When Afro-Jazz is the call, African Jazz is the response: A Dialogue With Xisseve Langa
Xixel (Xisseve Janett Hortêncio Ernesto Langa) started her artistic career at a very young age, principally with traditional Mozambican dance. She developed her singing skills and started to perform for many different groups, such as Timbila Muzimba, Kapa Dech, and a reggae band called Mighty Vibration. She began her solo career at 19 years old and was soon nationally awarded ”Best New Talent” in 2004 and ”Best Voice” in 2005.
In 2006, she was invited to work with the great Afro-Jazz band Tucan Tucan in Cape Town, South Africa, where she met the group Manding Kan, with Ladji Kanté and many others. Xixel has since performed all over the world, including India in 2011, Germany in 2015, France in 2016, and Zimbabwe in 2017. In late 2016, her debut solo album “Inside Me” was completed and the following year it was released to critical acclaim. Xixel has since returned to her hometown of Maputo, Mozambique and formed a new jazz group called Kahora Bassa.
BY NAFEESAH ALLEN
I met Mozambican singer/songwriter Xisseve Langa or, simply, Xixel in April 2014, three years before this April 2017 interview. I was new to Maputo and was accompanying a visiting band to play at the now defunct music venue Mafalala Libre. Xixel comfortably mingled with the early birds, while my team set up the space. And when the performance started, her engagement with the music was visible. She and I (as well as a young, backpack-wearing freestyle rapper) were the only women in the crowd. Xixel and I spoke briefly and exchanged numbers. I saw her and Isabel Novella perform live shortly thereafter. And a week later, I got a text from Xixel that read something along the lines of “I just want to give what I have to the world. All I have is music.” And just like that, she vanished. It would be a year before I would see her again at another staple of the Maputo music scene, Gil Vicente. She was about 8 months pregnant, waddling alongside her husband. This time I told her I’d keep in better touch. It would be months of “hope you’re doing well,” texts that would escalate to “when are we getting together?” messages and finally we marked a date in late 2016.
The 2016 Xixel I sat down with for this interview had become a wife and mother, twice over. Over our many subsequent coffee dates and girl talk sessions, I learned a lot about Xisseve Langa, the writer, the daughter, the young mother, the vulnerable woman, behind the music of Xixel. Her new family roles gave her sea legs, but her music was an anchor. Being born into a well-established family of local musical legends was once a frustrating curse for Xisseve. Only recently has Xixel accepted it as a blessing. Since “accepting the spirit,” as she called it, she has also accepted the great responsibility of spreading her version of Afro-jazz to the world.
Our conversation charts my curiosities into her childhood, the early development of her career in South Africa, as well as her growing family. These intimate glimpses into her past and present, show just how strong Xixel believes that her career is a calling. The inheritance of music, passed down from generation to generation, is finally at her mantle. Much like a griot or sangoma, she takes the responsibility of crafting her words very seriously. She not only thinks of those in her bloodline who have handed her this legacy, but she gives musical voice to the regional connection among southern Africans and the spiritual connection amongst people of African descent around the globe. In the African tradition of call and response, she sees her music as a Mozambican response to the call of jazz from the Americas.
Shortly after her first album “Inside Me” was released in the beginning of 2017, Xixel took the stage at Mozambique’s Azgo festival and quickly started a slate of international shows that have kept her busy well into this year. She has dubbed her music “Pop-Afro-Jazz.” We both agree that what she does is both modern and traditional. Her album transcends genre and language. And remains authentically Mozambican. This brief interview [in English translation] gives a glimpse into the three decades of life, inspiration, and spirituality that gave rise to Xixel’s debut album “Inside Me.”
The interview presented here began as an informal conversation between friends. Over lunch at Sagres restaurant overlooking the Maputo bay.
Xixel: My life has been a complicated life, but the music made it uncomplicated. In this country, where we live, everything is complicated. But, when we have music in our blood and it is already in your family, things can change. We turn our attention to music and it does our soul so much good that it distracts us from the difficulties of life. It is well known that here in Mozambique, musicians have a very difficult life. People think it is almost impossible to make a living from music.
I was inspired by father [Hortêncio Langa] and my uncles. My uncle, Milagre Langa, was with Orquestra Marrabenta. Pedro Langa, my uncle, was part of the group that founded Ghorowane. And my father, even now, is still a great musician. I have had great examples in them and their friends, like Stewart Sukuma, José Guimaraes, Elvira e Pacha Viegas, among others. There are so many.
