Monday, April 25, 2016
THEO THOMSON: REINVENTING THE WHEEL
Officially Malawian but with very little to identify with Malawi’s local languages in his lyrics, it has been easy to paint artist Theo Thomson as a mysterious figure hiding behind a stained glass-window.
This picture has not been helped by the fact that his songs— early songs, that is— have been dominated by R&B. Maybe he concentrated on such a genre in a bid to appeal to everyone in a globalised world.
But, still— especially to the culturally-sensitive music lover— his lyrics seem to coil back and again, trapping the listener in a mesh of genres perfected by foreign artists.
The solace, over the years, has been that, to the attentive listener, Thomson’s message has been very easy to understand— often not requiring a complicated listener with an eye for hidden details.
But Thomson seems to have outlived the stage when a youth is attracted by everything that prompts a would-be-musician to develop a magnetic attraction to the first genre he comes into contact with. He says he believes it is high time he changed course and became “more available to everyone”.
It must be ironic that, for someone born in Blantyre, it had to take a group from England, the United Kingdom, to convince him that he had a life in music.
“My music development came from being in a group in England where I underwent dance tuition as well as song writing lessons. I am inspired by artists, other musicians, nature, people— anything that triggers an emotion in me is inspiration to write and artists like Justin Timberlake, Prince inspire me a lot musically,” Thomson says.
Despite being inspired by the likes of Timberlake and Prince, Thomson has always wanted to keep tabs on his culture. Starting off with ‘Gypsy’ as his first studio album, it was clear that Theo wanted to remain connected to his Malawian identity, as evidenced by the fact that the ‘Gypsy’ album included songs such as ‘Kutentha’. The others were, as expected, in English and they included ‘So Amazing’ and the title track itself, ‘Gypsy’.
Now, he has gone back into the recording studio and the product is ‘White Elephant’, marking his second foray into album-release business.
Surprisingly, Thomson says he wants his music to appeal to everyone— unlike in the past when his lyrics were deemed too classy, if not detached, to appeal to the tobacco farmer.
The Chinese say the ‘falling leaf goes back to the leaf’, but Theo wants to get back to his roots while on his way to the top [and not the roots]. In other words, he wants him and everyone to rise up together to the top— which may be the international music market that has proven elusive to him over the years.
He says his strategy [of reaching out to all manner of people] is simple: “By simply being present, making music and myself accessible is the intention with this project.”
He, however, says this does not mean he will be into ingoma or Manganje or mganda. He will remain very much the Afro-R & B singer, though he wants to appeal to the uncomplicated music lover on the local scene.
Thomson says: “I don't feel I have gone very far from that. [Just that] the album has something for everyone. It is multi-faceted just as I am. So, no matter where you are from, what era you relate to musically, this is our story, all of us.
“I stick to my strength [by singing in English]. I have never felt too pressured about that [aspect of singing in local languages]. To me, good music is good music.”
On why he has not been available for performances, Thomson has a quick fire response: “I felt, when there were shows, I was being excluded.”
The White Elephant
As if living up to his multi-faceted billing, Thomson seems to have searched far and wide just to come up with the album title ‘The White Elephant’. Actually, the title is drawn from an old tale in Thailand.
“It is basically the story of the white elephant in a room’. It’s a tale about two villages in Thailand. Roughly, the story goes thus: A small village gave a big village an elephant and the elephant attacked the big village, leaving the big village vulnerable to attack from the small village,” Thomson points out.
Some of the tracks in the 15-track album are ‘Magic’, ‘Where do we go’— which depicts a situation of quandary, which happens in life often when one is not sure where to go.
The other one is ‘Maybe Tomorrow’. The refrain is memorable because of its localized accent— probably because Faith Mussa collaborated with Theo in the song. In the lyrics, a persona tells a lover to come closer. Forever. Never to go away.
Another track is ‘Awake’ [featuring Fatsani Kalonde] and ‘Wings’, a love song that addresses the issue of empowering women every time.
“It [‘Awake’] also talks of my own battle with music itself,” Thomson says.
But, then, why are Thomson’s music videos not played internationally?
“They say [foreign television stations] the colour [in the music videos] is not in line with time. They talk of pictures. They say big journalists are not talking of them [his songs].”
Talking of battles, he has started helping out on health problems, specifically cancer. He admits that “I was affected by situations previously”.
He elaborates: “My grandfather passed away due to cancer. So, we go to the cancer ward [at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital] often. We are raising awareness on cancer. I know of a little boy from the village who has cancer. He needs about K40, 000 every two days to access treatment and he cannot afford.”
Thomson’s brand manager, Prince Chikweba, says Thomson has set his eyes on being available while being relevant.
“In general, Theo used to use the genre Afro-R&B; like the modern R&B guy. Now, he is trying Afro-fusion. My role entails planning how to reach the goal we want to reach,” Chikweba says.
Chikweba says rebranding entails reaching outside as part of corporate social responsibility.
“That is why Theo is thinking of going to rural areas to reach out to rural masses,” Chikweba says.
It remains to be seen whether, as what used to be a somewhat detached Thomson stretches into a more available musician, he may not dilute his original touch in the soup of relevance.