Interview with Shumba Maasai

Kaeshelle Rianne caught up with Shumba Maasai to unpack the meaning behind his latest joint project with producer Hermes under the name SOMA, “TOTKO II” and the stunning exhibition curated by Ancestral Futures.

Given that TOTKO stands for ‘Takes One To Know One’, it’s unsurprising that this 4-track EP seems to walk its own path and break with mainstream categorisation. Hand-crafted with conceptual precision and high attention to sonic detail, “TOTKO II” is a rich body of work that takes the listener on a spiritual journey. With producer Hermes, Shumba has managed to fuse his Zimbabwean roots with a cold and industrial Britain to create an otherworldly sonic experience.

When Shumba joins the call, he is sat in the studio, a dimly-lit room, and I joke with him about us chatting in the darkness. But when he goes to switch on a brighter light, I feel the need to tell him, “it’s fine how it is.” that may well have been the ancestors that Shumba later talks about. Our conversation began with us establishing an important connection between my Jamaican and his Zimbabwean heritage, talking about Rastas, locals speaking Jamaican patois in Zim and Marcus Garvey. It’s only after some time that I realise we hadn’t even got to the first question I had prepared.

[Kaeshelle] How long have you been making music?

[Shumba] I started actively pursuing making music when I was 13. I lived in Zim for the first part of my life and in 2002 my family moved to Reading in England. I then moved to London in 2010 and soon after released my first EP called “Project H”.

[K] When did you begin working on projects with Hermes?

[S] I have my own career, but me and Hermes have worked together quite a lot. He even produced a few of the records on my first EP and we carried on working together. I did my own thing, had my own releases and he had his own growth. Then, we linked up again to do “TOTKO” (the first one).

[K] What’s the dynamic like when you two come together?

[S] I’ve worked with different producers on projects before, but with Hermes he’ll make a beat and I’ll rap on it. The way we make music is like a true collaboration. Sometimes, I’ll jump on the pads and add some stuff in. He’s like, “Yo, you should change this line”. It couldn’t be just a Shumba or Hermes project, it was something separate. So we decided to release “TOTKO I”.

[K] Tell me more about “TOTKO I”, how did you put it together and release it?

[S] About six years ago, me, Hermes, Chuck XXV, Jung Mergs and Diamant started a label and collective Plus Trbe. “TOTKO” I was the first release on Plus Trbe Recordings and we didn’t really know what was there we just knew was making tunes. We were performing a lot at that time. We just threw it out there and people seemed to really gravitate to it. Spotify picked up on it at that time, and we didn’t do any promo, we just made it and put it out.

[K] And what about Ancestral Futures, how did that develop and crossover with “TOTKO”? 

[S] Ancestral Futures started as a live multi-sensory event, which has now evolved into like a collective of artists where we make music and showcase African culture at an excellent level. When it came time to do “TOTKO II”, I decided to fuse it with Ancestral Futures. We did an exhibition for the record, it was a multi-sensory listening environment, where people could come and listen to the record. We had visuals with lyrics and my friend Ezra made a scent for the record that was diffused into the room.

[K] Wow, this sounds incredible!

[S] There was also a gallery; I worked with my friend Kanaiza to curate a space for artists from the diaspora. We had a lot more masks, artefacts and instruments. It was all about creating a space for the “TOTKO II” to live in. There was a sofa where people could have conversations about the record and say what they thought about it. It was a really cool experiment. And since then, I’ve just been making music. I did an called ‘Margin for Interpretation’ in 2016, which has a super experimental sound that I created with my friend Zeus, who is a producer. It was me letting loose and being free, the kind of freedom that’s probably afforded to artists who are well-developed, have proved themselves and are trying something new. 

[K] Why did you decide to go down that route from the beginning of your career? 

I decided to do it early on in my career to get everything out there about how I feel about Black people and the Black experience. I’m a Garveyite and I like to peddle the message that we can stand strong – for ourselves. In the record, I was trying to imagine what the Black or African experience would be if it were just one person. So just make a record that was pure expression.

[K] So, how did all of these previous projects tie in with “TOTKO II”?

