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Netsayi Chigwendere's “The Refugee Song”



Friday, June 29, 2007.



By kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com


At the core of this music is a fierce intelligence, an insistence on freedom and a striking bravery to be true to her hybrid experiences—born in Camden, London to Zimbabwian parents who were in exile, Netsayi went to Zimbabwe when she was seven and did not return to London until she was twenty. She was educated in Africa and in England and has worked professionally in film and television before deciding to leave the 9-to-5 grind and become a full time artist.

“After I graduated from University I worked in film and television. I enjoyed it but I have always considered myself to be an artist rather than a production person. I found the film and television world quite administrative and secretarial.”

Netsayi started her own record label, Militant Prince, and released two singles prior to producing her debut full length,
Chimurenga Soul.  


The fact that sets me apart from other artists in the market is that I have self produced my own album. Normally the producers are very self-conscious on what is exceptional and what is not. An album that sounds like mine – which is different sounds aside each other is something that you would not hear that much. I did what I wanted with my album rather than confine myself to a specific genre. In South Africa and Zimbabwe it is less unusual to have different sounds against each other. In the Western market where I have produced it is more different.


I listen to her album and I hear someone intellectual enough to correctly use “reified” in a pop song and at the same time, someone who uses traditional Zimbabwe musical forms. Her ambidextrous artistic sensibility is shaped by both tradition and modernism, the cultural mixes and clashes in both Africa and in England. She can (and does) perform both in acoustic solo and duo settings as well as with a full band. She writes overtly political songs and she writes cryptic personal songs. She is a complete human being who displays the full (and often contradictory) spectrum of her inheritances, experiences and aspirations.

I love the sophistication of this music. How one minute it is dancing and calling out in Shona, the next it sounds like a quasi-surrealistic text influenced by Samuel Beckett or informed by poets from
Southern Africa
or influenced by Joan Armatrading. This is the music of an educated African who fights fiercely for independence, an independence that must include contradictions and conundrums. This is no easy pop music. I love it.

Where does her music come from?

“From life. From friends and family, people I know and their stories… From the desire to solve or work out that drives me and other people to do what we do… The more fucked up, the more curious I am!”


"When I came to England, I discovered  there were these world music purists who’d say, ‘You’re not African enough’. I found that really colonial. I mean, I admire artists who do what is natural. I might choose to do an R ‘n B album but I’m not an African-American. If I was Jamaican, I believe I could have made a killer reggae album. But I’m not Jamaican. So I’ve had to represent all the different elements that make me who I am – a Shona woman, born in England – and maybe I have to think about that a little bit more carefully than someone who’s grown up singing blues or R ‘n’ B.


I think honesty is everything. I mean, there are all these guys who make dirty music – booty shaking, slackness or whatever. But some of them do it well. Like R Kelly: he makes sleazy R ‘n B but he’s good at it because it’s true. It’s not about the nobility or the ignobility of something, it’s about whether you believe it. That’s the value I place on something: it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be true."


Her work seems to be excavate truth from the person she is and from the world(s) she lives in. Everyday. Every. Day.

I'm reviewing three versions of “Hondo” (a song about war and its effects on people): a duo version performed on BBC radio, a instrumental version from a single she released and the album version. Here you can see the range of her work and get a sense of her expertise as a music producer. “Love And Money” is a track she wrote and released on the Soothsayers album, Tangled Roots.


The two versions of “Tatters” (a song about the aftermaths of colonialism) is from the single; her album has a different version. I find the chameleon complexity and shadings of her music fascinating. Then there is the modernism of “Like” and “Lion” (personal songs that are self-explanatory—sort of).


One minute she sounds like a London neo-folksinger and the next she is backing a Zimbabwian spoken word artist.
If Netsayi’s music does not grab you at first, give it a second and a third listen. Once you are acclimated to the cornucopia of sounds and influences, strangely wonderful thoughts will occur to you.


Our strange hybrid condition is complex and often exasperating but it is also so, so wonderful. Netsayi. Glad to be in the world that is, a world that needs changing, a being that is steady growing, morphing while struggling to make change. Who knows but that these swinging songs in their syncopated complexity might just be an accurate mapping of 21st-century African-heritage existence—an existence that right now is in tatters like the whipped wings of butterflies.


Netsayi on Chimurenga Soul  

"Anyway, writing poetry and stories, listening, thinking about how to put music and plays together, and singing – they were things I could do despite the chaos. By the time I was 11, I’d been to nine schools and lived in about 11 houses. But, everywhere we went I had my voice, pen, paper and about a million ideas."

"When I decided to play music it was so that I did not have to ask anyone for permission: I could write a song in the morning and play it in the afternoon and that would be that. I became a musician because I wanted to be free to express the breadth of my experience as a human being and not be limited by commercial constraints or any other categories ascribed to me."


"I wanted to be free to investigate aspects of my own culture that had become obscured by a colonial and elitist education. I wanted to be able to be proud of all the components, fucked up and otherwise, that make me who I am – the hustler, the thinker, the romantic, the cynic, the analyst. For me, it’s not so much a question of loving music – it’s as good a medium as any, really – it’s a question of being able to drive the vehicle for expression."

Netsayi will be playing at Sankofa Sunsplash in Hull on July 28, 2007, and at Parklife Fest in Aylesbury near Oxford on September 2, 2007. Her official website is www.netsayi.com

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans-based writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 


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