A Chat With SA’S ‘Birdie’ Mboweni
Women have to work 10 times as hard as men, she tells Bill Odidi
It takes a very exceptional talent to emerge out of the highly competitive South African music industry. That is why the story of Tribute “Birdie” Mboweni who performed at the Women In Music concert in Nairobi last Saturday is remarkable. The ‘girl from a dusty town’ in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province has in the short space of three years gained acclaim both at home and around the continent.
Her show in Nairobi last week was a continuation of an East African tour that started in 2016 when she performed at the Bayimba International Festival in Uganda and Karibu Festival in Tanzania.
It was in Tanzania that Mboweni met Kenyan jazz trumpeter Christine Kamau and who invited her to perform at this month’s Women in
Music concert in Nairobi. This is a platform for young women artists to showcase their live concert performance skills.
“Women have to work ten times as hard as men to succeed in their careers, including music, so I am happy to be on a platform created by women and featuring female artists.”
Her parents named her Tribute as a gesture of thanksgiving for overcoming the challenges they did before she was born while “Birdie” is a short form of songbird.
Mboweni musical foundation was in the church where her interest in singing started. Later in life, her influences expanded to traditional South African music and contemporary genres like reggae, R&B jazz and soul.
“I see myself simply as an artist who happens to be influenced by a diversity of sounds,” she says. “Jazz is just one element of my style.”
The association with jazz started after she had a four-month residency as singer with a jazz band in Qatar in 2012. Two years later, the same band had a stint playing cover versions of jazz standards at a venue in Dubai.
“I honed my voice and gained experience on stage and also learnt that you need to be well rested to sing properly,” she says.
It is after the sojourn in the Middle East that she started writing and recording her own music in 2014. Her debut album “Birdie” was released in 2015 and a deluxe edition with additional songs launched first in Cape Verde in April this year and later in South Africa
She explains that the album has broken many of the language and cultural barriers in South Africa thanks to her own multicultural background that is a mixture of her father’s Shangaan and Zulu from her mother. “It’s been amazing to see people who don’t speak my language react positively to the music,” says Mboweni.
The 16 songs on the album are produced by Sipho Sithole, founder of Native Rhythms label whom she met in 2012 while singing at a showcasing in Johannesburg. Several top musicians played on the album and Mboweni says it was a particular honour to be in the studio with the legendary South African guitarist Themba Mokoena.
Among the highlights is “Magumede” a tribute to the South African icon Dorothy Masuka, best known as the original singer of “Pata Pata” later made famous by Miriam Makeba. “I decided to honour and celebrate her while she’s still alive and its great to see many people responding to the song.”
“Nginjenjenje” (I am who I am because of you) is an appreciation to the people who have supported her career, while “Khomanani” is a call to Africans to unite because ‘we are the same people’. Environmental conservation is close to Mboweni’s heart and its not a surprise that her favourite song on the album “Mfula Ya Na” (it is raining) is a message on the blessings and good fortunes of rain.
Six months into the release of the album she was performing at an event that was attended by the director of the Cape Town International Jazz festival. “The sound at this show was not great but just after I finished my performance, he was like, “you are booked for the Cape Town Jazz Festival,”” She performed at the 2016 edition of the festival alongside international acts like Angie Stone, SWV and Amadou and Mariam.
Her mission now is to take her music to as many parts of Africa as she can and in the process to discover new rhythms of the continent.