OH AFRICA – Alisha Popat (feat. Peter Hollens, Zolani Mahola)
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East Africa that is, in the enchanting republic of Kenya, a country steeped in diversity from the topography to the human element.
The tropical mangrove swamps along the Indian Ocean coastline, rise into the vast plains along the equator through the central highlands toward Lake Victoria. In the west, the Kakamega and Mau Forests, cleaved by the Great Rift Valley, bulge north to south from Lake Turkana, past Mount Kenya, its altitudes sacred ground for her regnant distance runners. Kenyaâ€™s diversity of fauna is staggering; itâ€™s diversity of culture is heartening.
From the Bantu tribes to the Nilotic Maasai to the Himatic peoples; from dozens of tribal cultures living with the land yet resonating through Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenyans celebrate mutual assistance rather than individualism, a concept cradled in the Bantu word, Harambee, meaning â€œto pull together.â€ Our western image of Kenya is primordial, yet before long one remarkable woman,Â Alisha Popat, will change that image.
Did I need to reach all the way to Kenya to touch a rising indie music talent? No, but youâ€™ll be glad I did. I first noticed Alisha Popat singing a Rihanna cover in a video produced by Devin Graham with Lindsey Stirling, the violinist who collaborated with Peter Hollens on the Skyrim video. Peter was previously profiled here onÂ The Indie Times.
Alisha graciously accepted my offer for an interview and thank goodness for Skype. Meeting with Alisha was more than a pleasant surprise; it was an awakening. Of course I expected her to be nice, but what I didnâ€™t expect from this 25-year-old singer/songwriter was her wisdom, grounded in a realistic understanding of her art as a profession and the role of that profession in her future goals. She is an articulate, bright, charming professional with clear ideas and a perspective about the nature of her own country that usually attends age. She is also a committed humanitarian (more on that aspect later).
The musical journey of Alisha Popat
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That Alisha is passionate about singing is apparent in her work ethic as well as the pure joy in her voice when she speaks of singing. She has a Masterâ€™s degree in journalism and speaks English, Kiswahili, French and understands Hindi (she is of Indian descent). She could easily launch an international writing career but focuses on singing. â€œMy mum has always told me I was singing from the moment I could speak.â€
Alisha sings in a higher range than one would suspect. Her mysterious beauty and dark elegance suggest a smokier voice, but like her country, Alisha is full of surprises. You simply cannot reconcile your western impressions with the Kenyan who steals your heart.
I asked her if it was fun growing up in Africa. â€œOh, I canâ€™t imagine a better upbringing. Although I want to get out of Kenya right now to expand my music and career, I definitely feel that when I have kids I want them to grow up as I did. I want them to grow up not knowing any sort of racial divide. I want them to grow up in a cosmopolitan setting which is what I think Africa is. I went to school, camped and played with black, white, Indian, Chinese; it never mattered.â€
When Alisha was 15 she went off to a private girlsâ€™ boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where she continued singing. â€œMyself and four friends began a small indie band that we called Soliloquy.â€ (Alisha is also a self-taught guitar player.) She attended the University of Cape Town where she earned her first degree in journalism, but this is also â€œwhere my passion for music came alive.â€
She went to university with a high-school band mate. â€œWe would play guitar and sing outside residences and people would flock to listen.â€ She worked at a dinner theater venue called Stardust where she learned performance art to enhance her stage presence while singing. A defining moment came for her soon after receiving her second degree, honors in media and narrative literary journalism, focusing on crime writing.
That special moment came after Alisha was asked to sing back-up for a song written for the FIFA World Cup stage. In front of 80,000 fans, singing with Lois Bala from South Africa, Eric Wainaina from Kenya, Salim and Sulaiman Merchant from India, â€œI was hit with the beautiful reality that this is what I was born to do â€“ on stage I felt alive. I felt humbled. It was an incomparable experience and I knew then that music was my path and I needed to go for it and follow my passion with full flight.â€
We Found Love – Lindsey Stirling (VenTribe) ,Feat. Alisha Popat.
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The video for the song â€œAfrica Youâ€™re a Starâ€ (see below) has been surprisingly underplayed given the world-wide interest in the event. Alisha explained, â€œThe video was produced only a month and a half to two months before the World Cup and there was a limited marketing budget. It was pushed more after the event. In Africa itâ€™s quite big but not internationally.â€
In terms of production, marketing and collaboration, Alishaâ€™s advice to Indie performers is simply this; â€œThereâ€™s always a way. Itâ€™s very hard for us to get international exposure. In Kenya especially, the Kenyan Music Authority was disbanded for such a long time that it was difficult for us to get royalties at all from radio, TV or anything with our music and the way we make our money basically is from gigs.â€ Alisha has at least three gigs a week and when sheâ€™s not doing that she is concentrating on making music for her album. Her acoustic style of music is â€œnot really appreciated in Kenyaâ€ so she is including collaborations with popular artists to foster interest in other genres.
