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Sam And Ruby Blend Music, Culture And Love

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today, we're taking another listen to some of our favorite musical performances of the past year. Our final performance is from the musical duo Sam and Ruby.

Sam Brooker and Ruby Amanfu are not the likeliest of musical pairings. Sam grew up in Wisconsin, learning to play guitar and piano in high school bands. His musical idols range from James Taylor to George Clinton.

Ruby was born in Ghana, raised in Nashville and had her feet firmly planted in church. She developed an R&B sound that briefly caught on in the U.K., but never quite broke through here in the U.S. And yet, when Ruby happened upon Sam playing a tune at a Nashville club, she knew she had found her musical soul mate.

Since 2006, the two have come together to perform all across the country, and they have put together their debut album, titled "The Here and the Now." When they sat down with me last June in front of an audience at NPR Studio 4A, Ruby began by telling me what first attracted her to Sam.

Ms. RUBY AMANFU (Musician): Well, he's hot, first of all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMANFU: Well, just the way he plays and the way he sings. His energy jumps off the page, and so it did for me. And growing up in Nashville, you're around a lot of songwriters and singers already, and you are kind of already skeptical when you go into it.

So I had just gotten back from college, and I was at this venue, and another writer's night, which happens all the time. But this time I was seeing something that didn't happen all the time, which was Sam.

MARTIN: So Sam, did you know about this? What did Ruby do? Did she send you a note? Did she get one of her girlfriends to pass you a note? What did she do?

Mr. SAM BROOKER (Musician): Well, after the fact, we actually - I remember that night, we hung out. We went to some party afterwards, but our relationship was, like, a slow evolution of friendship. And then the music, it didn't even come together until almost three years later, until we wrote a song together.

We were just friends hanging out and just had mutual respect for each other. I'd come watch her shows, and she'd come watch mine.

MARTIN: And it never occurred to you that the sound might work well together?

Mr. BROOKER: No. That's the thing about this project. We feel it was very natural. It just kind of came about when it was supposed to come about. We kind of feel out of control of the situation, actually. But that first song, we would sing it at each other's shows, and that's when we realized that this is pretty special. Our voices had this kind of magical blend that we heard.

MARTIN: Ruby, did you experience it the same way? Because sometimes one person has the idea to work with somebody else, and, you know, it's awkward, especially when you're friends, because you don't want to impose - I mean, there - like, well, not to call names, but I have some friends that I don't want to work with ever, ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMANFU: Right, right.

MARTIN: And I was sort of wondering, did you see it the same way?

Ms. AMANFU: For me, it was very, very surprising. I knew that there was a connection in many ways, but I didn't know that we were going to be a duo. And so with his solo shows, I would come up and guest-sing the harmonies or, you know, sing on the song, and people - it was the people around us who started saying you guys together, there's something there.

So for a couple years, we heard there's something there. There's something there.

MARTIN: What was the song?

Ms. AMANFU: The title track of our album, "The Here and The Now."

MARTIN: OK. "The Here and The Now." Wow. Should we hear that now?

Ms. AMANFU: Sure.

MARTIN: All right, well, let's hear it. The title track is "The Here and the Now," and here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "The Here and The Now")

SAM & RUBY (Musical Duo): (Singing) Come sit with me on the porch where we last had a fight and tell me it's gonna be all right. Look at me straight in the eye and make sure you don't lie 'cause all we've got left is this night, and I'll let my guard come on down 'cause I want your love around.

I'm walking away from my past pride, the here and the now is what we'll make right if we get to see the morning light. Well, that's one more day we get to try, so let's give our love a chance to try. Rome wasn't built in a day so I'm not trying to say that we'll be best friends right away, no. But I do recall better times so I'll just toss up a dime. I'm taking my chances on faith.

If you want me to say I was wrong then I'll say it all night long. I'm walking away from my past pride. The here and the now what we'll make right, if we get to see the morning light. Well, that's one more day we get to try, so let's give our love a chance to try.

Whoa ho, Mm-mm-mm. Whoa ho, Mm, Mm, Mm, Mm. Whoa ho, Mm-mm.

And I'm walking away from my past pride, the here and the now what we'll make right. If we get to see the morning light, well that's one more day we're blessed to try, so let's give our love a chance to try.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Yeah. Woo-hoo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That was "The Here & the Now." It's the title track from Sam & Ruby's new album, "The Here & the Now." You know that has wedding song written all over it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know that, right? I mean it's going to be many babies conceived to that one, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUBY AMANFU (Singer/songwriter): All named Ruby and Sam.

MARTIN: One wants to ask. One wants to know, are you a couple?

Ms. AMANFU: We're a couple of something's for sure.

Mr. SAM BROOKER (Singer/songwriter): We have a very deep relationship, Ruby and I. And sometimes I don't even know how to explain it. It's just, but we make music together and we sing songs and it's special to us. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: That's seems, but I'm always intrigued by that. Like people who have a deep partnership where the emotional connection is very important to the work and then, like figure skating duos, for example. I mean there has to be deep trust and you're together for hours.

Ms. AMANFU: Right.

Mr. BOOKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And sometimes these couples are a couple outside of the work, and sometimes they're not, and I'm just always wondering how that works.

Ms. AMANFU: I watched a lot of figure skating when I was growing up and I wondered the same question, too, because seriously, when they're lifting and embracing and everything, you have to wonder, does that not go outside of that off of the ice? And it wasn't until I stepped into this with Sam that I understood what figure skaters have to do.

Everything that they are experiencing on the ice I think they're feeling genuinely. I think it's a genuine emotion. Just so that's, for instance, when we're on stage together, the things that you see us experiencing we're experiencing them together.

