It’s a balmy Thursday night in downtown Austin. The streets, void of university students, are as still as the thick summer air. A grackle caws from afar, a truck guns its engine as it turns up Rio Grande Street – the only sounds echoing in the night air. Then, as suddenly as if someone turned on the radio to an old blues station, a drum beat kicks in and music comes flooding in to the night, honeyed guitar chords descending on to Sixth Street from live-music venue Momo’s, the funky little club where local band Nakia and His Southern Cousins have just taken to the stage. Soon, the warm, smoothed-gravel vocals of singer-songwriter Nakia burst forth from the bar, enveloping an entire city block in rich, resonant tones.
Inside, amid clinking beer bottles and calls to the bartender for another round, Momo’s patrons fix their attention on the stage, periodically slapping their knees and closing their eyes as they shake their heads to the music, as if passionately empathizing with an aging blues musician’s aches and troubles.
But this is no down-on-my-luck blues performance that leaves the crowd mourning about lost love, broken souls and hard times. Far from it. This is a spiritual revival, a celebration of joyous rhythms and uplifting chorals, a symphony of crescendos and heart-pounding caesuras that command attention. And as the band breaks in to a flawless cover of “With a Little Help from My Friends” – a version that easily gives Joe Cocker’s rendition a run for its money – several audience members spring from their chairs, bolt for the closest part of the club that resembles a dance floor and begin convulsing rhythmically to the music.
This is the effect Nakia and His Southern Cousins have on music lovers. It’s entirely impossible to experience the band’s sound, particularly in a live setting, without having a visceral physical reaction. Like a cobra coaxed out of a straw basket by the haunting notes of an Indian snake charmer’s flute, Nakia’s music seduces the senses and entices the body to move in time.
In the Family Veins
Nakia was born Nakia Daniel Reynoso in 1975 to music-adoring parents, and growing up in Fort Payne, Ala., hometown of country music legends Alabama, he was practically bound to dedicate his life to the music industry.
“As far as songwriting goes, there’s a lot of influence in country music for me,” Nakia says, adding that his parents’ love of other musical genres like gospel, blue- grass, Motown, folk and rock ‘n’ roll helped define his young musical tastes and later led to his well- rounded style as a musician.
Just about every member of his family played an instrument, and, encouraged by his mother’s ivory- tickling abilities, young Nakia took piano lessons. Once his parents learned of Nakia’s affinity and talent for singing in the church choir, they cheered on his involvement, and he eventually was given the opportunity to join church musicals and plays.
“The first time I remember singing was when I was six or seven in church,” Nakia says. “But, honestly, I don’t remember not singing. It was just something I always did.”
His sister’s attraction to more pop-style artists like Duran Duran, Prince and Taco got Nakia hooked on the catchy, sugary characteristics of pop music. Before long, it was in his blood.
“I grew up really attached to the radio and the record player. I remember spending hours on skates with my sister in the garage listening to anything Casey Kasem was playing, and singing along like crazy,” Nakia recalls. “But I was also extremely turned on by bands like Kiss because they were so theatrical and larger than life. I remember, people would drive through the neighborhood and when they’d stop, I’d sing Kiss songs to them. It was a small community, and unfortunately, I think my parents lost some friends because of that.”
Though he occasionally got odd looks from neighbors, Nakia soon realized that singing well garnered him the applause and attention he longed for as a middle child.
By high school, Nakia was surrounding himself with like- minded music lovers, and was even writing his own melodies, including “Tomorrow Holds the Keys,” the high-school class song he wrote and performed.
Down in a Pinch
Nakia had planned to attend the University of Alabama and study journalism. However, a surprise full scholarship from Northeast Alabama State Community College allowed him to study theater, a discipline Nakia took to easily. He was even afforded an audition at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, but because he was offered only a partial scholarship there, Nakia opted to remain in Alabama.
In the mid-1990s, he made a move to Atlanta and, thinking he might join the booming high-tech world, attended DeVry University, but following that route caused Nakia to long for more out of life. It was his job at entertainment superstore Media Play as a promotions manager that led him to discover how much he loved working in the music business.
And since his Atlanta apartment came furnished with a piano – a fateful circumstance if ever there was one – Nakia re-taught himself how to play.
“It took awhile to all come back to me because I’m not the type of person who gets up in the morning and goes straight to the piano. I have to be moved by something,” he admits.
The dedication paid off, though, and after another move back home to Alabama, Nakia began performing solo shows and joined the ranks of his friends’ local band, Late Night Breakfast, kick-starting his live-music career.
By late 2001, a promising intern opportunity with Aware Records put Nakia on the road again, this time to Chicago. So he packed up his Geo Metro with 13 garbage bags full of clothes, laundry baskets and two boxes stuffed with CDs, and headed to the Windy City. Though Nakia spent only a year working as a label rep for Aware Records, it was an eye-opening experience that allowed him to learn about the music industry from behind the scenes and promote such rising artists as John Mayer. It was also his association with the record company that first brought him to Austin for the South By Southwest Music Festival.
