Zim's best kept musical secret

HARARE - After a decade in the United Kingdom in which she got to tour with Grammy Award winners Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Zimbabwean musician Netsayi Chigwendere, who is barely known in Zimbabwe, quietly returned to her homeland two years ago.

After a two-year hiatus away from the public glare in Harare, Netsayi, as she is known in showbiz, has resumed her music career “with a refocused sound and new energy.”

She has reenergised her passion for Zimbabwean folk songs and is on a mission to deliver her “pimped-up traditional sound to Southern Africa and beyond.”

She has lined up a couple of shows in South Africa and will soon be heading to the United States for   a live recording at the National Public Radio (NPR) in New York.

Below are excerpts of an interview between Daily News on Sunday (DNS) entertainment editor Dakarai Mashava and the exciting Netsayi (N)

DNS: Who is Netsayi?

N: I am a singer/songwriter.

DNS Can you trace your musical history?

N:I never underwent any formal training for music; I did my undergraduate degree in fine arts and ended up working in the film industry. I left Zimbabwe in 2000 to do a Masters in film production, but on the side I was singing in bands with my friends. I was invited to do backing vocals on a two- month tour of Australia with my friend's band.

When we got there, though, the entire band was denied entry into Australia.  It was only me and a Mozambican drummer Celso Paco who got in! We ended up traveling around Australia with a makeshift band and I was suddenly the lead vocalist! That was my baptism of fire; singing lead vocals in front of hundreds of people having to improvise an entire show. I got back to London and thought: "I can do this job".

I started writing songs and singing acappella in small clubs in West London. A publicist called Anna Goodman loved what I was doing and she just kept linking me to people and booking me for small performances.  Then I teamed up with Jules Faife, a guitarist from London who I continued to play with for the next 10 years. Almost straight away, I was booked for lots of events, some of them pretty high profile so I just kept writing and expanding my project till I had a full band. We played throughout the UK and in Europe after I signed recording and publishing deals with a record company in Amsterdam.

DNS: Who are your musical heroes?

N:The musician that I have learned the most from and who I have listened to most consistently over the years is Thomas Mapfumo. I had an epiphany about him when I was about 10 years old. I remember one day, listening to the radio and being baffled by the depth of his sound. I just couldn't understand how he made his music sound so beautiful. I think in my subconscious, the challenge had been set up for my life's work; I wanted to make traditional music sound that accessible, meaningful and beautiful.

DNS: What type of music do you play?

N:I call it 'contemporary folk' music because we play music which is based on folkloric music of Zimbabwe. It is contemporary because I write original lyrics and melodies and we incorporate elements of museve, rhumba, reggae and African gospel into our sound.  I try to create a sound that is unmistakably Zimbabwean but completely fresh. Zimbabwean music is respected all over the world for its sublime sophistication and depth and that’s what I try and bring out.

DNS: You quietly slipped into Harare two years ago after a decade in the United Kingdom. Why did you make such a low-key return to your homeland?

There's no point in trying to make a big drama "hey! I'm Baaackkk!!" when no-one knows who you are! While I was in the UK my work was never released here so I had to start building my profile from scratch for Zimbabweans to know me.

Also I didn't want fall into the trap of being under pressure to play. I've been in that situation before where the gigs become the focus of your career instead of the MUSIC being the focus. I wanted to take my time to find the right band i.e.: people with the right skill set and personal discipline. I wanted to slowly build my relationships with the musicians I work with so there is a genuine connection and a good understanding of what we are trying to achieve as a group.

I'd played quite a lot in the UK and I wanted to do things differently here. It was a chance for me to breathe, think about how I wanted to approach my career afresh.

DNS: Are you back in Zimbabwe for good? Which Zimbabwean musicians have impressed you the most since you came back? Have you done collaborations with local artistes?

N:Yes, I’m back for good. There is a huge amount of talented musicians in this country. For me right now, Maungira eMbira have got just about the best show in town.  I just love their energy. I’ve seen Suluman (Chimbetu) twice now and I love his show. Hope Masike, Chiwoniso… obviously, she’s the veteran. Roki, Prudence, Tariro neGitare… Mokoomba are all musicians who make us proud.   I have shied away from collaborations because I’ve had a lot of work to catch up to bring my own show up to speed and make it market-ready. Once the record is finished we’ll be ready to play with everyone!

DNS Can you describe how it felt to share the stage with the internationally acclaimed Ladysmith Black Mambazo?

N: Amazing! Those guys are so humble, professional and seasoned. They kind of treated me like a little sister and daughter. Joseph (Shabalala) came and watched our set from the wings just about every night, he was really a great person to learn how to hold yourself as a professional. It’s really, really important in this industry to see people who conduct themselves with dignity. One doesn’t often get the chance to spend protracted time with very successful musicians so I absorbed a lot just from being in their presence daily.  Ladysmith played to audiences of about 2000 people night after night for over a month so I learned how far I still had to go and what I could achieve with focus and concentration.

DNS: How many albums have you recorded?

N: I’ve recorded two albums: Chimurenga Soul and Monkey’s Wedding. We’re currently working on the third.

DNS: You are reported to be in the Studio with producer Keith Farquharson recording a new album, is that true?

N: Yes. We’re about a third of the way.

DNS: Is it true that you will be touring the USA soon?

N: Yes, my band and I leave this Tuesday for New York. We are going to do a live radio broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) in New York. We are part of a programme of radio performances that are collaborations between the Original music workshop (OMW) and different festivals in the world. So our presence there is collaboration between OMW and HIFA. It’s an incredible honour to have been chosen from all the performers at last year’s HIFA to represent Zimbabwe on such a high profile platform.

DNS: Who constitutes your backing band Black Pressure?

N: Three fine young gentlemen and myself:

Ray Mupfumira (voice, bass guitar, soprano & tenor marimba and mbira, Netsayi (voice, acoustic guitar, mbira), Humpfrey Domboka (voice, electric guitar, baritone marimba), Ngoni Chikuse (voice, drums, ngoma). - Dakarai Mashava, Entertainment Editor

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