NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Ruby Amanfu and Sam Brooker get a funny look sometimes when they step on stage.
She’s a black woman from Ghana, West Africa. He’s a white guy from Green Bay, Wis. People aren’t sure what to expect.
“We’ve played in towns where we get on stage and people have their arms crossed,” Amanfu recalled with a laugh, “God forbid we have our fiddle player and classical cellist with us.
“Then they hear what we’re doing, and they get it,” she said.
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The “it” is a blend of pop, folk and R&B on their first full-length CD that came out Tuesday, “Sam & Ruby: The Here and the Now.” The music is acoustic-based and comfortable alongside artists like India.Arie and Norah Jones.
Sam & Ruby’s musical connection is as unlikely as it is fortuitous.
Amanfu moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 3, settling in Nashville where her father worked as a computer programmer.
Her parents loved gospel music and the native sounds of their homeland. They were wary of American pop culture and tried to shield their children from it.
“They were definitely concerned about what we were going to become and if we were still going to keep our roots,” she recalled. “Ghanaian children are really respectful of elders and work ethic, and they thought music — secular music — was the first thing to veer us off that path.”
Inspired by Madonna
They had to be horrified when Ruby latched onto Madonna’s 1989 album “Like a Prayer,” with its controversial video featuring burning crosses and religious imagery.
But the record became Amanfu’s entry to pop music.
“That whole album is full of so much whimsy and so much beauty and soul,” she said and began reciting lines from the song “Dear Jessie:” “Pink elephants and lemonade, dear Jessie hear the laughter running through the love parade.”
Amanfu studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and released an electro-pop CD in the United Kingdom. After a year at Berklee, she had a decision to make.
“I could stay in Boston and continue as a songwriting major, or I could come back to Nashville and kick up some dust,” she said.
She went home and made music her career.
Meanwhile, Brooker grew up listening to ‘70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. His father was a musician who encouraged his son to play guitar and sing.
By his late teens, Brooker was performing in bars.
He earned a degree in biology and moved to Nashville where he worked as a genetic researcher by day and a singer-songwriter by night.
From friends to collaborators
He and Amanfu met through a mutual friend in 1999, but it would be years before they’d make music together.
“I didn’t even know that Ruby did music,” Booker recalled of their initial meeting. “That first night we didn’t talk about it or anything like that.”
They became friends and mutual admirers, but as Amanfu put it, “If you have gone to make your life to be a solo artist, it means you probably don’t want to be in a band. You don’t have the capacity to be in a band, and we all know the layers and levels of that. With Sam, it really had to be obvious for us and so natural.”
That moment came when Amanfu was writing a song to pitch for “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” film soundtrack and asked Brooker to help her finish it.
The song, “The Here and the Now,” didn’t make the soundtrack, but it became the catalyst to their musical partnership.
“I’d invite Ruby up to sing it. It was our one song, and you could tell from the response that it was magical,” Brooker recalled.
By 2005, Sam & Ruby were a duo. They’ve played the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and toured the country.
Their voices blend so well that they can’t always tell who’s singing what on the recordings.
“That’s not normal,” Brooker remarked, glancing over at Amanfu.
Neither, it seems, is Sam & Ruby.
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