ESKA MTUNGWAZI / “Eska’s Mixtape”

  eska 01.jpg Eska / “Inside Out” (Live) Source Unknown (Promo only, 2009) Late Sunday afternoon, just as the sun is starting to dip into evening, I get into a big fight with a friend of mine. As it drags on and on, getting worse and worse, I realize I should get out of the house to cool off. I grab my iPod and my car keys and head up the driveway. OK, it’s my wife. There’s no friend. (I just realized this story makes no sense if I try to call it ‘a friend.’ I don’t get into it like that with my friends, and even if I did, I’d just hang up the phone or say ‘get the eff out’ and that would be that. Sooner or later one of us would call the other one without ever mentioning the argument and we’d go on like nothing had ever happened. Men just handle things different.) So there I am, sitting in the driver’s seat of my car, mad at the world (or my wife, at least), feeling like driving somewhere but not really having any place I feel like going. I recline the seat a little and look out across the canyon. By then, night is starting to fall. Here and there, house lights glow through the dusk. A few blocks away, on the street that runs through the bottom of the canyon, I can see car lights streaming past.     Suddenly, I feel tired. Tired enough to fall asleep right there in the car. I recline the seat a little more and close my eyes. Nope, not happening. Tired and sleepy aren’t always the same and right now, despite being so tired I can barely think straight, I’m not sleepy at all. I decide to listen to music instead. Headphones on, I press ‘play’ on my iPod. A song I’ve never heard before is just starting. The singer counts off the beat.

