The ‘gospel’ according to Janet

SOMETIME in 2015, a package containing a compact disc titled King of Glory by one Janet Manyowa was delivered to my desk.

SOUND TRACK with Phillip Chidavaenzi

In a gospel music sector that has proved magnetic even to fly by nights, the temptation was to just dump it on a pile where many other CDs — with just lukewarm music — had been accumulating over time.

But this particular package was a curiosity. It came with a cover designed like a booklet, spiced up with Manyowa’s pictures and the lyrics to the songs on the album as well as contact details and website address. In a nutshell, it could not escape notice.

I found that particularly striking because details on musicians who have not sung their way into the limelight are often scant.

Two years later, while editing producer Clive “Mono” Mukundu’s second book — Poor & Famous (An Overview of the Zimbabwean Music Industry)— I came across an entry in the manuscript, which took me back to that particular package.

In Chapter 2, aptly titled Launching a Music Career, Mono stresses the importance of musicians having a readily available press kit, which may include current biography, professional pictures, contact details and music videos.

Mono writes: “A Press kit, also known as a media kit, is a pre-packaged set of promotional material for the purpose of providing information about the artiste and their brand. It is distributed to the media for promotional purposes. It can also be used to look for jobs and opportunities. It can also be called a ‘work with me kit’. This can be your ticket to great opportunities.” (pp15).

Although Manyowa’s package only included pictures and lyrics to the songs on the album — itself a rarity in Zimbabwe — to her credit, it had her website address. The website itself has her biography, photos, music, videos, a link to her online talk show — Redeemed — and contact details.

Interestingly, I would bump into that album while surfing Youtube, condensed into a half-hour Worship Moments session recorded at United Family International Church studios. I fell in love with the music, largely drawn from the King of Glory album, instantly. I found it somewhat refraining, but deeply-felt, with that melodious voice tailor-made for worship.

In many ways, Manyowa reminded me of Shingisai Suluma, whose music I have loved for many years — in particular the tracks Tidzidzisei Kunamata, Mumaoko, Hosana and Ndinozviziva. I found it only fitting that Suluma — a former United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) goodwill ambassador in the United States — was there at the launch, after featuring on Muchengeti, off the latest album.

My reading — or perhaps listening — of Manyowa is that she made up her mind right from the beginning that she was going to take no prisoners in her journey to the top. Everything about her music is pre-meditated, calculated and well thought out. In many ways, this appears to have paid off, probably in a way she herself might never have imagined.

Zimbabwean gospel videos have traditionally been typically notorious for featuring distasteful scenes randomly shot in parks, hillsides and backyards and characterised by washout visuals devoid of creativity and ingenuity. In the long run, this became monotonous and uninspiring.

But if anyone is in doubt about Manyowa’s intentions, they simply have to look at her videos, in particular Zadzisa, Ndomira Pamuri and Kune Muponesi (featuring Michael Mahendere). These are colourful, have solid story lines and communicate their themes with clarity. There are no yawning gaps or wasted gestures or expressions.

Zadzisa, which is the sixth number on the new album, is a banger that will take Manyowa far. It’s all about the faithful God who fulfills all his promises. Quite clearly, she left nothing to chance, as meticulous attention has been paid to detail: good scripting, settings, customisation and the use of colour to carry the moods of the songs.

Tinomutenda Nei? — the third song on the album — has a distinctly Celebration Choir feel — high energy, fast pace and metallic. Its sparkling brand new video was uploaded on Youtube about a week ago and the visuals aptly reflect the lyrics. The standards are staggeringly high, and it is not like your usual gospel video. Within one week, the video had clocked nearly 22 000 views and a long thread of adulations from fans.

But if you are sold out to deep worship, then I recommend You Are More. The double header with South Africa’s Nqubeko Mbatha is the stuff of which dreams are made of. This could be the plug track off this offering. It can spiral you into spiritual realms from which you may not want to come back to associate with mortals. It takes you right into the presence of the Divine.

The album opens with Nothing, and if Manyowa is a member of Celebration Church, this track carries the “impartation” — or if you want, the “anointing” — of the house, reminding the listener of the music of Bonnie Deutschle and the Celebration Choir. It’s a “loud” track with elements of pop, funk and metallic feel of rock n’ roll.

Inyasha has a lot of pace and energy, too, as it celebrates the grace of God that made a sinner just the right candidate for salvation. It is a timely reminder to those who have embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ that if it was not for God’s grace, salvation would never have come, or perhaps not in the way it finally did — free of charge.

Although ancient wisdom would have us believe too many cooks spoil the broth, not so on this project despite the many criss-crossing fingerprints — the inimitable producer Andrew Baird, Freedom Muranda, Mark Madzinga, Tino Damba (drummer), Shaun Johannes and Raymond Green (guitarist), among others.

Janet Manyowa Music has become a brand. This is good news: the “gospel” according to Janet. It will definitely find many takers.