Piwai’s reverberating soulful voice and dynamic stage presence has left audiences pumped up for more mystifying and exotic sounds. In her own right she is a bona fide singer/songwriter, mbira (thumb piano) player and percussionist, whose ethnic background is heavily rooted in Zimbabwe. Piwai plays original music on the mbira and performs and records music in various genres, styles and languages including but not limited to English, Shona, French, Spanish, Lingala, Zulu, Xhosa, Swahili, and Ladino (Turkish-Judeo Spanish).
Piwai currently performs with Zimbeat and Bateke Beat, two very stylistically Afrobeat and Afrojazz bands. Kicking off an Indie career in 2007 Piwai executive produced and released a single “Plus de S.I.D.A” an upbeat fusion of reggae and West African Coupe de cale (cut-&-go; popular African style), alongside Ivory Coast’s 90’s boy wonder ManoBlack. Piwai has opened for the Ugandan Children’s Choir, Azar Lawrence & featured as a guest performer of Fishtank Ensemble, Chinyakare Dance Ensemble. She currently performs alongside Zimbeat a marimba and mbira ensemble. She has been featured on Channel 4’s Shades of San Diego, Celebrating Black History Month Show, Live on Ch6 The CW, Live on Ch9 KUSI as well as being a featured artist in the Union Tribune at the WorldBeat Center (Makeda) in San Diego. Currently Piwai enjoys some new exploits in the 15-key Nyunga Nyunga mbira instrument.
I have been looking forward to this interview Piwai. Let’s start by you giving us a bit of your history and what got you to where you are now.
I am a very simple person. Love music and science. I grew up around music, at home, church and even during holidays while in visiting rural Zimbabwe. I have sung in a lot of choirs, started a few groups. I wrote my first song at the age of 13 for a challenge to be a Girl Guide,while in high school. I did not know that it was a hit until, a few years later, I returned to my former school to teach and heard students singing two of my songs and actually knew who wrote them. I was stunned, I cried, but never made anything of it. I have been channeled to be in the science field but I have always been drawn to music, yes I use both sides of my brain equally. A few years ago, in order to get out of a depression from a terrible car accident I turned to music to heal. I decided to go on a journey and I was humbled. That trip was very monumental for me and is just in its baby steps. I think the world is ready for me and I am ready for it now and it starts with African Turquoise. It’s an album that nuances my life throughout this journey, embodying every aspect of it. I believe I am a melting pot of experience, musical influences and language.
Over the last few years besides working on my vocals I have been intensely studying Afrocuban percussion with percussionists Yagbe Onilu and Butch Haynes, and the mbira and nyunga nyunga from the likes of Cosmas Magaya and Forward Kwenda. I now consider myself a conguera, rumbera and a creative mbira player. I have also mastered the art of playing palitos, in rumba and son styles of music where I use two sticks playing rhythms that are elaborations on the clave. To all the rumberos bring it on!
Who are your musical influences?
Miriam Makeba, Billie Holiday, Lauryn Hill, Angelique Kidjo, Dobet Gnahore, Enya & Astrud Gilberto, Pepe Kale, Celine Dion and myself.
What intrigued me about your music is the ‘out of the box’ nature of what you do. I hear many influences, but it’s hard to pin your music down. Does that cause problems for you in getting your music out there?
Yes a lot of influences and yes and no its hard to pin down my music and that is essentially by my design. It’s a reflection of who I am inside, my experiences, influences and creativity. I have vocally trained in Jazz where I fell in love with Billie Holiday and studied and performed her music. I have read a lot of books about her and one, her biography, and listened to a lot of her rep. I did not fall in love with her, but I connected with her in a lot of ways I can’t even put on paper. I feel music and when I don’t feel it, it becomes a struggle. My connection with Billie was when she went into a women’s prison for drugs. She could not sing during that time and for a little while after she came out. I have also had some weird experiences that have rendered me incapable of doing the thing I love the most, singing.
I grew up in Africa, Zimbabwe, in a culture beautifully infested with music as part of our daily routine. I never knew I retained within me so much music, rhythm, feel and most of all passion. I have also studied Afro-Cuban Percussion, intensively with two percussionists, Butch Haynes and Yagbe Onilu (First male to perform with Sweet Honey in The Rock) from the Oakland.
Do you have an underlying context or- probably not the best word – philosophy to your music?
Yes there is. If there wasn’t I would not be doing music. A man with no music has no soul. For me music is a release, a place where I get to have a voice.