Mr. BROOKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with musicians, Sam Brooker and Ruby Amanfu who're better known as Sam & Ruby. Their new album is titled "The Here & the Now."

You know, I know we're in the Barack Obama post racial age now, or so they tell us, but that wasn't the case when you first teamed up and it still isn't the case in some ways and places.

Music has always been universal, but it's also - has also has its own history of kind of race and the way race connects to the story. And interracial duos are not that common, and so I just wondered what the reaction is? Have you noticed any trends in who comes to see you? Do they ever engage with you on matters of race?

Ms. AMANFU: In terms of engaging with us on matters of race, I don't think it's that deliberate. It's funny to say we notice, potentially, several interracial couples at our shows. But I think in this day and age you, thankfully, notice several interracial couples on the street. And so there are conversations, sometimes, not necessarily directed at that specifically, but I think we found that with the older generation, they do speak to us on how happy they are that we - they feel that we're bringing hope to something that they were fighting for, potentially, in the '60s or something, and they feel that now we're unknowingly carrying that torch. We didn't do it on purpose, but we're happy that we're doing it.

MARTIN: One song I think that many people will associate with you is "Heaven's My Home," since it was featured in the film, "The Secret Life of Bees" starring Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. A version of it was nominated for a Grammy, the version that was recorded by The Duhks, and just if you could tell us a little bit about that song?

Ms. AMANFU: It's one of those songs that you know that you're just happy that you were in the room when it was sent down and you had a pen in your hand and you're happy for that. And we knew that this song was going to have a life of its own.

Whomever(ph) wants to record it, here me now, go for it. We heard that in Nashville on Broadway downtown that there's a man who sings on the street for his supper and he sings this song. How he heard the song, we have no idea. So it's one of those songs that we're happy that it transcends.

MARTIN: Let's here it. "Heaven's My Home."

(Soundbite of song "Heaven's My Home")

SAM & RUBY: (Singing) When I was born, my daddy said I was broken. Beginning of the end of a life I hadn't chosen. He told me how to get along. He told me how to work the system. I never had the time. I never had the luxury.

Life's hard. I've always known that. I've never been handed no welcome mat. When I die, please don't cry 'cause heaven's my home anyhow. Mm-mm, mm, mm, mm. Mm-mm, mm, mm, mm.

Shining my shoes, feels like time for wasting, 'cause this bright sun is the only shine I need. They say you only live once, that the lot you get for keeping, but glory's gonna come and make a new man out of me.

Life's hard. I've always known that. I've never been handed no welcome mat. When I die, please don't cry 'cause heaven's my home anyhow. Mm-mm, mm, mm, mm. Mm-mm, mm, mm, mm.

When I was born, a face was like the angels. I told my father right here; I said life won't be hard now.

Life's hard. I've always known that. I've never been handed no welcome mat. When I die, please don't cry 'cause heaven's my home, Mm.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Yeah. Beautiful.

MARTIN: That is beautiful. That really is. What's it like having a song of yours in a big film like "The Secret Life of Bees?"

Mr. BROOKER: I remember squirming in my seat as the song was coming on, like I hope it sounds good. You know this, the recording that they chose for the film was one that Ruby and I did in my apartment, like this is from our EP like, pre this CD. But we did a good job on it and we're proud of it, and we're glad that the film studio chose that version of it because this is special to us.

MARTIN: I wonder, did the studio know your story when they chose the song.

Ms. AMANFU: They knew our story because we actually went to Los Angeles and performed a little showcase of four songs for Fox Film and TV, and one of the songs we did was "Heaven's My Home." And light bulbs went off in the room they said and it was just a matter of time until they said that song, this film.

MARTIN: Wow, that's interesting. So is there something else that you want to sing for us that kind of let's people know what you're all about?

Ms. AMANFU: Let's do a traveling song.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. AMANFU: This is a song that we wrote in the words of the suitcase. With all of the traveling that we do, not only are our suitcases our companions, because they keep everything you hold most dear. If it were lost, you would be extremely distraught. But we also too, are like suitcases. We're not baggage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AMANFU: ...but, you know, you meet so many people and you take so much away from people that you meet, take so much away from their stories and you carry them, and you hope to protect them, and do right by them. So if a suitcase could talk, what would it say?

MARTIN: Sam Brooker and Ruby Amanfu are known as Sam & Ruby. They were kind enough to stop by NPR's performance studio, Studio 4A before a live audience to visit with us and to play songs from their debut album, "The Here & the Now."

And now we're going to hear "The Suitcase Song."

Sam and Ruby, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. AMANFU: Thank you so much.

Mr. BROOKER: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: To hear more songs and to see a video of Sam & Ruby's performance, please go to our Web site, the new NPR.org, just go to programs and click on TELL ME MORE.

(Soundbite of "The Suitcase Song")

SAM & RUBY: (Singing) I am a suitcase. I am locked tight with all these...

MARTIN: And we're not the only ones recognizing the sweetness of Sam & Ruby. This year, the Associated Press named "The Here & the Now" the top album of 2009. So congratulations to them and thank you for listening to the best performances of the past year. We've got many in store for the next year. But as always, we'd like to hear from you about what music you'd like us to cover in the coming year and what musicians you want to hear perform at NPR. Let us know.

(Soundbite of "The Suitcase Song")

SAM & RUBY: (Singing) Remember when I fell down the stairs...

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Have a happy and healthy 2010. Happy New Year and let's talk more on Monday.

(Soundbite of "The Suitcase Song")

SAM & RUBY: (Singing) I am yours and you are mine because you know that I am strong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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