Neo-soul sisters gather force, demand attention

With 13 Grammy nominations going to a pair of rookie soul singers, India.Arie and Alicia Keys, soul music is industry-certified as the latest big thing. Grammy choosers might even be on to something. The fast rise of these two performers and the general acclaim flowing toward their peers – including Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Angie Stone – have the feel of a movement gathering force and demanding attention.

This surge of artists who share ideas and influences even has a name: neo-soul. And if every trend scatters the one before it, the neo-soul train should be rolling right over the crude rappers, dishy divas and randy romeos who have dominated – some say debased – black popular music of late. If anyone takes offense at Keys’ current hit, “A Woman’s Worth,” it might be the rappers accustomed to portraying women as disposable playthings.

That Keys wrote or co-wrote most of “A Minor’s” 15 tracks speaks to another tenet of soul: Musical ability is a must. Schooling in music – formal or informal, in church choirs or conservatories – is a hallmark of the evolution of soul and a recurring fact in the biographies of soul-music greats: Southern lights Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Isaac Hayes and Al Green; Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder out of Motown; Curtis Mayfield from Chicago; Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, creators of the orchestral Philadelphia sound.

The stars of new soul bring some of that dedication to craft to their work. Keys, from New York, is a classically trained pianist. The Atlanta-based Arie sang in school choirs and learned her way around a whole section of brass and wind instruments: saxophone, clarinet, recorder.

The electric-not-electronic vibe, sophisticated arrangements and sharp production of the typical new soul record are reflections of an ethic that says: Musical knowledge matters; mastery of instruments is important; software cannot replace a good live band because software has no soul.

Keys has said that she grew up listening to hip-hop, but had a course-changing revelation at age 13: She got a copy of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic, “What’s Going On.”

The influence of Gaye and Wonder on Keys’ music is audible.

Many fans of classic soul are elated by the arrival of Keys and others. The only thing that bugs Bob Davis, founder and owner of the Web site, is the labeling.

He argues that so-called neo-soul is “actually a continuation of music from the 1970s and part of the 1980s that got pushed into the background with the advent of rap music. There’s nothing ‘neo’ about it.” Davis sees Badu, for example, as a direct descendent of jazz-influenced singers such as Nina Simone and Marlena Shaw. He calls one of the soul revival’s less famous talents, the mighty-voiced Sandra St. Victor, “a great gut-check soul singer, like an Aretha or a Chaka (Khan).”

He also feels that the Grammy rush to praise Keys and Arie ignores slightly older, more seasoned performers such as female vocalist N’Dambi and St. Victor, who used to sing in an inventive soul band called The Family Stand. Davis is not alone in his critique. Some observers have argued that among women in contemporary soul, Scott and Stone are making the more skillful and interesting music, but aren’t garnering as much attention because, unlike Keys and Arie, they don’t look like the media’s narrow ideal of glamour.

The worry is that, as often happens, excessive attention will inflate the trend beyond all reason and recognition. The Grammys are rushing in to consummate the coup _ seven nominations to Arie, six to Keys, five of which she now claim her own. Record companies, in turn, can be relied on to saturate the market with Keys-Arie knockoffs and make everybody sick of soul.

The only brake on that tendency is that gifted soul musicians are harder to replicate than teen-pop divas.