Eight Days of Music in Cameroon: Part 1

Posted July 10th, 2015 at 5:06 pm (UTC-4)

IMG_1703 Last June I visited Cameroon for the first time.  My eight-day mission was twofold: Introduce new audiences to Music Time in Africa and other VOA African music programs, and share my brand of American vocal jazz with Cameroonians. Heather US EMbassy Highlights of my performances and workshops were well documented by the Cultural Affairs Office of the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde and local newspaper and radio stations. Yet the amazing display of musical talent and diversity that had unfolded before me each and every day, was robbed of its own deserved time to shine. In all of the hustle and bustle of returning back to my regular tempo of life and scheduled programs in Washington DC, most of my documentation of the Cameroon tour got placed on hold. So now’s the time to bring back to life my best photos, video, and music from the world of Cameroonian music as I lived it, even if only too briefly.

The thing that struck me the most about music in Cameroon was its spectacular diversity. After only eight days in two different cities, French-speaking Yaounde and English-speaking Buea, the music I encountered seemed to encompass all of sub-Saharan Africa. Cameroonians are aware of this too, as I was proudly told me time and time again “We have everything in Cameroon!”

Heather Sings YaoundeYaounde Jazz: My first scheduled performance in Yaounde was a short jazz set with a local quartet: keyboard, drums, bass, guitar. The gig was at a swank cabaret called Yao Bà. I forgot to take note of the names of the members of the quartet, unfortunately, so cannot identify them here, but they were tight. I arrived with my U.S. Embassy crew when they were already playing so we didn’t even get the chance to talk through a song list, keys, or arrangements. I took the stage, said Bonjour, and called the song and key to the first song, “All of Me” – G Major. Without delay, the guys just took it away with a nice intro that set me up nicely. Pas de problème. If I’d closed my eyes and listened to that performance, I could have guessed that those musicians were from anywhere in the world where jazz rules: Paris, New York, or Washington DC. That night I also met Manuel Wandji, a Franco-Cameroonian, world music artist who would be assisting me in Yaounde. Affectionately know as Wambo in Cameroon, Manuel made a smash hit with his song “C’est pas Facile” in 2005.

The lyrics to “C’est pas Facile” struck a chord in the hearts of Cameroonians. They tell a sad truth (life is hard) yet offer hope in strength and goodness of friendship.  It opens with “Often I tell myself, money’s not the only thing that can make me happy.” It goes on, “Too often I see friends ruin their friendship over a nice car, jewelry, or shoes. That is so gaou (loser)! If you’re not doing well tomorrow, you’ll be alone like an old macabo (Cameroonian fufu) . If you’re doing well, remember that a friend is the best gift ever.” The refrain, which is sung many times, sings “Give your heart in friendship, life isn’t easy. Know how to love without jealousy, oh, life isn’t easy.
Forgive and forget, my friend, life isn’t easy.” In the final refrain, Wambo changes the lyrics to invoke a positive national identity “We stick together! Listen, that is Cameroon: Solidarity!
Solidarity is not eating alone, solidarity is not eating and cruising alone.”

From Gospel to Hip Hop: On Tuesday I met some thirty local music professionals and artists at the Solomon Tande Muna Foundation. Muna Foundation logoI spoke about VOA’s African music programs and then, many of the artists performed for me live and sought  feedback and advice on how to improve their sound, make it marketable and radio-ready. Several gave me copies of their CDs and DVDs.  Among them were rappers, one reggae duo from Cote d’Ivoire, singer songwriters, one gospel singer, House DJs, and Afro pop artists. I was astonished at the diversity not only in music style and level of artistry, but in age as well. Muna Foundation Jam SessionPictured below is a jam session at Muna with several of the participants and Manual Wandji (far right).

A HipHop star named Big Joe, for example, gave me his single “Tchop et Yamo” which had just blown up all over the Cameroonian airwaves a few months before.

Since last year, Big Joe released a second single “Sirri Bi” and is working toward funding to make his first music video. In a recent phone interview, he explained the messages behind his songs. Both celebrate Cameroonian culture in food and hometown beauties. Listen to “Sirri Bi” on the link below or to the full interview featured on this Music Time in Africa radio show.

Aunty Clo was another colorful artist I met at the Muna Foundation. Heather and Anty CloShe gave me a DVD of her hit gospel song “Africa, Arise and Shine”. Included in the DVD packaging are the lyrics taken from the Christian scripture of Isaiah 60: 1-16 “adopted for Africa” on 12/21/2009.


Neo-soul singer songwriter Danielle Eog Makedah performed one song and presented me with her full CD Peace, Love & Light. Here’s track 1 “Dry My Tears.”


