The Natural History Museum of London is a space of gargantuan proportions. The main entrance leads to a cavernous hall that comfortably houses the skeletal frame of a Diplodocus. Several feet away, on the landing of a pronged staircase, sits an oversized, marble statue of Charles Darwin. This is the scene that served as the backdrop to my initial encounter with vocalist, bassist, producer and actress Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes fame. She descended the staircase to deliver a bombastic show for a private, formal event that made the massive fossil and the historical giant she was sandwiched in between look like mere toys in her presence.
The Noisettes set up shop on the small landing at Darwin’s feet, but Shoniwa proceeded to use every inch of the stoic space. She turned the marble banisters into her personal gymnast bars as she slid down the whole length without missing a note to hits like Wild Young Hearts. She kept the crowd on their feet even as her regal head wraps flew off her head in moments of sheer performance euphoria as she shred her bass guitar on Don’t Give Up from their eponymous first album What’s The Time, Mr. Wolf?
A few days after the private concert at the museum, we sat down for cocktails and a chat at the Sanderson Hotel in central London. Shoniwa describes her ability to roll with the punches with a natural ease that solely belongs to those destined to rule the stage, “It doesn’t have to be so ego driven in order to rock a stage. It can be driven by the love to make others feel good even at the expense of your own vanity. I’m not protecting myself from you, I’m with you, we’re in this together. When you take the fear away from the audience by being vulnerable in front of them, they want to be human with you. Going to see most live acts these days, there’s so much money poured into production value that the music feels distant. For the audience it’s like going to a restaurant, ordering 10 different dishes and then having to get a kebab on the way home because they still feel a hungry afterwards.”
And feed us, she will. Shoniwa came into the public eye for her work with the Noisettes, but her musical prowess extends beyond being a vocalist and a bassist. She will launch her much anticipated solo projects, starting with an EP titled Tropical Metropolis that is set for release in the autumn of 2014, followed by a full length album that will drop in early 2015. Shoniwa has expanded her artistic ventures by stationing herself at every facet of the creative process by taking on the role of producer, writer and arranger for the EP.
She has a distinctive sound, one that she spent much time crafting. She notes: “I enjoy the process of taking all the skills and inspirations I’ve experienced and honing my own craft of songwriting. To remember all the songs from certain generations and go back in history and also to not be scared to come up with new stuff. I want people to think “I’m not familiar with this sound”. The beauty of learning a craft is not being trapped by technique. Once you’ve learned what the masters have done, now it is your turn to go where they went and suffer making something that might not look or sound like what their masters taught them. You’re going to have to keep going into the next class. I just think you have to take that extra bit of risk.”
This daring to go where other sounds have faltered is certainly inspired by the revolutionary family of music that she hails from. Her maternal uncle is the politically outspoken and exiled Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo and her mother provided back up vocals for her brother’s band. It seems as though Shoniwa became sonically astute from the womb, imprinted by songs of freedom and emancipation as her parents experienced Zimbabwe’s struggle for decolonization first hand.
Listening to the tracks off Tropical Metropolis, one could hear how Shoniwa flung her arms around the globe and grabbed onto sounds that may have not met each other until they were processed in the mind and spirit of a true 3rd culture kid. Tracks like Zimtron and Coming Home (Shumba) bend time and space, paying homage to age old Mbira melodies from Zimbabwe, EDM bass lines from South London clubs and sounds from the multitude of places she has visited as a touring musician, yet it also takes her listener to that other unique place, that place within her where no one else has ever been.
But, does she feel a responsibility with representing and referencing African music? “Yes! You don’t want that sound to end up in the wrong hands. You don’t want it to be treated as a novelty, and I think it’s a fine line. As i’m making an African inspired pop record, it has to be accepted and received as ours. You can’t go halfway with it. I still get anxious when I think about the day I get to go and play Thomas [Mapfumo] the music that’s so directly inspired by him and his ancestors to get that blessing. But I know in a way, it has to be a part of me, even if for them it seems filtered. Even if it means I get a bit of a scolding at first, I’ll take that. My job as a custodian is to make sure that this music and history is passed down. When people hear this album, I want them to enjoy their own journey of discovering a new sound of pop music.”
The EP also features a number of collaborations with a number of other musicians. Shoniwa comments: “I’ve done some really interesting sessions recently and met some amazing people. There are people who’ve reached out and shown interest, like RZA [rapper and producer from the hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan] and I like a challenge, I like being out of my comfort zone. Because, musically people have known him a lot for hip hop but he’s much more of a poet on top of being a master MC. He’s also an amazing piano player and he’s got the kind of all around music geek that I’ve got in me as well.”
Tropical Metropolis carries a number of repeating themes in the lyrics that Shoniwa refers to as “journeying, having fun, but home being in there in some ways. Love is a theme that keeps coming up too. I like to keep things playful, and playing with metaphor and words and teasing people. You can be provocative without being shocking. You can really indulge and have fun with words. I feel like we are in a place in history where we need lyrics that can uplift and inspire and create joy that a variety of people can sing of all ages and colors.”
Of course aside from the lyrics, the title itself is quite unique, Shoniwa explains: “The title is celebrating certain traits that I have found remind me of what excites me about living and growing up in quite a dense city with a very beautiful, natural backdrop. I grew up in parts of London where I had all my adventures where it was so colourful. I love the contrast of my aunties walking with their groceries and head wraps down Brixton or Peckham roads and the juxtaposition of the rugged concrete jungle of south London and the beautiful flowers of men and women expressing themselves and all their different cultures. The idea of a tropical metropolis existing, you have flowers that aren’t from that place, or their ancestry isn’t from there but they manage to be themselves and flourish and maintain their culture and fight to have a balance between what runs through their veins and what their surroundings are. And that’s whats beautiful about NYC or London or Singapore or any high density metropolis, that beautiful fight of nature still governing things.”
Thinking back to theories of evolution, Tropical Metropolis will certainly stand out as the proverbial opposable thumb when it drops in the fall of 2014. Shoniwa’s life long study of her craft gives her the ease to move about the landscape of musical genres like water in high monsoon season, carrying the sediments of inspiration she has picked up from her contemporaries and those who’ve long passed. Yet, she is not oblivious to the widening chasm between pop music and authentic music where once there was none. One can sense she creates from a place of evolutionary urgency of do or die. She is evolving by revolting from the traditional methods of musicianship. Like a mad alchemist, she is using the totality of her experiences to create new soundscapes where everyone is a citizen just by being themselves and we are happy to be invited along for the ride.
Find out more about Shingai Shoniwa at www.noisettes.co.uk
Words: Sol Goshu
1. Images courtesy of Hannah Rajah, shot at Sanderson Hotel.