|Neo Muyanga and Masauko Chipembere are two of Southern Africa’s greatest living musical artists in a humble yet significant way. The duo is an unassuming pair who has been known to use their voices and stringed instruments to stir it up. Kojo Baffoe, long time friend, and admirer of Blk Sonshine perhaps put it best when he said of their performance, “There are moments in time when there are no words that can adequately capture the emotion, the experience.” With an almost magical quality to their art these two Librans left an indelible mark on the South African music conscience with just one album. AfricaBe caught up with Neo in Cape Town and Masauko in Brooklyn, New York to get at the method to the magic.
AfricaBe: To set the record straight once and for all. Where were you born?
Masauko Chipembere (MC): Yeah! There was a time when people were saying I was born in Botswana. I don’t know where that one came from. I was conceived in Tanzania while my parents were exile from Malawi and then born in Los Angeles because my parents returned to the States in 1969.
Neo Muyanga (NM): I was born in Soweto.
AB: What do your names mean?
NM: Neo means ‘a gift’.
MC: My name Masauko, means the suffering a mother experiences while giving birth. My father had this name before me and understood his name to mean the suffering of the people of Malawi to be born into freedom. My mother says she did not suffer a lot during child birth with me but they wanted someone to carry my father’s name. It’s a bit heavy to be named “Suffering” but I now see beauty in it because suffering is part of a cycle that leads to growth.
AB: Why did you leave Africa?
MC: My family left the continent because my father, who was the first Minister of Education in Malawi and one of the main players in the Independence Movement, led a failed coup against Kamuzu Banda in the early 60s. This was the result of Kamuzu’s strange habits. He was hostile to the OAU and friendly with the governments of Mozambique and South Africa who were both oppressing the black majorities in their countries at that time.
NM: I went to study.
AB: What brought you back home to Africa?
MC: In the early 1990s, Kamuzu Banda was pushed out of office by the UDF government. While Kamuzu was in power there was always a price on the head of anyone called Chipembere. So, I wanted to go home to Malawi and meet all those relatives who had stayed and suffered. I had also grown up with hip hop, so X-Clan, Public Enemy, Arrested Development and the Jungle Brothers all made Africa seem like the centre of the world to me.
NM: My family is here, and I don’t like living in a country where I have to walk around with my passport and pass documents all the time. So coming home was always the plan.
AB: Is there anything you feel you missed out on in Africa spending so much time abroad?
NM: No, I was always with other Africans – in Botswana, Italy, U.K. and Germany, then again in the U.S.
MC: I cannot speak my mother tongue (Nyanga/Chewa) and this breaks my heart everyday. I am slowly learning it and loving the wisdom and proverbs of my people. My father died when I was small and left my mother with seven kids in exile! So, we went from being children of the Minister to being on welfare and living in the ‘hood’ in LA. There was no time for African language lessons in the concrete jungle.
AB: Where did Neo and Masauko first meet, and how was that first meeting?
MC: We met in February 1997 at Jahnito’s which is a small little club in the Yeoville area of Jo-burg. I met Neo because he was there playing guitar and singing at Monday Blues which was a popular event started by Peter Makarube. I was also there trying to let people hear my songs. Neo had already composed “Born in a Taxi” and I remember thinking to myself that this guy had a hit song. I don’t remember the, “Hi, I am Masauko,” moment. But, I do remember that the first time we got together to play was in my rented back room on Muller Street and it was obvious that we had something from day one. We both just loved playing guitars together. There were no dreams of stardom just good music.
AB: How did it transpire that Yeoville in Johannesburg ended up being the birthplace of Blk Sonshine?
MC: Yeoville was the birth place of the whole movement of music that is (currently) transpiring in SA. I used to live in Olympia Mansion (a block of flats) upstairs from Tandiswa in Yeoville! Simpiwe Dana, Tumi from the Volume, MXO, Sliq Angel, Snazz D, X-Amount, Mizchif, Devious and many other artists would come by the house and we would just have sessions and enjoy being creative people together. There were also jazz cats like Moses Molelekwa and Andile Yenana around the neighbourhood. Andile was always willing to show someone some chords or just listen to some good music.
AB: How did California then become where the first Blk Sonshine album was ultimately recorded?
NM: We recorded at various studios where our producer, Russel Pope, could get decent rates: the house of blues in Encino, as well as other studios in the Valley and Burbank suburbs of Los Angeles.
MC: He (Pope) is a white South Africa who fled the country in the 60s because he couldn’t take all the hatred. He worked with Supertramp before working with Blk Sonshine. Hardly anyone in SA knows his name but he is probably the most successful white South African to ever leave the country and pursue a career in music. I love that man because he loves good music. He actually funded our first record because he believed in us even though he came from a country that promoted racism against blacks. He transcended that confusion and helped to create something positive with us.
AB: How do you manage to give a diverse range of global citizens access to your music?
