For very different reasons Zimbabwe (Rhodesia in a former life) has been in the picture here in Flanders, these last years. ,,Reality soap’’ Allez Allez Zimbabwe (about an unlikely team of Zimbabwean cyclists coming to Belgium to try to get into the professional cycling circuit with the help of former world champion Roger De Vlaeminck) was for four years one of the most beloved series on commercial TV (VTM), soap that probably won’t come back again next year (at least not in the present form) A lot more intellectual as a topic was the Nobel Prize for Literature for Doris Lessing, highly deserved, let’s be clear, but extremely belated.
Especially since 2000 Dr. Robert Mugabe, the once so revered leader of the country that reached independence in 1980, took a number of ,,economical’’ measures that were eagerly debated and criticised in our national press. These decisions actually brought the former food supplier for eastern Africa on the edge of the ravine. Now Zimbabwe has to import food. About everything is in ruins or doesn’t function anymore. There’s sheer poverty and as we heard even hunger, inflation will reach 100.000 % at the end of the year (just listen to Thula Mama – Oh Mother Don’t You Weep on the recent Slow Train by Dutch, Vienna based blues top guitarist Hans Theessink with the imbubestyle Zimbabwean trio Insinzigi from Matabeleland; as the South African Ladysmith Black Mamabazo they sing in Ndebelé)
It doesn’t stop Zimbabweans to enjoy life, seemingly without a worry, its own music, music that always interacted with the surrounding cultures, especially South Africa (The Mahotella Queens; Mahlatini), as well as embracing western Music that became the soundtrack by which young people all over this globe grow up. There also luminaries the likes of Madonna, Rihanna and Mika reign as products of ,,World music’’! We prefer the perfect mix of all these elements in the form of the Bhundu Boys. Some twenty years ago they wrought havoc far beyond the Zimbabwean borders and they even stormed Europe. At one time we played their glorious True Jit (named after the urban jit jive music) almost day and night! Let’s not forget Oliver Mtukudzi, but it is Thomas Mapfumo, who’ll always be the ,,Lion of Zimbabwe’’, as his most recent CD Rise Up once again shows, but in his own country his records, as far as we know, are still forbidden.
Zimbabwe desperately needed a woman’s voice, not one that preaches revolution, but a strong figure to put the finger on the beating pulse of the people(s, actually), in and out of the nation, at home and in the diaspora. What Mercedes Sosa meant for Argentina, Melina Merkouri for Greece and Reem Kelani for Palestine, is Netsayi for the country of the Victoria Falls. She’s seen it all: she was born in London, while Zimbabwe suffered under the chimurenga (=war against apartheid) but after the abolition of apartheid she went to Zim and grew up in the capital Harare.
She classified the melting pot of influences she underwent under chimurenga soul (an expression stemming from Mapfumo) That’s become the title of her first album, Chimurenga Soul, that only materialised after a very long period of incubation. That’s probably the explanation for the mature impression that this magnificent effort exudes. She performed in the UK, but also around the world, solo, in duo or trio. As she slowly established her reputation and certainly now, with the CD being picked up by the national press, she needed a complete band to bring Chimurenga Soul live on stage in an efficient manner. She already had her guitar player from Leeds, Jules Faife, who happens to play (the bass) in a band called Harare with some members of the former Bhundu Boys band. Then she assembled a stunning rhythm section: bass player Matheus Nova she found in Bahia, Brasil, a country she has strong ties with, and drummer Wesley Gibbens from Durban, South Africa. This accounts for the delightful (counter)rhythms that incessantly come flowing out of his percussion. The township jive and all that’s music in and around Soweto has no secrets at all for this magician. The extremely beautiful cello player Jenny Adejayan must be the nec plus ultra of world citizenship. She is born in East London from a Nigerian father and a mother from Grenada. She studied in Manchester and went around the world with different youth orchestra’s. She’s a member of the Antonio Forcione Quartet (with people from several continents), she recorded with Courtney Pine and worked or works with respected musicians from all over the planet, too much to sum up. As a highly skilled cello player she probably doesn’t have to rely on all aspects of her technical abilities in this band, but she fills in with efficiency, sings and dances if needed.
