Nelson Ebo was born in war, lived in hiding
Jane Cormier knew Nelson Ebo was special almost as soon as he opened his mouth. After spending much of his life in hiding, the young Angolan had recently arrived in the United States and found his way to Cormier’s opera competition in Concord.
‘He had to sing for less than 10 seconds when I knew this was not a common voice,’ said Cormier, founder and director of the Lakes Region Opera Company. ‘The color of his voice, the shine of it – very special. In 30 years of singing and teaching opera, I’d never heard that.’
The other judges of last October’s ‘Capital Region Opera Idol’ agreed, choosing Ebo over 64 other singers from across the country. He also won the $1,000 Audience Choice Award ‘hands down,’ according to Cormier.
‘We had some really good voices, but no one came close to him,’ she said.
As part of his prize package, Ebo returns to Concord tomorrow night for a vocal recital at the Concord City Auditorium.
‘I’m very happy, very excited,’ Ebo, 24, said in a telephone interview from the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., where he’s studying vocal performance on scholarship. It’s an improbable opportunity for a young man who grew up amid civil war in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Ebo was born during the 27-year war that seized the country shortly after it won its independence from Portugal. At 14, he was sent into hiding at a Franciscan seminary. Guerilla armies ‘were trying to get the children and send them to war,’ he explained.
At the seminary, Ebo discovered the music of great tenors such as Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti and began trying to sing like them. ‘I didn’t even know the songs . . . I didn’t even know which language I’m singing,’ Ebo said.
His natural talent was evident, though, and after a representative from the United Nations secured him passage to Spain, he began to
attract attention with his rich, passionate voice. While attending a university in Spain, he sang not only for one of his idols – Domingo – but for the king of Spain himself. Later, Domingo even gave him a couple of voice lessons. ‘That was a very good experience,’ he said.
Ebo’s matter-of-fact attitude belies a background that must surely bring him pain. His parents and nine of his siblings were killed by disease and war, and he has been unable to contact his surviving six siblings for some time. It is his singing voice – at turns bold and beseeching, trembling and triumphant – that hints at his story.
‘His background was so traumatic and violent. That must be hard to live with,’ Cormier said. ‘I think that’s going to be the only hurdle he’s going to have to climb.’
After just five months in the United States, though, Ebo seems to be adjusting well. He plays soccer, the one constant in his life since he was a child in Angola, and is perfecting his English.
‘I really love it. It’s an experience for me,’ Ebo said, who moved from Spain to Italy before finally gaining sponsorship to the United States. ‘I never had music lessons. This is my first time.’
The recital, which is sponsored by the All Saints Anglican Church, will showcase Ebo’s voice with relatively simple fare. ‘It’s a very light program,’ said Cormier, who will be performing a couple of duets with Ebo. ‘A lot of Spanish, some Italian, some favorite duets like ‘Libiamo’ from La Traviata. . . . Nothing too esoteric.’
She expects the crowd to be as wowed as she was. ‘I hope he has a full house because I’d love to have this kid have a big memory to take home,’ she said.
(Nelson Ebo’s concert takes place tomorrow night at 7:30 at the Concord City Auditorium. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at Ballard’s Novelty and Party Shop and Gibson’s Bookstore. For more information, call 875-1917.)