NM: The world today is a diverse place. When we play, authentically as ourselves, people are able to sense that and they grow warm to it.
MC: I have no choice. I am an African born in America.
AB: What were some of the influences that were similar at home and abroad about Blk Sonshine the debut album?
MN: I think people liked the acoustic, simple and dressed-down nature of what we were doing.
MC: Everyone seemed to like the intimacy and the emotional aspects of the music. People are people so they tend to feel it if you feel it. They also like the idea that no one was sure where a music like this would come from or what category to put it in.
AB: What do you do individually when you are apart?
NM: I compose music everyday. Then I spend every other couple of days analyzing what I have composed.
MC: In the last couple of years I have had the pleasure of performing at Carnegie Hall, touring with Digable Planets and recording records with various artists. I have a great record out with Lorraine Klaasen who is the daughter of the Tandi Klaasen (a known jazz singer in S.A.) It is called Africa Calling. We made that record in Canada and worked with Bakhiti Khumalo. The producer for that CD was Mongezi Ntaka who was the original guitarist for Lucky Dube. We work together all the time because he is from Malawi and SA.
AB: What sort of performances do you stage as individuals?
I perform a lot with Mongezi and Kuku who is a Nigerian artist. We are always trying to push our African culture on the people of America. I also perform with Yolanda Sangweni; then there is Brian Jackson from the Gil Scott-Heron band. There’s too much going on to get it all in without sounding like a train wreck and Neo stays as busy.
NM: I also compose (for) and musically direct theatre productions, contemporary dance and film.
AB: At what point in your careers did you decide to make an album from your music?
MC: The first CD came about because we had been playing live a lot and people wanted to take the music home. Our audience sort of demanded the ability to hear the music in their own spaces at home.
NM: When the song starts to feel good in the mouth is then time to start recording him.
AB: How did you manage to make such an impact off of one album, Blk Sonshine?
MC: To be honest, there were three factors;
1. We got the song “Born in a Taxi” into a major South African advert, so people heard it everyday from their televisions;
2. We made the album in LA which convinced the industry in South Africa that we must be doing something worthwhile. It is kind of sad but a lot of people assume that ‘Made in America’ means quality;
3 We actually can write some songs and sing. But this was the least important factor and it always is in this business. The music business is more about hype than art. If you are an artist you need to be persistent and talented. We are both of those things.
AB: How did you structure a deal which allows you generous freedoms in terms of producing albums?
NM: We paid for the album and recorded it ourselves, and then struck a license, distribution and marketing deal with the record company. We retain all copyrights.
AB: Is this a good business method?
MC: It is the only method that makes sense in the industry climate of today. Record companies are closing everyday. The whole model for how music is sold will be different within ten years. These companies may not exist and if they do, it will be in another capacity.
NM: It keeps things clean and straight.
AB: Is a message in the music also good business?
NM: It depends on whether the musician is believable or not. If not then it can be bad for business.
MC: Nope! It makes it harder. If we just did love songs about boys and girls we would eat a lot better but the soul would starve.
AB: Where is the real money to be made in the music industry as a musician?
NM: It depends on the kind of music: if you are a touring musician, the money is in the gigs. If you are a songwriter/composer who does not tour, the money is in the publishing royalties. If you are recording star, then the money is in selling CD’s or mp3’s. If you are a classical musician, the money is in the commissioned works, and so on and so forth…
AB: Has it always been that way?
NM: No, it never stays the same. There are new platforms being invented every year, so the avenues to money will continue to change and shift accordingly.
MC: The modern downloading system has made it almost impossible to make a lot of money around the globe selling records. A bunch of people reading this article have our music but never paid for it. They just downloaded it somewhere or burnt a CD from a friend’s copy. They love what we do but don’t know that burning the music takes food out our family’s mouths.
AB: What is it that artists need to think about when they want to sign on with a record company?
MC: They need to understand that it is called the music business. But to the record company it is the business of music. The business comes first because they are spending money. No one wants to risk loosing their money on an idea that seems far fetched. So if you want to come out with an original sound, make sure you go out and perform a lot so that the industry can see that there is an audience for your new concept and style. You also want to sell your own CDs at shows to show the industry that people buy your work.
AB: New Album, Good Life… what doest it say about Blk Sonshine’s growth over the last 10 years since the first album?
MC: On this album you will hear even more of Africa in our sound. You will hear me beginning to use Chewa in “Watch This Woman.” You will hear ancient Indian instruments on the song “Aweright.” You will hear Koras and Cellos. We also collaborated with Tumi and MXO on the song “Nkosi.” You will hear that we have been travelling the globe and listening to all sorts of music and incorporating it into this African vision. With the album, Good Life, we are trying to define for ourselves what exactly makes for a “Good Life.” The answer of course is love but how to go about arriving at that answer is the journey that guides this set of songs.
NM: I think is says we’ve been listening to a lot of diverse music and are growing as songwriters, but that’s just me.