|Rising star Mathias 'Matty' Julius|
HE is the consummate artist whose irrepressible talents could not be limited to a single discipline. Audiences in Zimbabwe and abroad came to know him as a dancer and choreographer with the esteemed dance company, Tumbuka.
But on the 10th of May, guests to this year’s edition of the Zimbabwe Achievers Awards (ZAA) in London will rock and skank to the multilingual, soulful reggae vibes of Mathias ‘Matty’ Julius.
The silky-voiced crooner, who has recorded two albums to date, is fast emerging as one of Africa’ most exciting original reggae artists. At a time when West Africa is sweeping the continent in a harmattan of the highly infectious Afrobeats rhythms, Matty is helping to shore up reggae music on the continent. He has been featured extensively in the media and has also performed live on the BBC World Service.
Singing in Shona, Ndebele and English, Matty writes about love, life and the challenges facing many of his compatriots today. His music draws on a variety of influences, from traditional and popular Zimbabwean music to reggae and dub. Ever since the legendary Bob Marley came to perform at Zimbabwe’s inaugural independence celebrations in 1980, reggae music came to be a key part of the country’s urban youth culture, particularly in the working class townships
But while the “ghetto youths” (as they affectionately refer to themselves in their music) have launched into the more brash, boisterous and street-wise dancehall sub-culture, Matty has stuck to what he knows and does best. He belongs to an enduring community of Zimbabwean original reggae artists who have stuck to their craft despite the vicissitudes of the economy and the music market.
Of his journey to recording artiste via dance and choreography, Matty says: “Since I was a kid my dream was to be a performer - music or dance. And I started with music as a teenager trying to do the old dancehall we called digital in those days, playing pots and pans to make ‘riddims’. Then around the early nineties I found myself wearing tights, doing ballet and contemporary dance with Tumbuka Dance Company, and I fell in love with dance and travelling and seeing the world.”
“I was always singing throughout my dancing career, and then in 2006 I decided to set up my own recording studio and start to make music. So I have a soft spot for both. Dance will always be in me but music is growing in me now. I'm lucky to have had the opportunity to pursue both my dreams,” he explains.
His debut album, “Here I Come”, was recorded in 2006 and is currently selling online on iTunes, Amazon and other online stores. In 2011 Matty followed this up with a second album, “Don’t Look Back”, which received generous airplay on Zimbabwean stations and on international online radio stations in the UK, the US, Canada, South Africa and Australia.
The hit song “Twenty-Ten”, an innovative collaboration with Zimbabwean star Oliver Mtukudzi, featured in Zimbabwe’s top twenty. “Pahushamwari hwedu” was the Tafara-born Matty’s huge hit single released in March 2012. A collaboration between well known artists on Zimbabwe’s reggae scene, it features Matty, Mannex Motsi, Thanda Richardson, Kalabash, Cello Culture, Mary Motsi, Chaza, J.Farai, and Lady Squanda.
“The track is about reggae artists in Zimbabwe coming together as one, about togetherness as a nation, about peace and loving one another,” Matty says.
But in an urban youth culture that is awash with a cacophony of foreign sounds, from Hip-hop, R&B and Soul to Kwaito, Funky House and even Soukous, how did Matty come to settle for reggae?
“When I started recording I made collaborations with Hip-hop/R&B/Soul, which was fun, but whenever I heard a reggae beat it always gave me inspiration,” he says, “That's when I decided reggae was for me. I have always liked reggae and after playing a lot of dancehall in the mid nineties, the older I got the less I liked fast music. That's why I prefer slow roots reggae vibes.”
It is hard enough grinding out recognition by music fans in one’s country, let alone in a foreign capital with its steamrolling mainstream musical culture that seems to consign everything else to the margins. But right on the cultural margins of British society is where Matty’s people can be found: Zimbabweans, other African and Afro-Caribbean migrant communities, and pretty much every cultural moth attracted to the vibrant, the creatively incandescent and different.
“Being here in the UK has made me raise my game even more. It's great to see so many other people from all over the world performing to their highest standard and that's opened up more creativity in me,” Matty says.
“The Zimbabwean Diaspora in the UK - or at least around London - are starting to get to know my music. I think they might appreciate and accept my music because it has a different vibe to much of the new music coming out of Zimbabwe today. I now have a fan base coming from the Yorira Ngoma event which I co-founded with Tomson Chauke at the end of 2013. And I'm happy that I've had positive feedback from audiences when I've performed elsewhere too, which is cool.”
For a young Southern African vocalist to pick up the microphone and sing reggae music to the world one is inevitably accosted by references and comparisons to anti-apartheid and social justice hero Lucky Dube, whose African interpretations of the Jamaican genre received global acclaim. Is Matty fazed by these expectations?
“I am a Lucky Dube fan; he was certainly one of the reggae giants coming out of Africa. In terms of my journey, I started performing for my Zimbabwean people first but I would like to perform more abroad and to get more recognition both at home and overseas. I know the road can be long but I'm happy with the positive reception I'm getting so far here in the UK. But only God knows where my journey will end up,” he says.
Guests to the Zimbabwe Achievers Awards gala dinner at the regal Royal Garden Hotel in the fashionable district of Kensington will get to witness Matty’s unfolding journey and rock steadily to his soulful lover’s rock reggae.
Now in their fourth season, the ZAA are sponsored by new money transfer company ZymPay and have become the flagship platform for recognising the achievements of the Zimbabwean community in the UK. Tickets to the event are available for a limited time on the ZAA website.
Matty joins an exciting line-up of performers brought in by organisers to raise the bar even higher this year and give guests an all-round exquisite experience to remember.