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Shutesbury native Kete continues on "The Voice"

By Steve Pfarrer
Daily Hampshire Gazette / March 3, 2012
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NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—Naia Kete has been performing her music in front of people for years -- in clubs and cafes, in private settings, and on public squares. The experience, she says, has long helped her master stage fright and turn any nervousness into positive energy.

But on Feb. 20, when the 22-year-old Shutesbury native walked onto the set of NBC's singing competition "The Voice" in front of a live audience and millions of TV viewers, her normal calm crumbled -- at least for a moment.

"I had just felt excited, really pumped up, right until the moment I walked through those doors and saw the audience and those four chairs," Kete said in a phone call Wednesday from Southern California. "That completely freaked me out. I suddenly felt really shocked, really nervous."

Kete, a singer/songwriter and guitarist who moved to the Los Angeles area two years ago to advance her career, was taking part in a blind audition on "The Voice," in which four musical coaches sit with the their backs turned to the contestants, judging them on their voices alone. To pick an auditioner, a coach hits a button on a console by his or her chair, which turns the chair around to face the singer.

In Kete's case, once she'd gotten over her initial moment of stage fright -- "I looked at the audience and just tried to focus on how much I wanted to do this," she said -- success came quickly. One of the coaches, country singer Blake Shelton, lit up with a smile and hit the button by his chair after Kete sang the first few lines of the Bruno Mars song "The Lazy Song." Just moments later, another coach, rapper and hip-hop artist Cee Lo Green, also hit his button and swung around to view Kete.

And just like that, Kete, who grew up in a family of performing musicians in the Valley and joined the group herself at age 12, had passed her audition. "It was just an incredible experience, to get this far and to have a chance to go further," she said. "Music has been my life for so long -- it's great to be taking this next step."

On "The Voice," now in its second season, the 48 contestants who make it through the blind audition are assigned, in groups of 12, to each of the musical coaches to form teams. Each of those teams then competes against one another later in the season, and members of each team must compete against each other as well. The coach's job is to select a song for his or her team to sing and to work with individual members to strengthen their performance.

In Kete's case, she had to choose which coach to work with, since both Shelton and Green had given her their stamp of approval. Kete said she's long been a big fan of Green's music and had actually hoped he would choose her for his team.

But she also had to consider Shelton's reaction: On the show he said to her, "The minute you started singing, you just made me smile. ... I fell in love with your voice."

"I was so touched by how excited he was," Kete said. "He seemed so genuine, that he really wanted to work with me." Joining Blake's team made sense, Kete says, since a coach's enthusiasm is important for carrying a singer through the competition.

Plus, she said, she's done some co-writing with a few country music singers and has also spent time in Nashville. "I'm excited to think about how working with Blake might help my songwriting ... (country singers) are really, really good songwriters."

Local roots

Kete has long been caught up in different kinds of music - reggae, folk, R&B, world music -- as her mother, Kalpana Devi, and stepfather, Emmanuel Manou, are founders of the longtime Valley reggae band Black Rebels. Kete remembers singing as a young girl with the group after their shows and rehearsals, and she joined them formally on stage at age 12. She also took up the acoustic guitar and began writing songs.

Kete's father, Wes Brown, is a Turners Falls musician.

Although she attended the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public High School in South Hadley at one point to work on music, she eventually opted to get her GED outside of school, in part because she was involved in several other projects, including teaching African dance. She also attended the Institute for Musical Arts in Goshen, a program for young female musicians, whose owners gave her the financial backing for her first CD, "Sweet Music."

After gigging in clubs in the Valley and in cities such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia, she moved to Studio City, a Los Angeles neighborhood, in 2010 with her brother, Imani Devi-Brown, and her boyfriend, Lee Madeloni. The trio at first had to take the proverbial day jobs to make ends meet: Kete did telephone fundraising for a nonprofit group, a 40-hour-a-week job that she says didn't leave much time for music.

But eventually she began doing street performing in a popular area in Santa Monica, the Third Street Promenade, on her own on weekends; the response from listeners was very good, she says. Her brother, a drummer, and her boyfriend, a bassist, soon joined her, and for the past year the trio has been able to make enough money from the Santa Monica gig, playing there about four days a week, to chuck their day jobs. They've also played in clubs and cafes in the Los Angeles area.

All the regular playing has really sharpened her singing and the band's chops, added Kete, who counts Bob Marley, Norah Jones and Bruno Mars among her influences.

Kete notes that she had to pass through several initial audition rounds to make it to Monday's appearance on "The Voice," all of which took place last fall. Getting this far, she said, "is a huge affirmation. It really does give me the idea that I can win this thing ... but mostly I'm happy to be where I am right now."

Indeed, she says it's important for her to look at her appearance on the show as just one step in a long process. She'd previously watched episodes of other talents shows like "American Idol" and "The X-Factor," as well as last year's edition of "The Voice" -- and too often, she says, she'd find herself getting caught up in the drama of which contestants would make it to the next episode.

"I was really psyching myself out," she said. "I had to stop watching."

For now, she's enjoying the glow of having been on TV, and she's been fielding media inquiries and racking up emails and Twitter posts from viewers.

"People have been really nice, and I'd like to respond to them, but the numbers are pretty overwhelming," Kete said.

She's also attracted some Internet buzz: "Blinded by Sound," a music blog site that tracks contestants on "The Voice," said Kete displayed "a silky, fluttery voice that was perfect for Bruno Mars' `The Lazy Song' ... I've been hearing a lot of hype about two or three others from (Monday's) show and hardly a mention of this girl. Dark horse alert."

Even if she doesn't make it to the finals of the show or get chosen the program's winner, Kete figures the opportunity to work with an established musician like Blake Shelton and her exposure on TV will lead to some new opportunities; her rendition of her audition song, "The Lazy Song," is already up for sale on iTunes.

"I think this whole thing is going to be a lot of fun," she said.

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