“That was the first time I’d been to Texas,” Nakia says, adding that his whirlwind trip enabled him to check out live performances from bands such as OK GO, The Shins, My Morning Jacket and Josh Ritter. “I was in hog heaven!”
That fateful first trip to Austin also brought Nakia together with Robert Rankin, a friend he’d previously met online. The two attended SXSW shows and spendt time getting to know each other better.
“I was out in my VW Thing when we met on South Congress and next thing I know, we’d spent most of the weekend together,” says Rankin, a software engineer who was drawn to Nakia’s verve, wit and disarming character.
Though Nakia returned to Chicago, Rankin easily persuaded him to plan another trip to Texas, and within months, Nakia took the plunge and moved to Austin in August of 2002. He and Rankin have been partners ever since.
“When I got here, I felt like I was at home and being nurtured, that I could grow here as a person, a musician and a gay man” Nakia divulges. “I’ve never felt as comfortable being openly gay as I do in Austin.”
Upon his arrival in Austin, Nakia threw himself in to the local music scene and managed to land a few steady solo gigs at Graffiti’s Bar & Grill and the like, but, as is the case with many young musicians, it was a rough go.
“I would play to practically nobody,” Nakia says. “Paying your dues in that sense can really keep you grounded but it made me want to do bigger things.”
Bigger things were certainly on the horizon for the singer, who describes his musical style as “show-stoppin’, foot-stompin’, heart- poundin’, sweat-pourin’, Southern-fried, blue-eyed soul, hot rock ‘n’ roll.” After growing an online fan base and picking up some gigs at the Carousel Lounge, Nakia recorded a short demo called “Kendall Marston Spider,” and used the EP to book a solo tour of shows throughout the South. The tour inspired him to write “Broken Spoke,” a quintessentially Nakia tune about the hardship and enlightenment of being on the road. Though the car he’d set out in didn’t make it back from the tour, Nakia returned home to Austin with something far more valuable – live material he recorded at venue Eddie’s Attic in his old stomping ground, Atlanta.
After dropping a copy of the recording by KGSR-FM radio, he was surprised to learn that program director Jody Denberg liked the music enough to air it on one of Austin’s most popular stations. Nakia’s music career grew from there. He began to perform at KGSR-sponsored events, and gained lots of support from local music nonprofits like the SIMS Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, particularly when he fought to regain his sobriety and health.
“The amount of support I’ve been given through organizations like that has made it possible for me to thrive and succeed like I have,” Nakia says.
Though he was also building steam portraying Vic Odin, the tawdry British “manager” of the popular tongue-in-cheek band the Small Stars, a frank yet supportive discussion with frontman Miles Zuniga (also the lead of successful band Fastball) led Nakia to quit the band in order to focus on his solo career.
Playing the Cards
Nakia spent the next few months recording as much new material as he could, and starring in performances of “The Music Man” at the Paramount Theatre and “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center.
He continued to connect with other reputable musicians in Austin, and before long, he was piecing together the band that would become Nakia and His Southern Cousins. By February 2007, the band released its “Playing the Cards” EP, a beast of a Southern- soul-rock record that featured collaborations with notable musicians like Trish Murphy and Mac McNabb, and a tune called “Making it Up to My Baby,” written by Austin honky-tonker Monte Warden.
The CD got plenty of Austin radio play, and Nakia’s fan base grew dramatically. In fact, Nakia and His Southern Cousins were voted one of the top 10 best new bands of 2007 and received an Austin Music Award. By then, Rose Reyes, director of music marketing for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, had already seen something special in Nakia and arranged for Mayor Will Wynn to declare Feb. 15, 2007, “Nakia Day” in Austin.
“Nakia is a powerhouse performer,” Reyes says, “and always wows audiences with his soulful, fun shows. I believe his unique talent stems from a generous, open spirit, great songwriting and raw, dynamic live performances.”
These days, Nakia is taking it all in, but he’s hardly kicking back. A new record, titled “Water to Wine,” his first LP, features several new Nakia originals as well as songs written by Warden and other musical luminaries, and is scheduled to be released soon.
“I couldn’t be happier with the selection of material for this new record,” Nakia expresses. “We recorded 20 songs for a 10-song album, and the material is so much stronger. I think people will really be pleasantly surprised when they hear the progress from the last record to this one.”
Nakia and His Southern Cousins are set to perform at this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, a show that will certainly gain the band a ton of exposure and a slew of new fans. And the band can be found every Thursday at Momo’s, pounding out enough soulful tunes to give the audience goose bumps.
While many Nakia newcomers are instantly touched by his music, it is his personable demeanor and appreciation of his fans that often keeps them coming back, Rankin says.
“He is very passionate about his music. When he is up there singing, you can tell he is feeling the music,” Rankin explains. “During the break in his weekly shows, Nakia goes out and mingles while the band cools off and rests. He likes to make sure people are having a good time.”
That dedication has garnered this rising star a powerful fan base that’s ready to follow him all the way to the Grammys and beyond.
“The Nakia buzz is still strong,” Reyes says, “and we are all cheering him on to the next phase.”