti is married to Rentz McCants, a former roadie in her band. As the youngest of five children, Ndeti describes herself as an “old soul” when it comes to musical influences.
“I love everyone from Bill Withers to Pearl Jam. And I truly love classical music,” added the formally trained violinist, who says her finger strength and dexterity are valuable in “grabbing” guitar chords.
Heath says his role is to promote and lead the group to future success.
“They’re all special players. The talent is there,” said Heath.
Ndeti says the group appreciates Heath’s paternal role.
“We call him ‘Uncle James’ for a reason. We respect where he’s been, his maturity and leadership. He’s been places we’d like to go someday, and soon,” she added with a smile.
Learn more about Mama Says on the band’s Facebook page.