I had to further educate myself, happily, on the rich and varied rhythms and styles of the music of Africa. Can you give us a lesson breakdown on the styles you include in your work?
Pretty simple, in a very complex way; tradition. Over the years I have delved back into my tradition and those of other African cultures. Music is the rhythm of my life. We have to feel it, it’s inside of us and what we feel is never wrong and so is music. I like fusing traditional drum based music and modern music. I like using some of the drumming and rhythmic patterns of Mhande drumming from Zimbabwe, a pattern common in Southern Africa which when cycled differently provides various textures specific to the various ethnic groups. I like using Maskanda nuances a style from Zulu people of the Transvaal. I love the booming vibes of the Nabingi drumming which ultimately resulted in the birth of reggae. I have fused central and west African Soukouss, Coupe de Cale, rhumba, kasongo, sabaar and museve. I have also been studying Wollo from the horn of Africa.
Most of African Turquoise is painted with all those influences. In Cushion My Fall, a studio composition and collaboration I did with Congolese guitarist, Ilongoma Ememe we fused heavy rock, Congolese guitar rhythms and very traditional aspects fused from Zimbabwe and the Congo.
Over the last few years I have totally immersed myself in the music that beckoned me on a very astronomically cosmic way. A friend of mine gave me a CD that had a song “Toputika neShungu” from a group then called Mbira dzeNharira. Its a song they played on a very ancient melody entitled Nehondo/Todzungaira. I popped the CD into my car stereo, put the song in repeat and drove none-stop from Tuscon Arizona to Yuma. To this day I have no recollection that 300 mile stretch, because I was in trance, I experienced a nirvana. I saw myself from above, yes in another dimension and I was convinced I had to play my ancestral instrument as soon as I could start. Upon reaching my destination I was able to contact Cosmas Magaya, who is renowned for his immense contribution to the “Soul of The Mbira” by Paul Berliner. It was so timely it just so happened he was stationed at Duke getting started on on a second publication of the same book. I have since started to play mbira and the nyunga nyunga. The mbira is an instrument that was and is still used used in traditional spiritual ceremonies in Zimbabwe. Mbira music has played pivotal role in Zimbabwean culture and in our modern times I find a lot of musicians trying to fuse the beautiful multi-tonal and rhythmic textures from the instrument.
What style is your favorite as a performer?
I love African music and fusing it with any style. So, very percussive and rhythmic music is a must for me. It takes me to a different level.
American root music owes much to African influences – what current popular styles do you see rising as important to the world’s musical lexicon?
Afrobeat and most importantly traditional music, I see a lot of artists even in pop music taking very traditional sounds and mashing them up with their sounds and creating some very rich textures. Most specifically you now see a lot of artists who appreciate my favorite instruments the mbira and the kora and making some beautiful fusions. I am guilty of trying to learn ancient instruments just so I can marry them into my work. I am still of the school of thought that reggae was born out of nabingi drumming, Michael Jackson put a spin on Makossa a style out of Africa, I hear and see a lot of African traditional elements in Beyonce’s music and dance styles. As much as I love techno music, I feel it’s a over sustained and continuously variable series of drum beats similar to what you would hear at a drum fest in a remote village in Africa due to its repetitive nature. One of the most creative artists, Bobby McFerrin incorporates a lot of pentatonic nuances and accolades the basic nature of traditional African sounds. If you think I am bluffing listen to his recent releases and the string of musicians he sits down and improvises with.
In a previous chat I called what you do, ‘cause genre identification sucks – ‘World Music’ you gently suggested ‘Toward the World’ music. Love that – would you expand on that?
I love the attention to my wording. Point of Correction though, Its Tour de World, kind of like Tour de France. It’s a concept I coined and have used since I first tried to go solo and used it as a guide as I penned the kind of repertoire I would do over the years. I love traveling, which I have not done very much but have done quite a bit, and I figured how best to travel the world through music, embracing the various genres, cultures and peoples out there. Hence, my categorization of World Music, it truly is worldly. I have mastered learning to sing in various languages and trying to understand other cultures. I can sing in various languages, Shona (my native), English, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala, Swahili, Zulu, Xhosa, Georgian, Ladino and French. I currently trying to delve into West African languages, like Yoruba and Mandingo
From where does the inspiration for your songs come?
