Thursday, March 5, 2015

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An Interview with Vusa Mkhaya

The Zimbabwean singer discusses the importance of “the voice” in Southern Africa.
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“The voice is my favourite instrument”, says Zimbabwean singer Vusa Mkhaya. Best known for fronting the successful vocal trio Insingizi, Mkhaya has chosen to return to a full-sized choir for his latest album, the aptly titled Vocalism. It’s a mould that goes beyond Zimbabwe. Many will hear an instant likeness with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the ever-expanding South African choir who gained international recognition by featuring on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Vocalism is blessed with a similar wave-after-wave of voices, with strength in numbers being the key to why it works.

“In Zimbabwe we have a saying: ‘a child belongs to everyone in the village’. This is how I felt working on Vocalism in my home town of Bulawayo”, says Mkhaya. “When friends came in and contributed ideas, they did not see the album as my ‘child’ but as theirs too. My success is their success and my struggle is their struggle. This philosophy is called Ubuntu. This is how we were raised.”

Ubuntu philosophy is embraced straight from the opening track. As would be expected from including ‘everyone in the village’, the album has an incredibly uplifting feeling of togetherness, with the project’s twenty, thirty or maybe as many as fifty singers acting as one in perfect unison. Mkhaya leads most tracks with solo parts. A thumb piano backs the fantastically buoyant ‘Ngiyazulu’ (I am a traveller), perhaps a nod to Mkhaya’s time spent living in Vienna, whilst tracks like ‘Ukukhala’ adopt a more familiar a cappella style. The influence of Christianity in Southern Africa, Mkhaya explained, was paramount in shaping the defining sound of the region.

“Missionaries brought hymnbooks. These were then translated into local languages so people could understand their meaning. To make Christianity more accessible, some church choruses were then composed based on our traditional way of singing. During Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle some of the church hymns were adapted and sung with a hidden political message. The authorities thought the people were singing church songs, but they were actually sending hidden massages to each another through song.”

Did the voice have as much importance in pre-Christian Southern Africa?

Yes, the voice still played a very big role. In Matabeleland, people sang traditional songs to express both sorrow and happiness. When a child was born, people sang to welcome the child into the family. When they had a good harvest, they sang to thank the ancestors. When there was drought, they went up the mountain and sang for the rain. When the warriors went out to fight, they sang motivational songs to boost their spirits. And when they returned, they were welcomed by victory songs.

Most people in the West know about Southern African vocal techniques from Graceland. What where your influences?

Graceland was the first fusion of Western music with Southern African music to become world famous. Miriam Makeba also experimented with fusion in 1960 with her self-titled album, and again in 1965 with An evening with Belafonte/Makeba. Other influential South Africans in African/European fusion include Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim, but I also draw a lot from Zimbabwean musicians – both traditional and from the church – who aren’t known outside the country.

Vocalism is released by Arc Music.

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