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How India.Arie got her groove back

With 'musical soulmate' Idan Raichel, the soul maven opens a new door

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Being the first breakout artist of the altruistic Groovement/Earthseed collective, Arie eventually exited to sign her major label deal with Motown in 2000. "We weren't really making money, and I wanted to make money," she reflected in a June CL interview. "It's been 10 years since I signed that deal. In hindsight, I threw away a lot of the things that I could've kept. ... I wish that there were just certain friendships that I could've held on to, and that I could've stayed in contact with certain people."

As Arie twirled and danced for the intimate 7 Stages' crowd in a free-flowing, white skirt and tank top, showing off moves that looked more improvised than choreographed (contrary to the program crediting choreography to Jai McClendon-Jones), her career seemed to have come full circle. While she breezed through songs like the reggae-tinged and surprisingly radio-friendly "Get Up" ("Get up/This is not the time to give up"), it became obvious that Arie still has those intangibles that have kept her commercially viable for a decade: the rich alto she dips, like a ladle, into those smoky, soul-stirring registers; the ability to convey the deepest truths in the simplest terms; and that unexplainable inner glow.

Still, some of her staunchest supporters - including her mom/stylist, who goes by her last name, Simpson, and her older brother, J'On - weren't entirely sold, at least before the show, on her renewed sense of direction. That was based on the incomplete tracks they'd heard. Worried that an album full of slow, brooding, piano-heavy songs might not pop, her brother had initially encouraged her to "do a song with [rapper] Rick Ross" - a pairing so odd even the audience gasped at the mention of his name.

While she's had some wildly diverse duet partners in her career - from Akon ("I Am Not My Hair") to John Cougar Mellencamp ("Peaceful World") to her idol Stevie Wonder ("A Time to Love") - none seem as inconceivable as her pairing with Raichel. Yet somehow, despite being worlds apart, they fit. Like the contrast of his blonde, matted dreads to her jet-black, cascading braids, Raichel's classical, melodic piano playing combines with Arie's folk and gospel-inspired vocals to strike a tender, emotional chord, especially when paired with trance-inducing, tribal drums (superbly played by Kinah Boto that night).

But could there be something more to them than that?

"She did try to hit on me," Raichel said in his thick Jewish accent, peeking over the piano with a blushing smirk. To which Arie pounced back, "Yeah, 'cause he's a superstar in Israel, and a sex symbol - which I don't get, but whatever."

Whether or not their flirtation is simply for show, their creative partnership seems to have sparked some of the best, and frankest, love songs of Arie's career, including "He Is the Shit" and the smoldering "Sixth Avenue," on which she guides listeners through a tour of historic NYC attractions before crooning on the hook, "My favorite place in the Empire State/is in bed with you."

But, ultimately, they hope their mutual admiration can set an example abroad. "You and I know how brave you are to even perform with an Israeli musician in these days," Raichel told Arie as they spoke of their desire to tour the world with a culturally diverse group of musicians from the war-torn Middle East.

After addressing the need to elevate human consciousness by cutting through cultural barriers in the song "Gift of Acceptance," Arie stressed the point she hopes their collaboration will make: "Tolerance is different than acceptance."

As guilty as Arie may be of sounding hippie-dippie at times, she hasn't totally forsaken the business of music. The very purpose of the show was to corral a concentration of her fan base together to get their reaction to the new music, which could go a long way when the time comes to market and promote Open Door. That fact was not lost on her new manager, industry vet Ron Gillyard (who seemed encouraged, if a little bewildered, at the power of her Twitter following), or BET's programming guru Stephen Hill, who was also present.

Finally, Arie turned to her mother - a former Motown singer who opened for the likes of Stevie Wonder and Al Green back in the day - to ask her opinion, after having had the opportunity to hear Arie and Raichel's musical creation performed live.

"Now I hear your story and I see your story," Simpson said. "I'm listening."

But the critical moment came as the two-hour performance and hour-long talk-back drew to a close. With fans fully forewarned that anyone caught recording or photographing the performance would get the boot, an audience member wanted to know, now that it was over, if he still had to keep it a secret.

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