On Wednesday, now day 3 of my sejour in Cameroon, I made a 7:30 a.m. appearance on the daily TV show  “Hello!”, a live entertainment TV program on the state-owned Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV). Hello set w weathe man and choirThe show’s audience is around 100,000 viewers all over Cameroon, primarily Anglophone working-class adults. The show is a one-stop wonder of weather and news reporting, live infomercials, music entertainment and more. To the right is the news reporter (left) with the host, reading the news to Hello!’s audiences from the daily paper posted on the bulletin board and an acapella gospel choir awaiting their cue to perform. The choir was phenomenal. As “Hello!” is not scripted, we were invited to perform something together while the cameras were rolling. Heather and full choir 2I believe this song was “Amazing Grace.” The choir sang in flawless 4-part harmony. dancing 4The singers moved in a loosely choreographed style that added a beautiful visual component to the sound.  At the conclusion of our collaboration, the women enticed me (and the show host)  to try and match their moves. Amazing Grace has never felt so amazing as it did on the set of “Hello!” in Yaounde.

Later that day I met an assemblage of some thirty student members of dance and music groups at the University of Yaounde 1Manuel Wandji was with me who hadn’t stopped drawing crowds of excited fans since he joined me on Monday night. The students straggled in one by one and appeared to be most drawn toward the snacks and cold drinks at first. Manuel’s presence and the gradual realization that I was from the Voice of America eventually captured their attention. After the formal introductions, Manuel and I talked about singing and performed for them. They politely listened, but really started to show some energy once they started singing for us. Here is some video of this afternoon I put together. It shows the progression of their performance for us, beginning from their somewhat sleepy delivery of traditional choral songs to their more popular numbers with an electric band. The band must have gotten wind that Manuel would to be there because, among the popular tunes they did, they played “C’est Pas Facile.” The clip also shows Manuel joining the band on congas followed by a brief lesson with the drum student on the correct, original rhythm to the song.


During the workshop after this performance, the students expressed frustration at the lack of quality instruments and music instruction. None of them were studying music seriously or as a primary academic subject rather, they just get together and play informally when they have time. They perform concerts four to five times a year.

The Mvet: Thursday morning Manuel had arranged an interview with Pantaleon, the uncontested king of mvet. The mvet is a traditional 10-string instrument indigenous to the Eton people from the Central Region of Cameroon. Pantaleon had made the trip on motorcycle from his home in the village of Lekie. We met at the poolside of Mt. Febe Hotel where I was staying and with the help of Manuel’s camera skills we were able to capture Pantaleon’s presentation and performance. I have made this clip of that magical moment and translated the French with English subtitles. Watch and enjoy the music and stay tuned to the end of the clip if you want to learn about the mechanics of the construction and tuning of the mvet.


I have only presented four of my eight days of music in Cameroon but this post ends here. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where I’ll share my experiences in Buea, the capital of the English-speaking Southwest Region, and more from Yaounde.


Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Music Time in Africa Turns 50

Posted May 29th, 2015 at 1:08 pm (UTC-4)

Music Time in Africa: A Narrative Timeline of 50 Years on Air

The music radio program “Music Time in Africa” from the English to Africa Service of VOA celebrates its 50th Anniversary of broadcasting African music to Africa this month.

IMG_20150514_103603A Golden Anniversary of practically any kind is  generally a good reason for celebration. But in the context of radio, not to mention the music industry, a 50 year-old music show is little short of a miracle. Reflecting on its amazing longevity, and on what it takes to keep the show relevant to African audiences today, I’ve detected a little magic in Music Time in Africa.

1965: Leo’s Launch from Monrovia

In May of 1965 the first radio broadcast of Music Time in Africa rang out from VOA short-wave transmitters from Mamba Point, Liberia.Leo's First Recording The 30- minute, hosted radio show presented African music across the African continent in the English language.The program’s creator was Leo Sarkisian (born January 4, 1921). Leo collected original music and cultural information directly from the place and people who made it and used the material as content for his weekly broadcasts.  He recorded music himself, collected it from radio stations, and from listeners and local musicians.

1968-1978: The Early Broadcasts from Washington D.C.

In 1968, the VOA Program Center in Monrovia closed. Everyone moved back to Washington, D.C. including Leo who became the VOA Music Director of the Africa Division. In 1969, he added co-host Sue Moran who delivered a scripted text that greeted African listeners and cushioned each selection of music with a pleasant, mid-western voice. Leo would often come on air in the middle of the show having “just gotten back” from another African country or region. He would introduce the newest thing he’d just recorded or acquired from a national radio station. Listen to the excerpt below from a 1973 broadcast:

Leo Sarkisian gradually built an empire of Music Time in Africa, feeding it with yearly months-long trips to Africa where he would record and acquire more music. He set up a library to house the vinyl and bulky reel-to-reel recordings and worked there splicing tape, writing weekly scripts, conducting research, preparing Africa tours, and corresponding with his ever-growing fan base.NEW ONE

1978-2004: Leo and Rita

In 1978, Leo recruited Rita Rochelle Hunt to co-host Music Time in Africa. He then applied his artistic and promotional talents to develop a powerful marketing campaign for the radio show. “Pictures of Rita, Rita on VOA Music Time in Africa annual calendars, and her name and Leo’s became household names throughout Africa”, writes Mary Sarkisian in her unpublished memoir “…The Last Three Feet: Life and Travels of Mary & Leo Sarkisian.”