My songs come from within. I hear them in my sleep. At the same time I am inspired by children, voiceless children. If you read along the lines, it’s as though a child is speaking up, even in my vocals, they sound like a child’s hum as they try to soothe him/herself. Above all I sing from the perspective of a child living in a war torn areas, a child soldier in the Congo; in a township, like Soweto in South Africa; amidst the favelas of Brazil, roaming the vast emptiness of Darfur…no one hears their voices but they do speak, everytime
You write in multiple languages – very impressive that – tell us why it’s necessary for you as a songwriter and tell us something of your process.
Music knows no language barriers. Some of the music that moved me especially one that inspired the ‘Child of the soil” was in a language I am not even familiar with. When I am on stage and singing in various languages it’s easy to know that you touched someone in the audience who knows and understands what you are singing about and they relate and their surprise and joy and the energy is a thrill. It’s the life blood to why I love being on stage. Singing in various languages is like a bridge to peace and also allows me to be relevant to a lot of people.
You also collaborate brilliantly with some amazing folks – often difficult for many songwriters – can you share with us that experience?
Collaborations are always fun, but are challenging. Personalities and style of music do get in the way. It’s always the right energy that allows me to work with different folks. When people know who you are as an artist they want to work with you and they make it possible. I mostly like writing for other world music artists, whether it’s in a language we both understand or one I don’t even speak. My usual method involves getting into the head of my collaborators and find out what it is that inspires the work that we would be collaborating. I call them my songwriting investigative sessions. I get very personal and ask all sorts of questions until I link the music to the story and that is a home run.
Tell us who you are working with these days.
I just collaborated with a Zimbabwean marimba ensemble based in Seattle, Ruzivo, directed by Paul Mataruse. I wrote one of their numbers called Tsamba Ye Rudo, and I know its growing on a lot of people. I think it’s my favorite tune on their recent release, Mambo Grooves..
Here is an esoteric question – what must be in a successful song cut for you as a songwriter – as a producer?
It has to be catchy, memorable and relatable. People want to sing along remember it even if they don’t know what the heck they are singing, and they want to be moved both inside and outwardly, whether it’s a sad song or nostalgic or a love song.
How do you see yourself as an artist? How do you think your audience sees you?
I am a very versatile, funny, very emotionally charged artist. I know that my audiences are wowed and moved by me. I do have a great stage presence and I know I am drawn to my audiences. With the right energy, I touch a lot of people. I just played at the Northwest Folk Festival with Ruzivo, a couple followed me to the hospitality area and said that they never dance when they go to watch shows but I made them dance. The husband said, thank you for making my wife dance, and that was very important to him.
Would you share with us the story of your terrific new concept project ‘African Turquoise’?
True to its nature the spotted teal jasper, known as the African Turquoise changes hues according to the mood and so is our existence, an ever changing landscape filled with various spiritual and emotional planets.The teal jasper is a mystical birthstone of October and astrological Aries. It is symbolic of protection, selftrust, clarity of self expression, reduces headaches and attracts prosperity.according to the mood, and so is our existence, an ever changing landscape filled with various spiritual and emotional planets.
An embodiment of my universal outlook in life…
As esteemed as the ancient Egyptian turquoise gemstones, my African Turquoise is a reflection of what is most sacred in Africa, the gift of life and the progression of life itself.
Through the various styles featured in African turquoise, I wanted to horn in on the universality of life through the eyes of imaginary children from war torn Congo, from the streets of Harare, from the slums of Soweto, India and favelas of Brazil…
I wanted to carry this idea through the song “Child of the soil”- a powerfully engaging mantra and plea from the voice of the child caught up in war, which she plays on the Nyunga Nyunga (15-key mbira). My song Mbonje is a colorful play on Zimbabwean proverbs highlighting the nuances of respect for life and for advice as is common in most African cultures, and I hope it shows true songwriting prowess and percussive genius.
Turquoise, a gemstone of the people, makes it a perfect symbolism for the direct connection people have with the universe…which is central to my life experiences and musical endeavors as an artist.
Through African Turquoise, I intend set to bring awareness to the ongoing forgotten war in the Congo and shed light on victims of rape caused by the war…
There is no doubt that there is power in symbolism and I agree that the power of music touches the heart and soul. Thank you for doing what you are doing. Let’s chat a bit about your music. ‘I Won’t Break’ has a clean contemporary jazz feel with ‘Folk’ elements in the lyric. Love the nature references. Tell us about how this song came to be. ‘Malaika’ is simple and beautiful. Would you explain the approach and translate the lyric story for us?