I grew up in Maputo city, in a nice area – Bairro da Polana B. And I grew up with these kind of people with other lifestyles and full of very pleasant surprises. People were very interested in music and they attached themselves to us because of the music. Some learned to play the guitar with us, others drums. It was a very interesting lifestyle. I wonder had we lived outside of town if we could have had those opportunities.
Nafeesah: But your family is not from Maputo?
Xixel: My father is from Manjacaze in Gaza, but he came to Maputo for his studies. His father was also a nurse. It’s this thing where families transferred jobs and cities. Parents went with their children. Also, the children who were already grown had to go into the army. In this whole process, my father got to know my mother. My mother was a dancer. She danced a lot and liked to sing. Her name was Yolanda Tajú. She grew up in Maputo in the suburban areas and a bit in the city. She and her sisters were the queens of marrabenta. What influenced me at home, yes, it was marrabenta – smooth Mozambican music. But it was a mix. Also jazz influenced me – like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, etc.
Nafeesah: How did these jazz musicians enter your experience here? As outsiders, we think Mozambique was so closed and that it would be impossible for international musicians to be heard here.
Xixel: Yes, it was true, you would never imagine it. But, it came into my house, because there were people who were studying abroad and who had jobs where they shared different styles of music. And people started falling in love with jazz and started recording it. So, that’s how it came into my home.
But, as a child I did not want to know about music at all. I was traumatized by the way that musicians suffered through life. They were very frustrated. Yet, my father taught me that we can not live our lives frustrated. That’s why he was one of the founders of the Mozambican Musicians’ Association. He wanted to give another perspective to music. He wanted to show that music is not just for people who have no other life path or for ignorant people, who we would call “molwenes” [vagabonds].
Mozambique is full of artists and artists are incredibly valuable. Maybe that annoys some people, because an artist is free. The best thing about being an artist is the freedom. And some people do not agree with this. They ask why the artist is not formalized, trained, indoctrinated like the others. Why don’t artists wear a uniform? An artist does not work that way. The artist wants his hair the way he wants it. She wants to dance the way she wants. He wants to sing the way he wants. An artist sees how society is and sings their own way. Other people do not have the courage to say it straight, to critique. So, people make an artist’s life hard, to avoid certain kinds of uncomfortable situations. The artist can create a revolution.
“Mozambique is full of artists and artists are incredibly valuable. Maybe that annoys some people, because an artist is free. The best thing about being an artist is the freedom.“
Nafeesah: So, when did Xixel decide to accept music?
Xixel: It was not about accepting the music. It was about accepting the spirit of music that was all around my home. That spirit came and came to stay. I had no way to escape. I realized I was stuck and could not get out.
As of now, I have been singing for 20 years and I have been a soloist for 15 years. It all started at age 14. Until age14, though, I went to school. I wanted to study and be someone. This was what my father taught me and this is what had to happen. I had never failed a class. I was one of the most intelligent girls in the classroom, but when I reached the age of 14, I started to lose my way. I wanted to be a molwene too. My siblings had this problem. Then, it was my turn. But my father knew it was coming. I have two older brothers. I am the youngest. My siblings had also stopped going to school and they followed music. I thought I would be different.
I started doing dreadlocks. I think that was the first indication that I was changing. My father cut my hair. I was sunbathing on the veranda at home. He came with scissors and said, “what is this? You are not doing this. You are not going this way!”
He was also an artist, but there was just such a negative reputation. Life is already hard. The life of an artist is harder. He wanted us to be engineers, lawyers, etc.
In our case, it was a spiritual calling. We had no choice but to follow the music. We really stopped studying. It was extreme. When music took over, we had no time for anything. We were absorbed in the music. We immersed ourselves in it. Since we committed to music, we have never looked back. One of my brothers has a Bachelor’s degree in music and he teaches music.
Nafeesah: With the house you were in, with all that music, of course it would inspire you.
Xixel: I do not think my father realized that. There are lawyers who have a huge library at home, but their kids never follow in their footsteps. The kids can distinguish that what is for their parents is not for them.
I think I’m still struggling with myself, so much so that it took me a long time to make an album. I did not know if making an album was what I really wanted to do. “Inside Me” is my first album. It took a long time to make. I started it at age 30, but I have been a professional musician for so many years. I could have started 10 years ago.
Nafeesah: What does the album mean to you?
Xixel: Proof. It means marriage. It means commitment. I married the music and the baby was that album. An album is a great responsibility to take the music beyond yourself.