During most of the 1980s, Leo and Rita toured many Africa countries together, promoting the show and collecting African music. The team lasted twenty five years. On air and off, Leo used his emcee and sound engineering skills during these tours to connect with local audiences. His reputation as “Leo the Music Man” skyrocketed as did requests by American embassies to invite him for appearances, talks, and presentations on African music and art.sarkisian9.doc An accomplished artist as well, he attracted audiences of all kinds through art workshops and exhibits.sarkisian3.doc In 2004, Leo semi-retired at age 83. He and his wife devoted every weekend to correspondence with listeners. Leo continued to write newsletters, make calendars, build his mailing list and answer fan mail. “I’m limited by VOA budgetary constraints to mailing a maximum of 500 responses per month,” he said in one interview.

2005-2011: Transition and Expansion

Rita Rochelle left VOA in 2005 and Music Time in Africa came under the direction of ethnomusicologist Matthew Lavoie. At the same time, VOA appointed Sonya Lawrence-Greene (pictured below) as the new English to Africa (E2A) service chief.  Sonya Leo & MaryRecognizing the power of music in attracting young African audiences, Greene initiated a new era of expanded music programming within the Service. In addition to Music Time in Africa, Greene added three more music shows to E2A streams: African Music Mix, African Beat, and Hip Hop Connection. Additional play times were also increased for Music Time in Africa and the new programs.

Matthew Lavoie’s seven-year tenure as the new Music Man brought two exciting changes to the program. First, he created a blog called African Music Treasures, featuring rare recordings from Leo’s library and new music acquired during Matthew’s own trips to Africa and Europe. MLBlog CassetteML 43 Vinyl

The blog functioned as a type of open forum on older music that invited readers to listen directly to the songs on embedded links and then comment on them. In a post, he published “Lost Liberian 45s from the 1960s“, for example, Matthew featured several 45s on vinyl that post elicited 13 responses from readers that contributed further to the history and understanding of the music. Below is one such comment posted on August 17, 2011 by a Mr. Earl Burrowes:

“A belated thanks for sharing some of Leo’s amazing recordings. I interned with him in 1963 at the VOA recording studio – then located across the street from the US Embassy – and to this day remember him very fondly. He was also an amazing artist and when I completed my internship he did a sketch (cartoon) for me that I treasure till this day, It’s a cut-away of the office building showing him (Leo) turning up the volume on a speaker that is vibrating the office above him when his boss (Noon) is rattled reading a quivering newspaper. True Leo sense of humor.

By the way, In the first recording of Melody 8 (Amore in Twist) I hear John Feweh Sherman on the guitar. John, who later became Minister of Commerce Industry and Transportation, and I were college classmates and he played for Melody 8 regularly to supplement his family income. He was executed by the military junta on April 22, 1980.

ML reel cover









The second change Matthew brought to Music Time was that he lengthened its running time from thirty to sixty minutes.

Leo continued to work weekends as a contractor responding to fan mail and sending newsletters, calendars, and program guides to 500 individual addresses per month. He and Matthew called themselves the “A Team”.

2012-Present: Today with Heather Maxwell 

In 2012, I joined the VOA to take the helm as host and producer of Music Time in Africa. In the past three years, I’ve also made a few changes as well as preserved some traditions of our beloved program. As for the changes, the three most significant are social media, television, and digital. Since I came on board, Music Time now enjoys an active presence on Soundcloud, Facebook , Twitter, and YouTube.

Today, listeners from all over Africa engage with Music Time by watching, listening, and writing via these multi-media platforms. Messages, posts, comments and tweets now constitute the majority of our fan mail. Musicians send videos and sound files of their own music for consideration, as well.

Listen below to a 2015 Music Time in Africa radio show from Soundcloud.

Here’s one recent testimonial from a Nigerian listener I received by email:

Hello My Dear Heather,

Warmest greetings from your friend and regular listener, Olufemi Ojumu, at the Ondo State Radiovision Corporation, Akure City in Nigeria. Its easier now to monitor your beautiful programmes on VOA live streaming with my Android phone and Laptop. Please keep up the good job you are doing in making Africa a place of pride. A Nigerian adage says, “If a child is able to appreciate what you gave him yesterday, he automatically gets another gift today.” Allow me to thank you for the 2013/2014 VOA Calendar sent to me last year. Kindly remember to send 4 copies of the 2015 calendar to me as this year winds up.
My regards to David Vandy on the African Beat, and Leo Sarkisian who retired but is never tired.

God bless Nigeria. God bless America.

Mr. Olufemi Ojumu,
Akure City,

Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android.

The blog also has a new twist. Moving away from its original, historical angle, today it showcases live performances and stories of living artists.

