Sensational singer-writer, Wiyaala, is riding high on the crest of time. The Funsi (Upper West region of Ghana)-born artist continues to global stardom by dishing out pop-inflected tunes that are breezy but topical and of global relevance. Young, gifted and fiercely independent, WIYAALA draws her inspiration from her roots. WIYAALA – “The Doer” – is one of the most exciting and endearing voices coming from the motherland Africa, and she has got quite something to say. She fields 12 questions from Feferity….
Tell us the Wiyaala story. How did we get here?
It’s a long story!
I grew up in Funsi which is a traditional village in the Upper West region of Ghana. Funsi is quite remote (about 15 hours by road to Accra). I’m the second eldest of four sisters and my Mother is a Catholic and my Father is a Muslim with four wives. I was always singing and entertaining from a very early age. I used to organise the children to put on shows for my Grandfather who was a chief of the village. It made him happy and I liked that. Others though, mocked my dreams said that there could be no future in music for a girl like me. They said the life of a female musician was like being a prostitute and I should rather get married and settle down. Quietly, I ignored them and resolved to prove them wrong even though I had no idea how I would do it.
After school in 2009, I did some recording at Echo-Soundz studio in Wa. First, I backed the local rappers, but after a while I saved some money and recorded my first album. The songs became and remain to this day very popular. You can see the beginnings of my recording career with this song “Diirikokana (When You’re A Nobody)”
Then for three years I made the journey to the reality shows in Accra. In the third year I finally made it through the auditions and emerged as a runner up in the finals. After that one or two well-known managers in Accra said they wanted to manage me, but it came to nothing and I had to return to the Upper West. This almost crushed me, because I knew in my heart I was more talented than many of those who were currently popular. But fate intervened and later that year I went to Ghallywood to do an acting course and it was there I met my manager. He immediately saw my talent and we started to work together.
In 2012, I did the Vodafone Icons reality show and with my group Black & Peach we won the competition hands down.
I did a year with the group and then went solo in 2013. It was then I recorded Make Me Dance, Rock My Body and my album “Wiyaala” which established my career. In 2014 I got 4 nominations and two awards for “Rock My Body” including Most Promising Artist on The African Continent at The All Africa Music Awards (Afrima.org)
Not since Osibisa has any African artiste or group cultivated an immense cult status abroad. You are an upwardly mobile all-round artiste.
Are we looking at the new ‘Africa’s Afro-Rock Ambassador’?
I certainly hope to be a musical ambassador for Africa! I’m 30 years old now and I would love to think that I have a very long career ahead of me. In many ways, I take my example from iconic African female singers like Angelique Kidjo, Brenda Fassie, Yvonne Chaka and Miriam Makeeba. But I am Wiyaala and I am carving out my own style and personality. Sometimes people say I’m like Grace Jones. Thanks, but the reality is that I am Wiyaala, the young lioness of Africa!
What got you into song-writing and performing? Childhood dreams, quest for release from some form of pressure, money?
I would say I was born with the gift of song and performance. My mother is from a musical family. My uncle was a song writer. She is a chorister and she used to take me and my three sisters to church where I was happy to sing out and play the drums. But also, very significant, was watching old VHS video cassettes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. I was spellbound by Madonna’s Take A Bow. I used to borrow my mother’s brassiere, paint my lips bright red and entertain family and friends with imitations of her and Michael Jackson. If I didn’t know the lyrics I would write my own within the beat using my local language. And I was good at it. Very often I would be asked to entertain the village. I did it naturally and dreamed I would one day be famous and perform on TV just like them. People used to laugh at my dreams, but it just made me more determined!
Despite the heavy Afro-Pop outlook and sound, your infusion of tribal folk music is remarkable. Would you consider more experiments with other music forms such as Diaspora African music like from Cuba, Brazil etc.?
I don’t consider myself limited to any particular musical form. I love my local folk music which contains many references to traditional African values. Sun & Moon is based on the concept that just as the sun must give way to the moon, every man will have his day, but he in the fullness of time will give way to another:
But I also love Western pop music, the Blues and Jazz. Recently I was on tour in the UK with GRRRL which is a collaboration of female artistes from Brazil, Venezuela, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Sohini Alam from Bangladesh was really surprised when she heard me singing Indian songs. Guess where I got them from? Just watching Bollywood movies! I loved all the different influences our respective styles brought to the work. And I’m really hoping that as time goes by I will work with all kinds of genres and influences as I’m totally receptive to new challenges.
