Yvonne Mwale is a Zambian-born singer whose soulful cross-genre music blends Afro-jazz, world fusion, and reggae. After her parents died when she was a young girl, Yvonne spent years on the street, struggling to survive. Eventually, she managed to convince a studio to let her audition, and she hasn’t looked back since. She was named the Best Upcoming Artists at the 2009 Ngoma Awards, won the Crossroads Music Competition in 2010 which afforded her the opportunity to tour in Europe, and recently, she was the 2nd prize winner at the Jahazi Jazz Music Festival competition in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
It’s been an exciting time for this young rising star. Yvonne and her husband Mattias just welcomed their first child, a daughter named Erica, into the world seven weeks ago. Her first full-length album, Kalamatila, was released in March of this year and is available on iTunes and Amazon now. The album is also for sale at Caravan Records in Dar es Salaam. You can see the new video for “Familia Yangu” on YouTube here
The THP caught up with her Tuesday, September 18th at Black Tomato restaurant. Here are some highlights from our interview:
Tanzania Heritage Project: Hi, Yvonne. It’s been a really exciting time for you! Your first album came out in March, your video for “Familia Yangu” was just released, and you’re here with your newborn daughter and husband. You have a lot going on.
YM: Yes, I really do. And I go on tour soon.
THP: That’s great. When does your tour begin?
YM: I think after about two months. Right now, I really need to be with Erica [my daughter], but I think after two months I will begin the tour.
THP: We’ve been listening to your album, Kalamatila. It’s really a great album. Did you record it here in Tanzania at a studio?
YM: Yes, it was recorded here in Tanzania, but we [Yvonne and her husband Matthias] have a studio at our house, which we recorded at. We do everything together. We created the videos and recorded live instruments in our studio. The first video we did was “Fight like a Solider.”
I didn’t intend to stay here [Tanzania] long, but I found some people that liked my music and believed in me.
THP: We noticed that your new song, “Familia Yangu” is in Kiswahili. When did you decide to start performing songs in Kiswahili?
YM: First I had to find someone to translate my lyrics. They were originally in English. I love the Swahili language, though it’s really difficult. I started singing in Swahili so that people in the crowd who only knew Swahili could understand the lyrics. I want to make them be a part of my music and to do that they have to listen and understand the words. Like the song “Familia Yangu,” it’s about really loving someone. The message is important. I wanted to write a song for the lovers. People should love someone not because of the money or things they have. You have to love a person from deep down in your heart and accept them for who they really are.
THP: We’d love to talk a bit more about your music. What are your inspirations?
YM: Well, I can say that my music is Afro-fusion music, and it’s influenced a lot by the traditional music. I come from Zambia and I sing in my mother language, Nsenga. It’s a language in the Eastern province. A lot of people used to laugh at me for speaking in my local language and make fun of me, but I think it’s important to show where you come from and who you are. It’s a part of your identity. I was also really influenced by my mother, who was a dancer and she sang a lot around the house. So I grew up with music around me.
THP: What was your mom’s name?
YM: Her name was Janet Mwanza. Like I said, she was a great dancer and she really loved singing.
THP: You mentioned [in a previous conversation] that you haven’t been able to hear any of her recorded music?
YM: There was this program they used to show in Zambia that I was able to see once on television, but besides that I haven’t been able to see much of her work. That’s why when I heard about your project to digitize the music at Radio Tanzania I got in touch with you. I thought some of her music might be in that archive.
THP: Yes, we’ll definitely be on the lookout for it!
YM: I’ve really had some difficulties in my life so it would mean a lot to me to hear my mom’s voice again.
THP: Yvonne, can you tell us a little more about your life so we can understand what hearing that music again would mean to you?
YM: Yes, I can talk about it. I can try. You see, my parents died when I was young and their relatives came and took everything. I was very young at the time, so there was nothing I could do. We were a wealthy family before and I was very happy but after my mom and dad died, those relatives took everything. And they didn’t help us — my siblings and me — at all. So I went out into the streets.
THP: How did you manage to survive?
YM: I would go from one house to the other house, knocking on the door and asking for some small piece-work. I could wash some clothes, or wash some dishes. And they would give me just a little bit of money so maybe I could eat that day. I had nothing at all, so I had to do whatever they told me. I would sleep outside and I only had the clothes on my back. I can tell you this… I guess I can tell you this… I was even raped. I was only fourteen-years-old. I couldn’t run away, because you see, I would go into these houses to find work and the men there, they could trap you so you can’t run away.
So when I was fourteen I had a baby. With one of the men who raped me. And I had to marry him.
THP: You were forced to marry the man who raped you?
YM: Yes. So I had a baby boy with that man. I didn’t have a choice. He would even beat me. He beat me a lot. I would wake up in the hospital. He even put me into a coma because he would beat me so hard. So I knew I had to run away.
THP: So you managed to escape from him?
YM: Yes, with my child. He is seven-years-old now.
THP: So what did you do after you left your husband?
YM: I ran away and kept doing that small piece-work. But now I had a baby on my back. We were sleeping on the streets, too, even begging. My son was very sick because we didn’t have any money, to eat or for medicine. We were just barely surviving.
THP: So you’ve clearly come a long way from there. Here we are today, sitting with your husband and your new daughter and you have a very successful music career. How did you manage to make it here?
YM: Well, like I said, my mom was a singer and I always loved singing, too. And my life had been so hard, but I had things to say about it. So I thought I should sing. I started going to studios, still with my baby on my back. And most of the time, they just laughed at me and wouldn’t let me even try. But eventually, I found a studio in Zambia run by a man named Bishop, and it’s thanks to him that I’m here today. I begged them to let me just sing one song. I did, and they liked it, and from there they decided to help me.
THP: What song did you sing that day?
YM: I was just free-styling, just singing what was in my heart.
THP: It must have impressed them!
YM: Yes, so they helped me and I was able to compete in the Music Crossroads competition and I even got to go to Europe to perform there. That was really a good experience. I really didn’t have a lot of experience but I got to see people who were so professional and good at what they were doing.
THP: That’s wonderful. So how did you end up in Tanzania?
YM: Well, you know this story with my family is very complicated. After my parents died and my relatives took everything, well, then people started telling me that my dad that raised me was not even my real father. He was just my step father, but when they were alive they never told me this. People were telling me that my real father was from Congo but he lived in Tanzania and was a musician. So I came here to Tanzania to try to find him.
THP: Wow. That must have been a huge shock. Did you find your dad?
YM: Yes, I did. I found him. So, now I know him and I think we will have the chance to perform together soon. He plays guitar.
THP: Your story is really something! It is inspiring to speak with someone who has been through so much but has still succeeded and still has such a positive spirit and attitude.
YM: Thank you! I have been lucky because people have helped me along the way. Like Mattias, who is my producer and my husband. We started out just as friends but became more and I couldn’t do it without him. Can you believe I am only 22-years-old?
THP: No, that’s hard to believe! You’ve been through more than most people have in a lifetime. But we’re glad you’ve channeled all of that into such beautiful music. So finally, tell us, what is your favorite part about being a musician?
YM: Oh it’s definitely getting crazy. Being up on stage and just getting crazy with the fans. It’s all about interacting with them and feeding off of that energy. I love it!
THP: Thanks so much, Yvonne. We’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and we’re excited to see you perform soon.