Why did I make this album? I didn’t do it just to say that I could. I had to develop this spiritual connection and this chosen path. When you have the spirit of something, it will always push you to explore it further. I believe in spirituality a lot. I believe in reincarnation, in destiny. What happened to me, honestly, has nothing to do with me.
People suffer because they do not accept what life gives them. They say they do not want their lot in life, they want more. We suffer because of this. Sometimes, unfortunately, what you want is not meant for you, but you suffer for your desires. The result is this suffering. I resolved not to suffer anymore. I tried to make a compromise [with the spirit of music]. I said, “fine, if I go this way, please open the way. I accept it. I do not want to suffer. I give myself over. Here I am. Take me, but make me happy.”
It did take a long time to reach this point in my career. It has not been easy. Even now, I still want to study. I want to do diplomacy. That’s my dream, to be a diplomat. I do not know why. But, music is also diplomacy, because you represent your country. When I go somewhere outside of Mozambique, people ask what I have to show from the country. I have got music.
People ask, “What do you want to sell us?” I say, “Music from Mozambique.”
Whether I make money or not, I am happy with that. I did something. I proved something, I have something to show, as an artist. And now, I feel I need to do a second one. I am so inspired to do a second album. I have learned that if you give yourself over to what life is giving you, you will see things that you never imagined in your life. You will be happy in a way that you never thought was possible. Why? Because you are busy in what you want and you are not distracted by other things. And since you do not see what is out there, you only see what is ahead for you. You can only worry about what you want.
For example, the way I met my producer was amazing. It was love at first sight. I said, ‘you are going to be my producer.’ I’m in love with my producer, in terms of music. You must know him. You are going to fall in love too. Camillo Lombard, from Cape Town. He plays like an angel. He plays keyboard. He was the best thing that the spirits gave to me.
I met him when I was living in Cape Town, because I was working with Tucan Tucan.
In Cape Town, they have the best festivals ever, the best stages ever. For us, musicians, Cape Town is the city of opportunities. Jazz is there. The best musicians are there. Jimmy Dludlu was there and Jimmy for us is the best. So, wherever he is is the best. I worked with very good musicians. It was awesome for 5 years, from 2006 to 2011. I had the best experience. I’m proud of myself when I think about that time.
All the people that the spirits put in front of me, I took full advantage of them.
Nafeesah: How would you categorize your music?
Xixel: Afro-Jazz. It is my response to the world. For me, it is Afro-Jazz because I mix jazz musicians with jazz chords. I call jazz musicians to play in my songs, to play Mozambican music. Maybe I am one of the few in Mozambique doing this. Maybe when more people start to do more jazz, maybe you will look back and say “ah, that’s the style. That’s what defines them.” There are really very few of us now. For example, do you know João Cabral? Orlando Venhereque? Isabel Novella? They also do Afro- Jazz.
I like to do mainstream Mozambican pop music, but I want to mix it with jazz. You can call it Pop-Afro-jazz [laughing]. It is danceable.
Nafeesah: When I listen to your music, I think traditional. Let me give you an example. When I think back to when Alicia Keys first came out, everyone thought that she must be the kid of one of the old school musicians. Of course, she made music her own and she had a fresh sound, but the basis of the music was classic – maybe like a Motown sound. When I think of you, I think it’s similar. I think marrabenta remix.
Xixel: You got it. Thank you very much. You have never heard music like mine, maybe because I am the first one doing traditional music with jazz in Mozambique. Mine sounds like Mozambique. Yet, Mozambique has not been explored already, so it sounds new.
Nafeesah: You also sing in different languages. Why do you choose to do that?
Xixel: Yes, Shangana. Old music is for everybody to understand, for everybody to get it, and for everybody to feel free to sing–even if the words are difficult.
Nafeesah: You are making Mozambicans around the world very proud to hear music that is traditional and still relevant. I think people think that your music respects the elders, but it is modern. People want to listen to it and hear it in their own homes.
Xixel: People often listen to my music and think this is international. Yet, when they listen closely, they say, ‘hey, this is ours!’ Mozambican music is just not out there.
Nafeesah: If you could collaborate with anybody, alive or dead, who would it be?
Xixel: He is dead. Joe Zawinul. He was Salif Keita’s producer. But, now, I would choose Omar Sosa. Funny enough, they are all keyboard players.
