Pascal Makonese - Mbira Talking Serious

Some would say it has a childlike innocence, with its music-box evocations, but for Pascal Makonese, the Mbira is a sound that has accompanied the ups and downs of his existence: a magical, spiritual resonance that communicates more to him and through him than any spoken word. It caught his ear as a child in Zimbabwe and has partnered him to Britain and to Manchester, where it continues to be central to the music he performs today.

The sound and mystical power of the African instrument  often crudely referred to as a ʻthumb pianoʼ  is the dominant theme in a conversation with Pascal. He says that “if you

want to talk serious, the mbira sound just...gets there,” and he himself does “talking serious” well, despite the frequent big grin that appears beneath his thick rimmed glasses and jazzmanʼs hat. “I feel that with the mbira, with that sound, I can really reach out, and it really gets inside, so that when people were doing terrible things, it could help them to change their ways.” So for his album, recorded at Limefield studios in Middleton, alongside an international cast of Manchester-based bandmates, Pascal has written songs that reflect his experiences and observations of life as an African in Britain, looking to a homeland in regular crisis. “It was affecting me,” he says, “I could see it clearly. I wanted to say, ʻenough is enough.ʼ I felt something should be done.” For Pascal, using his magical sound is his way of making that positive difference, highlighting the injustices, tragedies of Zimbabwe and the African continent, whilst reflecting and celebrating itʼs beauty and spiritual power.

Quiet, reflective and solitary as a child, Pascal grew up in Harare, where his parents owned a small business. It was here that the sound of the mbira first made its impression on him. “I never used to really make many friends. I used to stay at home or be in the supermarket that my parents had, so I used to just do the shop. I used to hear that sound and it got me. I think I just used to enjoy my own company. I would sit in front of the mirror on the wardrobe and hear that sound.” Haunted by the instrument, he was eventually able to experiment with the mbira after receiving a hand-me-down from the family. He admits now, and almost revels in the fact, that his style could be sneered at by traditionalist in his homeland. “Itʼs not the way the people in Zimbabwe would say you should play,” he says. “No-one taught me. For me, I just used sounds I used to hear sometimes. Like the voices of people passing, or the old people calling to each other. I would feel what they were trying to say and imitate them, and that would come out in my playing.” Certainly, his singing style can be traced to these African street influences, with calls, yelps and wails peppering his music and soaring over his beloved mbira. As he puts it, “Itʼs Like I myself am an instrument, a conduit. The sounds from when I was young keep coming back in.”

So, armed with his unique translation of humanity and emotion in his music, and accompanied by Brazilian, Celtic and British musicians, Pascal Makoneseʼs compositions are blended with the experience of an African man in the UK today. Titles such as Ely, Ely (Lord Hay Have You Forsaken Me?) question the role of a deity in the tribulations of his world, and Donʼt Stop Me Talking is his comment on his exposure to censorship.

Still, memories and retrospect are always a central theme. A return to Mugabeʼs land- reform Zimbabwe in 2006, in the midst of hyper-inflation, an AIDs pandemic and escalating humanitarian crises, prompted I Remember Them All. As Pascal explains, “I began by remembering all the friends who were dead, and also the way people used to greet long lost friends on the street. But mainly it started about this one guy. There was a day when I visited home and things were really bad. I had a friend called Grifford, and we were havinga party on this high story building. He said, ʻHey Pascal, I wish I could be like you man, you can just go wherever you want to.ʼ The next thing I knew he was saying, ʻYou know what, Iʼm gonna kill myself. Iʼm gonna jump.ʼ I though, no, he was joking, because we were on this eight story building, so I said, ʻCome on, man, things will...ʼ But before Iʼd finished the sentence, the guy went. Boom. He jumped and that was it. So I am asking in the song, ʻAfrica, where are they? Africa, where are your children gone?ʼ

A sound-soaked childhood, personal tragedies and a homeland in crisis have shaped Pascal Makoneseʼs music. With the unique influence of a multinational cast on his latest recording, he hopes that the sound of the mbira that means so much to him can reach out to rephrase Zimbabwean music and “talk serious” to the world.

Pascal Makonese