The new voice of soul: Jalen N’gonda

By Emma Millward

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I’ve never met anyone who dislikes Motown.  While most musical genres have their fans and detractors, put a Motown or soul track on the jukebox and you know you’re in for a mass sing-a-long.  There’s something about that combination of catchy tunes and exceptional vocals that’s just unbeatable.

Yet even with the rise of the new generation of soul and R’n’B artists like Sam Smith, John Legend and Adele, there hasn’t been any recent musician to mix this modern style with the classic feel of Motown.  Few of their tracks have the timeless feel, the freshness, that the best songs from over half a century ago still seem to have.

Enter Jalen N’gonda.  Hailing from Maryland but based in Liverpool since last autumn, N’gonda’s smooth vocals and sharp arrangements hark back to that famous sixties sound.  Tracks like upcoming single ‘Holler (When You Call My Name)’ showcase the importance of his early musical education in America: “my influences are many of the Motown, Stax and Chicago soul records from the 50’s, 60’s and the 70’s, [but] I listened to a lot of jazz records growing up as well.”  When talking about the contemporary soul scene, it’s clear he learnt these lessons well: “[in America, it] is very influenced by funk, jazz and neo soul, and the soul scene is very similar in Liverpool but it’s more mod blues and Motown influenced.”  Perhaps this depth of knowledge is what allows N’gonda to make songs that feel both new and familiar, and perhaps it’s what the current crop of soul singers are sorely lacking.

N’gonda has put his knowledge to good use, making a name for himself on the local stage in Liverpool.  After being selected to be part of the Liverpool International Music Festival Academy, he has been performing at festivals and working with renowned producer Steve Levine on his first EP.  Perhaps the biggest moment of his career so far came when he was invited to open for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas at Liverpool’s Art Club.  “It was a great experience,” he recalls, “[although] I only got to meet her briefly backstage.”  The soul legend was clearly impressed by his performance, saying “You’re pretty young to be playing the blues like that!”  It seems appropriate somehow, a passing of the baton from one of the revered veterans to a star of the future.  When artists of that calibre are championing a fresh talent, you would be wise to take notice.

For fans of Motown, Sam Cooke, and classic soul.


To find out more about Jalen N’gonda and to hear his music, follow these links: