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Umanji (South Africa)  

UMANJI hails from the Northern Province of South Africa, specially the Zebedelia region near Potgietersrus. As a small boy growing up in a rural village, Umanji was steeped in a love of nature and the traditional Tsonga music around him. Interestingly Umanji was the nickname given by his friends after watching the film ‘Jumanji’ starring Robin Williams.

The village troubadour was Malose Digale, a man who had a lasting impression on the young boy and was later to prove very influential in his life. Idolising Malose, the young Umanji was set on becoming a musician, at primary school playing on a ‘traditional’ oil tin guitar. “Ever since I can remember I’ve lived for my music. I asked this fellow if he could teach me how to play his real guitar, but he refused initially”, recalls Umaji today.

So determined to get grips with Malose’s guitar was Umanji, that he one day decided to burn a hole in the old man’s hut to gain access to the prized instrument. Unfortunately the fire quickly spread out of control, and proceeded to burn down three surrounded huts. Umanji was in deep trouble, but Malose had realised the kid was serious about learning and, using a maroela wood guitar Umanji’s uncle had made for him, he set about teaching him the basics.

vocals, guitar
Genre: traditional / indigenous
Umanji recalls his early influences were primarily traditional Tsonga music, played on instruments like the ‘mchologo’ (a kind of basic hand piano), but thanks to the ever present radio, the youngster also got into the music of South Africa great like Mahlathini & The Mahotella Queens, Caiphus Semenya & Letta Mbulu, Margaret Singana, Steve Kekana, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. African music stars like Baaba Maal, Salif Keita and the Zimbabweans Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi were also appreciated by Umanji, who was developing his unique singing voice and a keen ear for African melody and rhythm. Us Blues/Folk superstar Tracey Chapman also had huge impact on the young Umanji and he cites her as a key influence, who inspired his vocal and guitar style.

Unfortunately Umanji’s mother still wasn’t too impressed with her son’s intended career path. She cruelly burnt the prized wooden guitar, and forced Umanji to get himself a “proper job” and some further education. So Umanji enrolled in the South African Police Force, eventually spending eight long and difficult years there. Whilst learning disciple, his life became a real struggle considering his sensitive nature, and his police years were difficult to bear. Transferred to Johannesburg in 1997, Umanji was still a policeman when he took himself off to the Shandel music studios downtown.

He had just received third place in the regional Coca Cola Fullblast Music competition with an original composition, and gained the necessary courage to follow his musical dream. Hanging out at the studios armed only with determination and his battered acoustic guitar, Umanji eventually met with Tom Vuma, who had been Steve Kekana’s producer in earlier days, and who quickly recognised Umanji’s determination and potential. Tom introduced Umanji to Tsonga disco superstar Penny Penny, and Umanji’s first recording experience was to lay down three demo tracks with the star at Shandel studios. Umanji then struggled to find a recording deal, but when BMG Africa was given the demo CD, he was signed on the spot. Needless to say his police days were over, and Umanji embarked on yet another critical path on his musical mission.

‘Moloi/The Witch’ was released in the middle of 1999, and with Umanji’s rich yet light tenor and socially conscious lyrics (sung in Tsonga, SePedi, Zulu and English) and folkish guitar, the album was quickly acclaimed by both critics and the public. The title was Umanji’s call for people to stop killing women considered to be witches. Umanji’s deep understanding and appreciation of African melodies and harmony - his deeply rooted ‘Afro Soul’ - stood out in an industry and nation sometimes obsessed with overseas influences and culture. Hinting at West African and even Arabic sounds, and spurred on by radio friendly songs like ‘Buti Risenga’ & ‘Nsati’, the album saw Umanji receive a coveted ‘Best Newcomer’ finalist nomination at last years SAMA awards.

“My musical inspiration comes to me when I’m out in the countryside, where there is little disturbance. It is the sounds of water wind and animals that help me figure out my melodies.”

Umanji got busy on the live front and highlights were storming gigs at the 1999 Oppokoppi Festival and in September the same year, when he opened the show for Salif Keita at the Arts Alive Festival. With a voice as South African as the moroela tree or vetkoek, Umanji had won over the assembled crowds and announced his arrival in style. However life in the limelight can sometimes take its toll, and Umanji went through many months of difficulties, as he questioned his career choice and the sacrifices he’d made. Thankfully he made peace with himself, and after a long period of inactivity, Umanji is back, inspired again and sounding better than ever. 2001 sees Umanji based in Johannesburg, where he is putting together demos for a new album and working hard at putting a permanent backing band together. June 2001 saw a month long run of acclaimed solo shows at Johannesburg venue The Bassline. Speaking recently of his contemporary music tastes, Umanji revealed that he is a huge fan of fellow troubadour Vusi Mahlasela, whose ‘Tonkana’ song is a favourite. Umanji is also a fan of both Kwaito and the resurgent Afro Jazz scene: “They are promoting a uniquely South African home grown music and our languages, It’s very original, and importantly the music bringing people from all walks of life and ages together.”

Umanji has certainly come a long way since his days as a mischievous potential guitar thief, but his musical mission is still incomplete, and he aims to keep his music and life both real and unpretentious. Umanji is that all too rare thing: A quality artist who defies categorisation, and yet it’s not necessary to understand his lyrics to be struck by spiritual nature and beauty of the music. He is a genuine South African original but with his universal appeal, the world beckons.

biography based on original release by BMG, edited and adapted July 2001.

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