Vee Mukarati; the Vanguard of Zimbabwean Contemporary Jazz Music

22nd August 2020 BY Gerald Muchandiona

Vera Nazarian once said that “If music is a place… then Jazz is the City, Folk is Wilderness, Rock is the Road and Classical is a Temple.” Indeed Jazz is a special genus and one of those dazzling diamonds of the creative industry that aids human beings to make sense out of life calamities and contextualise life. Vee Mukarati, the Switzerland based Zimbabwean Jazz singer and saxophonist creates some of the most intimate Jazz. He studied a degree in Jazz and Contemporary music at Newpark Music Centre in Dublin, Ireland. His music is a blend of soul, afro-groove and jazz guided by his experiences growing up in the complex socio-political atmosphere of Zimbabwe as well as travelling the world. During the tenure of his career he has decorated stages such the Zimbabwe’s Harare International Festival of the Arts, the Zimbabwe Jazz Festival, Shoko Festival, Miombo Magic Music Festival, and doubled as a Dj at Neverland, Zimbabwe’s biggest electronic music festival. He has worked with the late Oliver Mtukudzi, Mokoomba, Hope Masike, Jason Leroux just to mention a few. CheckoutAfrica got hold of the Jazz whizz via phone to talk life experiences, the role music plays in our lives, the Jazz scene in Zimbabwe and talked about his latest release; Vital Signs EP.


In the 6 track EP, Mukarati takes stocks of the duality of the migrant experience; racial injustice; mortality, loss and the power of hope. The compilation has guest appearances from Ireland, Switzerland, Canada, Italy and Zimbabwe. The Jazz maestro has always managed to deliver a Zimbabwean perceptive on his offerings. In a world where we are fed diluted Afro-pop, Mukurati managed to deliver a project which is purely of African heritance and essence. His exceptional writing skills are the pudding to the musical experience he delivers. Standing out with a sound that sticks is an essential ingredient to be remembered, Mukarati undoubtedly has the recipe book.


CheckoutAfrica: Who is Vee Mukarati?

Vee Mukarati: I am a jazz singer, saxophonist and a composer; these are the main attributes of my profile. Beyond that l also teach. I have been teaching saxophone for a very long time and I am also a student of music. I am kind of a music nerd (laughs). I love studying music. I love listening to everything. A part of me is a musical academic. That’s a short version of Vee.


Why do think Jazz chose you?

I don’t know, maybe it is because l found it easier than classical music. It is not easier necessarily but more freeing; an easier way of expressing myself. When l started off as a kid playing orchestra, there was an element of limited and regimented format to that type of music. For instance classical music you have to read the music. I am not knocking classical music down but when l discovered jazz, l realized l could improvise and throw in ideas in the moment and express whatever l am feeling at that moment. It is a very slim genre and that is what attracted me to it. l don’t think it chose me but l chose it.


What were some of your Jazz influences growing up that inspired your journey?

I grew up to a lot of music like Hugh Masekela; whom was a major part of my interest in Jazz. We had LPs at home the likes of John Denver and Neil Diamond. In terms of lyrical writing I appreciate the work of Joan Armatrading. I was obsessed with her album growing up and l listened to it over and over. Beyond those influences, I have been lucky enough to have really amazing teachers, I have had amazing professors and instructors throughout my life. Working with amazingly talented people has also helped along the way; I am like a sponge and absorb their energies. Filbert Marova, influences me in a major way, my brother Tinashe Mukarati, Mangoma Moyo, Nick Nhare and Clive “Mono” Mukundu. I don’t know if he knows this because l don’t have a personal relationship with him, but Mono inspires me a lot with his ethos and work ethic. I really respect and have an eye on whatever he is doing, he is a genius. Also my Professor Mitchel Strumpf, my late professor, he was one of the first to guide me.


You have had such an extraodinary career over the years and have performed on various Festival stages in Africa and around Europe. How has been the reception of your music locally and internationally?

Locally, the people that have had access to my music and come to my shows and follow what l am doing have always and consistently shown a lot of love. It is like one of those things that when people hear Jazz, some people are kind of put off because they do not know what to expect; they think of it as a genre that is not accessible. However, they come to the shows and they see the fun we are having and enjoying. There is just a level of fun that you can have with the Jazz genre that is not available to other genres, but you know am biased (laughs). In Zimbabwe with regard to things such as radio play, Jazz has taken a back seat because the radio in Zimbabwe is mainly driven by trends of that moment. There is not a lot of places that have Jazz programs that dedicate an hour or two purely for the genre. It is sad and frustrating. The difference in Europe is that when we play or new concerts are coming up, people get really excited even if they do not know what it is. There is more openness to listening to new sounds and even on radio. In particular, here in Switzerland, Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) has been playing my music. It is a much easier process creating the conversation between the artist and the listeners that don’t know you and happen to listen to your music playing somewhere. When people come to the shows they dig it, we have fun at the shows.



How has your travelling influenced and shaped your sound?