Yet, the quintet doesn’t present itself at De Villa of the N9 Club in Eeklo (East Flanders, Belgium) as the stars of the evening, quite the opposite. One can even sense a certain shyness and reserve of Netsayi and her people towards an unknown crowd…if one can speak of a crowd, while most chairs remain unoccupied. Few people show up. The six cyclists of Allez Allez Zimbabwe who lived in Eeklo left that very day for Paris, from where they were going to fly back to Zim…which was a stroke of bad luck for all concerned, the organiser, the band, the cyclists! We have the feeling that the first two songs are somehow played with defences deployed and brakes on. Maybe that’s why we have the impression to hear a new Joan Armatrading or Tracy Chapman in the opening Chosen One and Hondo (War) But we should know better: the first song already carries a clear message to the Zimbabwean (woman) in the diaspora: ,,Chosen to overcome, chosen for the hard life’’, while the second tune, sung in Shona, one of the important languages in Zimbabwe (besides English and Ndebelé), indicates this won’t be your everyday concert, through the unusual harmony singing, the bowed cello and a general mood which we experience as being serious, yet dreamy and autumn like.
When in the third song Jules’ guitar goes township, the N9 begins to melt. Slowly a virtually unknown, but exciting musical world opens up: the unexpected but clever structure of Like, the following Kwazwai with harmonies of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo kind, impressive thanks to the unfamiliar bits of singing, with heavenly ,,na na na’’’s, the short intermezzo with out of tune touches, once more resolving in wonderful harmonies. The songs really breathe an idiosyncratic character. Slowly it’s getting clear that we may place Netsayi, although UK based, on the same or a comparable level with Rokia Traoré, Stella Chiweshe, Oumou Sangaré or Busi Mhlongo!
With Love & Money coming next, we finally get some reading: ,,When you live outside of Zimbabwe, you automatically are considered by the people at home as being ‘rich’. Of course this isn’t so! But they thins it’s only fitting that you send money home…’’. Nguwo Yangu is a song by poet Chirikure Chirikure (who actually sings on the CD) She explains his (real!) name (,,That what is far…is very far!’’) and explains that according to the lyrics ,,a son of a king here is a slave elsewhere’’. This Nguwo Yangu is a polyrhythmic wonder and while Jules and Matheus keep on doing the chorus, the girls sing together, singing that sometimes becomes a parlando, while hand clapping helps to keep rhythm. At the end all five voices come together, a great effect indeed. The joyous mood gets interrupted by Beyond The Moon, wherein she defends the Zimbabwean friends who died during the eigthies of HIV. In that time AIDS was still a taboo subject then, and those struck by the disease got labelled with shame while facing almost certain death. Netsayi sings it with restrained grief and in a dignified manner. It’s chilling! Beyond The Moon is doubtless a mainstay in her repertoire.
The next tune in Shona, brought in trio, gets to you, but, alas, we didn’t get the title. Then Netsayi is alone for a moment. She interprets Bukatiende while she accompanies herself on the mbira (or kalimba, thumb piano), with the charming sound of an old music box. Again you listen in awe. When the song is over someone in the audience has the nerve to ask what she sang about. Now Netsayi shakes off any remaining shyness. She understands she can and may give these eagerly listening people all information about her work. ,,It’s about spiritual restlesness…’’ she begins. Netsayi has clearly the gift also possessed by the already mentioned Reem Kelani or the Cape Verdian and Portuguese Sara Tavares, informing people but at the same time enchanting them and winning them over.