Jomion and the Uklos in Studio 4 for Music Time in Africa with Heather Maxwell. May 24th 2013 at the Voice of America, Washington D.C.

Jomion and the Uklos in Studio 4 for Music Time in Africa with Heather Maxwell. May 24th 2013 at the Voice of America, Washington D.C.










The new blog also features stories of my own Africa tours where I continue the tradition of acquiring new and rare music for programming and, like Leo, giving appearances, presentations and talks upon requests by American embassies. My Music Time talent (outside of hosting and producing the radio show) is singing. This excerpt was filmed in Nyundo, Rwanda in May, 2014 during one such tour. We’re singing “Malaika”by Fadhili William Mdawida.


Another big change in Music Time in Africa today is television. Since 2015, Music Time in Africa presents on the VOA music series Music Alley (see below) and Africa 54 on Fridays.


The third major development of Music Time today is the preserving and digitizing of the Sarkisian Collection. In 2013, the Library of Congress inducted Music Time in Africa radio shows into the National Registry of Recorded Sound. In 2015, Leo’s collection of African music was moved to the University of Michigan to undergo long-term curating and digitizing.

Leo Goes Home

In the same year Leo turned in his official Voice of America badge for the very last time, and retired (again) at age 91. Within three months of his collection’s departure for Ann Arbor, Leo and wife Mary departed from their Maryland home of 44 years to settle back home in their native state of Massachusetts. Listen here as Leo describes his feelings about retiring and going home:

Leo and Mary kissMuch has already been written about the living legend and founder of Music Time in Africa, Leo Sarkisian. For more information, a scroll through this blog takes you to several accounts of his earliest years recording and collecting music in Africa with his wife, Mary. A Google search can take you to a Wikipedia entry, a front page article in the Washington Post, a full-length story on PRI, and other numerous TV features.


Looking Ahead

Times have changed many aspects of the beloved Music Time in Africa since Mambo Point, Monrovia, 1965, but history has shown that we know how to roll with the times. What will we sound and look like in 2065? It’s anyone’s guess but my bet lies somewhere in the heart of elder Leo’s favorite African proverb: When door open, go in.






Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Sounds from Southern Morocco: Festival Taragalte

Posted February 27th, 2015 at 2:54 pm (UTC-4)


The main entrance to Taragalte Festival’s small stage and artist residences.


Some local guys stopping by to check out the scene.

In late January, I traveled to the edge of the Sahara Desert in Morocco to participate in an African music festival called Festival Taragalte. It took place in the dunes just outside the dusty oasis town of M’Hamid El Ghizlane or “Town of the Gazelles.” It was the Door of the Sahara or “Porte du Sahara” where the great, trans-Saharan caravans from Timbuktu and other desert regions came to exchange gold, slaves, ostrich feathers, and ivory for North African manufactured items like dates, clothes, and Arabic manuscripts. Taragalte is the old name for the city. The Taragalte Festival is modeled after the town’s traditional festival (moussem) that used to celebrate the end of the date season and long journeys of the caravans. The moussem, almost extinct today in the region, was celebrated annually with music and dance, song, poetry and other oral traditions.

It brought together all of the region’s diverse tribes, local populations, merchants and caravaners in the spirit of goodwill and prosperity. The Taragalte Festival, now in its 6th year, seeks to restore the moussem with a new focus on music of trans-Saharan nomads.  Here’s a glimpse of the official opening as I filmed it, prefaced with a roadside peek at the Draa Valley as we drove down to M’Hamid from Ouarzazate.

The performers above are nomadic folk troupes from the region performing traditional Berber and gnawa (gnaoua) music and dances:  the ahidous, rokba, ganga and chamra. The electric rock band on stage is also a local group called “Generation Taragalte”.


From left: Jacky Canton Lamousse, Issa Dicko (cultural promoter or Tuareg culture and specialist in Tifinagh), Heather Maxwell (Voice of America), Halim Sbai (Co-Founder/Director Taragalte Festival), Cheikna Sambakessi (Festival sur le Niger), Mani Ansar (Director Festival au Desert), Ibrahim S’bai (Co-Founder/Director Taragalte Festival.


Checking my levels (with bare arms!) with Radio-Africa.com Host, Mory Toure.

A second objective of the festival is to “not ignore the African roots” of Morocco. Festival co-director and founder Halim Sbai told me that his grandfather was from Mali. “We Moroccans forget that many of us have Malian ancestry, ” he said, “A healthy tree begins with healthy roots.” Taragalte Festival nourishes these roots by flushing new life into the moussem of M’Hamid, boosting the local economy, and engaging cross-cultural dialogue. This last point is what brought me to this festival. I was invited to participate in a conference (pictured above) on “Culture as an Agent of Development and Reconciliation.” Each of us on the panel talked freely in Berber, French and English to a mixed audience of Sahelians from Morocco, Algeria, Mali, Tunisia and some Western tourists and reporters. My favorite music groups (pictured below) were: Daraa Tribes, a local up-and-coming rock group from Tagounit with an American Peace Corps Volunteer as acting manager;


Daraa Tribes:Thomas “Mustafa” Duncan, Rachid (lead guitar), Mustapha (rhythm guitar), Abdul Kabir (bass), Bizhar (drums/jembe).

Univ of Gnawa adn MeJPG

University of Gnawa: John Kankan (drums) Adhil Mirghani , Alioune Wade (vocals/bass), (Heather Maxwell), Aziz Sahmaoui (vocals, Gimbri), Guimba (guitar).

University of Gnawa, a gnawa fusion band led by singer Aziz Sahmaoui; and Ben Zabo, a modern-traditional dance band from Mali.

Ben Zabo1

Ben Zabo, lead vocalist/guitarist of Ben Zabo.







Here are a few video clips from their live performances Saturday and Sunday, beginning with Ben Zabo.  Enjoy!


From the Main Stage on closing night of Festival Taragalte 2015 with Ben Zabo, the clip below featuring a solo peformance of Aziz Sahmaoui was filmed on the quiet dunes of M’Hamid Elghizlane earlier that day.


My thanks go out to Robert Drey for the invitation to participate at Festival Taragalte, to film-maker Pierre Mick with In-Ze BOX and to all my new friends and fellows in music. Taragalte pass

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Music Today in Malawi

Posted December 2nd, 2014 at 12:00 pm (UTC-4)
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I landed in Lilongwe, Malawi on October 9th, 2014. My mission: to learn more about the country’s music. The energy of Lilongwe was entirely different than in Johannesburg or Capetown, South Africa where I had just been the week earlier. Here, things moved at a slower, more relaxed pace. Day and night, joyous voices of nearby church choirs wafted through my windows. I discovered sweet songs sung in four-part harmony, soft acoustic guitar melodies, and to electric dance beats with wholesome good fun lyrics.


Music shop with cassettes in background. Lilongwe, Malawi 10/10/14

I was surprised to find a music shop in the city center that still sold cassettes. In fact most of music items available there were cassettes, followed by CDs and some DVDs as well (image left).


DVD music by Symon & Kendall, purchased at shopping mall. Lilongwe, Malawi 10/10/14

The most popular genre by far was Gospel music. But in popular music, the Lilongwe based duo Symon & Kendall were the staff’s number #1 pick. Popularly known as the Nyembaynemba Boys, this duo produces only DVDs of their music and their videos usually feature village-wide involvement.

Their most popular clip to date is “Nkhwikoa’ released in December 2012 (image right). According to Malawian music blogger Gregory Gondwe, the title track is about the esophagus. “Imagine!” he writes, “You might think there is a serious message to this, but nope, as the track merely tells the esophagus to get ready as it will experience better food passing through it down into the stomach.”

Here is “Nkhwikoa”. What’s great about this clip is that it captures moments of everyday life in Malawi with a twist of humor. The quality of the video and sound is also excellent.


Music Crossroads musicians and Director Gayighayi Mathews Mfune (second to right, back row). 10/11/13


The highlight of my stay in Lilongwe was on Saturday morning when I visited Music Crossroads – Malawi (MCM). It is one of five centers for music training and production in southern Africa; the others being in Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania. I arrived at the Center to find a well-organized group of young musicians waiting to greet me and to share their talents. Each one gave me their music on CD and a short performance that I filmed on the spot.

Some had professional CDs to offer while IMG_8885others had only rough mixes. During a brief interview, they told me why MCM was important to them. George Kalukusha comes because it offers a great sense of community and a place to meet like-minded people and share ideas. He’s currently working on a song called “Good Blood” about a girl living with HIV/AIDS and the struggles she goes through.


IMG_8894Neil Nayar is an English singer songwriter who came to Malawi two years ago to be here at MCM. He heard about MCM musicians playing in Malawian youth prisons. After arriving he did that for nine months and from there, has been developing his own music style with local bands that he calls Afro-country fusion. “Country music is really popular here. Since I arrived as a foreigner not knowing any local language, the one style that carried me through in the beginning was country because people really love country.” The still photos in Neil’s clip are shots I took of the city and surrounding areas.


IMG_8893Lackson Duncan Chazima is a singer and teaches voice and music theory at MCM Academy. He likes it here because so many “big” musicians from Malawi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even West Africa countries converge here and share knowledge and repertoires. He says he learns a lot just being around them.



IMG_8887Last but not least is singer songwriter, Ernest Ikwanga. He says he’s grown up at Music Crossroads – Malawi. He’s been coming since age seventeen. “It has been and still is my home”, he says. He just finished his theory classes and recently opened up his own home studio in Lilongwe.


There are also other musicians and singers who contribute to the diversity and positive energy of the place. Thanks to all of them, and to Director Mathews Mfune and Music Crossroads International Director, Joe Herman.