In a major way, I think there is nothing more that has influenced my sound more than travelling. When you’re overseas you’re always exposed to different sounds, new things and new ideas. When l travel l like doing is exposing myself to some kind of music. Each country sounds different, each city sounds different. For example, if you’re in Dublin; when the traffic lights turn green they make a bleep sound to alert, whereas here in Geneva, it doesn’t make a sound it just vibrates. So it is things like that l get inspiration from, nature, trains and stuff like that. I am extremely blessed that I am able to travel and do those things.



In your overseas performances, has singing in vernacular been a form of obstacle to your artistry?

No, it’s actually been a huge advantage because one thing that l learnt is; there is nothing that is better than doing staff from your culture because it easier, it is profound and it’s your truth. When you make a mistake on stage, noone will know or correct you because they are not familiar with the language (laughs). I think it hasn’t been an obstacle at all because people are interested in the languages of Shona and Ndebele and interested in the story of Zimbabwe that is beyond the politics and human rights violations news. They are interested to learn more about the country, real people stories; about their experiences of joy, pain and love. I am a Zimbabwean and l going to write all my experiences so it has been really great. I write more now in vernacular because l also miss speaking in Shona and l also get to learn more on the language and explore Shona poetry online.




What is your take on the Zimbabwean Jazz Scene? Where is it? Where is it going?

I think there is a small but dedicated scene in Zimbabwe, particularly in Harare. I can only speak on the scene in Harare, because that is what l am aware of, but l am sure there is also a scene in Bulawayo. The scene is not spread out proportionally through the country. But the thing is; there are talented and dedicated Jazz players in the country. I wish the scene had more support from the radio stations, the corporate world and from the Ministry of Arts and Culture because l think it is a neglected scene. The people who work in that scene are the most talented and dedicated. It’s a beautiful scene but it’s a small one and there is a lot that needs to be done. People are trying. The Sunday Afternoon Jazz and Festivals that have been organized by the Zimbabwe Jazz Community Trust have managed to keep the scene alive. There is also an issue of venues; there aren’t a lot of venues for that kind of music.




Would it be correct to say that the difficult navigation of the Zimbabwe Jazz scene is one of the reasons why you relocated to Switzerland?

No, I loved being in Zimbabwe, I enjoyed it. I ended up moving because my partner and l; the opportunities that were in Zimbabwe were not working for the both of us and she got offered a job in Geneva so we decided to move. I already had a bit of platform here so it was an easy transition for me to come to Europe because l had studied here that’s the main reason l ended up moving. Otherwise l do love to be at home, I enjoy being in Zimbabwe and l enjoy working with the musicians there, there is nothing like Zimbabwean musicians; amazing people and artists as well. There is a bond that l had created with my band back home that l miss a lot.




Vital Signs EP cover


Thank you for giving CheckoutAfrica a pre-release listen of the Vital Signs EP ten days before release. The project sounded very personal, what did this EP mean to you?

Yeah, it is very personal. It is a very emotional EP. The process of writing that music was therapeutic, recording it and releasing it to the world. I hope people will be able to relate to some of the issues and pieces of my life. I wrote it for Zimbabwe. It is an EP that represents everything we are going through as a people and as a nation. A lot of it is heavily charged to intervene in what is happening in our country; the difficulties that people are having to go through on a daily basis. It is me trying to bring light to what is happening in Zimbabwe in my own way. The atrocities and the human rights violations, the dilapidation of institutions that the country is experiencing.




You released this EP under your own imprint, Primrose Records, why was it important to convey your project under your own record label?

First of all, I believe in owning all of your masters as an artist. I think it is really important to have the ability of releasing your music independently. Beyond that, Primrose Records is a label that is named after my mother who passed away in 2014. I don’t know what the future holds but as long as, I have not been signed to another label, everything I release independently will be under my own imprint. The work is dedication to my mother and as an honor to her life. It is also a cachet to what both my parents gave me in terms of the support; with learning music, buying me and my brother instruments and sending us to school. Everywhere that people see my music, in the small print my mom will be there. From a business sense l like owning my catalogue. I am open to having some kind of distribution deal if the opportunity presents itself.




While digesting the EP, I picked up some cultural influences. How imperative was it for Vital Signs the EP to have these influences?

It was absolutely imperative. I think it comes back to that whole thing of paying homage to our culture. Having been a colonised people, a lot of our culture was demonised, diminished and made to feel “less than”. I think that is absolute bullshit. I remember the first time l travelled to Europe ten years ago, I had not done any cross continental travel before that. When l arrived in Germany, everything was in German; every sign, every advert. When you went to Norway, everything was in Norwegian; the same applies for Spain and Italy. Every one of those countries have festivals where they celebrate their music for example the Irish Folk music. Even in Asia they have a huge culture of celebrating their music and the history, same thing as Turkey and Greece. All these places and yet Zimbabwe doesn’t really celebrate our own sound. So l wanted to make something that was a celebration of Zimbabwean sound, the celebration of the Mbira, celebration of our immense history with rhythm and drums. I didn’t want to use drumkicks preferring ngoma drums. I had to make some adjustments and use the djembe. I wanted to use more African instruments because we don’t give ourselves enough credit and our culture is so beautiful. If you start digging into Zimbabwean music, it is fascinating, beautiful and it is a whole treasure of rhythms and sounds. So l went on a journey of trying to explore and dig and found these sounds. I used most of them putting my own voice and crafting with in my own interpretations of the rhythms. It was crucial for me to do that.




