Five years ago, Munit Mesfin decided it was time to give her soul to music. Thereafter she has blended Ethiopian music with the funkiness of jazz, which was inspired by James Brown, into a new acoustic style where she belts out soulful lyrics in Amharic and English sometimes that can be traced to the traditional songs of Ethiopia. In this interview with Kolade Arogundade andSouth African poet Bridget Ngcobo in Cape Town, Munit speaks about her music, her family, her relationship with a German guitarist and her duet with him.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So tell us your name. What kind of music do you play?
Munit: My name is Munit, I am from Ethiopia. I am a singer playing with a guitar and doing a voice duet in an Ethio-acoustic soul style that we have created, and I am currently in Cape Town performing at the City’s Hall sessions right here in this lovely city.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Tell us about your music more broadly – your inspiration, the kind of music, the language in which you sing and your message.
Munit: Sure. The music … I lived outside of Ethiopia for about twenty years and then I moved back about three years ago, and one of the main reasons I moved back was because of the music with the guitarist.
It is basically a combination; we do old songs that we recreate in a new style. We write our own music about country, about pan African ideals, about gender equity and strength and empowerment and sometimes we perform children songs that are traditional but are upgraded for a new generation and we have been doing this for the past five years and the language outside of English is Amharic that I sing in, and it’s been a very great journey of acoustic music travelling around the world now for the past three years: to Spain, to the States, to Egypt, here in South Africa now.
So it has been a very nice journey of sharing stories in Amharic about things that I believe in with the guitarist playing along with me, so that’s what’s been going on for the past years.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Tell us about that guitarist; are you a band or a solo performer? Or is he just an accompanying musician? Who is he?
Munit: Well, I met him because of a common friend during the Ethiopian millennium celebrations, which was in 2007 in the Ethiopian calendar.
In the Ethiopian calendar we have just celebrated 2006, so I met him during that celebration and he was living in Ethiopia because he was also drawn by Ethiopian music and he wanted to teach music, study music and perform there, and while we were there, a friend introduced us and I was never interested in being in a duet but when we started performing together, it ended up being a lot of fun and a lot of people enjoyed it and the response was great.
So we kept it going in a very organic way, it just kind of kept growing, we recorded a live album and now we have recorded a studio album which we have released in March (2013), and so this is our duet project. He will do something else with another band, I will do something else on my own, but this is our duet project that has been going for the past five years.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What is his name and where is he from?
Munit: His name, the guitarist, is Jörg and he is from Germany. So he is a tall white Ethiopian living amongst us now. He has been living in Ethiopia for about 8 years, and he teaches music at a German school there. So he is a music teacher living there with his wife and his child, and playing along.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Tell us about your new work, the one you just autographed for me.
Munit: (Laughing) It’s called ‘2’ because it was produced by the two of us, and it is our second album, and it is just the two of us that are on it, most of the time.
There are a few percussions that are in there and it is about ten songs originally written by me and Jörg, in Amharic and in English. And it’s about, like I told you, country, old stories that we are revamping, about peace on our continent, which is a big issue, about trans-African highway, which could unite the continent but does not yet because it has not been realized.
It’s about dreams we have forgotten, it’s about dreams we can aspire for and stories that are brilliant, that are needed for the upgrading of the children in a way. So that is what our second studio production is all about that we have just finished.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You said some of your music touches on gender issues, can you tell us a little more about that?
Munit: With my song writing process for instance, sometimes it happens in the car most of the time, and then sometimes there will be an event happening and I will stop and say, “I’d love to sing about this”, so why don’t I see about this.
There is a song called Sister which is basically about you having the power if you have the will, so get up. You have to let your voice shine, you have to brush off those negative nagging feelings of doubt and fear because you have something to say and that is enough, so that is the kind of song that was created around March 8th, because it was the International Women’s Day and that’s part of how we do things, even the Trans-African Highway song was created around May 25, which is Africa Liberation Day, so these days kind of inspire me. At the moment, I think I want my voice, my generation, my style to speak about these kinds of issues.
So there is an English and Amharic song ‘Sister’, and then there is Trans-African Highway, which is the English song that you all are hoping to sing to …(laughing).
Sam Umukoro Interview: Let’s talk about Ethiopian music and Ethiopian Jazz and what is now known as Ethiopiques, the period of Mengistu, when Mahmud Ahmed, Astar Aweke and even Gigi all moved out of the country. Now there is a new life to it, there is a new awakening all around the world to Ethio-Jazz you know. Now there is Mulatu for instance … what type of influence has that music on you?
Munit: Basically with the Ethiopiques series, it is an actual collection of CDs about 28 of them now, which range from very traditional things, very very traditional indigenous music done by groups who are here to the piano player playing just piano, to the 70s, 60s and the 50s era music, so it is a very wide range. There are also recordings by a band that is doing old style music.
It is a very wide range and a diverse collection. With Ethiopian music, we have had tradition music going on for the hundreds and hundreds of years with traditional instruments, in the 60s and the 70s like everywhere else, I’m sure in the continent. James Brown and the Motown sound and soul kind of infiltrated into Ethiopia as well, so we had this kind of big band, kind of funky, groovy kind of sound that happened, and that sound through the Ethiopiques gained a lot of popularity.
