On the record ... with Mathew Tembo

DeKALB – Mathew Tembo is working diligently to preserve the traditional music of his homeland, Zambia.

The musical traditions of Zambia suffered a blow from 1923 to 1964, when the southern African nation was under British colonial rule.

“It’s because of how we have been growing up,” Tembo, 39, said. “Especially during colonialism, when they said ‘you can’t use traditional instruments during church.’ We know that when missionaries came to Africa, church and education were very closely related. Churches provided education before government started doing it.”

After Zambia declared its independence in 1964, there was not a widespread revival of traditional music. Electric guitars and keyboards had caught the attention of young musicians, including Tembo, who was born nine years later.

He played reggae music until a trip to Denmark in 2004 convinced him to study traditional Zambian music and instruments. In 2007 he produced the first “Sing Our Own Song” festival in Zambia showcasing traditional music.

Tembo now plays a handmade wooden silimba, similar to a xylophone, and is studying world music performance at Northern Illinois University. He has planned a world music celebration at the House Cafe on Saturday, Sept. 22 to raise funds for his 2013 “Sing Our Own Song” festival.

Tembo sat down with MidWeek reporter Curtis Clegg to discuss the festival, his musical background and life in Africa.

MidWeek: Do you come from a musical family?
Mathew Tembo: It’s hard to tell because in Africa everybody is involved in some kind of music. I spent some time in a village where every day people would come out and dance and sing. That was the only type of entertainment. Everybody in my family did that, but nobody has done music professionally.

MW: What can you tell me about the village or city where you were raised?
MT: I spent four years in a small village, but most of my life I lived in the big city Lusaka, which is the capital of Zambia.

MW: Where on the continent of Africa is Zambia?
MT: It’s in southern Africa in the center of the continent. We have eight neighbors (neighboring countries) around us.

MW: Where did you get your passion for traditional music?
MT: In Africa, everybody is really into computers. People can make music in their bedroom with software. …In 2004 I was playing in Denmark at a conservatory in Copenhagen and we had a workshop where they were saying, “Why do you do the music that you do? Why do you play the music that you play?” They asked me, “You play reggae music, are you from Jamaica?” and when I said I was from Africa they asked me, “Don’t you have any music from Africa that you can try to build on? Maybe come up with your own style instead of just doing what other people have been doing forever?” When I went back home, that stuck in my head. That year I started playing traditional instruments.

My band didn’t want to do that because we were already popular and selling reggae music, but they didn’t realize that my thinking had changed. I want to spread African music because I am from here, I am from Africa. We have all these musical instruments that people don’t know about. …For me, my new goal was to preserve African music and to preserve traditional instruments and to encourage people to use them.

In schools, it’s just crazy to me that school administrators in Africa talk about a lack of instruments. They complain about a lack of a pianos and say they can’t teach music when they have all these traditional instruments around them.

MW: Where did you develop your interest in the silimba and other traditional instruments?
MT: Growing up like that, people think that the instruments aren’t good enough. …You don’t need that much money. You can make them yourselves and use them to teach music. That’s the kind of thing we need to make young musicians realize, that the instruments are as good as any other instruments and they shouldn’t be ashamed to play them.

The silimba is a musical instrument made of wood. …I used to teach an ensemble of kids in Livingstone, which is a smaller town (in Zambia) than where I was from. The people who ran that school organized a workshop where a guy came to teach us how to make the instrument and tune it. After that workshop I started experimenting and making my own. …Soon I had people coming to me wanting me to teach their kids to play silimba.

MW: I read that your third album was banned on Zambian radio and television because of its political content. What message were you trying to convey with that album?
MT: I wasn’t really that involved in politics. The song "Awelela Mabunu" (“We are Colonized Again”) has a line from a traditional song. …I wrote my own verses to the song but I used that as the chorus. …I was simply saying, “Let’s be careful how we deal with (foreign) investors.”

MW: I also read that your fifth album had a theme of confronting HIV and AIDS. Are there other political or societal issues that you focus on?
MT: I did an album with the first republican president, the first president after we became independent from being a British colony, Dr. (Kenneth) Kaunda, who is also involved in music. After he retired from politics he got involved in HIV/AIDS because it is a big problem in Africa. He did two songs on my album.

