Shingai Shoniwa: 'The Noisettes have always been a rainbow tribe'

The singer on collaborating with Africa Express, which features 80 musicians on one train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

With guitarist Dan Smith, Shoniwa formed rock band the Noisettes in 2003. Shoniwa is from south London; her mother is from Zimbabwe.

When did you first get involved with Africa Express?

First by being a fan and going to shows. The Noisettes did our first collaboration with them last year – a gig in La Coruña in Spain. On the first night there was a big jam session, loads of instruments on stage. I remember jamming with John Paul Jones and Fatoumata [Diawara]. On the second day those who had bonded, or had people that they wanted to work with, worked up material for a show on the third night. Nick Zinner was with Rokia Traoré; Damon was at one point with Amadou and Mariam. We had Afrikan Boy get up with us. It was an amazing musical rainbow.

Has it opened you up to lots of new music?

To be honest, I've always grown up in an environment when I've had a lot of musicians coming in and out of my living room. My mum and my uncle used to put on events at the Africa Centre. So before the whole renaissance, Peter Gabriel-endorsed vibe of what people called "world music" in the early 2000s my mum had being doing that since the late 80s. So it was normal for me to come in from school and someone would chuck a shaker in my hand. Someone would ask me: "What's your favourite song?" and I'd say Whitney Houston and they'd say: "Well this is how you play it, zimba style!"

You're well equipped for the collaborative, genre-fusing of Africa Express then…

The Noisettes have always been a bit of a rainbow tribe. For us, [the collaboration] feels easy, exciting – natural, not forced.

The train aspect is fascinating. How do you imagine it will work?

You'll often find that musicians travelling together will end up jamming and singing and getting out a drum anyway. If I get the last train from Victoria to Brixton, or from London Bridge to Deptford, and there's a few musicians on, that's what they'll end up doing anyway. Or say we bumped into Damon on the Eurostar and there was another musician in that carriage, I'm sure within a couple of seconds we'd start jamming. Put that in a context where the whole train is full of musicians, with instruments; where we're not gonna be told, "Keep the noise down"; where it's properly organised, and we've got gigs at every stop… It's what we already do, but multiplying it, doing it on a national scale.


Interview by Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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