Singer Amenta Abioto thinks of herself as a magician. Don't worry, that doesn't mean she goes around pulling quarters out from behind the ears of the audience. She's referring to a more universal kind of magic—that of the human mind, and its capacity to create.
âI guess Iâm the magic,â she says over the phone from Seattle, letting out a loud, echoing laugh. âAmenta is the magic.â
If that sounds a bit hippie-dippy (or Harry Potterish), after witnessing Abioto live, it's hard to argue that her music isn't borne of some sort of wizardry. The 21-year-old, who grew up in Memphis and now splits her time between Portland and Seattle, can build whole worlds out of only a loop pedal, a single drum and her shape-shifting voice. Improvising layers of beatbox percussion, hummed basslines and shades of other vocal coloring, Abioto crafts an alchemist's blend of neo-soul, jazz, Afrocentric funk and punkish experimentalism, emanating almost entirely from her own throat. Though she speaks of the power of the mind, in her wild, free-range performances, Abioto operates straight from the gut, contorting her singing voice on a dime, morphing from gospel-esque emoting to feral growling to damn near speaking in tongues. It's bracing, mystifying and, yep, quite magical.
Abioto can't really explain how her style developed, though the roots of it seem to stretch back to her upbringing in Tennessee. She grew up in a home that valued personal expression. Her mother worked as a lawyer but was also a writer and chef. Her father, meanwhile, taught African drumming, and there were always traditional instruments lying around the house. Her music's sense of spirituality, too, is informed by the religious grab bag that surrounded her childhood. She spent her youth going to Baptist church with her grandparents, while her parents were members of the Nation of Islam. Later, after splitting from Abioto's father, her mother began exploring older forms of black spiritualism. Abioto says she was never pushed to adopt one belief system over another, so she created her own. "My music is my religion," she says.
Even so, it took Abioto a while to find the voice she is now so dependent on. After cutting her teeth in an electronic-music project, she decided it was best to strike out on her own. She tried writing her ideas down, but found that didn't work. By the time of her first show, in a friend's basement, she'd determined it'd be best to just get in front of people and see what happened.
"It was something I didn't know I could do," she says. "I was in the moment and pouring out whatever came to me. It flipped and flopped, and I really enjoyed it. People were dancing and going crazy and shouting, and that's different for Portland."
Since then, Abioto has continued exploring solo improvisation: Her album, Opening Flower Hymns—in which she channels "the voices of the stars above and the flowers below"—was also made alone with a microphone. She says she struggles with self-doubt, but she's figured out one thing: Her magic works best by herself.
"I like playing with people, but sometimes, I guess, it's kind of hard to work with me. I'm sort of crazy," Abioto says, laughing. "I'm everywhere. And that's why I like being by myself: I can be everywhere, and I can keep up with myself."
SEE IT: Amenta Abioto plays Backspace, 115 NW 5th Ave., with Stepkid, on Friday, Aug. 23. 8 pm. $6. 21+.