A Few Minutes With… Netsayi

Interview and story by J Hunter

For all we know, Netsayi – full name Netsayi Chigwendere – was always destined for a career in music. Even if she’d stayed in London (where she was born to parents living in exile from the African nation of Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia), she always had the love of all things music and the skill to tell a story. The sound might have been different: Perhaps a little more Joan Armatrading, a little less Angelique Kidjo. But then again, chances that we’d be seeing “the Queen of Afro-Folk” (as The Daily News has called her) singing those stories was always pretty good.

But then “nurture” took over for “nature,” as it always seems to do: In 1980, Zimbabwe won independence from Britain, and Netsayi’s parents decided it was time to go back home. Along with moving to a brand new cultural environment (albeit one filled with loving family and long tradition), the seven-year old Netsayi moved to a brand new socio-economic environment, as Zimbabwe began to find its feet as an independent nation. The things she saw as she grew up and moved into a career in film and television shaped the stories Netsayi wanted to tell, and the realization that she would have difficulty telling those stories through her chosen profession said that something had to change… and that thing was her chosen profession.

People change careers all the time; that’s what this economy has done to the world. Netsayi may have always wanted to mix together all the music she’d heard growing up: jazz, soul, reggae, folk, funk, pop and the traditional music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. But figuring out – literally from square one – how to do that was another thing entirely. She had the drive and the love, to be sure, but no technical base, no formal training. That came with the help of Chartwell Dutiro, the uncle of her childhood friend, dancer-choreographer-musician Rujeko Dumbutshena. Dutiro was teaching mbira (an African thumb piano) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where Netsayi had just walked away from her studies at the National Film and Television School.

There was plenty more to learn… and not all of it musical, as I found out when Netsayi was kind enough to take a few minutes from preparing for her appearance this Saturday night (July 19) at MASS MoCA:

Q: You were born in London, but your parents were natives of southern Rhodesia and were living in exile when you were born. When independence was won in 1980 and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, your family moved back to their home. Do you remember the move, and what your feelings were about that move?

A: I was a child at the time, but all I knew was that there was a war and we had won and it meant we were moving home. Independence was a dream come true for every African. It’s a big deal for a child to see grown-ups so excited; my siblings and I knew the magnitude of what was happening.

We had pictures in our heads about where we were going; I just remember marveling at the greenness and the space. It was wonderful to suddenly be surrounded by cousins and so much family.

Q: You’re the only professional musician in your family, but you didn’t receive any formal musical training growing up. What music did you listen to; where (or how) did you hear it; and how much do those sounds affect your music today?

A: I heard and listened to everything growing up: American and South African jazz, UK folk, soul and pop. My dad had this Cat Stevens tape that was on repeat on long journeys in the car – along with Harry Belafonte. (Smiles) We had traditional music records of mbira and Thomas Mapfumo. Oliver Mutukudzi had a number one hit literally every year. There was jiti and congolese rhumba – Pepe Kale, Kanda BongomanYondo Sister… on the radio in the shops and at the hairdresser… Chicago House in the clubs. My brother was obsessed with Public Enemy… and so on.

I grew up loving singer-songwriters from a young age. I always wanted to create something with a distinct lyric and compositional stamp. I remember being about 10 or 11 and listening to Thomas Mapfumo and thinking “HOW DOES HE DO THAT???!!!”

Q: You had a career in film & TV before you switched over to music full-time, and you were working on a Master’s Degree at London’s National Film and Television School when you made the switch. Was there an “Ah HAH” moment that made you think, “I don’t want to do this any more; I want to do this other thing,” or was it a culmination of events that led to your decision?

A: In the throes of an economic crisis, film was just unviable. Zimbabwe is not like francophone countries where watching film and the art of filmmaking is culturally engrained. At film school, it became obvious to me that I was going to have to spend more time on fund-raising than on the art. No money was going to come our way now that we had Pariah State status. The films we were making were made on soft money and not designed to grow a market, but to give people lectures about STDs. I wanted to make art according to my own voice. I wanted to comment socially according to my own experience. I needed to do something I could build on myself that didn’t rely on donor funding, so I started writing songs.