How did you assemble the influences of the people you worked with on theVital Signs EP, looking at the credits the team is spread out across the globe?

It’s all people l have worked with in the past, met, interacted with and had different musical experiences with in my journey. I had to go to Zimbabwe to do the foundational work of the EP. We recorded the main structure of the music; the keyboards, the percussions and the backing vocals. l wanted the voices to pronounce the words accurately and capture that sound of Zimbabwe. When l came back to Switzerland, my band here, the cellist; Vartan Baronian whom l work with here already knew the music l was working on and already knew the creative direction of the project. With the guitarist who played in Masaisai we learnt together in Dublin and, we used to play in duet called the Chronicles of G&V. Matt Greenwood is a Zimbabwean in Canada studying Jazz and he used to play in my band in Zimbabwe. He did all of the guitar work on Alkatraz Garden and he did some phenomenal work. And with my friend Michele Oliva from Italy, we met in Dublin when l was studying; he is an amazing sound engineer, he did the mixing and the mastering of the EP. He also has been a very huge part of this project and l bounced ideas off him. Luckly I managed to do most of the foundational work of the EP before lockdown. A lot of calls and exchange of emails made this project possible.




Which artists would you like to work with in the upcoming projects?

Oh wow… that’s a really good question. I do love to work with Masa Caroleen; when l was in Zimbabwe we did a concert together. Actually what l would love to do is a recording of this project l did a live version of, it was called Afrojazzanova which we did around 2015. I worked with an artist in a different genre for each of those concerts; I worked with Tariro Negitare, Hope Masike, Gemma Griffiths, Munyaradzi Nyamarebvu, Bryan K, PrayerSoul, Fungai Nengare, Synik and Sekai Zengeza. I would love to record some of the music or to have a whole album with that group and turn it into an actual project. Internationally I would love to work with Jacob Collier.




Vital Signs EP tracklist


Not giving away too much from the EP, on Track 5, the ‘Alkatraz’ l do recognize is a federal penitentiary in California, but you potrayed it as a garden, and normally most people would prefer seeking refuge in a garden, but from the track’s storyline it seems like a proposed breakout from the garden….. may you unpack more on that artistry?


Initially when l wrote the song, it was about someone who was in my life; who because of their home, rules and their parents’ beliefs could not be themselves. They could not express themselves. I looked at the situation and felt like they were trapped so that experience shaped the first idea of the song. There is a particular spoken word part in the song; I wrote that independently. As time went on the song evolved and became about more than that. It became a metaphor of being Zimbabwean, and being in this country that is so beautiful; the most beautiful place in the world that you have such beautiful memories of, but yet you feel trapped more like in a prison. Not just physically, freedom of being able to speak out, being able to express yourself, freedom of your own sexuality and all other freedoms. The song is broadly about that. It started off as a private experience but the song grew as l grew and captured the experience of the people.




What separates Vital Signs the EP from the work that you have put out before?

I think l had a much clearer idea of what l wanted to do with this project. I am older, I am at different point of my maturity and musicality. I learnt a lot from Nyamavhuvhu Night sounds; l learnt a lot of how to make an album. I also gave myself more time with Vital Signs and also thanks to Covid-19 it gave me more time to focus on the music. I am a lot better at the recording process of creating and the work based on the lessons that l have learnt in the past and also during the process of making this EP. My next project is even going to be better, I have more life experiences and l want to implement those experiences. So, l think that’s definitely what separates this project apart, also it’s a much shorter work than an album. I had more time to focus on less. I like the format of an EP you can tell a very conclusive story efficiently.




In what ways would you say Jazz has changed your life?

In every single way possible. All the experiences l have had and all the people that l have managed to meet, learning and my career. If It wasn’t for Jazz l would very likely be a lawyer right now. That was the trajectory my life was taking before I decided to pursue Jazz. It has been a blessing to travel so much and meet so many people in so many places because of the saxophone and jazz music. Its almost every single highlight or a major development has been in some way or form related to Jazz. It has totally changed everything.




In conclusion, as the audience digests the Vital Signs Ep, what can they expect in the future?

Before the Covid-19 pandemic l would have been able to answer that question confidently. I think with now that everything has changed. I have already started working on my next project which is most probably an EP. I find it easier to work on a few set of songs. I think the next project will  have more upbeat material. I have been listening a lot to Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi and the way they would write about these really really serious issues and your body can’t help itself from moving. I want to try and make a project where my main focus is just going to be the kind of movement that l can get out of people, so it will be very funky and groovy but addressing serious issues.


You can download and purchase the Vital Signs EP on www.veemukarati.com


This interview has been edited and compressed for clarity and length.

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