ONAI MUSHAVA, BIRD
COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures resulted in a collapse of cultural life across the continent, with many creatives left struggling with depression and psychological fatigue. Some questioned their choice of career, others turned to blogging to keep in touch with society.
For 27-year-old Zimbabwean singer Gemma Griffiths, periods of milder lockdown rules in many African countries became an opportunity to fight that depression and make the connections she so desperately needed.
So she packed her bags and supplies, not in a preparation for a protracted corona retreat but for an extraordinary trip across Africa… what would become a 500-day, 10-country creative quest that inspired wonderful pieces of music, a lyrical tribute to the region’s rich and vibrant culture and a message of hope to other African creatives.
“The goal with this EP was to write the music as I was travelling the continent, and with this the influences of sungura guitar and other sounds became part of Pamwe (her latest album). When I spend time in a new place, I write what I am feeling – not just lyrically but sonically – it’s like a soundtrack to my emotions in that moment,” Griffiths said in an exclusive interview with bird, describing her project.
Having driven across Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique, Griffiths released a collection noticeably diverse in style, reflecting the profusion of regional culture, tones and colours she encountered. The diversity it so great that in the end it was only the creation process that was consistent, according to Griffiths.
“The only similarity between each process is that it happens, in an instant, and then the song almost writes itself in my eyes, I just feel ready, and it feels right, and the music flows. Some songs start with a beat, some with a chord progression, some with a voice recording I made at 3 am on my phone, some with a melody, a lyric, a concept,” she said.
Heard through lockdown ears, Griffith’s album captures a sense of loss and otherness through the themes of love and distance. Travel images of spring scenery, retreating views and making it to the top of the world are redirected into the poetry of love but they also dissolve the difference between place and the beloved.
Among the beautiful towns, villages and friendly places she visited during her quest, it is Mombasa that made the strongest impression. A feeling of its liveliness as one of the last strongholds of human vitality amid the bruising global pandemic echoes in her album title, Pamwe – which translates as “window of possibility”.
“Blue and white. Bustling streets, tuk-tuks and tuk-tuks, and blue and white blue and white blue and white. The coastal city, home of a busy port and busier roads, had a personality all of her own. She would cultivate energy from her belly and spread it through the streets via vehicles, and vendors and under the shoes of passers-by”, she reminisced.
Griffiths has fallen completely in love with Kenya, returning several times after the release of her EP, collaborating with Sauti Sol band’s singer Chimano for an April 2021 remix of her song “Easy.”
“She is so chilled, yet so precise and knows exactly what she wants,” Chimano commented in a statement for the African Creative Agency.
“To see how she organised everything together in such a space of time was wonderful,” he added.
Griffiths appeared on the music scene with a spirited 2019 feature on the Zimbabwean reggae-dancehall artist Winky D hit, “MuGarden.” Her unique project and talent were noticed by African Creative Agency, a company that helps African artists build and expand their careers, globally. The agency also works with continental hitmakers like Nasty C, Pearl Thusi, Diamond Platinumz, Rayvanny and others.
“Gemma’s music resonated with us and her journey travelling throughout Africa to record the album allowed her to channel so much into her sound,” the Agency’s Yvette Gayle told bird.
Passionate devotion to her art has been nourished since Griffiths’ early childhood. Her grandmother and mother were both pianists and her first solo live performance came at the age of 6, setting her on a track that culminated in a musical career.
“Mum taught me guitar and trumpet, and we had a piano in the house so I learned that too, and it became my main instrument. I studied music at university – majoring in piano and trumpet, but I sang a lot too and wrote music constantly. I’m grateful for the support of my parents and the opportunities I got through having instruments and teachers at home,” Griffiths said.
Having travelled Africa to soak up energy for her debut offering, Griffiths delivered “a work that told the stories of loving a place, a sound and a feeling.” Soul food for creatives in times of CORONA-induced distress.