[S] When it came to “TOTKO II”, I wanted to get that message and expression across, but refine it a little bit more. For me, the hardest part of the creative journey is trying to find people who are committed to excellence and Hermes matches me on that. Sometimes, he even trumps me. How particular can we get about the record? Like adding things that people maybe don’t even notice or hear. We just pumped so much energy into the record. Everyone [at Plus Trbe] was involved, including Jung Mergs who mixed and mastered it. This was our first project where we did everything in-house. Normally, we’d go out and outsource different parts, but “TOTKO II” was our first full project. We wanted to prove that we can deliver great records with sonic and creative excellence.

[K] And what is “TOTKO II” about, what’s the story behind it?

[S] It’s the story of where you’re coming from. I remember telling my friends that I was going to the UK and people didn’t even believe me. It was supposed to be this amazing thing, but then there’s the reality of it. I wanted to share that with everyone else, it’s kind of like telling people that money isn’t going to make you happy, everyone wants to know for themselves. It’s just me saying, “Look, this is my experience, this is what I expected and this is what I’ve got.” It seems to be resonating in the continent, I’ve had people from Ghana hitting me up. I’m trying to send it back to them and all my other brothers and sisters here and say, “It’s kind of long here, but there is a place for us.” We can just be that bridge for people from the Diaspora to Africa and encourage the brothers and sisters in Africa to cherish what they have and build there rather than always having the goal to get over here. Because I go to Zim every year and chat to people. Their plan is often to catch a flight and come to Europe.

[K] The mask is a prominent feature in your artwork, it’s seen in “TOTKO I” and in “TOTKO II”. Can you tell us a little bit about where the designs came from?  

[S] It’s really divine. With a lot of my stuff, sometimes it just happens where I don’t really know what I’m doing. I call it “the ancestors working through man”, where I’m not really understanding what’s happening at the time, but I’m led to certain decisions and things happen quite naturally. So the first cover comes from my younger sister Mayfield, she’s just a really cool creative. She was younger back then, into art and making stuff. She had this piece of an old Maasai man. I’ve still got it up here in the studio actually, I liked it a lot. I thought, “Wow, this is dope.” It just felt right for the record that we were making. So there was no big idea behind it, but it felt like the vibe of the record. 

For “TOTKO II”, I started working with these guys called White Crayon. They’ve been looking after a lot of my artwork and visual stuff for Ancestral Futures. And I’ve known Nischal and Nawal for maybe 10 years now, they’re twins and from Nepal. We’ve just been building a relationship, they know what I’m about and what I like. When I told him about the EP, they gave me a few ideas based on what we were trying to merge – the parallels between an industrial UK and African ideas. I sent them a moodboard, with different stuff like council state blocks, African soldiers or masks, merging those two worlds together. And they came up with those visuals and then we started doing more research about masks, we found out how they’re used in ceremonies and that when people wear them it allows them to tap into a different spirit and energy, which is what happens with my music a lot of the time. I don’t even remember being present when I was recording the takes. For example, with Pressure and the thing at the end, I didn’t even write it, it just came through man. A lot of the verses just came through me, and so thinking about our research on the masks, it felt relevant.

[K] And finally, to circle back to Ancestral Futures, how did you work this into the exhibition?  

Again, it’s very divine. I was working with Vanessa and we wanted to have three art forms of expression for young Diaspora artists, including painters, sculpturists and photographers. Then added to those three mediums, you’ve got sound, which is what we were looking after. But for whatever reason, it didn’t pan out. We couldn’t get a photographer, we couldn’t get the sculpturist in the end. Then I hollered at one of my good friends Chirova Mutanda as his father was a Mbira player from Zimbabwe. I asked to use some of his stuff for the exhibition and though that wasn’t possible, he suggested I speak to Alfie. Someone who I had actually met the week before at a Zimbabwean event where I had been asked to perform at the embassy. It turned out that Alfie used to have an antique shop in Kentish Town. He had all these ornaments; African masks, Benin bronze copies, these really rare artefacts and stuff that we don’t see everyday or we don’t get exposed to in his home. That’s how that came together.

For me, I’m all about showcasing African culture to an excellent level. We can’t be asking people to showcase what we do who we are because they’re never gonna do it right. Because it’s not theirs. Through the work that I do, I’m always trying to lift up and present our culture in a great way that inspires people from Africa, make people want to get closer to it and see it as something of reverence. I also want people from outside our culture to respect us as pioneers, as excellent people, well-organised people that execute things at the highest level.

Stream TOTKO II below.

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