Fatima ‘Stimela’ Katiji living up to Chiwoniso Maraire ‘Great Expectations’
Jah Prayzah and the 3G band’s latest Canada tour went ahead without Zimbabwe’s most recognizable backing vocalist in a generation, Fatima Katiji.
Fatima explains: “I was not around when the visa applications were made. It was too late to apply so I said; ‘Guys you can go and represent without me. I have faith in you.’ When they don’t see me, some people feel short-changed. But it’s life. I would have loved to be in Canada.” Fatima, a frequent flyer, arrived from USA.
3G band has recruited Mary Anibal as a backing vocalist. She also plays mbira. This helps Fatima. But Fatima’s inbox is flooded by edgy fans. Mary is also a mbira player and sometimes harmonises mbira with JP on stage. Mary has worked extensively with Trust Samende [Mokoomba’s virtuoso guitarist and a leading producer] as well as 60 other musicians.
Fatima has made backing vocals her signature and owned the role. It’s a natural order for her. Her sister Edith we Utonga is a creative vocalist and composer in Afro Jazz. “Edith is a self-taught guitarist and singer. That makes her unique. My inspiration.” Younger sister Beauty is a leading dancer. Fatima was literally born in a band. Her sister’s husband, Elton Mujanana is a film-maker.
Fatima commends JP’s voice, writing prowess and focus. Rodney “Beats” Sibanda, leading producer at JP Studios says: “Some sessions with JP can start at 9am and end at 2am. JP seeks the opinions of his employees when composing new music. “Speak up your mind. If I Embarrass myself on stage, I am embarrassing you as well,” he reasons.
JP gives his employees personal attention. He scouted Fatima personally. When she lost her job, JP followed up. He asked her to attend one show. He paid her like a band member for her attendance and feedback. She did backing-vocals on the song “Tsviriyo.” JP had heard enough. She got the job. It took some persuasion.
“I was doing sound check [before a gig] at Jazz 105 when this tall guy walked in. The venues was empty. He stood for a while. I was busy getting ready. When I turned, the guy was gone. Months later when I had left I started getting phone calls and messages. One message said: ‘Fatima, my name is Jah Prayzah.’ I had never heard the name. I was a jazz person. I only knew one song; “Sorry Mhamha.” Then I thought, so this is the guy!.
“He said: ‘Ndokumbirawo uuye ku show (Would you please attend my show) and just watch what we do on stage and tell me how you feel about it.’ So, he invited me to Jazz 105. I did a review: ‘It was amazing! It was electric!’”
“He said: ‘Will you come and join us?’”
“I said: ‘I will think about it.’”
“He called me…for three other show. He would cater for my transport to Mabvuku on a cab. I was still staying in Mabvuku.”
“My sisters were like; ‘You are mourning losing your old job but ignoring this job?’”
“I wanted to give it a try in 2012. But there was no show that weekend. He invited me into the studio saying: ‘I would love you to bless me with your voice.’ The sound was just unique and I had never had so much fun in the studio being given the platform to be myself, and I expressed myself. I got paid for my studio session. He called 3 weeks later and said; ‘You owned the songs, so who is going to be doing your lines at live shows?’”
“I couldn’t see myself doing all that jumping on stage regularly, coming from a more sedate jazz background. But now I also jump along with the band for a living,” she laughs. She got paid very generously beyond what she had made on other gigs before JP. It was a significant change in fortunes.
But finding her feet was not easy. Especially when she fell sick. JP waited for her return. He paid her even while she was missing shows. He invested in the person. Rodney “Beats” Sibanda has worked extensively as Jah Prayzah’s main producer lately. He was head-hunted by DJ Tamuka from premature retirement from music due to frustration. He found a home at Military Touch with the tireless JP after much persuasion. Both Fatima and Rodney found themselves disappointed with the musical industry. But JP knew exactly what he wanted from the two. His judgment was spot on.
Fatima, popularly known as Stimela, worked with Edith, Alexio Kawara, Diana Samkange, Josh Meck, Tariro ne Gitare before. She loved her time with Alexio and Shades of Black. She has fond memories of working with the ladies and Josh Meck.
Few can match her enthusiasm. The ebullient and confident Fatima is a devout musician as any. Chords can change moods. So does Fatima. “I have been told I smile throughout the show. When you are tight bond or family, no matter how painful my day is if the guitars start jamming I forget everything. This is my happy place. The energy from the audience resonates with me. So it’s not just about me but the audience as well,” explains Fatima. Her smile is permanent.