My husband plays the traditional keyboard, the timbila. You see how connected I am? I really like traditional music. We had known each other for 20 years, but never looked at each other as husband and wife. But when I came back to Mozambique from Cape Town, we looked at each other differently. We started working together. And we did music together. He was always there. He worked with my brother. And when the band was in Cape Town and they needed me to do something, he would reach out to ask me to come sing.
One day, on Facebook, he reached out to see if we could do something together. I came back from Cape Town and I was supposed to go somewhere else abroad. I was only supposed to come back to Mozambique to get a new passport. But, then, I stayed.
Nafeesah: What is that like at home? Is there competition or inspiration?
Xixel: We have everything. He also grew up in a family of musicians.
He was always complaining that I always used his instruments and had too much traditional music. So, I went to record with no traditional instruments at all, because–for me–after what he said I wanted to prove that I was traditional. I don’t need instruments. I’ll be the instrument.
Nafeesah: Tell me what motherhood has brought into your music?
Xixel: The music didn’t change. I changed. I started to think more about other people. Now I have to be home on time. There is more responsibility, of course. But nothing else changed. I was pregnant while I recorded this album. “Inside Me” was an inspiration.
Nafeesah: You wrote all your songs?
Xixel: Yes, but when I got to Cape Town I felt something else. I actually changed some music.
I composed new things. Many things changed. Some of the artists I worked with were upset that the songs we worked on did not end up in the album. I told them to wait for the next album.
Nafeesah: Some singers say that being pregnant affects their range.
Xixel: I didn’t feel that. When music took me, it took all of me. Music is jealous. It says “hey, sisi, I’m here!” And you forget everything. But, to deal with my two kids, you have to give time.
Nafeesah: What are your children’s names?
Xixel: “Iwoningo” and “Moya.” ” Iwoningo” is brightness and “Moya” is wind.
Nafeesah: And your last name “Langa” has a lot of strength.
Xixel: Langa means “Sun” or “choice” in Zulu and Shangana. Maybe it’s the same in other languages. You always have choices, but the sun is shining. So, we shine.
Nafeesah: Is your second album going to be named after your children?
Xixel: No, I can’t do that. With my beliefs, you can not make an idol of anything. If I have to do something I have to do it for the spirit that got me into music. That’s why I have “Vudu,” “Wosi,” and “Sol mi.” “Sol mi” is the notes that the spirits gave to me. Maybe that’s why so many people like the song “Sol Mi.” It’s the heat of the album. Some people haven’t even heard the rest of the album; they were stuck on “Sol Mi.”
Nafeesah: When I take this conversation to people who don’t know Mozambique, that don’t know you, or your lyrics, or your music, what do you want them to walk away understanding?
Xixel: We have our families in the Americas, in Europe. And they brought us something. They brought us jazz and I ́m so grateful for that. And I did “Inside Me” as a response.
It is as if to say, “We received your jazz and this is our jazz. You gave us your jazz, because you are far from Africa, but you have Africa in our hearts. You don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, but it is because of Africa. I discovered that we share jazz. So, I give the response that this is our jazz. That is what people must know. I say this, not only as a Mozambican, but as an African.
As a Langa, we have three generations. The Langas, we know, came from South Africa. This Langa thing, this Bantu thing, Bantu movement, it means that we came from somewhere. When we listen to each other’s music, we feel compatible. When we listen to South African music, we feel compatible. When we listen to Asian music, we also feel compatible. I think we are all connected somehow. We came from somewhere. It is bigger than any one country. That’s why I did “Vudu” and mixed in Latin music, because there are Cuban Africans. Wherever there is an African–in America, in North America, in South America, in the islands–I say, “hey, we got you. And this album is my answer. This is for you.” This [my music] is for what they brought us. In jazz, they brought us something different. It’s like they were saying, “hey, we are outside of the continent. We have modern things, but we made our music the African way.” In response, I’m saying, “I got you.”
Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature and diaspora studies within the global South.
Nafeesah Allen graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006 and completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009. Her specializations included Latin American languages and literature, as well as race and social policy; she was granted an Institute of Latin American Studies fellowship to pursue research on cultural and political representation of Brazil’s African Diaspora in the late 20th century. In 2013, she completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi, India. She received IGNOU’s Gold Medal for meritorious academic performance for her ethnographic thesis on women of the Indian Diaspora. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa.
For more information on her recent work: http://www.migration.org.za/nafeesah-allen/
She is a native of New Jersey, USA and has lived in India, Mozambique & Spain.