by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Gaye Adegbalola came a long way to get uppity. The Fredericksburg native has confronted and overcome obstacles, raised a son, met her dreams, and then discovered new ones. She sings about it all, as a founding member of Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women. Born and raised in Virginia, she graduated from Virginia State University with a B.A. in biology, and earned her Master’s in Education from Boston University before returning to her hometown to work as a teacher. In 1982, the Commonwealth named her “Teacher of the Year.” It wasn’t until she was in her forties that she began to seriously pursue music but she did so with focus. “A lot of people sing well and a lot of people play well,” she admits, “but very few people want to do the business part. You have to do the work part of it to make it real. On any given night, there will be a dozen guitar players in the house better than I am. But they might not have done the work.” In 1990, she was chosen for the prestigious Blues Music Award (formerly known as the W.C. Handy Award). A lifelong activist, she devotes her energy to political causes and to human rights. She’s led educational and performing arts groups designed to empower black youth. Gaye credits well-known Richmond arts leader Earle Taylor with encouraging her in music, and her first gig was at a Black Arts Festival organized by Taylor more than 30 years ago. Saffire also features the wit and talent of Ann Rabson on piano, guitar, and vocals, and Andra Faye on fiddle, mandolin, acoustic bass, guitar, vocals. They’re known for tight musicianship, and witty songs and performances that edge into risqué.
How did Saffire find themselves playing a church gig?
We’ve played a lot of places, but not in a lot of churches. The first time that I ever played anywhere publically was because of Earle Taylor. He’s a wonderful photographer. He’s had a gallery on Main St. He’s just a real supporter of the arts. The first time I ever played, Earle asked me to play at a black arts festival. So this is Earle’s church and they asked us to come. Lo and behold, the stars got aligned and here we are. I’m sure that the minute we get there and we have sound check, we’ll ask if anything is off limits. We can play for anyone, any audience at all. We will serve it up accordingly.
After playing for so long, how do you keep inspired as a band and personally?
It’s a very hard life and it’s not a really lucrative life. But we are making a living doing what we love. I made more money as a school teacher, so that should say something. We didn’t go on the road until I was 44 years old. There’s hope if you want to do something in life. We were offered a second chance. People thought we were a novelty. A novelty act wears thin after a while. People said ok, they’re all women. Then it was all old women. Then it was, they’re old bawdy women. Then it was old, bawdy women who make good music. It took a while before people recognized what we were doing.
What would you like people to know about Saffire that they may not?
We are ethnically diverse. Ann is a Jewish person who was raised in academic families in the West. Andra likes to say that she’s a hillbilly and her family’s from Tennessee and Indiana. Of course I am African American raised in Virginia. Each of us brings a different taste to the music, but all three of us are steeped in the blues.
What is the blues to you?
The music grew out of oppression and it grew out of a broken heart. Blues was originally played by black people but a broken heart is universal. Love is love. Blues is a healing thing. A big difference between gospel and blues is with gospel, you’re looking for salvation later on. With blues, it’s looking for salvation right now. Sometimes you have to find humor in the pain. That’s one of the beautiful things about the blues. It’s not sad music. It’s music of liberation. It’s music of empowerment. It’s music of how to pick yourself up and roll on. They say a lot of times in the blues, you sing about that which gives you trouble. People will say we’re hard on the men. But that’s not true, you just sing about what gives you trouble. You get it out. You get the pain out.
Tell me about when you and Ann met.
Our very first gig ever was at Unitarian fellowship. When I heard Ann play, it was like, “Oh, I want to take lessons from her.” I followed her around for about three years. At the time, she was living in Richmond. She used to play at Bogart’s and I used to go see her. I would drive down to Richmond on Sundays and we would go to that park over by VCU and that’s where we had our lessons. Richmond is pivotal to Saffire. Later on we played at the State Fair. Most recently, we played at the Science Museum down there. We used to play at a place called Flood Zone. Richmond has been very good to us.
What’s in Saffire’s future?
We are going in the studio next Monday. We’ll be having a rehearsal Friday and a day long rehearsal on Sunday then we go in the studio all of next week. You can look for a new CD in the first quarter of next year. It’s all new material. We’ve been working on dozens of songs. At this point, we’ve narrowed it down to 21 songs. That will be narrowed down to about five each and one group song.
What can people coming to see you Sep. 20 expect?
They should expect some brand new material and they also should expect our quote-unquote, “hits.” We usually respond to requests. We will check with the church to see if anything is off limits [laughs]. Songs like, “No Use Pi–ing On a Skunk…” I don’t know if the word makes it bad when the message makes it good. It’s a real powerful statement said in a funny way. It’s such a good word, it sounds like what it is. But I don’t know if it’s right to say in a church. [laughs]
Saffire performs Sep. 20, 7 p.m. at All Saints School 3418 Noble Ave. Info 291-7238. Tickets for the show are $30, and include light hors d’oeuvres and beverage. The performance is sponsored by St. Paul’s Catholic Church.