One of Zimbabwe’s most ground-breaking albums “Tuku music” by Oliver Mtukudzi was released in 1998. It offered a new approach to music and the pronounced use of female backing vocalists. Fatima has succeeded the late Mwendi Chibindi who featured on that album. Fatima re-defined the role.
I asked former Tuku Music Guitarist, Clive Mono Mukundu, who worked with Mwendi. He said: “She is one of the best backing vocalists in Zimbabwe. She has a fan base. It’s rare for backing vocalists. It’s a feat achieved by few people, like Picky Kasamba. I’m also happy that I recommended her to Jah Prayzah. I suggested she does Backing Vocals for a Jah Prayzah song that I was producing and he never let her go.”
Is it an unfair comparison? “It’s fair. I believe they are equals. I will add Nichola Mutuwa to that list.” Mono is frank.
Bands like Bhundu boys had amazing vocal harmony. Backing vocalists are not new. But the natural contrast between male and female voice in call and respond music and harmony parts is priceless. Backing vocals have also been done by instrumentalists like Kenny Chitsvatsva, David Mankaba, Shacky Kangwena and Rise Kagona although they had their own songs. But multi-tasking can have its limits no matter how well done. And this is where Fatima has found her own niche. She lives to kill it. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Ignore the instruments for a bit and music should stand the test as voices blending. The sincerity of Lead singers and backing vocalists need to be a song within a song. The attention to detail at JP studios is stunning. They employ a fulltime video script writer. Videos like Kucheneka and Chengetedza are made outside the country. But on a cold night on a winter stage worldwide chemistry vocally, instrumentally and stage presence is priceless. In a world of computers and cameras, people still need voices.
Fatima says JP is very conscious of preserving “the band” by embracing the different characters, talents and their strengths. She appreciates the personal attention. Especially when she was not well.
Fatima now appreciates the tough love of her older sister, Edith, who was not always easily satisfied when mentoring. “I owe her everything,” Fatima reflects on the tough love.
Cont Mhlanga, another mentor, predicted success on first impressions. So did Chiwoniso Maraire. Chiwoniso died the same year they meant to do a collaboration. But not before blessing her with these words: “You are going very far.”
Fatima speaks the country’s 3 major languages fluently. Her journey has been full of ups and downs. Now she travels the world.
Her musical influences have evolved from Jazz to all genres. Her remarkable memory for shows and names is amazing.
Rodney JP’s main producer says: “Fatima knows exactly what she wants, tempo, suggested instruments. On our first project together, we needed more than one session to harmonise our vision. She is gifted. JP recognises her value. She is an amazing Artist.”
Rodney’s job involves arranging and re-arranging both vocals and instrument. “She is meticulous. This produces some creative debates. That’s why her voice is a constant on JP’s songs. If the harmony I visualise won’t work, she tells me. Her graph of quality keeps going higher with experience. We require even less times as the years go by. She doesn’t need extensive takes and replays to know she has struck gold. She comes out of that studios and says: ‘I am done.’ We are all a united team. The staff here at JP studios love spending time in my studio listening to the final product. Even when I really need to go home.”
“That band is like a family. The way we have bonded is so amazing,” Fatima exclaims. “We feel the absence of each because each one brings their own positive energy. We have an understanding. I can go away and my voice can be covered by someone else but if people are used to seeing you there is mayhem. It’s horrible to be in my inbox.”
“Knowing how to dance is an added advantage to my work.”
On 18 July Fatima is releasing a duet called “Shanda” with Brighton “Styles Melik” Machaya. Rodney Beats produced it at JP studios. Fatima wrote her own lines. JP allows Fatima to explore personal projects. Rodney recommended Fatima for the song. Brighton was speechless. He had composed with Fatima in mind but didn’t know how to ask. “I didn’t believe we would acquire her services. We never doubted her ability. Rodney proposed Fatima for backing vocals. He used his contacts. Rodney called me to the studio to complete the song. I bumped into JP and got a nice photo opportunity. Rodney played me a demo and there was Fatima’s voice. She had even written a verse.”
This absence of egos at JP studios and the 3G band has assured the hits have keep on coming.
Fatima notes the efforts of fellow backing vocalists: “We may even have 10 backing vocalists but each one brings something.”