Singer and songwriter, Masauko was born in exile in the United States, Los Angeles California far away from Africa. His parents were Malawian and involved in political struggle in Malawi. Masauko remembers his father as a nervous politician with staunch Pan Africanist ideas. His father chose to open his letters outside in the yard because he was afraid his political opponents might send a letter bomb and blow up the house. Music always had a soothing quality for Masauko as he listened to his mother singing. His mother was influenced by the music she heard growing up in Malawi such as the music of Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe. In 1994 Masauko returned to South Africa from exile and formed the successful musical duo BlkSonshine. Masauko is currently based in Costa Rico.
So, what sells music? A great song ...always will, always has! You have to have something deeper, a great book, a great story, a great recording, a great song. You have to go to the ethereal world, that deeper point that connects with the customer. Have you got something they like or are inspired by: your lyrics, who you are, what you say and what you represent? Do you touch people's hearts? That is what a great song does.
Developing an ear for a good song
Growing up in Los Angeles, Masauko lived across the road from Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu. Their son Mosese went to his mother’s creche. Masauko was continually around these artists and he though Caiphus was the coolest black man around. He drove a Peugeot. He had a pretty wife and he was a musician. And from that early age of 7, Masauko decided he wanted to be like Caiphus. Caiphus bought Masauko his first record label where he started listening to the music of Bob Marley and Steel Pulse. This really influenced him and brought the idea of Africa into his consciousness.
After school, Masauko met South African born producer Russel Pope in Los Angeles. Russel left South Africa in 1960 and went onto an incredibly successful music career as manager of the hugely successful pop group - Supertramp. Having engineered, recorded and produced at a high international level including at Abbey Road Studios where the Beatles had recorded, Russel had an incredible ear for a hit song.
He described it this way: “Have you ever gone to a family with 4 daughters? Have you ever noticed one is always more gorgeous than the rest?”
The mother of the daughters will tell you they are all as pretty as each other. And that’s the way a songwriter is. A songwriter is like the mother of his/her songs. The songwriter thinks all of them are just as beautiful as each other.
But, one of them sticks out from the crowd has something the others don’t have. The songwriter can’t see it because they are too close to it. One of Russel Pope’s solutions to identifying a good song is to collaborate with another songwriter. He said, “If you going to get good at song-writing you always need to put yourself next to somebody who writes different to you but very strong. It creates a supportive competition – you are writing they are writing and you are making each other better – feeding each other’s songs in the best way you can to embellish them for the better of the collective.”
1. Hugh Masekela said, “If you want to get to the people, sing a wedding song.” What is a popular wedding song from your tradition or another that you love?
2. What is your favourite poet? What is your favourite poem? And can you put it to a rhythm?
3. Song-writers switch words around to find their true meaning. For example, Fela Kuti took the word “democracy” and altered the meaning to “demo,” “crazy” meaning a demonstration of craziness. Can you think of a word in common use that you can alter to bring a real and transparent meaning to it?
4. Do you like to write songs alone or do you have a friend you collaborate with? Can you describe your musical similarities and strengths?
"You have to have something deeper, a great book, a great story, a great recording, a great song. You have to go to the ethereal world, that deeper point that connectswith the customer."
Songwriters don’t just listen to songs – they also spend a lot of time reading and studying. One of Masauko’s favourite poets is e e cummings, whose words and rhymes had such rhythm and cadence to it that it was clear he was using language as a form of music. Reading and interpreting these kinds of rhyming lines have inspired him to write lyrics because he became fascinated that words could be used to create the kinds of patterns that could stick to their listener. Over time he began to realise that this is also the origin of mantra, which is that set of words people use when they are meditating to go inside themselves to try and influence their own mind in a certain direction.
Songs are a way of shifting consciousness through getting ideas to circulate in the mind constantly. If you listen to poets like Kamau Brathwaite there are ways we can think of words a little differently by their sound.
Word Sound Power
Masauko traces this form of songwriting as a form of chanting or prayer (not necessarily in a religious context) to ancient Egypt and a place called Kemet where an African culture existed for thousands of years before Christ. This culture had scribes which were writers that would write verses and hymns that would allow for the repetition of certain ideas to make it into society. Writing is a way of influencing the world around you. That is why the first things the corrupt dictators in Africa do is go after the musicians. Just think of the Nigerian government going after Fela Kuti, throwing his mom out of the window.
There is power in what a song-writer writes. Masauko’s philosophy of song writing is the idea that we are using words to transform the things around us. Like the Buddha said – “with thoughts we manifest the world.” GOD said, “Let there be light.” And there was light! Through song can we manifest the world? Masauko is saying this is possible. Popular songs create a call and response between the singer and the audience and thus a sense of alchemy where shard ideals and change can manifest.
Open to interpretation
Masauko’s South African band, Blk Sonshine wrote many popular songs including Birds will Sing, Soulsmile and Me and My People Building. But one of their most popular songs in terms of radio play was “Born in A Taxi.” It was written by Neo Muyanga. The lyrics go: “I can spend my time loving you if that’s what you want me to do?” The song is timeless, however the lyrics don’t specifically refer to anything. As Neo described: “The song is open to interpretation. It means whatever it means to you.”
By allowing your lyrics to be a little ethereal – this leaves room for the listener allowing more and more people in the audience to vibe with your lines.
Now answer the following questions
1. Masauko is sharing one of his many beautiful compositions with us called “Birds Will Sing.” This is a song about a song. The lyrics go:
“One day my bird will sing a song to heal us all.”
For Masauko the bird is a metaphor for the spirit. This is not an original idea and goes back to the famous poet Maya Angelou who wrote: “I know why the caged bird sings?” And it goes back to ancient Egypt where the bird represents the highest mind, the highest spiritual notions.
“The song will give us wings the song won’t let us fall.”
“And when my bird dies sing, the people will come one.”
“All into the love and let that love be strong.”
Masauko is imagining this song provoking healing and a feeling of collective solidarity or what we call uBuntu – that we exist for each other and that we are all unified and one.
Write out the favourite lines from your favourite most poetic song and try to interpret the hidden meaning.
2. A great song can be played in multiple formats and used in multiple ways, because the message can stay the same. Like Masauko’s Birds will Sing can be played acoustically, by a big band with a calypso beat at the centre of a celebration.
Can you think of a song that you love that has been covered in more than one different musical genre’s?
3. Masauko believes you can bring things into existence through your words. As a youngster he sung about returning to Africa from their exile and then in 1994 his family returned to Africa. Think for a moment of what exactly you would like to bring into your existence? What reality do you want to create for yourself? Can you put it into words?