Q: In your biographical video, you say something I think is very cool: “You can use music, or you can use art, to evolve your spirit!” Please expand on that. Are you talking about making art as a musician, experiencing art as a viewer, or both?

A: I’m talking about making art as a musician. It’s a long, long road preparing a project for market. It’s a long road refining an idea to present to other people. Along the way, you meet other musicians, music executives, audiences, critics, lovers, haters, you meet money issues, you confront your own issues, you try and panel beat your inconsistencies so you can become a better professional. Being professional requires the subduing of certain emotional or egocentric kinks. I think to be successful in anything, you have to have better personal relationships with people; this requires plugging into your God to motivate and empower you. Spiritual evolution.

Q: Please talk about Chartwell Dutiro, who helped you lay the foundation for your music, and your formal musical education. Also, what’s it like building yourself into a musician from the ground up?

A: Chartwell taught me about the essence of traditional music – the fundamentals of it. Why the traditional canon is the Traditional Canon, and what the spiritual themes and implications were. He also taught me the importance of playing steadily; the importance of ‘the groove’: We used to sit in a rehearsal and play one groove for hours, round and round till everyone was in the pocket.

I think building myself up from scratch as a musician was most challenging in the sense that I started playing professionally as soon as I decided that I wanted to play music. I could write songs, I had the picture of what I wanted to do, but I had to learn how to run a rehearsal and rehearsal room, then industry politics. I strongly feel that being far away from home was positive and debilitating for me. It was very difficult at times.

Now I’ve had those lessons, I can see how much I have learned and how it has prepared me for the next level in what I do.

Q: Part of your sound involves Shona music. It’s my understanding that there’s very little difference (or distance) between the musicians and the audience, and that audience participation is a big part of that music. How does that work for you, and how much does that experience shape your creative process?

A: Well, we are not playing straight traditional music. If we were, everyone could just sing along and harmonize and clap, et cetera. We are also playing at festivals and events where most of the people are not Shona. I try to capture the essence of Shona music in our arrangements and present that vibe to our audiences.

Q: How much has your previous career helped shape your current career? Does your experience in visual arts help you or hinder you when you’re trying to put an image – or a scene, or a story – to music?

A: My background as a visual artist is that first I’m a painter, and second, I worked in film administration for many years. Yes, both of these skills have been very helpful to me as a musician. First off, I know how to get a production off the ground because I worked in production. I think I can administer a project well – resources permitting. I respect the idea of schedules and budgets and the need to work out how we are going pay for x, y or z.

I think the entrepreneurial aspect of being a musician is hard for musicians to accept. We’re taught somehow that it’s un-cool. The public also endorses the idea that a musician is not an entrepreneur (especially in Africa) because it’s not part of the romance of being a musician. A musician is not supposed to care about money or being organized. For some reason, the public also likes to think that we are more ‘real’ if we are high, semi-educated and disorganized.

Visual arts itself has always been a part of my life – since I was a child. I take it for granted. I don’t think ideas for stories were ever going to be my problem. However, it has been a huge learning curve for me to get a handle on how to control my image and the steps towards having a consistent creative direction without quite enough budget.

I’m only just now in a position where I can start attending to that. But I trust my eye for balance and color. I think learning how to communicate with artistic teams is crucial, and both within and outside of the structure of a record company, it can take some serious figuring out. It’s one of those things that can be an unprecedented pain the ass if you’re not ready for it.

Netsayi will be performing at 8pm Saturday (July 19) in the Courtyard Café at MASS MoCA in North Adams. In case of rain, the concert will be moved inside to Club B-10. Tickets are $20 preferred; $12 in advance; $16 at the door.

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