No one could ever accuse songstress Shingai Shoniwa of being dull.
When she hits the stage late on Sunday evening at Ronnie Scott’s legendary Jazz Club in London’s Soho, she is in her third change of outfit, each brighter and more spectacular than the last. Each with an African twist.
Clearly, launching a solo music career is serious business and for Shingai dressing for the occasion is part of the theater.
Born in South London of Zimbabwean parents in 1981, she has been the lead singer and bassist with Indie pop band The Noisettes for 11 years and has been touring the world, headlining gigs and creating music with fellow Noisette Dan Smith for far longer.
Together, they hit the big time in 2009 with their second album titled Wild Young Hearts, an album packed with catchy melodies and great vocals from Shingai, a singer who is confident and comfortable with her craft.
“Believe it or not, it has been really hard to get people to accept me in the music industry, a brown girl who plays bass and who sings and writes her own material. People want to pigeonhole you into a particular genre, and I don’t fit.”
For years, Shingai has been singing the lyrics to Sometimes a bitter-sweet break-up tune: ‘Sometimes… we start over… and go solo’. Now it’s her turn to start over. For the last three months, Shingai has been in Los Angeles recording her debut solo album – the first time she is recording music without Smith.
For Shingai, the United States (US) has a broader musical canvas.
“In [Britain], radio trends are not daring, not exciting and they are driven by imported music. In the US, pop music has room for a lot of original characters.”
When we were arranging this interview, Shingai texted me from Cuba to tell me: “Cuba is incendiary! It’s a feast for the creative spirit… I’m recording some wonderful music here with Afro Cuban artists… I’m very inspired.”
Her Los Angeles life is obviously still evolving, and as they rehearse together in the jazz club’s downstairs dressing room she shows Smith pictures of her newly rented West Hollywood home. Transitioning her life from one continent to another is already well underway. She has sold her old Mercedes in London, and a new vintage model is about to be purchased. Laughing loudly, she says she is now based between Hollywood and Hove, a town on England’s south coast.
Tonight, at Ronnie Scott’s, is the first time she will have performed any of the new material on stage and she admits she is nervous and has butterflies. Some musicians drink to gain some Dutch courage. Not Shingai.
“I won’t drink alcohol because you have to feel the music and drink just kills it.”
She’ll be playing a short set of tunes old and new. But, for her it’s all about the audience’s reaction to the Thomas Mapfumo-inspired Zimtron, which sounds like a mash-up between Mapfumo and the afro-pop of Fela Kuti. I think this is a big step on from the Indie pop of The Noisettes but true to form Shingai kicks back.
“I don’t think so, it feels like an evolution. Zimbabwean music and Shona culture has always been a big reference point for me.”
Watching Shingai rehearse the set during the soundcheck is a revelation. Doors open and paying guests arrive for song and supper at 6.30PM sharp. Shingai, performing as a guest with the Natalie Williams Soul Family, has 22 minutes to run through four songs which are brand new to the band. Acting as musical director, Shoniwa sings her own part and eases the arrangements up and down, bringing the band and three vocalists in earlier and later as required.
“Most singers just know how to sing. This was a hard night with lots of new songs and she took the pressure off us by doing that,” says the Soul Family bass player afterwards.
Shingai has flown in from Los Angeles for tonight’s London gig and her large family are here in force to see her perform.
“I’ve never been away from them for this long before, and I’ve been missing them so much,” she says.
By coincidence her twin sister, Shorai Shoniwa, a media executive, slips into a seat beside me when I’m settling down to watch Shingai sing.
“Since she was four years old, Shingai has been performing, and we are all so proud of her,” says Shorai.
When I mention that we were all supposed to meet at 4PM and Shingai had turned up at 5PM – still without her stage dress,which is in Kilburn, west London – Shorai laughs.
“We call that Shingai-time in the family!”
When Shingai was 10 years old she went and lived with her grandmother in the savannah plains of Tete in Mozambique for a year. She explains that if not for the colonial boundaries, her Malawian gran would have been from the Chewa tribe.
“That year made a big impression. It just made me appreciate the richness of the colors, the sounds, the fashion, the voices of my African heritage.”
Which explains why Shingai reflects Africa so vividly in her clothes and in her work today.
For Shingai, music was always a part of family life.
“I’ve grown up in an environment where I’ve had a lot of musicians coming in and out of my living room. From the late eighties my mum and uncle used to put on events at the Africa Centre. Someone would ask me: ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’ and I’d say Whitney Houston and they’d say: ‘Well this is how you play it Zimba style!’”
Shingai was born in Brockley, raised in South East London and is quick to emphasize that’s where all the best London art colleges, like Goldsmiths and Ravensbourne, are. She went to the prestigious BRIT school for the Performing Arts and Technology in Croydon and studied theater for two years. Towards the end of her stay, she formed Sonarfly with Smith.
Sonarfly quickly moved from an eclectic repertoire of blues standards and cover songs to writing their own original material. The Noisettes arrived in 2003 and in part had to busk to raise the money to record their first album. They have subsequently recorded two more acclaimed albums and are delighted to have made more of an international impact with their third album Contact.
But, tonight belongs to Shingai, the London singer who is so proud of her Zimbabwean heritage. The audience reception to Zimtron is rapturous and Shingai is thrilled.
So what does the future hold for her?
“We live in the global world where we have access to and can see what everyone else is up to. It’s about reaching everybody. To me, headlining festivals in Zimbabwe and in Malawi, on Freedom Day in Johannesburg and at Belladrum in Scotland is just as important as playing Abbey Road, the O2 and Glastonbury. We’ve done that, enjoyed it, and now for me it’s about reaching out to people internationally.”
So watch out Africa, Shingai Shoniwa is coming!