Award-winning Wiyaala: hugely talented, an enchanting entertainer and immensely creative. Within such a short period of time, you have set yourself apart as a brilliant achiever with several awards and nominations to boot. To what would you attribute your run of good fortunes?
I really think it’s because I have a manager who has encouraged me to follow my own musical instincts. Since it is the artist that gets to perform before an audience, surely, they will be the first to know whether their work is being appreciated. I’ve been performing since I was about three years old, so I should know! But seriously, I think too many artistes are influenced into thinking they should follow the latest trend in music. Even if it costs me commercially, I’m reluctant to deviate from being the real Wiyaala.
Successful artistes have been known to keep two separate lives – one for the stage and the other, their privacy. You have been described by your androgynous image (partly male, partly female in the way you appear on stage). Is this your natural appearance or an adopted façade for your stagecraft?
For me, I think the boy/girl persona’s overlap. I grew up a tom-boy. I was very athletic and played some quite serious football as an aggressive ball-winning midfielder. The boys used to tease me by calling me “man-woman”. As a teenage girl it hurt a little as I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was nineteen. But as my musical career evolved, I realised that these characteristics were giving me a unique stage identity. So, I have encouraged this androgynous image to some extent. I design and sew my own stage costumes and they can vary from an Afro-Amazonian look to traditional African. If I was to wear something western on stage, it would probably be an investment banker’s suit! But I also would say that I really am female (last time I checked!) and one day I hope to have a baby!
Now to a fun question: What would you name your yacht when you buy one?
I cannot imagine owning a yacht! What would I do with it? Well, since you ask, I would probably name it “Tom & Jerry”. I love cartoons.
I did a year with the group and then went solo in 2013. It was then I recorded Make Me Dance, Rock My Body and my album “Wiyaala”
You are without doubt an outspoken, social commentator. Why politics and activism? Why is Wiyaala not solely committed to creatively making music?
Yes, it could be said I’m an activist because I do speak out about things that are wrong such as child marriage and physical abuse of children. I’ve also spoken about the sexual harassment of women by men in the music industry. But these are things I would have talked about anyway even if I had not gotten a high profile. As for politics, I never talk about it in public. Neither do I speak about religion which seems to be a frequent cause of wars and social division. I’m a strong supporter of peaceful and tolerant co-existence.
So, are we looking at a future ‘President Wiyaala’? Would you consider going into politics in the near future?
No, I really don’t see myself as a politician. It seems to me that being a politician involves so many difficult compromises. I don’t think I’m ready or wise enough to do such work.
You are famous for designing your stage dresses. When are you going to launch your own fashion line/label?
I don’t know. For the time being I’m happy to just be a musician. Sitting down with businessmen to commercialise by “brand” (I hate that word!) is not a priority. As I’ve grown in the business, I realise that it is the art in my music and visuals that fans really appreciate. Let’s see, maybe I’ll look it at in time, especially if it is promoting Ghanaian made products.
What are your current projects and what should we expect next?
I have a new album coming out in the next couple of months. It is what I would call a body of “work” and not a collection of random singles thrown together. My first album, “Wiyaala” was produced in South Africa by Jurgen Von Wechmar at Sunset Studios in Stellenbosch with the musical arrangements done by Melissa Van Der Spuy. Melissa has had a training in classical music. You can see the influences in my love song “Idunne”. I decided that it would make sense to make the second album with them and explore further the work already started. So what you will see an album is made up of songs which reflect the traditional African themes of my childhood and also introduces elements of western culture which have impacted on Africans. I’ve released one single from the new album, it’s called “Village Sex”. Don’t be fooled by the naughty title. It’s about women encouraging young men to get married and enjoy sex within a happy and committed relationship. The song is a re working of a traditional wedding song from my village. Thanks to TV and the smart phone penetrating the remotest parts of the planet, the world is becoming more holistic. My music is part of that process.
Last year I started the Djimba World Music Festival in Wa to promote the idea of the Upper West with its own musical identity. This year it will take place again in Wa and in years to come I hope that tourists will come to our region to enjoy both that and the other sights in our region. I’m also aiming to do an album launch concert in Accra in the early part of 2018.
I’m also expecting to go on tour again with GRRRL in 2018. There has been some talk of us going to Brazil and India as well as the UK and Europe. I hope that comes true!
What drives Wiyaala’s creativity?
This feels like a spiritual question. Why does a man or woman want to go to the moon and beyond? I think that when a human being is born with a talent, they will in most cases feel driven to explore the boundaries of that talent. Is it just a coincidence that I was given the name “Wiyaala”? The meaning of my Sissala name is “The doer knows best”.
Thank you for this opportunity
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