One, two. One, two, three, and….
  eska 09.jpg From the crowd noise in the background I can tell it isn’t a studio recording. Whatever the song is, it was recorded live. The groove comes in – a sensuous, slow-motion kind of thing. The electric bass throbs, calm but persistent; percussion fills out the bottom of the groove like the underwater waves that flow deep beneath the surface of the sea. I imagine that I hear some sadness in the groove too. But maybe it’s not the record; maybe it’s just me and my mood. Then the guitar came in and I know it’s not just me. Dude plays just six notes (six!) and the blues is as unmistakable as being broke the morning after payday. This ain’t no happy song. The voice – a woman’s – comes in:
When you’re sitting on your own And you feel the city lights surround you…
How right is that? Perfect, that’s how right. I adjust my seat so I can sit up straight and pay attention – what’s this song I’m listening to? “She’s always on the phone,” the woman sings. What’s she talking about?, I’m wondering. “Don’t give up,” she continues. “Don’t give up, darling, on what you dream.” A couple of cars glide past. I live at the end of a cul de sac, so in all likelihood some of my neighbors are in those cars. For a moment, I drift away from the song, wondering, ‘Where are they going late on a Sunday evening? Don’t they have to work in the morning?’ Then I think, ‘Who cares?’ My attention returns to the song. The woman is singing:
Like the notes here in this song We’ll go on and on and on with our love
Hmm. "Don’t give up on your dreams, because we’ll go on with our love." What is this song? I keep listening. The song is building in intensity. Even as they maintain a hushed, almost whispering feel, both the band and the singer are getting more and more into the spirit of the moment. “Oh!” the singer wails, “Oh, I want to be / I want to be inside out!” She’s hitting me right in the gut now. Or in the heart, maybe. “I want to be so close,” she’s saying to her man, “That you could turn me inside out.” She says, “I want you to be turning me, turning me, turning me….” She starts repeating things. “Turning me over and over and over….” Who knows how many times she says, ‘over.’ She says that one word like it’s what she yearns for most, like a prayer. Only she doesn’t mean ‘over’ like ‘over and done,’ she means ‘over’ like “turn me over and over and inside out – do whatever you want with me – I’m yours.” Then she’s done with words – she’s just sound-singing now. And even when she goes back to the words, they’ve lost their meaning. Or maybe what I really intend to say is she’s singing past and deeper than and beyond the meaning. She’s not speaking English or any other language they put in dictionaries or teach schoolchildren. She’s sending emotion-waves from somewhere deep within herself, a place where words have no meaning, a place where English is never spoken. The headlights from another passing car sweep over me and I realize the singer is finished singing. As the audience applauds, I press ‘stop’ and turn off the iPod. Eventually, I get out of the car and I’m surprised to find the night air is cool. I’d been sitting there longer than I thought. Heading back down the driveway it occurs to me that love really doesn’t work any way except inside out. You might be initially attracted to this one or that one based on something you see on the outside, but that only lasts so long. If you’re going to have a real relationship, if you’re going to work on something long-lasting (and anyone who’s ever done it well can tell you it definitely is work), you’re going to have to put in work from the inside, not the outside. You have no choice. You have to strip away your emotional armor, get rid off your defenses, ‘take off your cool’ (as another singer put it once) and journey deep in there to the far, far inside. It’s not easy, it’s not fun and it damn sure ain’t pretty – it is necessary though. I’m walking up the steps now. In less than a minute, I’ll be in front of the apartment. I’ll unlock the door, open it, and walk back in. She’ll be there waiting or she’ll be already sleeping; she’ll be out on the balcony reading a book or on the phone, talking to a friend. Tonight, will I have what it takes – will we have what it takes – to go all the way inside out and get back to the place we both want to be? I can’t say. Maybe it’ll only take a few minutes (because it has been that quick before). Maybe it’ll take the rest of the night or even the rest of the week (it’s been that long before too). But no matter how long it takes, I know we will get there. Because, like the singer said, we’ll go on. It’s love.
* * *
eska 07.jpg I found out later that the song is “Inside Out” and the singer is Eska, a vocalist I already know and respect. Frankly, I thought I was listening to a much older singer – a legend (or maybe someone close to that status) from the Seventies whose voice I was having trouble recognizing. I also found out that Eska’s song isn’t hers (meaning, she didn’t write it, nor was it wasn’t written for her) and it’s actually about the hardships of infidelity, not marriage. The song was originally recorded by a NYC post-disco outfit named Odyssey. Their version is quite an anachronistic piece of work: the same bluesy but hopeful lyrics but with a backing track that sounds like a dead-ringer for Slave’s “Watching You.” (In other words, relentlessly bouncy, catchy and danceable. Not what you’d expect at all.) [Update: I found some info on the 1982 Odyssey LP that “Inside Out” originally comes from. Turns out the drummer on “Inside Out” is none other than Steve Arrington, just-departed leader of Slave. Which makes sense given how much the two rhythm track sound the same.] I don’t know where Eska’s version comes from nor do I know if there is, or will ever be, an official release. I picked it up from another musicblog. Apparently, it’s been making the internet rounds lately because at yet another blog, there’s a quote from Eska about how and why she re-recorded this record. Here’s what she had to say:
I loved this song from childhood when pops used to play this Odyssey album called Native NewYorker. I thought those 3 angels with bejeweled and woven hair were from another planet. They sang about ‘roots’ - things my dad would continually remind us about: I’m first generation Afropean (Born Bulawayo, Zimbabwe). There weren’t many Zims in the UK back then, not like now, since Zim suffered a catastrophic exodus over the past 5 years! I have always loved the lead singer’s vocal delivery, sincere and relaxed. The musicianship on this record is stellar. I mean, check the bass line for ‘Inside Out’. What is that?????? As a frustrated bass-player, I can only play air-bass to this tune, and even that feeeeeels gooooood…don’t you just wish you were in that band???? But as a kid, the thing that struck me was the lyrics. I didn’t know what this song was about, I couldn’t relate to it but I wanted to – you know that moment when you understand the words to every love song and you hear them completely differently when it’s accompanied with experience ‘…. I wanna be inside out, oh darlin’, I wanna be so deep that you’ll be turning inside out, oh darlin’…’ Ouch! Can’t get better than that, it really can’t.