That groove and that funkiness, that I can do (laughing) because I grew up listening to funk, groove and jazz, so listening to that makes me feel like these are my people and if they can do it, I can do it, and we can groove and be funky in the spirit of our father James Brown through Ethiopia, so that’s kind of what it does for me – it gives me that freedom and liberty to be not traditionally Ethiopian but funky and to do it in my own language which is what I wanted to do.
So it was the Ethiopiques series that made it very accessible for a wider or global audience and it also gained some attention and it was used in some popular movies and things like that, so that was what created this awareness about Ethiopian music and the Ethiopian music of that era, not so much after that era. There is a lot of great music that had been done after that era that is being done now.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Where did you grow up and why did you leave Ethiopia?
Munit: I left Ethiopia when I was 10 because my mother moved to India because of her work with UNICEF. I lived in India for four years, and then I was in Namibia, right up here for about two years and when I finished my O levels there. I needed to go to another school and I didn’t want to do A levels because they narrow you down very dramatically, so I ended up going to the US for boarding school, College.
Finished college, got married, did some work and then moved back to Ethiopia three years ago, and in between I was in South Africa for about 6 months, in France for about a couple of months doing semester abroad programs with the schools I was in. But now back to Ethiopia, we just left Ethiopia to do something and (after that we would) then come back.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So how long have you been in music?
Munit: Professionally, well, for the past four years. I never trusted music as a real world career, because it was a very emotional up and down thing, and I am fundamentally a shy person. Honestly, you should have seen me four years ago. I used to have my eyes shut throughout the concert and when I opened them, I’m like, “ah they are still here, these people…” and I would run away from them.
So I needed to do a lot of work in letting that go and being confident on the stage, which I am now. One on one, I still have that inherent shyness, so I was not very comfortable in being a musician, which exposes you very dramatically but for the past four years that I have taken it seriously, and I gave it one year. I said “one year, I will give you music and if you treat me well, I will keep going” and it has gone well, so we keep going.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Talking about your family, you said you were married, do you have children?
Munit: Yes, I have two, and I am working on a third due sometime in January. I have a seven year old and a two year old, a boy and a girl. They are beautiful people that I am getting to know and sometimes they call and say “where are you?” So I have to explain to my two year old, I am in South Africa, I don’t know what that meant for her but she asked, and here we are.
Sam Umukoro Interview: And your husband?
Munit: My husband is Haitian-American, so he is from the island of Haiti, born in the States, grew up in Haiti for a little bit. So we have Haitian-Ethio-American children which is nice, because Haiti is one of the countries in the western hemisphere to gain independence, and Ethiopia has resisted colonialism, so we expect great things from our children, revolutionaries in fact.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Where to now, musically?
Munit: Musically now, we are going to keep on touring with this album, next week we are going to Germany for a ten city tour, so people can follow us on Facebook: ‘Jörg and Munit’, and see where we are going to, if there is anybody out there in Germany that can come visit us, then I am going to take a little of a break because incubation and birth needs to happen, and during that time is conceptualizing the next album and more penetration into the world music market, because Ethiopian music old school style being performed by many foreign bands is doing well but Ethiopian music actually penetrating and been more visible in the world music scene, not so much.
So we are going to keep working on being visible in these spaces and introducing more and more Ethiopian vibes, scales, artistes and things to different people from all over as we travel around the world, so that’s the plan.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Any advice for young women and men in Africa who want to do what you are doing, who are shy and don’t trust music?
Munit: Well, in a way, it is to keep diversifying who you are, for instance, I’m glad that I am not completely dependent on music, I have other skills and other knowledge that are really helpful in creating a more holistic picture.
I feel I will be having a more difficult time if only music was all I was depending on. As much as possible diversify your skills in communication, networking and marketing.
All these things that you do and you know will help you and your music travel far. Start from home, your friends, your community, that support will go very far, so this is a very important thing, if my people didn’t push me, if my family didn’t push me, the people around me didn’t push me, I would have probably held back. So one could believe that you could give it a serious effort but diversify your skills set, so that you are not consistently dependent only on music if you can.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What else do you do?
Munit: I have my own business, it is an events and communication business, based in Ethiopia that works on festivals, organizing cultural historical festivals, for instance, the Victory of Adowa which is where the Ethiopians resisted colonialism and making that accessible through the art, music dance, theatre, poetry, all kinds of things and doing that on various historical issues, cultural issues, social issues. I am a creative director on a radio drama, voice coaching and guiding the process through.
At one point, I was a radio DJ, at another point I was a judge on a singing production for an idol show. Outside of that (laughing) in the past, I used to work in development, and networking around women issues, and around environmental issues and things like that. So I try to diversify and have two or three jobs at the same time, which is feasible.
Sam Umukoro Interview: And you have a degree in Economics?
Munit: Yes, Economics and Government. Maybe one day to UCT (University of Cape Town), I will come to do African cultural music, ethno-musicology, which is more where I should be. So with the two in mind, collectively we will work on the creative economy as a creative economist, that’s the idea.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Thank you so much
Munit: Thank you.