British-Nigerian singer, actress, painter and general ball of energy Patti Boulaye is to sing her autobiographical show at The Crazy Coqs from March 4-8. I interviewed her ahead of the show. Read it here:
British-Nigerian singer, actress and artist Patti Boulaye is to sing her autobiographical show at the Crazy Coqs from March 4-8. This bubbly, exuberant and frankly extraordinary force of nature, much better known for her West End work and huge projects e.g leading a 5,000 strong choir down Pall Mall in 2002 for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, not to mention her major philanthropic works in her native Africa, is to sing in a small, intimate space with just a pianist for accompaniment.
“Actually, when I first started my career in Hair all those years ago, I had no idea about show business – not a thing! I did cabaret in lots of places for five years. It gave me the grounding I needed. It is much harder than singing in a large venue, where people have come because they adore you, and even if you drop the microphone, they will cheer. In cabaret, you really have to work!”
She pointed out that it also gave her a real instinct of how she was going to be received, whether the audience was going to be hard work or whether it was ‘party time’; experience which stood her in good stead when dealing with committees and groups with her charity work.
She feels that to be an entertainer is to be “a public servant”. People may have travelled miles, gone through hell to get to the venue, really looked forward to a night out with the girls etc, so she has never cancelled an engagement in her life. She has no time for divas – “Our job is to help people forget about the cares of their lives for a couple of hours.”
Initially, Patti arrived in England at the age of 16 to talk to the Sisters in a convent about becoming a nun. Staying with her sister, who was often out at work, she was often alone and so went off sight-seeing. Heading for Madame Tussauds, she passed a long queue by St Giles and noticed a picture of a head with a lot of hair, similar to the then poster for Tussauds. She joined the queue, and a couple of hours later was at the Stage Door asking how much it was to get in. The Stage Door keeper explained it was an audition. She had never heard of one. He said she had to sing. So, she went in with a small group and sang from The Sound of Music ( ..well, she wanted to be a nun, didn’t she?). It turned out they were looking for a soprano to sing the Hari Krishna song and no sopranos were auditioning for Hair – they had been looking for two weeks, and she had the highest note.
Her father, a strict Catholic, was appalled and disowned her for three years.
I asked her if her faith informed the material she sang.
“My religion has never been blinkered. Although my father was a Catholic, my mother is Anglican and brought up nine very different children, loving each of them the same. I think God is like that, so I never judge another faith. If Hare Krishna is a peace song or protest song, if it tells a story, bring it on! When so many choirs came together for the Queen’s Jubilee, there was a Jewish choir, and I got them to sing “Oh, Happy Days” and “Amazing Grace. For myself, I choose any song where I can put emotion across and tell a story. It doesn’t matter what it is!”
Her faith is like that of a child, with an implicit trust. She is still surprised she survived the Biafran war in the 1970s. Her mother, though ill-educated herself, raised her nine children, each of whom – except Patti, notably – became eminent in their respective field of science. One is an industrial scientist, one a pharmacist, and so on. When her mother catches Patti moaning or complaining, she reminds her: “Think back – when did you ever have control?”
So, what can we expect in the Crazy Coqs?
She will sing from shows she was in, including Carmen and The Black Mikado, as well as some less well known material close to her heart, including a racy song written by eighty four year old Alberta Hunter called “Rough and Ready Man” – looking forward to that!
Just seen the show and want to write a few words about it.
This is Patti’s comeback after a fourteen year gap, when she concentrated on her charity work, building no less than five clinics and a school in Africa, and doing much to educate villagers about AIDS.
Understandably, she was nervous about returning to the stage after such a long time away, but she needn’t have worried. Once she found her feet and got comfortable up there, her artistry and natural communicative abilities soon won us over.
After the big sing numbers of ‘Habanera’ (Carmen Jones) and ‘The Sun Whose Rays’ (The Black Mikado), she gave us her unique interpretations of familiar numbers such as ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ and ‘Memory’, and I also very much liked the romantic ‘Sealed With A Kiss’.
But for my money, it is the blues/soul numbers that set her apart from other singers. Here, it is almost as if she has discovered a new milieu for herself- very strong and affecting.
There were saucy numbers laden with double-ententre, including the witty ‘Rough and Ready Man’, songs that could be her moto ‘Ain’t Nobody’s Business’ and the huge ‘My Way’, but the most raw and lacerating Etta James songs ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and ‘At Last’ caused the audience to erupt.
Beautiful and talented daughter Aret was a great addition to the programme, singing ‘God Bless the Child’ with great musicality and performance presence. Charmingly, her five month old son was there to support her.