In order to obtain more notoriety, she learned from Lindsey and Devin. â€œItâ€™s become apparent that the best way to do this is to do YouTube videos and other collaborations.â€ Working with Lindsey was instigated by the social media platform,Ventribe, which Alisha describes as, â€œe-Bay meets Facebook.â€ They reached out to Devin Graham originally to shoot a kite-surfing video in Kenya sponsored by Ventribe. Devin has a relationship with Lindsey and when she learned of the trip, wanted to do something musical in the country. Ventribe put Lindsey in touch with Alisha and over the course of two weeks were able to bring the Americans into Kenya for a life-changing experience.
â€œThe whole point of â€˜We Found Loveâ€™, what me and Lindsey were trying to express is that here are people coming into Africa not knowing anything about it and they just fall head over heels with the charm of the continent, with the vibrancy of the different cultures and with how super excited the people get to share their culture with others.â€
A lot of time was spent on the concept before shooting, although nothing was planned in terms of staging. â€œWe just enjoyed where we were (Samburu and the Maasai Mara) and Lindsey and Devin just enjoyed what we had to offer.â€
The school where the video was shot is one of many supported by her charitable work. Alisha is forming a non-profit group which seeks through a Maasai Mara sponsorship to bring music and other artistic blocks of instruction to underprivileged schools through corporate sponsorships. They hope to one day develop a program whereby local children and artisans can produce hand-made items to be sold on sites like Ventribe, to bring income to these villages.
ALISHA POPAT. OH LET THE RAIN. OFFICIAL MUSIC VIDEO
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â€œYou know there are people in your country that are facing hardships, but you learn there are things you can do about it and itâ€™s just on your doorstep. Growing up in Africa you just realize the strangest humility and gosh, Iâ€™m so lucky to be living where I am. The impoverished people in this country are so happy with the little that they have that they surround themselves with positivity.â€
Lindsey Stirling was awe-struck by the African experience. Itâ€™s obvious in her face. For her part Alisha is thrilled that her fan base has tripled from the experience. â€œI canâ€™t explain to you as a Kenyan musician what this collaboration has done for me.â€
So whatâ€™s the Indie music scene like in Kenya? â€œIndie music in Kenya is very much underground. Most of the indie music artists in this country â€“ nobody knows about. There isnâ€™t really a niche market for that music here, which is what Iâ€™m struggling with the most, but you do have these undergound little concerts featuring amazing Indie-Afro fusion sounds. There is a certain formula that one has to follow to make Kenyan music a hit and that is just not my type of music. I do believe the Kenyan music scene is changing slightly and allowing for indie music to poke its pretty little head around the curtain and I am working on making that a reality.â€
Thatâ€™s why working with Lindsey and Devinâ€™s team was so important to her, to be the start of future international collaborations. These collective efforts help to get the word out. â€œI feel it is most important to develop a support system in your own country. I am lucky to have the fan base here. I am so proud to be Kenyan but I want people to know me for the musician I am, an indie acoustic rock musician who sings from her experiences and her soul.â€
Alisha has been inspired by Bryan Adams, Adele, Rosi Golan, Ingrid Michaelson, Jason Walker, Jose Gonzalez, Julie Peel and Lindsey Stirling. â€œThese are just a few. I want to inspire people through music. I truly believe music has the power to change the world and I want to be a part of it.â€
What does the future hold in terms of music? â€œI am working on other collaborations for my album â€˜This Is Meâ€™ so people can appreciate the genre of music in this country and know I am sharing a little bit of myself.
Kenya is experiencing the typical problems of a growing infrastructure and day-to-day life can be frustrating, but Alisha is unstoppable. â€œI feel that if I can be me and stay true to myself, my morals and values â€“ and even if a handful of people appreciate my music â€“ I will be happy. I will never compromise myself. If fame were to come my way, wow, I would be over the moon as it means I have inspired others, but if that fame comes at the price of compromising myself, well, it wouldnâ€™t be for me.
What you learn from growing up in this country is humility, patience and that Africa dances to its own beat â€“ so one must understand that things are different than in the west, but itâ€™s all so charming. When the power goes out, just light a candle and listen to the birds and the bush babies outside and play the guitar. You begin to appreciate the smaller things in life, the value of life.â€
Alisha asked me to thank her followers for their growing support. â€œI am a true testament to the fact that of you really put everything into your passion, dreams really come true. Live passionately, love with all your heart and look at the positive aspects of your life. We really live in a magical and mystical world.
-The Indie Times