United Colours of Africa


The wandering Zimbabwean Mr Liam Monkhouse, the hip hopper from Australia's cross over Ethiopian Jazz Music Band, Black Jesus Experience, is passing through Johannesburg on his way via Cape Town, home to Australia where Black Jesus Experience hold a residency at the African Horn restaurant in Melbourne. Melbourne is by all accounts a very cosmopolitan city with a strong Ethiopian culture, which has taken the world by storm with vibraphone player Mulato Asteke.

Mr Monk and the Black Jesus Experience recorded with Mulato Astetke in Addis Adaba. When the band left to go home, Monk embarked on a journey of music and self-discovery.      

I will meet Liam today as he passes through Johannesburg collect some of his photos and experiences of the music down the coast of Africa.

Interview Liam Monkhouse

That is my EP cover. To be released early next year. I am trying to decide to release as an EP or add more songs to make an album. The EP is not really hip hop. I rap. It is hip hop foundation with new school electronic beats. I guess it is hip hop because hip hop is beats and rhymes.

There is a big underground movement everywhere I have been where people value conscious lyrics.

That is a press photo one of my promotional shots in Melbourne. This is at the Orbit which was our first gig on the continent. That was the beginning of the tour with one chapter of my trip was with the BJX.

This is with the BJX in Durban at the Chairman Lounge. It is a nice little club, it is very tasteful.

This is with Mulato Astetke, this was the next chapter of the tour in Ethiopia. We performed at the main UN headquarters for African dignitaries and some young people from Addis, some locals. Mulato runs a club called the African Jazz Village. It is something that he was involved with a long time ago that is reinvigorated in an iconic historic Addis hotel. We performed there with Mulato.

We have done an album with Mulato's compositions and collaborated with him where he has played vibraphone and percussion. This will be released in the first quarter of next year. We had recorded in Australia and we just added Mulato's parts in the studio in Addis over a couple of days.

Next I traveled to Kenya. This is doing a workshop with local artists in Nairobi. This is a collection of some of the more established MC's, singers, dancers, artists in Nairobi. I think there is some progressive elements with bands like Just a Band who do kind of interesting disco, house, hip hop cross over with a live band that I thought was pretty original. And the hip hop is cool because most of these guys rap in Swahili, so they are keeping it true to their own language and Swahili has a very rhythmic quality so it gels well with hip hop and most of them are quite socially conscious. It is about the poverty, disparity and political. Kenya has got a lot of growth. Where there is a lot of money flowing in things are getting more expensive but people are not earning more money. There is a growing middle class and upper class but the everyday people on the street are still struggling. And there is a lot of corruption and greed.

Do they have a strong culture?

It is there. The people have their respective tribes and sometimes languages. It is pretty Westernized. The Swahili language is alive. There is an African culture to the place.

This is another picture from the workshops. A friend of mine who is a singer in Nairobi called Maya Von Lekow, she set up the workshop at the Goethe institute. We did some song writing. We split into groups and we did some themes. Someone was being an everyday person talking to a politician. It was a really good experience. People didn't need much encouragement to voice their opinion. And the skill level was high.

I recorded with two of the artists. One guy is originally from Mombasa, Kaledzi Vidzey and he raps in his dialect which is a dialect of Swahili mixed with Portuguese, Arabic and is a slightly different kind of tongue. And he is a multi-instrumentalist as well. He likes to incorporate his culture. We recorded a song together and shot a film clip in his suburb. And another guy who is more of a spoken word artist and he performs in Swahili called Curvo Kim . He is a young aspiring spoken word MC who is being mentored by Juliani who is one of the most successful hip hop MC's in Kenya.

And Juliani has set up this place called Dandora hip hop city. And Dandora is a very poor working class neighborhood. This building is right on the edge and surrounds a rubbish dump. This is where he grew up and he built this center which will mentor young people in the area on hip hop performance and business. My friend Maya arranged for me to visit this center. All of these guys are young aspiring artists from the community. I went there and I performed and then we all rapped and took turns in performing. We did a cypher where everyone raps and I filmed a cypher with the guys.

