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Elsy Wameyo at Phoenix Central Park

Elsy Wameyo took advantage of the intimate space with a set that showcased her impressive range, from a slower Swahili-language track to the rave-ready heights of ‘River Nile’.

On Thursday at Phoenix Central Park, Kenyan-born Australian singer-songwriter Elsy Wameyo brought her Nilotic tour to Sydney with awe-inspiring vocals and presence. 

The venue is one that many artists would find intimidating. With only one wrap-around row of seating in front of a single row of standing attendees on the stairs, approximately 100 people in total were packed into the intimate venue. Yet, Wameyo managed to command the space and audience entirely, with attendees chanting and being brought to their feet throughout the duration of her densely-packed, one-hour set.

Beginning with ‘The Call’, Wameyo allowed her band to gradually play her in before emerging on a balcony to great applause. Her spoken-word introduction was direct and unambiguous: “As dark as the night sky. Eyes bloodshot red. Melanin richer than gold.

With sonic chants and hollers providing a backdrop to many of her songs, her higher-tempo tracks recall what she describes as “a fusion of gospel and traditional sacred sounds”. But when she slowed things down, her voice and production were truly able to shine. Wameyo’s more serene tracks ‘Intuition’ and ‘Outcast’ showcased her extensive vocal ability and the musical talents of her band. 

Her band comprised two keyboard players, a percussionist, a guitarist, a bassist, and a trumpeter, all of whom she introduced in a section of improvisational jazz, by  allowing each musician to showcase their abilities to thunderous applause. Although they each shone in their own right, their union was sublime in its depth and energy. Daniel Isler,the band’s trumpeter, delivered a standout performance, with solos that were both soulful and full of life.

Of Wameyo’s entire set, ‘Never There’ was the most affecting. Even at a slower tempo, a dead-silent audience stood in awe of her lyrical and vocal skills as Wameyo took centre-stage bathed in a red spotlight. The building itself is as much an art space as a music venue; a distinctively intimate space that demanded focus from both attendees and Wameyo herself. Yet even within a space that lends itself to close attention throughout the performance, Wameyo managed to stun attendees with her deeply emotional delivery of poetic yet earnest lyrics, as the track gradually built to an emotional climax. 

Wameyo closed out with ‘River Nile’, a more festival-ready track with a percussive feel and strong bassline. Even within this tight set, she managed to showcase her technical skill and ability to enthral the audience, while cultivating an interpersonal connection with the audience in songs like ‘Sulwe’ —  a song entirely in Swahili. Showcasing the breadth of her oeuvre and a rave-like energy, Wameyo brought the audience to their feet and to ecstasy with her final song.

To farewell the audience, Wameyo returned to the upper balcony for a short reprise, repeating her closing lyric — ‘should’ve invested the first time’.

No disagreements here: I’m investing now.

Tickets to Phoenix Season VI are available now for no cost, exclusively via ballot.