Happier times for Anna Mudeka
She left Zimbabwe as a teenager and worked hard for a decade to become an established solo musician – based here in Norfolk. After all the ups and downs of a life in music, Anna Mudeka told the EDP she feels she has the right balance now.
It is hard to believe if you have witnessed Anna Mudeka's vibrant singing and dancing, but there was a time not long ago when she decided to give up performing.
“About two years ago I made a drastic change and decided to stop working with some of the people I was working with.,” she says.
“I said I was going to give up music at that stage. I did a music course at City College, Norwich with the idea of becoming a sound engineer, but I found that really boring. I don't know how anyone would want to do that as a career! But even though I wanted to give up the music, music didn't want to give me up.”
Two years on, speaking at the Norwich Playhouse where she works as education officer, she reflects that these are exciting times. Her musical career is on the up again - she has recorded her fifth album, is about to set off on her latest tour and repeatedly praises her “amazing” eight-piece band throughout our conversation - and she is also expecting a baby.
“I'm about to become a mum for the first time. I'm taking about six months out. The baby is due in January, and I will be back touring next summer, which includes some dates in Austria and Germany. My partner has been really supportive of my work - I travel quite a lot and he understands that. Over the years I have toured in Europe and Asia. I have probably seen more of the UK than the average British person because of the music I do!”
Her travels began when she left Zimbabwe in her late teens and headed for England, determined to take her music beyond the borders of her home country. Since she left she has witnessed with sadness the southern African country's decline into its current state.
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“Things are more difficult in Zimbabwe than when we were starting our music. For someone my age and background it is amazing to think this is where I am now.
“I come from a musical family and by the age of 14 I was playing professionally. By the age of 16, I had toured in Zimbabwe as a dancer and singer and I kind of wanted more than just singing and dancing for other groups.
“I went to music school and wanted to learn the thumb piano. In Zimbabwe not many women play that instrument, it's kind of a male instrument. I looked at that as a challenge.”
Anna and her two sisters, Patience and Mutsa, joined Idwala-Elikhulu, a 15-piece group performing music and dance from southern Africa. They performed all over Zimbabwe.
In 1993, at the age of 17, Anna achieved her first breakthrough when she was asked to perform backing vocals and dance for an artist named Ephat Mujuru on his tour of Japan.
“We started working with him, but we were still playing the role of being backing singers and dancers,” she says. She and Mutsa were then asked by renowned Zimbabwean musician Thomas Mapfumo to join his 20-piece group, The Blacks Unlimited. Anna worked with Mapfumo for nine months before deciding it was time to spread her wings.
“So I decided to move to England,” she says. “I arrived in 1994, because I just wanted to find myself, to play to people who appreciate the music.” She met her partner, and “came to Norfolk with him, because he was from Norwich. It made sense to come somewhere where there were roots.”
She assembled her first band, Babasimba, in Norwich in 1995 with the aim to play African fusion music. The group were together for five years, during which time they recorded two albums in the city.
“I was working in Norwich. I think like everyone, you get itchy feet and want to move to London, so I went to London and worked for a big dance group. But London was a bit too suffocating for me. But I kind of had a taste of what it's like to be my own boss and I decided I didn't want to be under someone else anymore.”
After decade of touring, recording and hard work later she was established as a solo performer, but the difficulties of managing a band dragged her down - without going into further detail, she says “I think in the music business there are a lot of people who want to mislead you and do some things for their own benefit. At the time you want to believe what they say.
“We did a tour in 2001, a national tour, which was quite well received. The line-up was together until 2003. I wanted people to have the same passion as me. Turning up for rehearsals, kind of organising their life; it's like being part of a family, there are arguments and fall-outs. That's when I decided I wanted to become a sound engineer.
“Now with the big band, everybody is much older, more experienced musicians. They know what they want from their music.”
These are clearly happier times, then, and her new album, entitled Anna Mudeka Forever, takes the landmark of her recent 30th birthday to look back over her career to date. She describes it as “a fusion of African music and western influences”, with “songs I have recorded before with stuff from new.
“Some of my own work, myself and the guitar player have done arrangements for the music, and there's one traditional song I have sung in Swahili, a different language to what I speak. Most of the songs are in Shona.”
Shona is one of Zimbabwe's three official languages, along with Ndebele and English. She is passionate that her music should be sung in the language of its origins.
“I like to stick to singing in my language. I do have requests to sing in English, which I find really insulting to be honest. Because if you love music it doesn't have to be in a particular language, and it can lose something if you do that. Most of the songs are in Shona, and some are in my grandmother's language, Manyika.”
When Anna left Zimbabwe in the mid-90s she was a teenager, full of promise but little known in her own country. Now her name is well known in Zimbabwe, despite living near Watton and having based her career in Norwich.
“Now people know my name in Zimbabwe - but I haven't had the opportunity to go back and play there. I have been back to Zimbabwe to see my family but not played there. To do it would be a dream come true. My sisters work all over the world; Patience is in America, Mutsa is in Belgium. It would be a dream for the three of us to play together one day and do a tour.”
For now, however, she is focusing on maintaining a balancing act between her music, her education work and her burgeoning family - and she has seen enough in her years in Zimbabwe and Norfolk to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I think in a way people are always looking for a stable career with the salary, and I wanted to be a teacher. And to some extent I still do. I'm touring schools in Norfolk and Suffolk as part of Black History Month.
“In a way I have been quite lucky, I have had so much support. Music, like all showbusiness, is not something you do on your own. You have people around you who make it happen.
“My life is really the right balance for me at the moment.”
Anna Mudeka plays at King's Lynn Arts Centre, King Street, King's Lynn on October 14, at 8pm. Tickets are priced £12.50. Telephone 01553 764864.