This is me with Juliani he is the founder of Dandori hip hop city and he is putting the fruits of his success back into the hip hop city to nurture the community where he came from. He performs spiritual hip hop with a strong self empowerment. He is Christian with a reggae, rock, pop, African influence. It is interesting. It has its own Kenyan sound. He is one of the biggest successes.

This is in Zanzibar which was my next stop. I was there for two weeks performing at a Monday night jam session at a lodge there and was working in a band with four guys who are local Tanzanian artists who rap and collaborated with this guy from France, Bruno Patworx and we recorded a song at this table at the back of the lodge about Zanzibar. This is the workshop set up and as you can see, the guitar, keyboard we are outside on the sand.

Next I travelled to Orisha, Northern Tanzania and I went to a community education center and orphanage run by an African American couple Mama C and her partner. They were Black Panthers and her partner went on the run and they settled in Tanzania for the last twenty or thirty years and they set up this school and orphanage where people volunteered to teach. I went and volunteered and did a workshop on writing and recording. I was there for four days. Orisha is not far from Nairobi, 4 or 5 hours.

Creativity, music and art is a huge part of their curriculum. It is a natural part of their culture. Everyone was singing. We were led by Dewey who is a local artist. They translated for me into Swahili. We came up with a song about dreams. A positive song. The overall theme with all the people I worked with is wanting to fulfill their lives, self-betterment and having security like a home and being successful in their career for the professional musicians and not struggling so much.

This is me with some of the guys. This is Mama C. She is the brains behind the school called the United African Community Centre. These guys are volunteer workers They are all musicians. They volunteered to teach the students at the school. This is at a performance of Mama C where I performed. This guy is Masai. He plays a traditional Masai instrument which is a three or four stringed instrument. He sings in Masai language and uses the traditional Masai string instrument Mama C is one of the few women in the world to play another string instrument. It is like a 4 stringed instrument. More like a lute.

This is Emma Masai, Mama C, Stanley and this guy I can't remember. This is a local venue in Orusha. Mama C sings in English and she performs poetry and spoken word.

This is on the set of the film shoot in Kenya. I came back to Kenya for a week and I shot this film clip in a suburb in the outer suburbs, one of the more working class suburbs of Nairobi called Zimmerman. Basically the storyline was me visiting Kaledzi and him showing me around the neighborhood. Kaledzi is from Mombasa. He is an artist, puppeteer. He works with children. He is a percussionist, rapper, all round artist. The film was an insight to the neighborhood. These neighborhoods that I visited are not on the tourist trail. What I learnt is that there is a string sense of community in these places. We were filming and people that they know would come up. There are a lot of curious kids around that were happy to get involved. There is some degree of poverty and a rural existence. Behind here are all these fields and people growing their crops in the middle of apartment blocks. It is an interesting intersection of traditional ways and urban existence. The film clip is for a song and the title is Kaledzi's language a dialect of Swahili. It translates to ‘It is what it is.'

Is this a one giant leap style ?

It will be a compilation or an album of the material collaborating. It will be a digital CD release. And there will be some accompanying film clips. I shot a film clip in Nairobi., I shot a film clip in Orusha at the center in Tanzania and then I traveled to Zimbabwe and shot a film clip with a local guy there. And I am planning to shoot one in Cape Town. I am working with Zenzolo.

What about Zimbabwean hip hop?

I went to an open mic in Harari and I performed and I met a duo of sisters who played mbira and sang and rapped and we are collaborating on a track for the album. And I met another guy who raps and is a prominent graffiti artist and visual artist and another young guy called Cynic who is an up and coming underground MC. They are all represented. And I shot a film clip with Black Fari who is a graffiti artist.

How did you find the music down the coast?

