I knew it in my gut that Afro-jazz crooner Alexio Kawara would come out with an album…at some point. For good eight-years, this jolly good fellow with dazzling vocals, trademark incendiary mbira-guitar concoction and heady breakdowns has been making seemingly endless promises to deliver a body of work. Now, to fellow fans, the hunger is over; the virtuoso has ended his many years of a dry spell with the release of his fourth studio album, Oyi.
To an all-time fan like myself, the album’s delay was a colossal disappointment from the Shades of Black frontman. It felt like dude was holding us hostage for everything that is wrong with Zimbabwe. There was a point in between the hiatus that I was ready to face it that perhaps my fave has just grown old (forget that he is only 41) and had nothing else to offer after Usazondisiya, Kumba Kwenyu, Pfimbi Yangu, Kana and Tose. Like his creative juice was finished with no hint. Or that he’d just given up on music and retired, perchance to engage in human rights activism. Retirement comes in many forms in the music world, from long farewell tours to hastily arranged one-off farewell shows or releases. No matter what form the exit plan takes, the end result is always a performer stepping away from the stage (for a little while, at least).
Such mounting despair, however, would be diminished timeously with the release of his critically acclaimed single Nehana and his cameo musical appearance on Exq’s “I Love You” song. Then, I felt that his chapter wasn’t over. When the album would see the day, I was ambivalent but I was positive that it would eventually materialise, though at the price of us patiently waiting for it like the Second Coming.
Well, the album is here eschatologically and Alexio, discernibly courteous of how he deadbeat on us for years, has since tried to provide grounds for the album delay. He, just like any other creative person you probably know, is blaming among other things, paralysing perfectionism and record deal complications.
For one, he said Oyi’s discharge was shilly-shallied because he thought it had not “satisfied him enough to be consumed by his fans”.
“The album was not done up to my satisfaction. I am kind of a perfectionist when it comes to my presentation because I know it affects the future of my career. Music lasts forever so if you record something that is not up to scratch, it will always be in your name and it is my name that will be tarnished,”
he told a local medium at the launch of the album at La Rouge, Westgate in Harare, adding that actually he doesn’t believe in releasing music “for the sake of releasing,” an earmark of a classic that most of today’s artists overlook for clout. As peculiar as he made it sound, Alexio said that Oyi, which is a Shona word that means to give, definitely won’t be ordinary as he managed to put in “extra effort” to create it.
To another, the album took ages to be finished because of some shoddy record label intricacies.
“One of the main reasons why it took me long to release an album is I recorded some tracks in SA with a record label there, but we disagreed on a lot of things. I actually did songs with Speedy and Brymo and they are on point, but because of the disagreements with contracts and stuff, they’re just hanging in the air now,” he said.
A double-edged sword of its own, the impediment ultimately shoved him to start his own recording label, Alexio Entertainment Company, under which he now records his own music.
The album, which is a devotion to his long-time friend and mbira tutor, the late Taku Mafira, doesn’t stark far from his previous projects both thematically or sonically. Over the course of ten tracks, the Shaina hitmaker constructs meditative, deeply engaging songs, featuring a streak of afro-fused instruments and his soft, clear voice, and sometimes creating beautiful juxtapositions.
Beyond the musical innovations, he proves himself a soulful songwriter, singing solo and in harmony in his beguilingly chasmic Shona lingo, cutting across subjects of love, faith, hope and unity. Songs on the album include title track Oyi, Unombozviitirei, Chikokoko, Ndozvawataura, Mhande, Kana and Tiri Two.
For all the tonalities and influences at play here, the songs are never cluttered or enforced, except for Ishe Jesu Varipo which feels a bit out of place substantively. The track, probably put in to win over the growing Christian populace in the country, somehow ended up making the album a murky mess congealed to the pan bottom.
Luckily the botch is quickly twitched by the strident production adroitness of the master musical chef, Cornelius “3D” Muponda from Harmony Studios. His arrangements help bring clarity and purpose to the album and the balance between the lead vocals and amazing chorus lines are distinct, which is much needed given the complexity of lyrical and ensemble dexterity.
While I’m still reeling from waiting for gotdamn eight years for this, Oyi still sounds like Alexio Kawara’s afro-jazz as we know it. It is a dynamic and smart release, one of my favourites of the year so far, and a worthwhile addition to my playlist, next to Samthing Soweto’s Isphithiphithi and Lady Zamar‘s Monarch.