Music Today in Malawi is developing and several of the Music Crossroads artists told me that they were searching to find Malawi’s music identity. They have a few models to look to for direction such as Fikisa, Wambali Mkandawire, and Symon & Kendall, but  they are already well on their way.




Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

The Dust and Sheen of South African Hip Hop

Posted October 22nd, 2014 at 9:47 am (UTC-4)
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IMG_8603When I first heard the current hit South African song “Caracara” I knew I wanted to meet this crew. If there’s a winning recipe for feeling good, at least for 3:52 seconds, “Caracara” is it. The lazy, urban tempo, the sexy flow, and simple catchy hook is infectious.

One listen drove me straight to Youtube searching for the video. Ishkanda artist K.O and his crew, Cashtime Tsosti for Life, did not disappoint. “Caracara” is the local name for the Volkswagen minibus theme in the video and symbolic of good ghetto party time with beautiful women.

I went to Johannesburg and met up with the K.O, Kid X and the rest of the crew on October 2nd and we’ll meet them in a moment. But first, check out the video now if you haven’t seen it yet.

Caracara was shot in Soweto, the nation’s largest black urban township in Johannesburg and famously trendsetting place for politics, fashion, language, and music and dance.


So when I arrived in Johannesburg I’d already made arrangements with CashtimeLife’s CEO, Thabiso Khati, to meet with the whole crew.

We arrived thirty minutes late, due to an over-casual local fixer, but the crew were courteously waiting for me in a conference room of a high-end business campus; So much for the stereotypeIMG_8601

of the irresponsible and undisciplined musician.  After brief introductions and an awkward gift-giving moment (when I presented them VOA tee- shirts that didn’t exactly excite their dust-and-sheen stylistic sensibilities) we went outside for a quick photo/video shoot.

We settled by the pond and here in order of appearance I present DJ Vigilante, Ma-E aka Easy Does It, Kid X, Maggz, K.O aka Mr. Cashtime.

The CEO of CashtimeLife Thabiso Khati runs the company of artists as individual business units. Each artist, including one female who unfortunately could not make today’s interview, approaches his and her own art as a business. Thabiso encourages them to take ownership of their own units and equips them with their own team of booking managers, marketers, and marketing strategists to bring out the best the unique talents of each artist.

casthime feetCashtimeLife is only one year old, but two of its core members, MaE and KO, came over from an older crew called Cashtime Entertainment that has won several awards including a nomination for Best Group at the 2010 MTV Africa Awards. They are young but not newcomers. Furthermore, says Khati, most of the members have university degrees so he feels like they can’t go wrong. They don’t think that it’s cool to drop out of school. Instead, they are banking on their education to be the tool that turns their music into money. “We’ve got to monetize and capitalize,” says Khati. “We understand where the world is going so we’re playing in technology. We’ve launched our own digital platform where you can buy music. We actually aggregate content for other labels as well…We have merchandise…” Thabiso

Khati considers the longevity of an artist’s career. “It’s cool to be an artist but there comes a time when you just want to do one or two shows a year. You don’t want to be out on the road. Maybe guys settle, they’ve got families. But you also want to make sure that they settle into a day job that’s still within what they love and that they have ownership of that… the only pension is to create opportunities for guys to keep earning when they stop making music.

One big question I had for Khati was about the style of Hip Hop they call Skhanda. He defined it very nicely. “You take dust, you take sheen, you put them together and that’s bling.” Khati continued to explain Skhanda in historical context. “South Africa is split in two. The sections that aspire to be first world and you got third-world elements which are in the majority.

“We come from the third world elements. We come from the townships.”

He goes on to explain that growing up in the townships, they would acquire hand-me-downs and make the best of them by turning them into creative styles. But since 1994, more and more young people are growing up in an expanding suburban, black middle class who are Hip Hop’s number one consumers. They live in what we call the sheen. We come from the dust. So now, we take certain elements from where we come from… you see guys in Jordans, in gold chains…” I interrupted him to get one of the crew to demonstrate:


Skhanda is not only a style of dress that has changed the way kids dress, and music (of course) but it’s also a style of talk. It surprised Thabiso Khati recently to see that the kind of slang which CashtimeLife created amongst themselves as a crew is now everywhere on Twitter. For Khati and the crew, however, Skhanda is their opportunity to monetize and capitalize. He mentions their tee-shirt line, sock line and a new merchandising deal in the works. “It’s beyond music,” he says, “It’s how you take music and apply it to everyday life.”

We wrap up the interview with Khati repeating a point he’d brought up earlier about the importance of education. “Nelson Mandela said it best: The only way to come out of poverty is via education.

“We gotta teach that and preach that and show that education is not square.” Khati emphasizes that they come from the townships. He is from Meadowlands, in particular, and is a scholarship kid, so they are all cases-in-point that anyone can be whatever they want to be regardless of where they come from.


