The singer Rafiya racked up a lot of miles during her childhood. Born in Los Angeles to Congolese parents, the singer (who uses one name professionally) grew up in Congo, Cape Verde, Benin, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Barbados, thanks to her father’s work with the United Nations.
Those peripatetic years left an imprint on her music: The countries she called home introduced her to a variety of musicians and musical techniques, experiences that she would draw on when she began writing and recording her own songs. Her 2010 album, “Amazing,” and her 2014 EP, “My Number,” fuse a 21st-century pop sensibility with contemporary African influences, in particular.
Her childhood, spent principally on her parents’ home continent, also gave her a strong sense of African identity, as is apparent from her reggae-flavored anthem “Where I’m From” on “My Number.” “Africa!” she croons. “She’s in my heart, my mind, my soul.”
“I love all of my songs, but that song is one of my favorites,” Rafiya, 32, said by phone from New York, not far from her home in New Jersey. The song, she notes, “talks about how I’m proud to be African. It encourages Africans from the diaspora to be proud of who they are, to not forget where they come from. . . . I’m very into promoting African culture and unity.”
Rafiya will have a high-profile forum for unity-promoting when she performs Wednesday at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Accompanying the singer will be her backup band, which is based in Philadelphia, Rafiya’s base for more than a decade, starting with her early days at Temple University, where she majored in sociology and Spanish.
More recently, Rafiya has been living in the New York area, where — when she isn’t focused on her music — she teaches French (her first language) and Spanish. A facility with languages would appear to be among Rafiya’s fortes: She writes lyrics, and sings, in English, French and Lingala (spoken in Congo).
For the Kennedy Center concert, Rafiya expects to perform, among other numbers, a cover of the 1990 Zouk Machine hit “Maldon” (“I grew up on it,” she says) and her song “Congo Pleure” (“Congo Cries”), about the recent conflict there.
Also on the lineup is Rafiya’s song “Hustle,” a perky number about the importance of perseverance while pursuing one’s dreams.
Just a couple of days after Rafiya’s concert, on Friday, the Millennium Stage will showcase the virtuosity of Ramy Adly, an Egyptian oud player and composer who moved to the Washington area earlier this year. Presented in collaboration with the Embassy of Egypt, the concert will feature some of Adly’s own compositions, such as “Alexandria,” a piece whose streams of rapid-fire notes seem to evoke the energy of the storied Egyptian city.
During his performance, Adly also will speak about early music and the history of the oud. He is keenly aware of his chosen instrument’s pedigree. The lute-like oud is “an instrument of kings,” he says. Some translations of the Bible may allude to the harp-playing skill of David, who became a king, but Adly maintains that David’s instrument was the oud.
Raised in a Christian family in Assiut, in upper Egypt, Adly began taking lessons with his grandfather, a professional oud player, at the relatively late age of 15. He was soon hooked. “Maybe it’s destiny for me,” the 29-year-old reflected as he sat for a recent interview in a Capitol Hill cafe.
Also on Adly’s résumé: a busy teaching regimen via Skype. His School of Oud Online has reached fledgling players in at least 27 countries, including Norway, he says. Now that he is living in the Washington area, he dreams of founding a brick-and-mortar oud school.
“I’d love to add this instrument to American history,” he says.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Rafiya Wednesday at 6 p.m.; Ramy Adly Friday at 6 p.m. Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Free. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.
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