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Mathew Tembo brings African music to DeKalb

Zambian musician Mathew Tembo will perform at The House Cafe in DeKalb on Saturday.
Zambian musician Mathew Tembo will perform at The House Cafe in DeKalb on Saturday.

Mathew Tembo is working diligently to preserve the traditional music of his homeland, Zambia.

The music suffered a blow from 1923 to 1964, when the southern African nation was under British colonial rule.

“It’s because of how we have been growing up,” Tembo, 39, said. “Especially during colonialism, when they said ‘you can’t use traditional instruments during church.’ We know that when missionaries came to Africa, church and education were very closely related. Churches provided education before government started doing it.”

After Zambia declared its independence in 1964, there was not a widespread revival of traditional music. Electric guitars and keyboards had caught the attention of young musicians, including Tembo, who was born nine years later.

He played reggae music until a trip to Denmark in 2004 convinced him to study traditional Zambian music and instruments. In 2007, he produced the first “Sing Our Own Song” festival in Zambia showcasing traditional music.

Tembo now plays a handmade wooden silimba, similar to a xylophone, and is studying world music performance at Northern Illinois University. He has planned a world music celebration at the House Cafe on Saturday to raise funds for his 2013 “Sing Our Own Song” festival.

Tembo sat down with me to discuss the festival, his musical background and life in Africa.

Shaw Media: Do you come from a musical family?

Mathew Tembo: It’s hard to tell because in Africa everybody is involved in some kind of music. I spent some time in a village where every day people would come out and dance and sing. That was the only type of entertainment. Everybody in my family did that, but nobody has done music professionally.

What can you tell me about the village or city where you were raised?

I spent four years in a small village, but most of my life I lived in the big city Lusaka, which is the capital of Zambia.

Where did you get your passion for traditional music?

In Africa, everybody is really into computers. People can make music in their bedroom with software. …In 2004 I was playing in Denmark at a conservatory in Copenhagen and we had a workshop where they were saying, “Why do you do the music that you do? Why do you play the music that you play?” They asked me, “You play reggae music, are you from Jamaica?” and when I said I was from Africa they asked me, “Don’t you have any music from Africa that you can try to build on? Maybe come up with your own style instead of just doing what other people have been doing forever?” When I went back home, that stuck in my head. That year I started playing traditional instruments.

My band didn’t want to do that because we were already popular and selling reggae music, but they didn’t realize that my thinking had changed. I want to spread African music because I am from here, I am from Africa. We have all these musical instruments that people don’t know about. …For me, my new goal was to preserve African music and to preserve traditional instruments and to encourage people to use them.

In schools, it’s just crazy to me that school administrators in Africa talk about a lack of instruments. They complain about a lack of a pianos and say they can’t teach music when they have all these traditional instruments around them.

Where did you develop your interest in the silimba and other traditional instruments?

Growing up like that, people think that the instruments aren’t good enough. …You don’t need that much money. You can make them yourselves and use them to teach music. That’s the kind of thing we need to make young musicians realize, that the instruments are as good as any other instruments and they shouldn’t be ashamed to play them.

The silimba is a musical instrument made of wood. …I used to teach an ensemble of kids in Livingstone, which is a smaller town (in Zambia) than where I was from. The people who ran that school organized a workshop where a guy came to teach us how to make the instrument and tune it. After that workshop I started experimenting and making my own. …Soon I had people coming to me wanting me to teach their kids to play silimba.

What brought you to the United States, and specifically to DeKalb?

I came here because of school. I go to school at NIU. …I didn’t want to do classical music, I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. When I started searching for programs in world music, there are very few places that offer world music programs. …Berkeley has a program, but they don’t have a master’s program. I already have a bachelor’s so I thought that would be a waste of time.

What are you studying at NIU?

I am getting my master’s in world music performance. …We have an Africa ensemble now that I direct, that I started when I got here.

Have you found an enthusiastic audience for your music here in the United States?

People are excited when you present it, but what I noticed is that not many people know about African music, which makes me think that I need to do more. One man alone cannot do what needs to be done, but if I can contribute something I’ll be glad to do that. I feel like, as an individual, I should go out and perform more and educate people about the music. People love it once they listen to it, but not that many people have been exposed to that kind of music.

What can you tell me about the Sing Our Own Song music festival?

We are calling it a world music celebration. There are going to be a lot of world music ensembles. The NIU steel band will be performing, the Chinese ensemble will be performing, the Middle Eastern ensemble will be performing, and Afro pop, the group that I direct, will be performing. It’s just a celebration of all this world music we have around DeKalb. It is to raise money for the festival back home called Sing Our Own Song. …There is a lot of music in DeKalb and at NIU. I know we have all these recitals, but I think just coming together and sharing the experience is much more important. I don’t know why we don’t have more world music in DeKalb when there is all of this music going on at NIU. I think the community should take advantage of that.

What have you learned at NIU that you will take back to Africa with you?

I want to think that what I am going to use most from that learning experience is going to be how (music) is taught. I have also learned about jazz – most of the people that play in the Afro pop ensemble are jazz musicians, so just having jazz people play African music is the best thing that happened to the music.


If you go

What: Sing Our Own Song world music celebration; scheduled performances include the Afropop Ensemble, Chinese Music Ensemble, Middle Eastern Music Ensemble and Steel Band, all from NIU

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: The House Cafe, 263 E. Lincoln Highway, DeKalb

Cost: $6; $3, students

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