Bright, beaded bell totas twirled in the golden light of the stage Sunday night at San Francisco’s Cafe du Nord. The opening bursts of Jai Paul’s “Str8 Outta Mumbai” seeped into the room, with the song settling itself into the spaces left empty between audience discussions of diaspora politics.
It was a distinctly South Asian American crowd that had gathered that night to see R&B singer Raveena Aurora, who despite having only about a dozen songs available for streaming, has made waves with her dreamy vocals and self-love anthems, and is currently in the middle of her first major tour.
The singer opened her set with “Sweet Time,” her best-known song. The stage basked in gold tones from the lighting that poured down to the plastic sunflowers that adorned Raveena’s mic and to the singer herself, who wore a deep yellow sweater and sleek, glinting bangles on stage.
She waved her arms around her, delicately twirling her fingers and extending fully outward in all directions, reveling in the attentive warmth that the audience directed toward her. Her voice wrapped itself around the room like fine satin packaging and along with the audience she lost herself within it, finding herself only after each song had ended.
The most distinctive part of Raveena’s set was her endearing clumsiness. While she is by any measure a truly talented singer, she is far from the most mature performer. In fact, she seemed as in awe of the fact that she had a captive audience as the audience seemed to be of her presence. Her reaches to set her performance apart often came across as gimmicky and uninspired rather than genuinely uplifting.
“If you’ve been to one of my concerts before, you know I like to do this thing called the breath,” she told the crowd in her baby-soft voice. “It’s to feel the love kind of permeating between us and just kind of center the crowd.”
Even as she said the words, asking the audience to put away their phones, close their eyes and breathe in and out as she guided them, she seemed unsure of herself. Rather than immediate compliance, giggles washed over the crowd. Raveena’s intentions were nothing short of pure and caring, but she simply had not exerted the sort of stage presence necessary to make a crowd-centering moment like this seem anything short of slightly silly.
And yet, there was something magnetic about her wide-eyed appreciation of the fact that she was singing to such a crowded venue at all. Her clumsiness was far from a hindrance to her set — if anything, her naiveté made her all the more endearing. The more her lilting voice and gleaming giggle filled the room between songs, the more enchanting the performance became. As she threw plastic flowers and her own bangles out into the crowd, there was nothing short of a jovial fixation on catching them and claiming them.
“This next song makes me really emotional and sometimes I cry while singing it,” Raveena told the crowd as she moved into “I Won’t Mind,” asking the audience members to be present. The crowd stood totally still, gazing up silently at Raveena. Her voice moved with the tender sadness of the song, one she wrote about helping a partner through depression and the feeling of being a sort of caretaker for a loved one.
She moved, then, into “If Only,” another deeply personal song about finding the courage to leave a toxic relationship. “This is my little empowerment anthem,” she told the crowd, which sang along. As Raveena sang, she stopped to especially emphasize the line, “You still don’t understand a woman is holy,” a reference to the title of the tour, “Woman is Holy”. Even after this impeccable performance by Raveena the skilled R&B singer, hints of Raveena the clumsy performer peeked out. She spoke softly as applause erupted throughout the room. Her words were totally washed out, lost into the night.
Of course, given that her discography is as sparse as it is, Raveena worked some covers into her set. When she returned for an encore, she brought out a guitar with her. “Any Sade fans in here?” she asked before diving into a cover of “Lovers Rock.” The brightness of her backing music put a new twist on Sade’s subdued classic.
As Raveena left the stage for the final time that night, the warmth she had spread during every moment of her set continued to permeate throughout the room and into the night. If she’s capable of giving such delight even as an unseasoned performer, there are high hopes for what she can do when she comes into her own.