As for what’s next for CashtimeLife, Khati says “Music awards are great and nice, but it’s not what we work for. For me, the guys, and the whole crew, It’s being able to push the culture forward. Being able to do what’s never expected. And while doing that, the centerpiece is great music.”





Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Jazz in Johannesburg

Posted October 5th, 2014 at 4:03 pm (UTC-4)
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IMG_8598I arrived in Jozi late Tuesday afternoon September 30th, stiff and exhausted from the fifteen-hour flight. But after a good night’s sleep and fresh morning coffee, I was ready to discover the music of the city and, oh how I did. By around 9:00 p.m. that evening I was watching these cats pictured above, mesmerized by their dazzling performance.

Earlier that morning I visited Kaya FM 95.5 Kaya FMto meet Nicky B, the venerable host of the weekly radio program, the World Show.  Nicky and I hung out in her studio sharing stories about African music and favorite artists, and she tuned me in to what’s current in the Johannesburg music scene.

Nicky B wall photo

Nicky B and Me in Studio

One of her leads led me to the live concert later that evening at The Orbit – Jazz Club & Bistro. The trio was one of the most exciting performances I’ve seen in years. Three musicians I’d never heard of but will not ever forget are Kesivan Naidoo – drums, Shane Cooper – double bass, and Kyle Shepherd – piano. Wow!

The concert was Kesivan’s release party for his band’s new CD Brotherhood. But for some reason that I can’t remember now, Kesivan didn’t actually have available copies yet. Still in production, I think. The trio outfit from the 6-piece band Kesvian and the Lights played original pieces composed by each one and featured the new ones from Kesivan’s Brotherhood CD. The arrangements were tight, original and impeccably executed. Yet, there was plenty of open, easy room for each artist to stretch out and show us exactly why they are considered South Africa’s hottest new jazzmen from the Cape today. Here’s a sample of the show:



I spoke with all three of them after the gig. They said this was their first performance as a trio. Soon they and the rest of the The Lights are on their way to the U.S. for the Carnegie Hall festival of South African Music that runs from October 8th to November 5th, 2014. Stay tuned for more from Kesivan and the Lights right here on my blog and youtube channels as well. After New York, they are headed to Washington DC and Kesivan promised to stop in at VOA for an interview.

IMG_8703During the break, I wandered down to the entrance of Orbit where a delightful first-year vocal jazz student was taking the door money and selling CDs of artists that perform at the venue. They included the most recent of Kesivan, Shane, and Kyle and several others. IMG_8709



Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Kenya’s Jabali Africa Performs “Percussion Discussion” and More – Studio 4

Posted August 25th, 2014 at 8:28 pm (UTC-4)

Before I left for Central Africa in May and June, I had the opportunity to invite a local, Washington- area Kenyan band for a music interview here at VOA headquarters. They are called Jabali Africa or The Rock of Africa. Check out this great interview and music, including an amazing instrumental piece aptly titled “Percussion Discussion” led by Joseck Asikoye.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Music Time in Rwanda – Nyundo and Rubavu

Posted July 11th, 2014 at 3:08 pm (UTC-4)


When I first arrived in Rwanda it was already dark. Ben and Mugabo from the U.S. embassy met me at the gate and swiftly checked me into a hotel. After the 16-hour flight from Washington, D.C. it didn’t take long before I was fast asleep. The next morning at dawn’s first light, I re-packed my suitcases and checked right back out to drive to Gisenyi in the Western Province. My first and only full day in Rwanda would take place in that region before returning to Kigali for the rest of the tour.


From left to right, Joey Blake, Ibrahim Tam-Fum, Ben Ngabo, Sam Mugisha, Heather Maxwell, Jaques Murigande, and Honore Iyakaremye. School of Arts and Music – Nyundo, Rwanda 5/28/2014

Ben and Mugabo already waiting for me in the lobby at 7:15 a.m., plus two of the musicians that would be my band for the next 4 days: a local, five-piece, jazz outfit.


School of Arts and Music. Nyundo, Rwanda

The trip to Gisenyi took about three hours. We traveled northwest and round and round up steep, green hills. I understood immediately how Rwanda got it’s name “land of thousand hills.” The countryside was breathtakingly beautiful and the towns and farms appeared well-organized. By the time we arrived at those high altitudes, though, I had a whopping headache.

Destination #1 was the School of Arts and Music (SAM), formerly known as Rwanda’s premier art school, Nyundo School of Art. It was established in 1952. When we arrived classes were in session. I met the three music teachers Ben Ngabo (drums/voice), Honore Iyakaremye (keys), and the Music Head, Jacques Murigande (guitar/voice), popularly known as Mighty Popo. These guys were also the other remaining members of my Rwandan band. They quickly introduced me to their students and welcomed me with two well-rehearsed choral pieces.


Art students at work


Art students at work


Popo (Jacques Murigande) introduces me to his music students


SAM’s first class of music students singing recently learned choral music.


