Evelyn Mukwedeya & Memory Makuri – The WL14 Interview

If Toronto is having a “moment”, it’s partially because our diverse city is home to creative people from all over the world who are bringing their traditions to a new land. There’s tonnes of music beyond the “scenes” that get endlessly disseminated in blogs and weekly papers — and has been for decades. The music that’s going to filter into next year’s pop hits (from reggae to soukous to Ethio-groove) is already all around us, if you know where to look.

Mbira duo Evelyn Mukwedeya & Memory Makuri will be taking the stage at Sonic Boom as part of the “Toronto Music Moment” event, adding their voices and Zimbabwean grooves to an afternoon of music and discussion. I chatted with them via email.

Wavelength: For folks who haven’t seen you before, tell us what you’re playing.

Memory Makuri: This is a traditional Zimbabwean instrument called mbira. It an old instrument that has been played for many years.

Evelyn Mukwedeya: Yes, mbira has been in Shona culture for thousands of years. It is played for spiritual purposes and also for entertainment. Mbira is also accompanied with hosho (shakers), singing and dance (Memory will also be showing her energetic traditional Zimbabwean dances!). While we play some very traditional pieces, we are also presenting some of our own original songs which are more contemporary. However, mbira is always a central part of our music.

WL: How long have you been playing mbira?

Memory: We have been playing together since 2008.

Evelyn: Yes, Memory and I played together in a band called Masaisai which played Chimurenga-style music and then formed Nhapitapi Mbira with Mutamba Rainos in 2011. Before that, I started learning mbira in 2003 while I was still in Zimbabwe.

WL: I remember seeing you play at the Music Gallery and you were a little taken aback that people were sitting quietly instead of singing and dancing. What’s the normal relationship between the musicians and audience for your music?

Evelyn: I remember that audience well! Some audiences are more timid than others, but they all usually have a good time during the shows. For our shows we like to encourage the audience to participate by dancing, singing or clapping. We believe that there should be very little separation between the audience and the performers on stage — that we as the musicians are facilitating the audience’s immersion and participation in the musical experience. This is what Zimbabwean and many African performances are like.

Memory: Our music can be played in different tempos to fit the situation.

WL: Are the songs that you play mostly traditional? How do you think you’re helping the traditions to change and evolve?

Memory: We are carrying on the flag of our tradition by continuing with what our ancestors started many years ago — playing mbira. When the mood is right, we throw in other instruments such as guitars, drums and so on just to spice it up.

Evelyn: In the past, we used to play mostly traditional music but in the past few years, Memory and I started to write our own songs. While our songs are based on traditional music, we arrange the pieces in a more contemporary style. I think that when people think of mbira, they usually connect it to its function in spiritual settings and this perception can make the music seem somewhat distant and inaccessible. I think we are helping to change that perception — when we have played for Zimbabweans and non-Zimbabweans alike, they find that mbira music can be light, and can be a music that they can dance to while the music delivers encouraging messages from our past and present. I think as women playing the instrument, we are showing that it is more acceptable for women to be musicians and to play mbira (the instrument was traditionally associated with men).

WL: What other kinds of music are you into? Does other music you listen to influence your mbira style?

Evelyn: I grew up studying classical piano and clarinet, so I grew to love works by composers such as Brahms, Debussy and Ravel. Other than that, I listen to a very eclectic mix of music – all types of jazz (bebop, Afro-Cuban, etc), roots reggae, desert blues, golden oldies from Zimbabwe (e.g. Thomas Mapfumo, Green Arrows, Marxist Brothers), dansi music from Tanzania, kwela music from South Africa, some rock, etc. I am attracted to music with interesting chord progressions, rhythms, instrumentation or arrangements. As I started songwriting a few years ago, I grew more interested in music which had powerful messages in the lyrics.

WL: When musicians from out of town come on tour, they sometimes get locals to fill out the band. Here’s where you get to humblebrag about some of the bigger names you’ve played with. Were these experiences exciting or scary (or both!) for you?

Evelyn: You’re right! It was both exciting and scary, but also a great honour to share the stage with Thomas Mapfumo and Stella Chiweshe when they were in Toronto. Memory has also worked with Thomas Mapfumo as a dancer and singer for several years.

Memory: It was quite exciting!

Evelyn: Thomas Mapfumo, Stella Chiweshe and Mbira DzeNharira are some of our biggest influences from a musical and songwriting perspective. For many years, I learnt mbira from listening to recordings so I absorbed different styles of mbira playing. In addition to that, by listening to a wider range of Zimbabwean music and playing mbira in bands with guitars, I have found myself playing mbira lines which sound much like what a lead, rhythm or bass guitar would play in other Zimbabwean music styles such as jit and Chimurenga. In fact, Chimurenga guitar lines are usually transcriptions of what a mbira would play so I got interested in learning bass guitar and that learning process has led to more cross-pollination of riffs between guitar lines and mbira lines in my playing style.

WL: Besides playing as a duo, you’re also a part of Nhapitapi. How did that develop, and how is the sound different when you’re playing in the group?

Evelyn: I think it is more of us being part of Nhapitapi and then us branching out to do duo work. Memory and I started playing as a duo when Nadine McNulty invited us to play at that Music Gallery show in September 2012. At first, it seemed to be a daunting task since we had been used to playing in the security of a full ensemble in Nhapitapi. To prepare for the Music Gallery show, I learned some singing and dance from Memory (dance, less successfully, haha) and Memory learned some mbira from me. We also wrote our own original songs some of which we recorded on Nhapitapi’s demo CD which was released last year. The sound in the duo setting is more stripped down because there are one to two mbiras playing and hosho (shakers), but there is more focus on vocal harmonies which fill out the soundscape.

WL: Thanks so much for your time! The event at Sonic Boom is called “The Toronto Music Moment”, and I’m really glad people will get a chance to see how much awesome stuff we have going on right under our noses!

Evelyn Mukwedeya & Memory Makuri will be playing as part of the “Toronto Music Moment” in-store event at Sonic Boom (782 Bathurst St.) with an afternoon of music + discussion. This is a FREE and ALL AGES event that starts at 3:00 PM.

[Photo credit: Werner Puntingam]