Millicent Chapanda is an internationally renowned Mbira player, and just a fabulously great entertainer. When I see her perform I sometimes think that perhaps this is the most joyous sound I will ever hear. A globetrotting ambassador for her music, Millicent has still found time wend her way back to Bearwood on Friday, October 6th to guest star at Outsideleft's Studio 67 event in Cork's lounge. That's this Friday and there might be a few tickets left right here. Before the show, Millicent took time to talk to us about her music and career...
Outsideleft: Millicent, hi, it has been an age since we last spoke, last featured you at that incredible gig at Why Not Coffee and also had our Millicent Chapanda Week in Outsideleft. Since then, you’ve been doing so much… Can you talk about the highlights?
Millicent Chapanda: Wow! Yes, certainly going down memory lane performing at Why Not Café feels like a lifetime away, but the experience is very vivid and surreal with an audience that truly supports live music and musicians to add a cherry on the cake in one of Bearwood's beautiful and unique spaces and places. There are so many highlights events across the country curated by Nest Collective which also involves Singing with the Nightingales, Coliseum Theatre in London 2021 aired on SKY Arts as part of London Climate Change Festival called Song For Nature, Womad festival's 40th anniversary performing on 2 stages, since the birth of Medicine festival performing annually also on 2 stages, being part of Shambala festival, Mosely Folk Festival, collaborations that led to performances at the prestigious Peninsular hotel in Paris for delegates from Africa and Korea at a business summit for the United Nations, Mosley Folk Festival, Camp quirky, unique venues by SofarSouds nationwide, Afrika eye festival, Numerous events at B:Music (Symphony Hall Birmingham) curated by Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham, Muzikstan festival, Sheffield Migration Matters festival, Surge Festival, Midlands Arts Centre Big weekender, Nottingham Global roots festival, Music Declares – We Make Tomorrow event, Lyric theatre - For The Culture Celebrating Blackness festival, Impact Birmingham Livestream gig. Touring Tonderai Munyebvus play MMD&Me on theatre stages across the UK and Scotland. More importantly, the opportunity to share and be a champion for my traditional music, representing women mbira players. I just love putting a smile on people's faces while exposing them to our traditional music in various spaces and places (prestigious, big or small venues, outdoors or camping) valuing and engaging with the different audiences is where I feel at home doing what I love that's and my legacy
OL: You are renowned as a live musician, your inclusive performances absolutely connecting with audiences… In that way the pandemic must have really cooled your heels!
M: At the beginning of the pandemic and imposed lockdowns, meant all performances were initially postponed then later cancelled leaving musicians and the music industry in a helpless situation. We turned to online streaming isolated in our homes, this was very very difficult as I could not see or engage with the audience watching, not to mention the technical glitches that came with these streaming platforms. Though it was difficult however, music is the constant that has always played a vital role in reaching isolated people uplifting and giving hope more importantly healing. I am so glad that I did not have to do this for too long. I was approached by Kambe Events who are the organisers of the Shambala Festival where I perform annually to professionally live record on Aidu-TV in 2020, Migration Festival 2020. and Impact Birmingham Livestreaming gig. Other projects took us out of our comfort zone turning our homes into mini studios as I was involved in remote recording on Rafiki Jazz, Dust CD. As we were slowly coming out of this difficult period for the music industry. Kambe Events could not hold the annual Shambala festival I also took part in smaller versions that were socially distanced live performances to name a few at Carryon Kelmarsh in 2020 Campkin in 2021 - as I remember this involved lots of Covid19 testing and as humans forced to behave in unnatural ways of no human connection and social etiquettes.
Lockdown also meant the play I was involved in and due to tour at the beginning 2020 was postponed as there was uncertainty we had to record on Audible at the beginning of 2020. the play Mugabe My Dad and Me was toured around the country as the imposed social distancing eased and this was a beautiful experience showing my repertoire as an actor musician.
I cannot put into words just how wonderfully alive it makes me feel to perform in front of an audience, means freedom to be unapologetically myself, it is my identity, my pride as a champion and role model sharing my traditional music, upholding our culture through my artistry and music gives me a sense of buoyancy.
Well, you see Mbira music is very much communal and inclusive, it is this inclusivity that comes from its simplicity that allows all present to effortlessly and organically join on in small or big gestures of movements/dancing, foot tapping, humming, clapping, singing along or just being present closing your eyes and allowing it to flow through you. Mbira music revives one’s soul, heals, guides and gives hope to a people.
OL: What I want to know is, we love your music so much, there are a few lovely YouTube video clips, but do you have any plans to make a record?