Paying a special nod to the female music students







After the introductions Popo and went to a rendez- vous with the station manager of Rubavu Community  Radio, Steven Kalisa, at the station in Rubavu. We met Steven, took a tour of the station, and talked about African music on the radio.




After a quick lunch, it was time for the band’s rehearsal and sound check. We had a performance that night at the Catholic preparatory seminary school, le Petit Seminaire, in Nyundo. Thousands of young men and some women attended, including the music students from SAM. I performed my classic repertory of jazz (Autumn Leaves, All of Me, Girl From Ipanema, etc.). They were an attentive and receptive audience. The audience really came alive when I called some of the SAM singers and dancers up on stage to join me in two classic African songs. Here’s a clip of the event.


Not bad for Day 1 in Rwanda. The band and I just clicked and this debut performance was one of many more great concerts, workshops, and musical exchanges to come over the next few days. Stay tuned for the next post in this series for more Music Time in Rwanda.



Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

Pantaleon Playing Mvet – Direct from Yaounde

Posted June 25th, 2014 at 7:18 pm (UTC-4)

I recently returned from an exciting music tour in Rwanda and Cameroon. I brought back fantastic music cds and audiovisual field recordings of time spent performing and work-shopping with local artists, students, and broadcast journalists. Pantaleon and Heather

This short clip features a traditional poet musician from the Eton-speaking region of Cameroon. His name is Pantaleon and he plays a multi-gourded string instrument known as the mvet.  He sings in Eton. We met poolside at the Hotel Mt. Febe which overlooks the sprawling city of Yaounde.

Pantaleon said he uses the first song to say goodbye to a rude host, particularly one who invites he and other musicians to play but refuses to offer them good food or drink. He sings to the host as he leaves, “This wounded heart will never heal.”

In addition to my new music and field recordings from Central Africa, I also brought back that mvet with the hopes of composing (and tuning) my own songs.  Thanks, Pantaleon. Special thanks also to musical artist Manuel Wandji (aka Wambo) and to Jonathon Koehler and Olivia Mukam from the U.S. Embassy – Yaounde.

Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

A Concert for Willis

Posted May 22nd, 2014 at 2:44 pm (UTC-4)

On Tuesday April 29th, the sounds of live jazz rang out in the Voice of America auditorium.  A concert was held to celebrate a studio dedication in honor of our own legendary Jazz producer and broadcaster Willis Conover. Jazz PosterSMALLfile2014

Two groups were featured, the U.S. Navy Band Commodores and yours truly, Heather Maxwell and my trio. The video clip below features our performance and is introduced by VOA Music Director Eric Felton, an accomplished jazz musician himself.

Russian bassist, Victor Dvoskin opens our set with a powerful personal narrative about his special relationship to Willis followed by the instrumental “Just Squeeze Me.” Robert Jospé is on drums and Bob Hallahan on keys. I then join the guys to sing “Autumn Leaves”, “Cry Me A River”, “Girl From Ipanema”, and “Body and Soul”.


It felt fabulous singing on this occasion for my fellow VOA colleagues and with my cats. I regularly gigged and toured with them in Virginia from 2006-2010. As a true American art form, jazz is a historic and living treasure.


VOA Director, David Ensor – Willis Conover Studio Dedication Ceremony and Tribute Concert. 4-29-14.

After our performance, we heard from our esteemed Director David Ensor and then watched this VOA documentary produced especially for the occasion.  It tells the story of how Willis Conover’s daily VOA broadcast “Jazz Hour” was the driving force behind the explosion of jazz worldwide. For many, Conover’s American jazz was the only exposure to music from the West. It was especially meaningful for those like Victor Dvoskin who tuned in from from his basement behind the Iron Curtain.




The U.S. Navy Band Commodores – Willis Conover Studio Dedication Ceremony and Tribute Concert. 4-29-14.

The U.S. Navy Band Commodores played the afternoon out with a swinging set of big band favorites including the Duke Ellington tune “A Train”. The day of the concert April 29th also celebrated the Duke’s birthday.

As a final note, although this concert for Willis sounded little to nothing like African music, it’s no secret that the deepest ancestral roots of jazz are originally West African. Syncopated beats, cross rhythms, call and response, and improvisation are musical proof of this kinship. “Jazz Hour” surely helped repatriate jazz back to it’s West African homelands which, in turn, spurred new innovative forms of mid-twentieth century music like Afrocuban, Congolese Rumba, Hi-life, and Afrobeat. Today, these styles are African classics and fodder for today’s artists to continue jazz’s evolution.


Heather Maxwell
Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award winning radio program "Music Time in Africa" and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with a Ph.D. from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.



Heather Maxwell produces and hosts the award-winning radio program “Music Time in Africa” and is the African Music Editor for the Voice of America. Heather is an ethnomusicologist with Doctorate and Master’s degrees from Indiana University specializing in African Music. She is also an accomplished jazz and Afrojazz/Afrosoul vocalist and has been working, researching, and performing in Africa and the U.S. since 1987.

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