From then on, there’s a strong bond and a vivid interaction with the audience. The two ladies tie on the shakers at the right ankle and dance synchronous through the next song that once more is supported by hand clapping. The question and answering game between singer and band, and the harmonies are nothing less than heaven made: ,,Zarura nzuma yangu. Heiya heiya kwaipa!’’ Meanwhile Wesley Gibbens keeps on playing the most wondrous rhythmical patterns. Zarura is the name of this ditty and you’ll find it on Chirumenga Soul, but there you have to do without the elegant dancing. At this point in time, the concert can’t go wrong anymore, but Netsayi hasn’t nearly finished putting her cards on the table. Funny is an urging statement wherein she explicitly refers to (role models?) Erykah Badu and Joan Armatrading. It’s a fine lesson in psychology: ,,Isn’t it funny to want someone near you so you can mourn them like a missed opportunity.’’ At the end we hear a significant ,,walk on by’’, repeated while fading out. She scores with Warume (Men): though we can’t understand the Shona, you feel that she sneers at the extreme macho mentality of Zimbabwean men folk, the lords of creation, who let the women do the work and view them in a derogatory way. This invective switches seamlessly to a nicely swaying tune with somewhat enigmatic lyrics, Lion: ,,You just lost your pride…No one will ever believe you’re a lion.’’ The typical rhythm referring to the Bhundu Boys actually gets a few people dancing (no mean feat!) Netsayi shouts it out: ,,Yes, dance! It’s very important!’’ But with the ensuing The Refugee Song mood swings again, as the question rings out loud and clear: ,,I am a refugee…Where’s my dignity?’’ It’s not the loss of property that weighs most on the refugee, she points out, it’s the loss of dignity and pride.
Without launching political slogans, without sneering at leaders, Netsayi tells it where it’s at. She displays a deep commitment, but it’s all on a direct human scale. For once the guitar in The Refugee Song rings ,,happily western’’, while in the uplifting Tatters, with its finger snapping, its jazzy middle part, the jiving rhythm and the staccato guitar solo, the synthesis of north and south is complete. ,,We fall in tatters like the whipped wings of butterflies’’ gets repeated like a mantra.
In the encores everyone sings along, as well as possible. ,,I want true love, I need true love’’: the symbiosis of the artists and their listeners now is a fact.
Not just for the handful that made the effort to actually come and attend the concert of a totally unknown singer, this was a revelation. We sensed that Netsayi and her folk had enjoyed the meeting to the full. Afterwards she and the band kept on talking with whoever cared to join in. She stressed that next to the ,,classic’’ songwriting, she makes use of carefully treated strictly traditional material, stemming from the region of her father. ,,Those songs aren’t ‘world music’, they’re no ‘cross-over’, it’s living tradition like it exists in the countryside above Bulawayo.’’ We noticed a certain harshness in this material, or should we interprete this as a marked pride, as illustrated by the title tune of the CD? She agrees: ,,These people are related to the tribes of South Africa.’’ And then one automatically thinks about Zulu’s and other warrior people. The CD is indeed neatly finished, but not polished or ironed out like so much music sold as ,,ethnic’’ or ,,world music’’.
Netsayi is ever on the look out for related souls. She puts high hopes in the forthcoming cooperation with South African virtuoso trombone player Siya Makuzeni, and she urges us to watch out for this extraordinary lady. Which we’ll do. The company then joined a few newly made Flemish fans to go out and explore night life and high life in nearby Gent. We heard the next day that this outing lasted until the early hours. From there the journey led the band to Amsterdam. Netsayi will without a shadow of a doubt cause furore in the time to come and then concerts of this living room character will probably belong to the past. This lady has everything to become a widely respected artist. She’ll get her message across to a large audience, then. As long as she remains that voice her country needs in these difficult times and as long as she invests her talent in telling us in such a glorious way about her joys and sadness, standing across two worlds, that’s fine by us!
CD NETSAYI, Chimurenga Soul, World Connection WC 43065, 2007.
Antoine Légat (update of the Dutch original November 9th 2007 as published on www.folkroddels.be ; this translation November 14th 2007)