[Update, part two. The image on the cover of the Odyssey LP hasn’t aged well. Three overly glamorous-looking black folk pose in front of a giant picture window. The two ladies are in huge-ruffled dresses, their hair and their makeup piled thick. The dude is wearing a tux. He’s also wearing a jheri curl. There’s a baby grand piano in the background. The carpet is plush…and purple. (That’s right, purple.) These three were livin’ large. Looking at the album cover it’s easy to see how a young, British girl with Zimbabwian parents could look at these three people – black, rich, glamorous – and imagine they were living the life she wanted to live and singing the songs she wanted to sing.] There it is. I hope y’all dig it as much as I do. —Mtume ya Salaam P.S. I ended up sleeping on the couch Sunday night, but today (a week or so later) the wife and I are back in each other’s good graces and everything’s good. We’re going on with our love. You?      Eska Speaks / Eska Sings      eska 06.jpeg
Matthew – What do you think of the commercial music world? Eska Mtungwazi - I think MTV Culture is one of the most backward displays of black music. The MOBO's is backward and shameful, sadly, for such a talented people group, it amazes me how we cannot get our act together. In terms of basically celebrating the best of ourselves in a much more constructive way. Matthew – Is there anything that you think should be changed about the commercial music scene? Eska Mtungwazi - I'm not saying we should censor MTV. I just wish that an antidote existed, I would like to be involved in that in what ever way possible and feel that I am a part of an alternative on offer. We need to keep working at this movement and are certainly gaining ground with events such as Kindred Spirit, Up Rock at Mau Mau's, a variety of club night's on offer such as Wonderland.
. . .
Matthew – Have you signed a record deal yet or are you even interested in signing with a label? Eska Mtungwazi - I would sign a deal with me, if I was not an artist and was starting a label, yeah, another one of me! Ha! I would love to ask you and the reader's out there what exactly they mean and/or understand about being 'signed'. Forgive me, but most people have no idea what they are talking about when they use this term, it has all manner of daft, unrealistic expectations that is laughable for anyone to consider it as such a good thing for them. Being signed is not my goal, My goal is to make legendary music and aspire to be a legendary artist, whatever vehicles help to move me in that direction, on board MY train, and then I welcome those enquiries. I have never sought out a ‘deal’; I have never approached a label. I have had labels approach me, all manner of people who fancy they being in the 'middle' of my business plans. Most of them are a waste of time, because they want to be simply 'people in the middle' making a bit of change in a situation that could actually slow me down. Finance and Marketing are the biggest hurdles to overcome as an artist. Matthew – What advice could you give to someone who wants to be a successful independent artist? Eska Mtungwazi - You need a strong team that understands your vision and works your vision, not go off and find someone with a vision and try and fit yourself into it, that is traditionally what 'signing up or on' is about, that is not for everyone. Things will never change if we are still buying into myths about the recording business, and those of us who support this music need to educate ourselves about the industry in a much deeper way. Then I won't get asked questions like this, the question should have been. Who are you looking for to join your team? And answer's can go to Many thanks Matthew. —Feel The Soul Interview with Eska Mtungwazi
eska 02.jpg
Singing is fantastic because the voice can make such a variety of sounds. It can evoke a lot of meaning when using words or experimenting with tone from whispering to shouting out loud. It can mimic just about any sound the human ear can hear. No other instrument in the world can do this, except a sampler, and even then it is simply sampling the voice anyhow! What a complete and utter joy to be able to abandon myself to these infinite possibilities! Singing is simply sound produced from the voice. Once you begin to appreciate this then you can find yourself sitting in with a horn section in a band as comfortably as becoming part of an abstract soundscape using random tones. —Eska Mtungwazi
eska 05.jpg She is everywhere. She is nowhere. Finding her recordings is amazingly difficult. No album. Yet. No releases under her own name. She has been working as a hired voice. Fugitive tracks from live recordings with her band have made it across the internet border but only, as they say, a precious few. Like a junkie searching for dope (I know, I know, what a depressing metaphor to describe beautiful music…), I look and I look and I never tire of looking. Why? Why do I not just stop? Why don’t I realize that maybe what I’m searching for just doesn’t exist? Why? Because… Because inevitably nuggets of gold are left in my pan after hours of sifting through global sound sand and noise rocks on the world wide web. One or two songs, or sometimes only the reference to a song, which continues to successfully play hide and go seek. But I’ll catch the rascal; I’m persistent. And Eska’s music inevitably rewards the chase. The Eska Mixtape doesn’t include everything I’ve found but enough to hopefully entice others of you to enlist in the search party. Perhaps there is someone out there who has access to a whole live session you are willing to share—hint, hint (, thank you. ;->) A few notes. Just so you can hear what Eska heard and then hear what she did with a remembered sound this week’s Contemporary Mixtape kicks off with an Odyssey reference recording.  