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South Africa: Msaki – Bridging the Divide Between Protest and Hope

The musician's new offering is a double album of widely divergent styles but with a central quality: she finds each song's soul and in the process lays bare her own.

"If people think I can sing," says singer-songwriter Msaki (Asanda Msaki Mvana) ruefully, "they haven't heard my sister!" At family gatherings, she confesses, "I'm not the one who's going to start a song… my aunts are better singers. If you're in a family where everybody sings, you don't see anything special in it… "

But listeners certainly think she can sing – well enough to amass a growing following and multiple accolades. After studies in visual art in the Eastern Cape, the self-taught guitarist studied in Leeds in the United Kingdom, and in 2012 was one of 30 applicants out of 900 selected for music studies in South Carolina in the United States.

In 2016, Msaki's performance won the National Arts Festival Standing Ovation Award; she subsequently won a Cape Town Fringe Fresh Music gold award and her track limfama Ziyabona topped both the Metro FM and Umhlobo Wenene FM radio charts. The track was from her 2016 album debut, Zaneliza: How the Water Moves, produced by pianist Nduduzo Makathini. Earlier, in 2013, she'd released an EP, Nalithemba.

Now Msaki has completed her second album, the double Platinumb Heart, which was launched on November 20. The release comprises one mostly acoustic disc, subtitled Open, and one that engages with electronic dance music, subtitled Beating.

As well as a rich voice and original material, Msaki's music stands out for lyrics often characterised by explicitly political discourse. She's written powerfully about Marikana (Blood, Guns and Revolutions), corruption (Anisixabisanga with The Brother Moves On), gender-based violence (At Stake) and more. Even songs dealing with more individual issues are underpinned by a deliberate ethos of Black pride, cooperation and anti-consumerism.

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Following the legacy

Not only her music but that impulse towards justice started with family. Msaki's paternal grandfather, Lawrence Lusaseni, was a composer and choirmaster born in Ndakana in the Eastern Cape in 1909. He was prominent enough to find a place in Yvonne Huskisson's apartheid-era reference work, The Bantu Composers of Southern Africa. So far – "and I'm still chasing his songs … talking to people who were in his choirs as children" – Msaki has managed to track down half a dozen Lusaseni compositions. She has traced the history of his prize-winning choirs and how he was commissioned by local leaders to compose songs for community occasions.

That old-school flavoured, chart-topping Iifama Ziyabona from Zaneliza she describes as "a gift from my grandfather: I woke up with that four-part harmony. [Although I do sometimes wake up with songs] I've never received one so well formed before." On Platinumb Heart there's a direct homage: the track Tiram is a contemporary take on a Lusaseni composition.

Apart from those songs that emerge from dreams, Msaki's journalling – both visual and verbal – plays a big role in her composing. It creates "an emotional map… feeds my well". She loves the freedom of composing with guitar – "piano lays it all out for you; chords on the guitar play hide-and-seek" – and with a baby synth, "which reminds me so much of the melodica that choir composers like my grandfather used". And as in her visual artwork, negative space – silence – is her "collaborator – any time there's silence, a song will land". She plans to follow all the noise of her current album launch space soon by "going camping with the kids".

Msaki's father and uncles sang in her grandfather's choirs, and they continued nurturing family music. Her father had also begun composing ("and even now he'll create impromptu songs just around the house"), but he took a clerical job to help support his siblings, all already at the then Fort Hare University. In time, he made it to Fort Hare too and qualified in law, also working as a teacher in Peddie. He arranged the voices on her song Nalithemba, and she's now working with him to create a collection of isiXhosa children's songs.

In such a family, it was impossible not to grow up committed to justice and the need for critical engagement with the world. Msaki can't pinpoint one defining moment in her political growth, but there were many childhood moments of "waking up at 3am and seeing my dad's study light still on… [He was] doing his pro bono law work, going through statutes… trying to make things right."

"But still," she reflects, "I grew up sheltered. My schooling was in mostly privileged spaces … that whitewashed [reality]." What followed was a process of unlearning: "shock, anger, disillusionment, apathy and trying to get back to a sense of hope have all been marked by my musical journey. In a lot of these songs, the personal meets the political at a place where I'm trying to grapple with something. Even when I wrote a song like Golden [about consumerism, on Zanelisa], I don't recall trying to be 'political'… I was using my songs to try and figure what's going on, what revolt against it might mean, and what I could do."

The joy of dance music

The mention of Golden inevitably leads to a discussion of Beating. Her house-piano collaborators may be as sharply aware of social issues as Msaki herself, but the genre often occupies social and performance niches where consumerism rules. That situation invokes some "bizarre contradictions". Msaki recalls debates with peers about affiliation with brands whose products and marketing could "sully" the messages of certain songs. But she has solid reasons for working in dance music, an engagement that's been steadily growing.

Some are political. She told the Music in Africa site that the "question of black joy goes hand in hand with black pain for me. The same way that a revolutionary wrote a love song back home while in exile was an act of protest, an ultimate expression of humanity to love even during the worst kind of dehumanising oppression. The electronic album is an ode to house music, my love for collaboration and the way that this genre has given me access to my joy."

In house as in any other genre, she's delighted to find collaborators who "can separate themselves from their [showbiz] avatars". What they all share is the imperative "to find the soul of the song and why we're here, together, creating".

Other reasons are creative. "The house scene is a lesson in dissolving yourself in music… I've no respect for genres."

Constraining baggage can accompany the stereotypical singer-songwriter with a guitar image. Msaki calls it a "heavy code": it offers creative possibilities she relishes, but it is also what led, for example, to her being labelled at the National Arts Festival as "South Africa's Tracey Chapman". By contrast, "house has taken away my comfort zone: with no guitar, what do I do with my hands? Music is moving; I can't just stand there. So what do I do?" That's led to taking mind-body-voice classes to work out what she wants to say physically in performance. The ensuing loosening-up has created a difference that "I also feel musically".

Strings of love

House music isn't the only surprise on Platinumb Heart. She also revisits one of the most loved South African pop songs: Blk Sonshine's Born in a Taxi. Sonshine's Neo Muyanga – now a far more diverse kind of composer and scholar – was Msaki's producer on the album, and she says his work with her on the string arrangements was crucial for the album's mood: "Listen carefully, the strings are a huge part of my emotional tracking on the album."

But it was a chance hearing of the song (appropriately, in an Uber) that struck her with its lyrical power. "[It] was the vulnerability of the lyrics – this is not a sure love song. I hadn't thought about love songs [for the album] yet. I picked up my guitar and started figuring it out… made it slower, in a different key."

Talk to Msaki about her current listening and the same diversity emerges as in her repertoire: Miriam Makeba ("Meadowlands was the first song I ever sang with a big band"), veteran singer-songwriter Tom Waits; guitarist José Gonzáles; Swedish electronica outfit Little Dragon; Muyanga's new opera.

Such eclecticism, she believes, is part of the legacy of South African music, where choral composers rubbed shoulders with big-city jazzmen and itinerant guitar players. Apartheid history has erased the richness of the Black culture that emerged from those cross-fertilisations. "Anybody who questions where I fit," she says, "has a really ahistorical understanding of our musical heritage."

As for her future, the composing and singing won't stop. "If I end up some day alone in a cabin, beating mats and banging pots, I'll still be making music."

Artmotion S.Africa

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