It is huge. Hip Hop is the soundtrack of the urban youth and the marginalized. There is a divide between the club sound which is very materialistic and American influenced which kind of represents society. What I have seen in Africa is a big divide. You have the people on the ground level, the roots level who are, those big material things are a world away from them. Most of their rapping, there is a hunger, there is a strong socio-political consciousness for the injustices in their lives and a big aspirational hunger. And there is a natural talent. Hip Hop is the soundtrack and a second nature art form for all the people I ran into.

Do you find for yourself that hip hop is second nature?

It was pretty natural. When you always listen to it and I have a knack for writing so I guess so.

Did you come across an African jazz influence?

The African rhythm innately informs the performances, the flows, the rhythms. Whether it is African Jazz I don't know. A lot of these young guys don't have any relationship. A lot of them are making beats. They are using the hip hop beats. I met a producer in Swaziland who is sampling South African Jazz.

In Swaziland I met two singers. We worked with three singers who recorded with the BJX rhythm section, who sang in Keswati. We were collaborating with two Swaziland MC's on a project that has live instrumentation and the music is influenced by Ethio Jazz. We hired a local studio and we traced bass drums and guitar which was a performance influenced on Ethio jazz and desert blues., Malian Tuareg kind of sound. And collaborating with Swazi female vocalists who have real powerful from a rich vocal tradition. It is a studio project. There is a curiosity about the ethio Jazz and BJX and the musicians are interested in what we did because it is unique. The Southern African jazz tradition is recognized and established but the Ethiopian jazz tradition isn't really as exposed in Southern Africa. The local musicians were intrigued and interested in what we did.

And Cape Town .. ?

Zenzola is involved with the African hip hop caravan which is a project with host festivals around and an artist collective for the hip hop community all over Africa and a couple of cities in America. It is a collaborative network. The people I met in Zimbabwe. One of the guys is involved with his project and is aware of this Pan African Organisation. One of my realizations from traveling and recording is the opportunity I have to promote and publicise African hip hop to a wider audience. There is a lot of talent but not necessarily the same level of promotion and exposure as other places.

My project will expose underground African hip hop to a broad audience, especially Australia and will expose the underground hip hop network. There are a number of African artists in Australia and I think there is an opportunity to start a relationship between Australia and Africa with myself an African.

Did travel educate you ?

What I have gained outside of music is gratitude. Every encounter I have reinforces my sense of gratitude. The fact that I am able to travel for five months through a big section of Africa is a luxury, most of the people I met could never afford. For them their lives are rooted to their immediate environments because of circumstances. I was born into a first world country with a good education system and opportunities to travel. And I enjoy a high standard of living back home and the opportunities for people here on an economic level are a bit harder. I have also seen the strength and the spirit of African culture and community which is something that the materialistic aspects of the West misses. I have learnt patience. People running on African time, waiting for things to happen, waiting for power to come back on, the things you would take for granted in a developed world don't necessarily operate. I also learnt to slow down. And on the music side, rhythm, flow and the richness of African music. I have been exposed to a lot of different music and a lot of hip hop. Recently I had become despondent with hip hop because of the decline. I had lost interest in hip hop. I still have a passion. But traveling around and the fact that it has allowed me to connect with so many different communities. I see the value of it as this underground conversation and underground language that gives people this string pride in self-expression. I see the original value of hip hop. I see its power as a tool for self-empowerment education fun community. I attended a hip hop cypher in Dar es Salaam with like 70 guys all just sharing a platform with multiple skill levels from novice to professional with a good atmosphere of encouragement and community and reminded me why I gravitated to hip hop as my vehicle for artistic impression initially. It was hugely inspiring.

I know that some of the most successful African hip hop artists have come from Tanzania. And there is a bi community there. I didn't get the chance to spend a lot of time there. I saw that the underground hip hop that I am interested in. I met an MC there, One the incredible which is like an underground hip hop MC who is moderately successful and living off his music, so there is obviously enough street level support for artists to make a living. Hip hop is big!


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