If Fela Kuti hadn’t left Nigeria to study music in London in 1958, there would be no Afrobeat today. We talk to a globetrotting generation of musicians, whose roots stretch from Rwanda to Romania, about how their lives in the diaspora have influenced their style and sound in Africa.
With her band Black Pressure in tow, Zimbabwean folk singer Netsayi Chigwendere won over audiences at this year’s Pan African Space Station festival in Cape Town.
“It was good to feel understood,” says the 39-year-old singer-songwriter. “I didn’t have to sugarcoat or censor what I wanted to say because the audience seemed to be on a wavelength with us from the first song.”
This is something Chigwendere couldn’t often say when she started her career in the United Kingdom.
Though Chigwendere was born in London — to parents exiled from what was then Southern Rhodesia — she returned, aged seven, with her family to a newly independent Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.
In 2002 she went back to the UK to take a master’s degree in film but dropped out a year after signing up.
Then she met Chartwell Dutiro, a renowned ethnomusicologist and a former member of the band Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks United. It was a significant moment: Dutiro encouraged her to take up the mbira, the instrument that would inspire the sound she calls Chimurenga Soul. Her album of the same name was released to critical acclaim in the UK in 2006, followed in 2009, by Monkey’s Wedding.
Chigwendere started to get gigs at high-profile events, including the London Jazz Festival and Womad. She also wrote the soundtrack for the audiobook version of Alexander McCall’s best-selling series The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
But, like anywhere else, who you know can be as crucial as what you do, and Chigwendere felt increasingly marginalised in the UK’s music scene.
“There was a point when it dawned on me that all the musicians, PRs, promoters and radio people I worked with had all known each other from school or college and that I was an outsider,” she says.
“This made me feel isolated and really affected my confidence and efficiency.” Soon after giving birth to a daughter in 2010, Netsayi packed up her London life and returned to Harare. She has not looked back.
“Having the understanding of audiences and artists with whom you share a personal history and for whom your Africanness is not a novelty or a political statement but incidental has been profoundly liberating for me.”
Wanlov the Kubolor
“All my worldly possessions fit in a suitcase and home is where I can power nap,” declares Wanlov the Kubolor (31).
He is a quintessential Gypsy: his mother is Romanian, his father is Ghanaian and he is fluent in Twi, English, Romanian and pidgin. He spends most of the year touring just about everywhere in the world as a solo artist and with Ghanaian rapper M3nsa as part of FOKN Bois, a comical pidgin rap outfit that could give Die Antwoord a lesson in satire.
Born in Romania and raised in Ghana, Wanlov (real name Emmanuel Owusu-Bonsu) moved to Temple, Texas, to study information technology. He married an American, with whom he has a son, but in the seven years he spent there he never acquired official residency and was dogged by immigration issues that eventually led him to leave the United States in 2007.
Out of that commotion came Green Card, his 2007 debut album, which parodies the challenges African immigrants face in the West. Rhyming in Ghanaian pidgin English over beats inspired by West African High Life music, Green Card ushered in a new era for Ghana’s urban music scene.
Before this milestone moment, Wanlov admits he had simply channelled the likes of Dead Prez and Talib Kweli, regurgitating their generic pro-black politics. Everything changed when he dared to use his own voice.
“When I started gaining popularity without having to pay payola, I realised I was connecting with my people, especially the youth who had been programmed to consume alien lyrics to the point of mimickry,” he says.
In 2008 Wanlov received multiple nominations at the Ghana Music Awards for Green Card.
The Brown Card: African Gypsy, Wanlov’s most recent album, represents a step further on his journey to self-acceptance. For the first time musically, his Romanian roots are clearly on display in a set in which African drums blend with Transylvanian violins.
“It has given me a unique identity, which gives my music and self a fresh perspective,” he says about the album. “Now both Romania and Ghana claim me because I have done the same.”
These days, Alec Lomami (28) lives in Cape Town where he’s completing a master’s degree in theological ethics while he readies his debut EP release, Melancolie Joyeuse.
There was a time when his life wasn’t this straightforward.
In 1998 the Belgium-born rapper left his Kinshasa home for the US to visit relatives. But fate had other plans. War broke out back in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), prompting Lomami to seek asylum in the US. The process, drawn out over his entire 13-year stay in New Orleans, included a nine-month stint in detention.
It was enough to make him seek a fresh start, and he opted to return to Africa even after his green card application was eventually approved.
He’s frank about missing his life in New Orleans. “I do miss it. I lived my entire adult life there, my friends and family are there. But I needed a break from it all, so overall I’m glad I left,” he says, keen to put the immigration saga behind him and give music his full attention.
