The genesis of Edith WeUtonga!
It is no wonder that Edith we Utonga is one of few musicians in very high demand in Zimbabwe today. A female bass player, a band leader at that, is harder to come by than a female Mbira player was in the times of Stella Chiweshe. What Edith does to that instrument is enough to seduce the rain gods as we saw at he HIFA performance on the Global Stage when at the end of her performance the heavens cracked open and drenched an audience that would still not leave the stands until the last fat string had been plucked, slapped, popped, tapped, thumped or picked.
MT: How did your music career begin?
Edith: I started in 2000 at Amakhosi Township Square in Bulawayo as part of a project called Amakhosikazi which trained women to become band leaders and musicians. My role was to compose music. I worked with them until 2006 when I moved to Harare to work as a backing vocalist for a jazz artist. It was during that time that I discovered that I could fiddle my way through a bass guitar. Then I started playing. I got my own bass guitar and formed my own band in 2008 which is still a work in progress. Tariro is the rhythm guitarist, Rumbi I on percussion and my younger sister [on vocals] is still with me from a previous band from Bulawayo. Then there are two guys, a drummer and a keyboard player. I am the lead guitarist and that is the band, Utonga. Edith we Utonga (Edith of Utonga) is my stage name.
MT: Much of your music speaks of social issues. This is hard to come by in young musicians today. Why not go with the flow and write for example about touching and feeling and getting intimate?
Edith: I am inspired by situations around me whether they have happened personally or maybe I have seen a friend go through a phase. Things that are happening in my social network. That is what inspires me to write the music that I write. It is very rare for me to write about love though I have just recently written a love song. But mostly I am inspired by my environment.
MT: Do you think people understand what you are saying?
Edith: They do and they relate because I am just writing about the realities in our lives.
MT: What is the music scene like in Zimbabwe right now?
Edith: There is a lot of talent in Zimbabwe but either the venues are few or there is so many venues but the lack of resources becomes an obstacle for musicians. There is no equipment and so you have to hire equipment to perform at these venues. It costs a lot of money to hire a PA system so at the end of the day there are just a few venues that are active that provide a PA system for musicians to use like the Book Cafe and the Mannenberg which can only take so many musicians and a lot of musicians end up not performing.
MT: How are musicians getting along? Do you have collectives and do you think that might solve the problem of not having enough money to hire equipment?
Edith: I think we are still quite a long way. People are working as individuals. We are not really working as a unit that can look into mutual challenges. Those musicians that have their own equipment are not willing to share their instruments which makes it hard for a musician that is just starting out.
MT: How would you compare the old music of Zimbabwe with the new?
Edith: I think old music was much more original. You could tell right away that the music was authentic Zimbabwean music because it had a Zimbabwean feel to it, but now there are a lot of influences - rock, funk etc. Young upcoming artists are now more influenced by American pop which is a bit off the mark from what I would call authentic Zimbabwean music.
MT: What direction do you think the music is taking?
Edith: I would say that it is still growing. There are a lot of young artists that are coming up and there is a lot that needs to be done for us to achieve international appeal. There are very few of us who look at this and think that it is a serious a business. So I think a lot of us are on a learning curve and are still growing.
MT: Have you performed internationally yet?
Edith: Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) is an international platform and so I can say that we have performed at an international level but we haven't yet got to do tours. It is something that we are looking to do in the near future.
MT: What was the reception like at HIFA?
Edith: I met people who have been to other international platforms who have said that my music deserves to be up there on the international scene and that my musical arrangement and the way that I perform is of international standard so I think it has been received well.
MT: Who would you like to work with locally or internationally?
Edith: I would love to work with Bibi Tanga and Lokua Kanza whom i would love to play his guitar on one of my songs. Locally, I would love to do a concert with Stella Chiweshe and Thomas Mapfumo.