One of the joys of the digital age is how record companies and A&R men don’t dictate what artists do anymore. If Eska had come to the fore twenty years ago, she would have had all of the edges and corners knocked off, told to sort her image out and her music would probably be licensed to sell women’s hair conditioner.
As it is though, she has nurtured her rare and significant talent and is now starting to get the success and recognition that she deserves.
There was a hope that this would be a celebratory evening, coming exactly a week after the Mercury Music awards. Eska was a nominee but lost out to another singular talent, Benjamin Clemantine. Even so, after many years of singing back up and plugging away, a nomination was not to be sniffed at in the slightest.
Eska Mtungwazi was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the UK as a child. She went to a school which encouraged her musical pursuits. She’s worked with many serious artists over the years but it was only in 2013 when she released the “Gatekeeper” EP that she built up momentum in her own right. I wasn’t aware of her until a Facebook friend started banging the polyrhythmic drum for her in the last year or so. In a recent interview in the Guardian, she admitted that she had no issue with her musical chops but struggled to see herself as a solo musician. She confessed as follows:
When I try to envision who I was, I see this scared little mouse who just wants to have a bit of cheese
I was prepared for a very musical evening. Eska’s debut album proves that she can handle many many styles and genres. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer force of nature that Eska is in a live environment. You can’t take your eyes of off her. She opened with a guitar driven rocking opener and she was everywhere, strutting her stuff and shaking her thang. There was an unrestrained joy to her performance. She is confident about who she is and what she does. It really is refreshing to see an artist with a real sense of stage craft.
She also has manages to master these different styles, bringing to mind such comparisons as Prince (The sweet gospel and atonality of “Rock of Ages”), Joni Mitchell (The beauty of “She’s In The Flowers”) and Kate Bush (the slow build up of “This How A Garden Grows”).
There were many highlights. “Gatekeeper” just grew and grew before fading away a la “Purple Rain” – lighters in the air time. “To Be Remembered” was intimate folksy bluegrass. “So Long Eddy” testified like a Stax belter. “Shades of Blue” had the lovers in the audience shimmying along – baby baby. Her cover of “Satisfaction” is vicious. Edgy guitar gave an almost PIL like quality.
A word on her harmonica player Philip Achille. He did a fantastic solo cameo slot and channelled his inner Stevie Wonder to accompany Eska – what a musician.
It will be fascinating to see where she goes next. There is space in her live repertoire for more direct material. I really hope that she is able to capture the creative momentum she has and can gain the audience that her talent deserves.
Or maybe we want to keep her for small perfect auditoriums like Islington Assembly Hall – let the public decide.
For the uninitiated, a couple of tracks that show her diversity:
The first is an old version of “Gatekeeper” from 2012. This is in its original acoustic guise, more homespun than the version on her album and the one that she performs live.
Here’s that version of “Satisfaction” which was recorded recently for a Jamie Cullum radio session. This is sensational and is on a par with any of the cover versions of this classic from Otis to Devo.
If Eska tours near you – go see her. She provides a evening of fantastic entertainment.