Before leaving the US (at first for Harare where his father resides and then onwards to South Africa) he released Kinshasa, a song he wrote while in jail, which offers a nostalgic look at his childhood in the DRC capital.
A jubilant indie-pop sample belies its forlorn lyrics, which rhyme, in a French dialect, with Lingala punch- lines familiar to Congolese listeners.
Such moving contrasts and contradictions are carried through the EP, due for release in December, and explain the oxymoron in the title, which translates as “happy melancholy”.
As he settles into his new surroundings, Lomami describes his idea of home as something fluid.
“Home has a lot more to do with the people I’m around rather than the location. So home is Kinshasa where I grew up, and first fell in love with music, girls. [It is] New Orleans, where I became a man; Abidjan, where I spent two of my most memorable years as a kid; and Harare, where I found rest when I needed it the most after leaving the US.”
When Somi Utamuriza, born in Illinois to Ugandan and Rwandan parents and living in New York, was weighing up whether to make Nigeria her base, she received the advice that would help to make up her mind.
It came from “Uncle Hugh”, aka the legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who is a mentor to the 33-year-old chanteuse.
“Somi, stop thinking about it as a move,” she recalls him saying, “By nature, as a musician, you are a global citizen.”
Live at Jazz Standard, Utamuriza’s 2011 album, features new arrangements of many of her songs from If the Rain Comes First, her 2009 album. “World” and “jazz” are the terms frequently tagged to Utamuriza’s music. Both, she says, only begin to describe her music.
“In my opinion, world music should be a sonic reflection of the myriad cultural influences in the global village we all live in.”
Instead, by and large, world music is the non-genre dustbin into which music not sung in English or made in the West is tossed.
But not any longer, thanks to movements like Utamuriza’s brainchild, New Africa Live, a trailblazing bimonthly live music series, born in New York city in 2008. Here, names such as Asa, BLKJKS, K’Naan, Vieux Farka Toure have played their first US sets, providing a modern and nuanced picture of Africa’s music renaissance.
Now living between New York City and Lagos, Somi says, “I decided to set up a base in Lagos last year to find new inspiration and work on my new album. “I’ve finally finished the creative research in Nigeria and begin recording in New York this month. It is my hope that I’ll continue to live between the two cities.”
For singer-songwriter Lindiwe Suttle, cited this year in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans, and former stylist to stars such as Beyonce and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon, home is where the heart — and shoes — are. For the past nine years that’s been Cape Town, where she has steadily raised her profile to become the face of brands such as Tom Ford, Frazer Parfum and Woolworths, to name a few.
Raised in Atlanta, Suttle’s stint in the US fashion industry — visual merchandising in Atlanta, marketing for DKNY in New York — came to a halt after the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.
Heeding the wishes of her parents — notably her mother, former TV celebrity Felicia Mabuza-Suttle — Suttle studied for an MBA.
“My parents were adamant that I study business; the arts was not an option,” she says.
But her artistic urges did not go away, even when she relocated to South Africa, initially to pursue corporate fashion work. “I quit my job as a buyer because I felt working in a corporate environment was stifling my creativity.”
Suttle got her chance to exercise that creativity when she went to Hamburg in 2007 with a boyfriend who had a modelling contract in the German city. This is where she would record her own material for the first time. “That relationship inspired me to write again,” she recalls. “I hadn’t written since university. It was so liberating and healing.”
But it was only on her return to South Africa and after a two-year stint as the lead singer for Cape Town-based jazzy hip-hop band Collective Imagination, that Suttle felt ready to step out on her own.
It took some prompting from Marius Mueller-Westernhagen, a legend in the German music industry. After seeing her perform one night in Cape Town, he said to her: “You are very talented but I can tell you are not doing the music you really want to do.” He connected her with Berlin-based producer Ivan Georgiev, who helped to shape her sonic vision.
Enter Suttle’s debut solo album Kamikaze Art, launched in South Africa this year, awash with pop-soul electronica, typical of where it was written and recorded — in Berlin, headquarters of the world’s largest electro scene. Thirty concerts for the BMW and Mini Global Conference in Frankfurt followed.
“Berlin is filled with inspiration. The city is full of artists that come from all parts of the world. I didn’t want to write any lyrics till I got to Berlin. I wanted the album Kamikaze Art to be a mix of my experiences in South Africa, the US and Berlin,” says the global glamour girl, whose style on and off stage has also turned her into a fashion mag fixture.