MW: Is the reggae music in Africa the same as the reggae music in America, with a heavy Caribbean influence?
MT: It is mostly the same. The main characteristic of reggae music is simply the offbeat rhythm. …We have that in Africa too, but we should not forget that there is also this traditional music happening in Africa. In Jamaica it’s different because these people are trying to rediscover their music.

MW: Did you grow up with an appreciation for these instruments for their spiritual qualities?
MT: I started to study music as a rasta, like reggae. It was kind of religious for me when I started. For me, music is for entertainment but most of all it should be there to spread good messages, like love and making people conscious about problems.

We used music for a lot of purposes. One of the biggest things was communication between human beings and our creator. …One of the ceremonies was after every harvest, people would sit under a tree, cook food, brew beer and play music. The idea was to give thanks to the creator for giving them food. …Funerals have their own music, and you couldn’t sing that music anywhere else. Weddings had their own music too, and there was also music for healing.

MW: What brought you to the United States, and specifically to DeKalb?
MT: I came here because of school. I go to school at NIU. …I didn’t want to do classical music, I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. When I started searching for programs in world music, there are very few places that offer world music programs. …Berkeley has a program, but they don’t have a master’s program. I already have a bachelor’s so I thought that would be a waste of time.

MW: What are you studying at NIU?
MT: I am getting my master’s in world music performance. …We have an Africa ensemble now that I direct, that I started when I got here.

MW: What are your plans once you graduate?
MT: I’m thinking after this, I want to focus more on the festival that I do in Zambia. The other thing I want to do is go around Zambia and collect traditional musical instruments and play and record music.

MW: Have you found an enthusiastic audience for your music here in the United States?
MT: People are excited when you present it, but what I noticed is that not many people know about African music, which makes me think that I need to do more. One man alone cannot do what needs to be done, but if I can contribute something I’ll be glad to do that. I feel like, as an individual, I should go out and perform more and educate people about the music. People love it once they listen to it, but not that many people have been exposed to that kind of music.

MW: What can you tell me about the Sing Our Own Song music festival?
MT: We are calling it a world music celebration. There are going to be a lot of world music ensembles. The NIU steel band will be performing, the Chinese ensemble will be performing, the Middle Eastern ensemble will be performing, and Afro pop, the group that I direct, will be performing. It’s just a celebration of all this world music we have around DeKalb. It is to raise money for the festival back home called Sing Our Own Song. …There is a lot of music in DeKalb and at NIU. I know we have all these recitals but I think just coming together and sharing the experience is much more important. I don’t know why we don’t have more world music in DeKalb when there is all of this music going on at NIU. I think the community should take advantage of that.

MW: How much money do you hope to raise for the festival in Zambia next year?
MT: We have made the contribution at the door very low, $6 for non-students and $3 for students. …I have done the concert in Africa before with zero budget, but right now our budget is around $1,500 for advertising and hiring (renting) of equipment.

MW: From what I understand, the 2013 festival will be the seventh. How did you get started?
MT: After I started playing traditional instruments, I think I got thinking more and more about how I can promote traditional instruments and get other people to play them. I started talking to a few of my musician friends about it, and people liked it. The first year, in 2007, three other bands in Zambia performed. One band had traditional instruments. The other two bands didn’t play traditional instruments, but they played traditional music on guitars. …People supported it, and it was packed. Then we decided to have it every year.

MW: Do you perform solo or with a band?
MT: I’ll be playing with the Afro pop ensemble (at the House Cafe), but it just depends on the nature of the gig. If they want a solo gig or a small performance, I will just go and play. But I prefer to play with a bigger band.

MW: What have you learned at NIU that you will take back to Africa with you?
MT: I want to think that what I am going to use most from that learning experience is going to be how (music) is taught. I have also learned about jazz – most of the people that play in the Afro pop ensemble are jazz musicians, so just having jazz people play African music is the best thing that happened to the music.

MW: Were you exposed to jazz in Zambia?
MT: Not really. We don’t have a big jazz tradition. People play jazz in hotels, but it’s rare to find jazz outside those hotels.

MW: I read that you teach music to children in Zambia. Have you thought about teaching music in the United States?
MT: The training that I did was for teaching high school students, so I taught at a high school for two years after I graduated and then I have taught workshops where I teach kids how to play music. I remember once I was hired to train elementary school kids to play together in an ensemble. I did that for a year or two, so I have been teaching in between performing.