On African Turquoise, I wrote, composed and arranged eight of the original songs. The other two songs, Malaika and Qonqothwane (Click Song) are traditional and covers, both previously done by Mariam Makeba. I did Malaika (originally by Tanzanian Fadhili Williams) as an ode to her and all my musical influences. Malaika (My Angel) is about a guy who is singing to the love of his life, who intends to marry, but is troubled and laments his lack of fortune as he cannot afford the bride price to sweep his love away. I wanted to put a spin on jazz marrying it with and African and bossa nova like feel. Its like taking a train from Mozambique to Bahia in Brazil!
‘Friday Grooves’ have an urban/R&B dance feel. You do some clean vocals here. I had to smile at the 70s Wa-Wa pedal work from the guitarist. Can you give us a workshop on these ‘Friday Groove’ pieces from inception to finished cut.
( Laughing hysterically) That piece was recorded in my living room or my studio apartment way back when I lived in Houston, TX, 2005. Talk about an accidental recording. Back then I was trying to figure out if I could attempt to do some R & B, so I had my friend, a Houston based artist bring his mobile studio and we cooked up some beats and decided I would try Friday Grooves. I am glad that a lot of people enjoy that track! We scoured the web and found some beats and songs we like and then tracked them or layered them on top of each other, then we would play some percussive parts, me on drum and TK on his guitar pedals and I made up some words. Talk about the ultimate mash up!
‘Wadarirei’ moved me even if I don’t know the language. The chorus melody is beautiful – the ‘spoken verses’ have a non-rhyming rap feel – the intentional dissonant ends to the mid chorus/bridge is very interesting. Would you give us bit of translation and a little workshop on this piece?
Wadirarei, was co- wrote by me and was produced by an old friend of mine, who was probably the first person I collaborated as an artist, Fafi aka 3percent, from Zimbabwe. The song is about tainted love. It was taken from Fafi’s plays. Fafi was a playwright in Zimbabwe and this was one of the recordings towards a play he had previously wrote, produced and directed. Some of the recordings were not released as they were somewhat of a political satire of then political climate in Zimbabwe. We did not want a back lash. So anyways Wadirirei simply means why have you done that, or wronged me. It’s a girl lamenting about how her lover did so much wrong to her. The beginning of the song is the girl Fadzai lamenting and ends with her friend consoling her.
‘Momy Yo Yo’ had me moving. The importance of repetitions in rhythms and vocal sounds is clear – is there a traditional element here? This song is clearly a call to action. There is a big message here I imagine. – care to share?
Momy Yo Yo was released on Mano Black’s, Adjufu album. Now this was an interesting collaboration as I had no idea who I was working with until the project. We were calling to action all Africans and Non-Africans to stop the looting in Africa. It was derived from Nostlagia as we were both economic refugees from Africa. We know how much wealth there was in our country and yet we did not own a part of and this just tipped our scales with anger and Momy Yo Yo was our conduit.
I met Mano Black while collaborating with the now famous exotic dancer turned artist, Maty Dollar while attempting to do an all-girls collaboration in French, English and Shona. Mano Black came in the mix to finish producing some of our beats. It was great having him as all the girls were excited to have a former one-hit wonder boy from Ivory Coast now in the US. Our work ethic matched and he invited to work with him on his album, Adjufu. He also produced and arranged my first not so popular single Plus de SIDA, which is on iTunes by the way.
Perhaps our readers will make it more popular. Is there something you want your fans to know about you that they don’t know?
I first come to the US a few years ago, with only $45 in my pocket.
I want them to know that my songwriting is moving up and that I have a lot more hits coming up and I could use their support. I plan on going on tour next year. I am very passionate about music and sound. My love for percussion is a calling.
I also want them to know I stand for Human Rights and long to see peace and stability in war torn Congo, Darfur, Sudan and all the politically charged and unstable countries.
I speak for the child within!
Thank you for your Stand, and your making us more aware of the need reflected in your music. You are a blessing to us. What’s on the horizon for you?
Lots of exciting opportunities and collaborations. I am working on a few endorsements and licensing some of my work and hopefully the release of African Turquoise will bring more blessings. I have already done a promotional concert for African Turquoise in Harare, Zimbabwe at the Gallery Delta.
We wish the very best to you and we know those blessing will come. You are an inspiration and Dave and I will be watching your career. – Thank you Piwai for agreeing to the interview.
Thanks for keeping an eye out for me and spreading the word.
In collaboration with Zimbabwean marimba ensemble Ruzivo based in Seattle. “Mambo Grooves” CD
Photography by PhotosbyLinda
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