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Tuning In: Afra Kane feels blessed every time she steps on stage

In “Tuning In”, we delve into the lives and loves of the people behind the tracks you love — and the ones they love, as well. In this edition, we talk to Café Carlyle’s newest resident guest artist, the pianist, singer and songwriter, Afra Kane.

You’d be hard-pressed to put Afra Kane, and her music, into a tidy box. But that’s the way she likes it. The winner of the Montreux Jazz Talent Award 2019 is a blend of talents (singer, songwriter, pianist, producer, composer) and styles (jazz, classical, gospel, Motown) that span eras, cultures and geographical lines, only further bolstered by her mixed Nigerian and Italian heritage and a vocal power that stops you dead in your tracks.

She’s also, she tells me — and I’ll have to take her word for it — much funnier in Italian.

Kane dropped her first EP, Scorpio, the same year she won the award, and is currently preparing to release her first full album, Hypersensitive, in 2022. And this November, she’s begun her residency at Rosewood Hotel Group’s private members club, Carlyle & Co., taking centre stage at Café Carlyle, the supper club named for and modelled after the iconic Upper East Side institution that gave the room its Old Manhattan-inspired interiors and vibe.

Fresh out of her Hong Kong quarantine, she’s already begun to enchant the Café Carlyle audience — as good a reason as any to secure your membership now — so we took the opportunity to tune in with Kane to get her words on her influences, her music and what comes next.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Tuning In with Afra Kane

What was your first instrument or training with music?

My first instrument was piano, I studied classical piano for 15 years.

Did you grow up around music? Does it run in your family?

Funnily enough none of my family members are musicians, but music was always played in the house, especially gospel and afro-gospel music, so there was a lot of singing around and in church.

What does music mean to you?

Music is my sacred, secret garden. It’s my safety, my anchor, my confidence as well as my fear and struggle, because being a musician isn’t a breeze, but I would never consider another path.

What’s the first song you’ve ever learned by heart?

If we’re saying church songs for kids, I’d say Jesus Loves Me; if we’re talking about pop music, If I Ain’t Got You by Alicia Keys.

When did you realise you were musical? Can you pinpoint a formative moment when you realised you were good?

I’ve always been musical in the sense that I always used to improvise songs with words that didn’t make sense from when I was about three. It’s hard to pinpoint a particular moment, of course I have won some prizes — not many — during my classical piano formative years, but in classical piano the competition is staggering; no matter how good you get, you never feel like you’re good enough.

With singing and songwriting, I always knew I had some ease. I never had singing lessons; everything came naturally to me, and I guess that was thanks to a quite exhausting musical education I had, and my creative nature as a child.

How have the different cultural influences in your life shaped you as an artist?

The cultural influences shaped me into a hypersensitive, aware human and artist. Growing up with multiple backgrounds and living in different countries allow you to live different perspectives and enrich you in ways that I wish anyone could experience. Growing up in an African household means I’ve naturally integrated complex rhythms and harmonising abilities simply from hearing my mom sing, or attending Nigerian worship congregation as a child. Growing up in Italy started me on classical music education and music theory. 

What’s a song, album or performance that had a really important, lasting impact on you, both personally and as an artist?

For album, I’d say Songs in A Minor by Alicia Keys, to name one. As for performances, That’s What Friends are For by Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto by Martha Argerich. Saint Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 2 by Arthur Rubinstein. Scriabin’s Vers la Flemme, interpreted by Horowitz. Nature Boy by Nat King Cole. Benjamin Clementine’s Tiny Desk Live.

Who’s your favourite musician? Name up to three and how they inspired you.

Aretha Franklin, for singing. Nina Simone, for owning up to who I was and where I stand as an artist. Alicia Keys, for songwriting.

Is there anyone — both up-and-coming and established greats — whose work you’re currently really excited about?

Lido Pimienta’s latest album Miss Colombia; Pamela Badjogo, I was listening to her album the other day; and Laura Mvula’s new album, Pink Noise.

What’s your creative process?

Completely alone, I sit on the piano. I may start with a chord pattern on which I improvise a melody and lyrics, and then I develop that idea and try and turn it into a song.

What are your five most-played tracks on Spotify?

Strange by Celeste. Overcome by Laura Mvula. Green Aphrodisiac by Corinne Bailey Rae. Nada by Lido Pimienta. Things I Imagined by Solange. Two more? How Deep Is Your Love by PJ Morton. Cut by Moses Sumney.

Do you have any pre- or post-show rituals?

My pre-show rituals are warming up my voice, praying and getting in the zone with affirmations and thankfulness thoughts. Every chance to be on stage is a blessing for me.

What’s the toughest challenge you’ve had to overcome in your career?

Challenges never end, really. However, I’d say the release of my first body of work, Scorpio, right with my first US tour back in 2019. 

Are you excited to come to Hong Kong?

Beyond excited, I’m thrilled!

A recent performance at Café Carlyle. (Courtesy: Caryle & Co.)

What does it mean to be able to share your music with the Café Carlyle crowd?

It means to share my music with a Hong Kong audience for the very first time. Test the reception, see what works, what doesn’t and, ultimately, doing what I love the most every day.

How was quarantine? What did you do while you were in there?

Lots of practice on voice, piano and sax. A bit of exercise, meditation and working on the release of my next project.

What’s next? What are you working on?

I’m working on my first album, Hypersensitive, which will be out next year. I’m also working on my next residency, album release party and tour. Exciting times!

What do you want the world to know about Afra Kane?

I want the world to know that I try to be as authentic as possible, I’m always working on becoming myself, evolving as a human being as much as an artist, and as a perfectionist I can be quite hard on myself sometimes. However, although I can appear distant and stoic at times, I am very private, sensitive, emotional, empathic and loving, I just don’t always allow people to see it. Also, I’m a lot funnier in Italian than in the other three languages I speak, for obvious reasons.

Afra Kane will be the resident guest artist at Café Carlyle from 14 November, 2021 to 2 January, 2022. For more info on Carlyle & Co., click here.

Carlyle & Co., Victoria Dockside, 18 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong, +852 3891 8910

(Courtesy: Carlyle & Co.)

Nathan Erickson
Editor-in-Chief
Made in Seoul and based in Hong Kong, Nathan has covered food, fashion and music from New York to Paris to Oaxaca. He enjoys street photography, buying too many hooded sweatshirts and he'll never turn down a tequila soda. Catch him on weekends hiking trails all over Hong Kong in hopes of finding his idol, Chow Yun-fat.