Review and photographs by J Hunter
There are days when the Inner Banshee screams for me to find something different, something new, something unknown. Fortunately, it’s only a short, scenic (and fun) drive to MASS MoCA, where the curators think outside the box that “The Box” came in! That’s why – on the strength of one video posted on the groundbreaking museum’s web site – I was checking out Netsayi & Black Pressure.
I’ve seen many shows in MASS MoCA’s courtyard space, but never in the configuration I was presented with: The bar area that overlooks the courtyard had been turned into an outdoor music club, with a small stage stuck into the corner nearest the museum; tables were set close together, with a few rows of seats laid out at the back near the actual bar – which was already doing Land Office business when I stepped onto the wooden deck. It was intimate, to say the least, but it was also perfect for Netsayi, who is nothing if not intimate.
Now, I don’t mean “intimate” in the Joni Mitchell/Buffy Saint-Marie “sensitive singer-songwriter” sense, although Netsayi’s lyrics do take you close to her heart. But the messages Netsayi sends out are all about empowerment and education – empowerment for the 99-percent, education about what’s happening (and what should happen) in the places where justice is in short supply. “These are the facts of life where we come from,” Netsayi said about her home country of Zimbabwe. “We have land issues. Did you know that?” she asked in her intro to Miriam Makeba’s still-contemporary classic “A Piece of Ground.” The night’s opening song “Hondo” – which translates to “War” – was about “the necessity of fighting for what you believe.” You could apply that to Zimbabwe, which was born out of revolution, but the belief and energy that radiated from the slow-building song could make you take up arms against anything that confronted you.
Netsayi’s sound has this wonderful mix of East and West, African and European, and that’s right down to the instrumentation. The harmonies she creates with her multi-talented quartet simply soar, whether they’re singing soft or roaring like lions. Netsayi accompanies herself on acoustic guitar, but she also plays the African thumb piano called the mbira, which has a hypnotic effect all its own. Bassist Ray Mupfumiro also plays mbira, and when he & Netsayi joined up on their respective mbiras on “Bukatiende” (one of several pieces from her newest release Chimurenga Soul), it sounded like faraway bells playing in harmony. Guitarist Humpfrey Domboka added to the faraway sense by holding his guitar strings as he riffed, making it sound like crickets.
Mupfumiro and Domboka teamed with drummer T. Bright Chisvo to give Netsayi a captivating background that made both you and her want to dance. She actually had more space than the audience did, and she took constant advantage of it, stomping out the beat with her bare feet as she shook and smiled; there was a line of dancers in the sole aisle from the bar to the tables, and they never sat down from the moment they took over the space. “Are you all Todd’s children?” Netsayi asked them slyly, referring to master violinist Todd Reynolds, who made “Vakorinde 13” literally cry and helped Black Pressure funk up the folk song “Sara Regina.” Netsayi has (in her words) “a wrong sense of humor” that she has to constantly keep track of: She told us about playing a festival in New York City the day before; it was Brazilian Day, and she nearly made some comments about Brazil’s meltdown in the World Cup semi-final. Then she laughed and chastised herself. “Don’t talk about football! This is the Museum of Contemporary Art!” She also playfully informed us, “You have to like us on Facebook, or we won’t get famous – which is the point, of course…”
As riveting as Netsayi’s originals were, it was the way she took over other people’s work that made me smile. A documented fan of U2 (Check out her version of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on my interview with her), Domboka’s staccato guitar and Mupfumiro’s riffs on baritone marimba helped Netsayi bring “One” into a brand new continent; and even though “Ne Me Quitte Pas” has been covered by “everyone and their granny,” Netsayi stuck close to the original while her band brought the drama the Jacques Brel composition requires.
It all ended with a message from “Chosen Ones” (“About my personal proximities with poverty…”) and a personal moment from the encore “Georgie.” The latter song was a stellar reboot of the childhood poem “Georgie Porgie” from the girls’ perspective, while the former piece solemnly worked its way to the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which the crowd sang without prompting. It was a magical moment from a magical show that came nowhere near “The Box.” The two standing ovations Netsayi and her band received were more than well deserved, and my Banshee & I drove home filled with life and joy.
A Few Minutes With… Netsayi