Sun, 05 Jan 2003

Family matters for R&B singer Ingram

Primastuti Handayani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Attending a gala dinner with James Ingram was the best way to spend New Year's Eve, not only because of his songs that took me back to the '80s, but also to fulfill my curiosity to see a live performance by the 1981 Grammy winner.

The ballroom of the Hotel Mulia Senayan was packed with almost 750 people on Tuesday evening. It was only four hours before midnight, and everyone was gearing up to welcome 2003.

A performance by Bandung-based comedy group Project Pop managed to charge the atmosphere before the real star of the evening appeared onstage.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome James Ingram...!" the MC announced at a quarter to eleven. While all eyes were glued to the stage, the R&B singer entered unexpectedly from the rear of the ballroom.

Despite his three-year hiatus from recording new albums, Ingram successfully riveted the audience to their seats as he performed his hits, including Just Once -- the song that won him the 1981 Grammy, I Don't Have the Heart, Somewhere Out There, Whatever We Imagine, Baby Come to Me and R. Kelly's I Believe I Can Fly.

Watching Ingram's performance on stage reminded me of our conversation a day earlier when he gave an one-on-one interview.

Ingram's manager and wife, Debbie Ingram, warmly welcomed me with an initial question as to my pregnancy, then went on with stories of their six children.

"But you'll have more joy than headaches every time you look at your children," she said with a smile.

Ingram himself, sporting a black suit by Moschino, also spoke about his children, showing himself as a family man.

"There's no doubt that my family influences my music. Do you remember my record Whatever We Imagine?" he asked me. Then he started singing, "Don't be afraid/I can meet you halfway... I'm singing it to my children.

"Do you remember the movie, The Godfather?" he asked me again. I nodded.

"When people ask for a favor, the godfather says, 'How much time you spent with your family and children?' (imitating Marlon Brando's voice). Remember that? 'Mafia' means 'my family' in Italian. Even when you're a gangster, family is still important."

Ingram -- who won Best Pop Male Vocal and Best R&B Vocal at the 1981 Grammy Awards -- gave an unusual answer when asked about his reason for coming to Jakarta despite the travel advisories issued by several countries, including the United States, following the Bali bombings of Oct. 12.

"(It's because) you look like me and I look like you. In other words, I could be an Indonesian. You are my people and I'm not afraid of my people.

"There are many people and many governments with their plans, but there's only one God. And I asked Him to find my place in God's planet.

"As I read in the Bible and the Koran, the objective of all religion is to be obedient to God. And my obedience to God is to serve, so I came here to serve with the best show that I can."

Many had speculated that Ingram would cancel his performance here just like other international artists -- including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis and Guns n' Roses -- after the bombings.

"No man can kill me, because I'm on a mission to do the work of God. I don't fear men, I fear God. That's why I'm here.

Ingram said such bomb threats in Indonesia were meaningless compared to the racism faced by African-Americans in the United States.

"You've got to understand that I'm a black man who grew up in the United States... I've been terrorized all my life by the Ku Klux Klan and all that stuff. What do I mean by terror to me or to other black men in America? We grew up with the terror. We're second-class citizens, terrorized all our lives with racism and all that. That's nothing new for me.

"I was born in a country that looks at me as second-class. I've been second-class since I was a baby. Michael Jackson, I don't care how many millions of dollars he's got, he's still a second-class, black man in America," said Ingram, who co-wrote P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) with singer/songwriter/producer Quincy Jones for Jackson's 1982 smash hit album Thriller.

After the performance, Ingram returned to his home in Los Angeles, California, on Jan. 2 to finish his new album, which is scheduled to be released in the summer or fall of this year.

"My next album will be a big band record with currently four or five songs. We're going through another jazzy mood but still in soulful with big band arrangement around it. But first we must finish it. Picking up the songs is the most difficult thing," he said.

It is not surprising, since Ingram is known for his eternal quest to find a song that will outlive him.

Speaking about the music industry these days, Ingram sees it as being cyclic in nature, as "the music today is not like the music when I grew up."

"Now, 25 percent is music while the rest is tracks. It's not a big deal for me to be an artist, as long as I stay true to who I am, as an artist.

"People can program stuff right now. It's like the science is dominating the art. But the art will dominate the science like it did before. As an artist, I will defend my music."

However, Ingram's opinion regarding piracy was quite surprising. While many artists are against piracy, Ingram simply said, "Why not pirate mine?"

"You can't stop piracy, so if you're going to pirate someone's record, why not pirate mine? Even with a pirated copy, you still have to buy my records for US$2.50. Piracy means people enjoy my music 'cause you can't sell junk to nobody."

Born in Akron, Ohio, on Feb. 16, 1956, Ingram began his music career with his group Revelation Funk before moving to Los Angeles after high school.

He also used to play the organ for Ray Charles, who taught him production skills.

His life turned 180 degrees when he sang a demo of Just Once for ATV, for a mere $50.

"Quincy Jones asked who sang the song and wanted my number," he recalled.

Ingram also performed a duet with Jones in the 1980 album, The Dude.

"By February 1981, I had won two Grammys with Quincy's label. It turned my whole life upside down. I've been blessed with a world-class record label with Quincy," he said.

During his performance, Ingram spontaneously sang a song for Jakarta.

"We didn't rehearse for this," he said before, singing the song while playing the keyboard.

This song reminded me of his statements on why he loves to come to Jakarta, particularly on New Year's Eve.

"It's my first time out of the country on New Year's Eve. New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day are the two biggest days for performing, so I can't leave the country.

"But I love Southeast Asia, which has embraced me as a family member. We're like brothers and sisters. We're people of God. Any time I have the chance to come to Southeast Asia -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore or the Philippines -- I come if I can.

"Whether you like it or not, I'm here."