Interview: Namvula @ Sands Films (London, 6th April 2016)

On April 6th, I ventured out to Rotherhithe in the South-Eastern corner of London to meet Namvula, a half-Zambian, half-Scottish musician whose 2014 debut album Shiwezwa received a wave of enthusiastic praise from the press. We meet as she waits to play an intimate set at a gig organised by TunedIn London in the unique venue of Sands Films. The tiny room is covered in red velvet and adorned with paintings and mirrors, and usually plays host to a small cinema club. The guests, numbering around sixty people, sit on armchairs and sofas and are offered cups of tea. The atmosphere is so relaxed and informal, it feels as if you are among friends.

Before her musicians, a guitarist and a double bass player, joined her on stage I had the pleasure of chatting with Namvula, and here is what she said:

I know you have lived in many different countries, but you live in London now, don’t you?

I was born in Zambia and I grew up between Switzerland, Kenya and the US. Now I tend to split my time between Zambia and London, it’s just better for my soul. Truth is, apart from the music, I feel like I’m kind of done with London. I am actually going back to Zambia in a couple of weeks and I’ll be there until July to finish writing my new album. It’s a weird moment of transition”.

Your music is a blend of African traditions, European folk, Latin rhythms and much more. Do you think this is the result of having lived in so many places?

Yes, I think so. I have been exposed to many different things and cultures. This has definitely affected my music and my life in general. It made me more aware and sensitive to things that are going on and more interested in how things connect across spaces.

At one point, especially after the first album, I asked myself ‘what is this sound?’, ‘how do I define what I am doing?’ but now I don’t care about defining it anymore. I’m just trying to make an honest and creative representation of what I see and what I feel, and then you hope that somehow your creativity transmits something to people. If someone who has never listened to my music asks me what kind of genre it is, I say what other people have said about my music”. 

Not only do you blend several musical styles but you also sing in various languages:

It’s an interesting relationship the one I have with languages. Each language has its own poetry and specific songs call on specific languages, sometimes because I am inspired by the place where I am in the moment.

Now, for example, I want to reengage with English for various reasons. In my first album I wanted to use my mother’s language (Lenje), because I was exploring my identity. I was asking myself ‘am I legitimately African? Am I legitimately Zambian? Do I have the right to use this as a creative language? What does that mean to me?’ Now that I feel much more comfortable with who I am, both musically and as an individual and more mature as a creative person, I want to reengage with the poetry of English because I used to think it was not poetic enough for me and I wanted to challenge myself. Of course there are also more people able to understand English, and that is also a reason, but it’s not though that I don’t want to write songs in Lenje anymore, I would like to mix the two”.

How is your music perceived in Zambia?

People like it, but in Zambia people are not exposed to many different kinds of music and I guess this makes it difficult for many to understand and appreciate new things. We have a lot of Afropop, Congolese Rumba, Calendula, but you won’t really have jazz, classical music, not even South African or Western African music unless it’s the hottest dance track of the season.

I’ve had a lot of support from very specific parts of the Zambian music industry but my music is not very mainstream, many radio stations would not know what to do with it. I think people liked the fact that I was singing in Lenje because almost no one sings in Lenje (it is spoken only by a tiny tribe).

Do people in Zambia find your music to resemble African sounds or is it too European to them?

I don’t think people find my music to be too European because so much of our music is influenced by hip-hop, but perhaps it is the jazzy element in it that would be new to them. We also have a poor live music culture but when I have held live gigs they do enjoy it. It might be not what they are used to but they enjoyed it. There is ‘enough Africa’ in it, there is something familiar they can relate to and I think people in the end seek comfort in music, unless you are someone who goes out to discover new things and is constantly pushing your own musical boundaries, but I guess most of the people seek things they know and listen to music they can relate to. It’s the other way round, Africans like my music because there is an African element in it, and Westerners might like it because of the Western element in it”.

What about your European audience?

In the West though it seems to me that people are looking for roots, for traditional sounds. There is this desire to have me represent ‘the Zambian sound’ but I can’t fulfil that. What is the ‘Zambian sound’ even? That’s not what I am doing nor who I am as an artist and as a person. Sometimes labels and festivals have said to me my sound is ‘not Zambian enough’, but what does that even mean? Music is constantly changing and evolving. Music is a conversation across space, across time, across borders”.

Your first album, Shiwezwa, was a great critical success… What do you have in store for your second album?

I am still in the process of writing my second album, so I do not really now what my music is going to be like. I know what I am interested in and what I am interested in bringing out. I am still interested in exploring Zambian traditional rhythms, psychedelic sounds, the beauty of melodies and instruments. I know that I want the second album to be more open in terms of instrumentation and in terms of space. Hopefully it will still be me but I hope it is going to be different from the first album, I hope it is going to say something new. I am not the same person as I was when I was composing the first album.

In terms of topics, I am interested in the stories of women: what it means to be a girl in Africa, the struggles that girls face. Of course these are not only specific to African women but there are things that are specific to my experience as a Diasporian from Africa and the experience of the women who surround me [her mother is Zambian and her father Scottish]. There is a song which my 10-year-old niece wrote; a song about my relationship with my grandmother and her language which I cannot speak, a song based on the story of the wife of a Mozambiquean who got burnt during the xenophobic violence in South Africa. There are some issues that I might not be able to put into songs, such as skin lightening and concepts of beauty. These are big issues and I am not sure if I could find a way to translate that”. 

Who are the women in music that inspire you?

There are many; Cassandra Wilson the American jazz musician is the reason I started singing. Meshell Ndegeocello (also from America), Souad Massi (from Algeria), Angélique Kidjo (Beninese-American) and also many more”.

Were any of the woman in your family musical?

Not so much, which I think is why my parents were surprised when I said I wanted to be a musician. My aunt Maureen Lilanda is a singer [a household name in the Zambian music scene], but I did not grow up with her. It is when I started making music that my cousin came up to me and said, ‘I think Maureen Lilanda is related to us’ since she noticed we were both sharing this interest in traditional music. She was not really part of my life but she was definitely part of me as a musician, she gave me the courage to take the path of music. Everything started with me writing songs on my guitar as a teenager”.

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