An airy ambiance crafted by dim lights, muffled laughter and hints of cheap but decent beer greets me as I enter Boot & Saddle. Casually stationed in the back amongst friends, Briana “Hetepsa” Mills and Mark “Nu Ra” Cave embody serenity; any signs of nervousness concerning their show are either absent or hidden underneath the positive vibes emanating from their presence. Before I even take my seat across from them, they offer me a glow stick and bubbles. This offering, I notice, reflects an unconscious habit of theirs: from the popsicles at our first meeting to the water they offer me soon after I get settled in the seat across from them, Hetepsa and Nu Ra are set on ensuring that the people around them are comfortable and cared for.
Hetepsa, Nu Ra and their friends quickly slip into teasing banter, this interaction revealing the profound depth of their connection. Discussing Nu Ra’s high school goth stage (complete with a chain wallet and black choker), Hetepsa and their friend are quick to clarify that “he was such a gentleman,” in some cases walking with them to make sure they were safe as they avoided the toll charge when traveling to school. This juxtaposition of tough exterior to compassionate interior seems to have melted away, as Nu Ra – now thirteen years away from that 2003 experience – bashfully smiles before embracing the nostalgic moment and joining the laughter.
The conversation shifts as the duo remembers their first performance together. Kamit Fest 2014, a three-day festival hosted by the Ausar Auset Society of Pennsylvania, culminated in an entertainment day on Sunday. In the hours leading up to their performance, the duo had to decide on a group name. “We first tried to be extra,” Hetepsa laughingly admits. Forgoing the “extra” route, however, resulted in their current title, Camp Candle. “With one candle, you can light a thousand other candles,” Hetepsa explains. Sharing light, spreading light. Non-discriminatory and universally generous, this duo attributes their compassionate personal philosophies to their spiritual society. In fact, their African names, which they explain were chosen for them for their incarnation of this life, root them to their spiritual identities. Nu Ra (full African name Nu Ra Ab Akhu), describes how “nourishing my life force stabilizes my heart for clarity and balance.” This life force consists of chi and kundalini, “energy encased inside this human body.” Nu Ra admits his tendency to forgo self-care: “Buying things I’m not supposed to be buying, eating things I’m not supposed to be eating,” consumption culture and unhealthy habits attempt to override his spiritual foundation. Like Nu Ra, Hetepsa’s African name is also bathed in depth and meaning. Full African name Hetepsa Ua Netert, Hetepsa explains, “With my mind fixated on God, I receive the divine wisdom of peace.” Possessing a “talent and power for visualization” and a receptivity to energy, Hetepsa laments our “flesh prisons.” Our physical forms limit us; those who are blessed with creative genius (such as Hetepsa and Nu Ra) experience these limitations the most. The energy encased within us yearning for freedom, we must find other outlets through which we can, if only for a moment, blurring the boundary between physical and spiritual. For Camp Candle, music emerges as a transformative medium. Every aspect of their art crafted by them (“from every aspect is us . . . we’ve been DIY”), Hetepsa and Nu Ra allow their work to serve as a transcendental wave, lifting those around them to an ephemeral sphere laden with light, positivity and a reminder to strive past our physical limitations in search for deeper meaning.
The intimate space forces the audience members to interact as we wait for the concert to begin. Hetepsa’s mother approaches me, takes a hold of my arm and begins swaying to the beat of the song playing overhead. After Hetepsa’s mother leaves me for another individual to sway with, I retreat to a spot along the wall. As I jot down my thoughts in the Notes app on my phone, a voice interrupts me. “Facebook?” a man inquires. After explaining how I had actually deactivated my account, the man appears impressed and engages me further, our conversation somehow settling on our familiarity with the Shenandoah Valley. Following a few minutes of discussion, he casually slips in how he is here supporting his son, Nu Ra. Like his son, he used to be musical; playing the saxophone and singing in the church choir were his domains. However, he admits that “Nu Ra is the one with the voice,” a veil of awe and pride draped over his voice as he softens his speech with this proclamation. Our conversation dwindles to a stop as Hetepsa and Nu Ra take the stage.
Balloons adorn the stage floor; playfully, Hetepsa kicks one into the crowd. Both Camp Candle members proceed to put on sunglasses. As they begin performing, their determination to free themselves of the shackles forced upon them and their energies by the physical world becomes apparent. When Hetepsa spoke about being receptive to energy, she certainly meant it: the music seeps through her pores, meanders through her veins, her heartbeat – the pulsating rhythm – fueling her energy as she animatedly springs around the stage with her guitar. As they continue through their set, their advanced skills as musicians is unmistakable. Effortlessly gliding from drums, guitar, tambourine, singing and rapping, Camp Candle represents a multifaceted gem: unique, reflective, smooth in some parts yet rough in others. This gem is a life whose diverse experiences have given it the ability to imbue simple objects with extraordinary light and profundity. Hetepsa’s voice is at times a raspy whisper coated in smooth honey; her notes carried away on an exalted cloud of emotive vocals, she penetrates the mind, inviting the energies of those around her to rise with her. During moments of emotional eruption, the voices of those Camp Candle hopes to reach find their way into their energy, giving the illusion of a choir as Nu Ra and Hetepsa manifest their internal sounds into external spiritual harmonies of musical art and genius.
Throughout the concert, Hetepsa and Nu Ra remain connected to the audience. Bringing out more balloons halfway through the gig, Hetepsa informs us, “I’ve got twelve cents in my bank account and ten dollars in my wallet but I feel rich thanks to y’all.” As the duo begins their song “Wake Up” the crowd naturally sings along: “Just smile and wake up/cause the good day’s on your side“ saturates the modest space with an intoxicatingly significant amount of positive vibes. Drunk on the hopeful aura, the audience embodies the next song, “Mr. P.” “We’re not animals/we’re not enemies.” Connected in the moment, the audience joins together, cultivating energy through their collective engagement with Camp Candle. As Camp Candle comes to the end of their set, Nu Ra hums away with some ethereal woo’s while Hetepsa skillfully beat boxes, slowly rooting us back to the present with a juxtaposition of the lightness and heaviness characteristic of life experience.
Attempting to confine Camp Candle’s art to one genre would fail to capture their versatility and skillful incorporation of various instruments and production tactics. In fact, during my first meeting with them, we joked about their sound occupying its own genre of eclectic smooth-synthesizer, or “smooth-synth.” The band Passion Pit is the closest example to Camp Candle’s sound; however, even then is it a stretch at times. Equipped with Nu Ra’s innovative musical production abilities and Hetepsa’s melodically airy and meditative lead vocals, Camp Candle has the ability to forge a successful future in the music industry. Be on the lookout for their upcoming YouTube docu-series, “It’s Lit or Nah?”, and a potential EP in the coming months.
Article by Sarah Figgatt.