M: My hopes and dreams are bigger than the current status quo and would have loved to have finished the recording that I started a while ago but as you know as a self-managing musician and mumprenure not to mention that generally life happens. However, I currently have the time, mentally, physically and creatively ready to complete the EP, the major setback is the financial resources to get it finished. You may have missed a recording on Bandcamp a recording released in 2020 through a project with Impact Birmingham my song is called Samatenga Ringirai...
OL: Can you talk a little about the origins of mbira music, this history the instrumentation - people see you and they might not know what you are doing because of your large decorative painted hollowed out thing?
M: Thank you for asking because every time I perform audiences are curious and intrigued as to what I am doing inside the guard which is somewhat a mystic, I always explain and explain, especially when playing to new audiences that it is not an MP3 player hidden inside. But I must say, this is a first and very funny to hear as you called it the “large decorative painted hollowed out thing”.
Mbira refers to both the instrument and the genre of style of music, it is the traditional music of the Karanga(Shona) people of Zimbabwe. The Mbira is a tactile instrument it is a lamellaphone, a plucked idiophone consisting of a metal key called tongues mounted on a wooden soundboard. Mbira instruments come in different keys and sizes dependent on different regions and influences ranging from 22 keys to 32 keys or more. The metal keys range are plucked with the thumbs and right index figure to produce the sound these are fastened to a hardwood soundboard. The mbira can be placed in a daze which is a dried-out pumpkin shell/calabash for amplification with shell or bottle tops or shell for buzzing and resonance which is a must in accompanying the sounds. Other versions of the Mbira instruments are found in different parts of Africa however, Zimbabwe is the only country that has developed it further as it can be played with Western instruments.
OL: Are there many mbira players in the in the West Midlands, Black Country, in the UK? What instrumentation generally complements the mbira?
M: So far, I am the only Mbira player I know of in the West Midlands and Black Country, if there are any that I am not aware of it would be lovely and an honour to connect and play with them, in the meantime I hold the mantle in our county. Mbira instrument can be played solo or in an ensemble to appreciate its beautiful intricacies and interwoven melodies. The mbira can be accompanied by other traditional instruments such as the hosho(shakers) and ngoma (drums) are key in adding melody. Mbira can also be played in collaborations with other traditional instruments from other parts of Africa as you have seen in my Mbira Blues trio with Kadialy Kouyate from Senegal who plays the Kora and Henri Gaobi a master drummer from Ivory Coast on the Djembe and percussion. I have recently collaborated in a duo with Hyelim Kim from Korea playing the Daegeum (traditional Flute) and also as a duo with Germa Adam on the Haitian fiddle. I have also played with the Surge Forward orchestra comprising musicians from India on the tabla, and other Western instruments such as the violin, guitar, double bass flute saxophone. These healthy collaborations and important in enriching my repertoire. Music is fluid and should not be boxed in silos or so-called genres where our traditional instruments and music is othered.
OL: Are you still working closely with Celebrating Sanctuary? If so, maybe mention what they do. In some ways their work is more important than ever.
M: Yes, I am still working closely with Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham (CSB), a charity organisation I started working with in my capacity as a musician. In 2019 I was invited the join a small team of hard-working stellar creatives as an assistant programme manager who are family to me now.
I am proud to be a part of CSB team where I wear two hats (as a musician and team member) doing what I love which does not feel like work at all also close to my heart I am in awe of its ethos, values and mission. Throughout the year CSB programme highlights the positive impact arts can make in transforming people’s lives by working through the arts to celebrate, empower, promote and raise awareness of the contributions that refugees make to Birmingham and more widely the UK.
CSB works collaboratively with artists in all disciplines at all levels, be they emerging or at mastery level, hailing from various backgrounds, cultures and traditions. CSB creates and provides platforms to promote and showcase the very best artistic practice from artists originating from or connected to areas of conflict, turmoil and or unrest.
Over the years, CSB has continually built valuable partnerships with various organisations and venues small and big including the iconic ones in Birmingham. CSB celebrated its 20th-anniversary last year and is growing from strength to strength.
OL: You’re playing at the Outsideleft Studio 67 thing at Corks… What next for you after that?
M: I was so excited when I was contacted by Outsideleft to come back and perform for Outsideleft Studio 67 at Corks. I feel as a musician and cultural artist, being among and playing for your local community, where I feel so much more at home is very important as the West Midlands is my home when not in Zimbabwe. Even though there is a feel-good factor about going far afield to those other events festivals or gigs away from home. This is where I feel and nurtured and nurtured because as the adage goes "charity begins at home". That acceptance, love and appreciation from my home area are so comforting, and heart-melting however, this is where my nerves are at their highest, when this happens, I always remember what my teacher and mentor told me that nerves are natural and always a good sign as the body reminds me to do my best. It is important to control and channel my nerves positively in my delivery and performance.
I will continue to play mbira reaching new and existing audiences, collaborating with other musicians in order to grow.