I know it’s decades later but damn, Eska got this. Takes it to another level and the song is no longer about the story line of the original but now about the feeling of being so into someone that you turn inside out or turn them inside out or, or whatever, you know what I mean. I mean it becomes something deep, deep, and deeper than deep. The Mixtape ends with two cuts with The Cinematic Orchestra from Ma Fleur Live at the Barbican, a famous London performance venue. The second voice behind Eska is Heidi Vogel, who went on to become one of the featured Cinematic vocalists after Eska. When Eska started singing with the orchestra, she followed the legendary Fontella Bass in the lead vocalist capacity. I won’t make comparisons between the three. That would be totally unfair. I will say: breathe Eska in. (You’ll understand once you get to the last track.) All of which is to say, Eska needs to drop a live release on us. You can hear how she shapes sound and, like a mighty wave, carries everyone along with her. Makes the band rise up and reach for more than just playing the changes. Makes the music become an agent of change. Experiencing Eska is like wow. Like, well, she moves you. Wherever you were at when you first started listening, you are somewhere else after listening to her live. In between the live cut at the beginning and the two closing concert benedictions, we get Eska working in vastly different musical settings. Vastly. Like not just multicultural different, but also genre and styles, like her work with afrobeat legend Tony Allen, who was the establishing heartbeat of Fela Kuti’s music. A quick word about Tony’s deft drumming. Never busy but astoundingly complex in its simplicity. Seems easy on the ear but devilishly difficult to execute with the hands. Try patting along with him and realize that he is doing different rhythms with his hands and feet simultaneously, the left side on one, the right side of him on another. The Nigerians have an Elegba trickster tradition: walking through the village one side painted white, the other side painted black and the whole village arguing about what color the man was. From Tony Allen to new Nigerian bass player, based in London and New York, Michael Olatuja, who has worked with a plethora of artists including Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder (for USA references). But you’ve also got these techno European musicians like Gecko Turner, a Spanish musician who mixes and mashes up so many reference it’s dizzying. But make no mistake; just because she is all over the place doesn’t mean Eska has no foundation, no roots. Eska is not fickle. In the world of music she is a rock. Cats hire her because she has a definite sound but, oh my, how in the world does she manage to work in such desperate circumstances: one foot in the sanctuary singing sacred syllables, another foot in the gutter getting all the way down, and everywhere in between. I would say that she is totally human in how she sings, brings, and articulates the full spectrum of the human experience without excluding one side or the other. That she is so strongly centered in what she does at the moment even if the preceding moment was on a different page and the following moment will be in a different book—and sometimes in a completely different library building; past or future don’t matter nor distract us, Eska makes the now moment everything. How she manages, as they say, working both sides of the street with such authority and sincerity, well, that is the miracle of Eska Mtungwazi. Take, for example, that MJ Cole remix of a Nitin Sawhney’s “Sunset” track. I was mesmerized by how much stronger Eska’s voice comes through after Cole stripes her vocal track from the original music and supplies a completely different, and seemingly contradictory, wall of sound. Cole didn’t just paint the interior walls. He actually went in and made structural adjustments. I guess you could say Eska was the fireplace that now heats one large room instead of two small rooms because the wall between the rooms has been knocked out and the heat of her vocals shines through unimpeded. Or something like that. eska 08.jpg Listen to her voice. Listen to what Cole heard, and did a sound design to highlight. I don’t mean to denigrate Nitin’s work because it was beautiful for what it was but Cole made something else entirely out of what Nitin initially conceived.  My point is not many singers have that kind of voice that you can do something completely different without changing what she originally sang. “Sunset” is quite a remix. Regardless of whether you favor the original or the remix, the key ingredient is Eska’s astounding voice. Finally, I was struck by how often Eska is literally laughing on these tracks. Pure enjoyment. And sometimes, when you really get to the essence, that’s all you can do: laugh, or smile, but especially laugh when the experience is really good, has sharply touched you in all the right spots. Just laugh. Loving it. OK, that’s it. Eska Mtungwazi. Enjoy. —Kalamu ya Salaam Eska Mtungwazi Mixtape Playlist eska 04.jpg Where they are available, I’ve provided links to acquire the recordings that feature Eska. There is more out there: happy hunting. 01 “Inside Out” (12" Version) - 12" Single - Inside Out (1982) - Odyssey 02 “Inside Out (Live)” - Promo (2009) - Eska 03 “Monosabio Blues” - Chandalismo Ilustrado - Gecko Turner Feat Eska 04 “Monosabio Blues (Philip Owusu Remix)” - Manipulado - Gecko Turner Feat Eska 05 “Altar Call” (feat. Eska Mtungwazi) - Speak - Michael Olatuja 06 “Yi Yipada” (feat. Eska Mtungwazi) - Speak - Michael Olatuja 07 “What's Your Fashion” - Home Cooking - Tony Allen 08 “The Drum” - The Allenko Brotherhood Ensemble - Son Of Scientist Feat. Eska 09 “Good Nyooz” - Conversations with The Unseen - Soweto Kinch 10 “Sunset” (Prophesy Album Version) - Sunset CDS - Nitin Sawhney Feat Eska 11 “Sunset (MJ Cole remix)” - Sunset CDS - Nitin Sawhney featuring Eska 12 “Familiar Ground” - Ma Fleur Live at the Barbican - The Cinematic Orchestra 13 “Breathe” - Ma Fleur Live at the Barbican - The Cinematic Orchestra  

This entry was posted on Monday, September 21st, 2009 at 2:24 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “ESKA MTUNGWAZI / “Eska’s Mixtape””

Sher Says:
September 22nd, 2009 at 9:55 am

Thank you for introducing me to such a wonderful artist. I found her work – breathtaking and so refreshing.

Manny Says:
September 25th, 2009 at 4:59 am

inside out is doing it for me at 2:59am. thank you.

Andrew Winter Says:
November 16th, 2009 at 5:53 am

Eska is all that you say and more. Its not just here musical integrity and passion, its her. The first time I heard her sing was in a barn in Kent for a wedding of some friends, then again on the streets of New York where we doing an arts mission with a homeless church in a St Marks basement on lower east side. Every time she sings, I mean every time, I cry. That’s not just a good voice that can do that, that has to be an angel sent from heaven to illuminate our foggy paths. Experience Eska. Thanks kalamu for making it easier to find out the little work that is out there. Soon, very soon, there will be more.

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