The Noisettes: Bring home the music, Shingai

Big hair in Harare: Shingai Shoniwa, born in London to Zimbabwean parents, will be performing at Hifa with her indie-rock band the Noisettes.

Big hair in Harare: Shingai Shoniwa, born in London to Zimbabwean parents, will be performing at Hifa with her indie-rock band the Noisettes.

Shingai Shoniwa speaks exactly how she sings – smokey, syncopated south London – on Hey, Hey, the Dennis Ferrer-produced monster hit from which most on this side of the world will recognise her voice.

Three years ago, LA Reid – the music mogul and former chairperson of the Island Def Jam Music Group – flew Shoniwa and her indie-rock band the Noisettes from the United Kingdom to perform at an industry party he hosted in New York City.

In the two days they were there Ferrer, who had discovered the Noisettes online, grabbed the chance to hole up with their lead singer in his New Jersey home studio. In a day, what would become the Miami Winter Music Conference anthem and arguably the biggest crossover dance single of 2010, was written and recorded.

“I’m Jo’burg bound!” Shoniwa shrieks on a Skype call from New York, quoting a song of the same name by the 1970s Zimbabwean band New Tutenkamen, in which her uncle played guitar.

I’m Jo’burg Bound, she lets on, will open the Noisettes’ headline set at this year’s Harare International Festival of the Arts on Tuesday, after a Jo’burg stopover for several engagements scheduled by the British Council, which is supporting the tour.

“It’s taken two trips [to Zimbabwe] to make it happen,” says the 31-year-old singer-songwriter, who was born in London to Zimbabwean parents.

In Zimbabwe, Shoniwa laid the ground for her live homecoming debut.

“I climbed Mount Nyangani and I started the year with a bungee jump at Vic Falls, all the while praying that the arts festival would happen. It was also really important to go to Kumusha [her family’s village] and tell my elders what I was up to and get their blessing. And now it’s happening!”

Six Zimbabwe-based female singers will join the Noisettes on the arts festival stage for a few numbers. “The force is going to be immense. I am actually getting butterflies right now as I’m talking to you!”

Shoniwa’s musical trajectory in the past three years has something of an African renaissance about it. The Noisettes played as part of Damon Albarn’s annually assembled collaborative sound system Africa Express, when they reworked hits such as the playful Never Forget You and That Girl as well as the disco-tinged Don’t Upset the Rhythm, which was originally produced by Arctic Monkeys’ Jim Abbiss.

 “We turned up the percussion and changed the rhythm sections. We had a kora player and we also did something with Spoek Mathambo and Fatoumata Diawara.”

It was, she says, “bliss”.

Genre-hopping aside, one thing never changes about the Noisettes: their epic showmanship, driven by their dazzling front woman.

Leaping around and picking at the bass in between songs, Shoniwa is thrillingly unhinged. One moment she is wrapping her slight frame around the drum, the next she is suspended above the stage in a death-defying stunt, barefoot and in the most regally outrageous stage couture about which she says: “Somebody was asking me the other day who would be design my ideal stage outfit and I said it has to be a combination of Manish Arora, Yves St Laurent and my grandmother, who was one of the best dressmakers that ever lived.”

One can’t help wondering whether she ever imagines herself striking out solo.

 “I am really excited about my next musical adventure and it’s definitely going to be heavily inspired by my African musical heritage. That’s all I can say for now because I think if you’re too quick to name something you’re already limiting the possibilities of what it could be …

“It could be an album, it could be a musical. All I know is I’m leaning towards making music that celebrates the contribution African music has made to Western pop.”

What next?
Zimbabwe’s Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) is establishing itself as a highlight of Southern Africa’s culture calendar.   Now in its 14th year, “What’s Next …” is the tag line for this year’s feast of theatre, dance, music and visual arts from the continent and beyond, including the ­following highlights:

After a false start thanks to some dodgy promoters, MiCasa will make their  Zimbabwe debut on the festival’s main stage. The gold-selling South African media darlings are having a bit of a moment on the African tour circuit, after playing in Kenya and Tanzania this year. The band will collaborate for this performance with Zimbabwe’s up-and-coming solo female vocalist, Ammara Brown.

Stand-up comedy is on the rise in Zimbabwe, and the festival comes to the party with this show, starring Michael Kudakwashe, Comrade Fatso and Clive Chigubu. The three bring the house down with zesty gags spanning politics, race, sex and everything in between.

Korean Breakers
Although break dancing is for some the reserve of hip-hop nostalgia, it is a thriving culture in South Korea, where R-16, one of the biggest international B-boy competitions in the world, is government-funded. The Korean Breakers return to the festival following their 2009 debut – said to be the festival’s fastest selling show that year.

Hifa 13 takes place between April 30 and May 5 2013. For more information, visit



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