By Yara Alkurd, Ella Clair and Hugh Heller
“Melbourne has really defined it’s own style of music, and has grown an identity because of the mixing of artists” says Zhonu “Nui” Mzali Moon, AKA “Future Roots” and one half of Digital Afrika. While opening up about his extensive collaborations amongst the Afro-Aussie music community, Nui exchanged his views on the relationship that so-called Australia has with immigrant artists. Earlier this month I chatted with the percussionist-producer-DJ about the significance of his roots, integrating world music into raves and the demand Melbourne has for migrant-made music. What follows is an abridged version of the conversation.
Let’s start with a bit of background on you. How Digital Afrika became a part of your journey?
My father is Ghanaian and Moroccan. And my mother is European Australian, I guess; Scottish/Irish. I was conceived in India where they met but then was born here in Australia. So, I consider myself “Afro-Aussie”; that’s a term I use sometimes.
I was into urban, Afro-American music as a teenager and later in life, but that led me to explore more about African music and traditional music from around the world. I've always been into drumming and actually went and studied percussion in West Africa. I went and explored my roots. And I'm still doing that. I've been to different parts of Africa about nine or ten times now.
That musical journey has led me deep into traditional African music. I've always been interested in dance music, electronic music and electronic production; making beats. So it's kind of a new evolution of Afro-house. I got more into DJing... you know, into producing and making that music.
It's been a really amazing journey working with the EP we're just about to put out, because it also features lots of other Aussies from Melbourne including Remi Kolawole and Thando. Oh, [I’m a] big fan of Thando. She came and killed it. Gbade from Nigeria, who's a more recent immigrant to Melbourne, who plays in the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra, as I do. And another friend of ours, Dominic Wagner, also did a rhyme on it, as well as an Afro-American rapper, Cazeaux O.S.L.O. Some of them are Australian mixed with African. Some of them are African immigrants to Australia. Some of them Afro-American immigrants to Australia. The new EP is really representative of that.
Where do you feel your home is?
Yeah, that's a really interesting question. That's the journey for us to discover, you know? I'm still learning about that, and where I feel home is and why. Learning about my original cultures and my adopted cultures; in some ways you feel like you're not particularly connected to either 100%. And I think if you don’t 100% identify with one particular culture, there can be difficult times where you feel you're missing something. It can be confusing. You really have to be resilient and look within. What do you have? What you do have is an opportunity, I think, to take the best parts of all your cultural influences. You can mould something new from all that material given. If you choose to look at it as an opportunity, surely it can be.
It also gives you freedom to connect to other cultures or make new bridges and connections between cultures. Maybe it’s your role. I love Australia; specifically the land itself. As a younger teenager, I really wanted to leave here to understand my father's origins. I had a really strong calling to go to Africa. Which I did as a teenager, I think I was 17 on my first trip to North Africa, and Senegal.
Through my artistic endeavours; I've travelled, and I've interacted with musicians all over Africa and the world. At first, you're kind of searching. But at some point, you're more confident and you have a stronger identity; a sense of yourself. It's a confusing journey, but kind of rewarding. I would recommend it to anybody who is thinking about returning to their roots if they've immigrated to a new country, because I think you immediately understand your parents a lot better. Understanding the environment they grew up in, their expectations about their children, and what their life journey is about. So that was probably the most important journey I ever took, that first trip. And I'm glad I did it as a kid; it is a formative age.
Compared to other music scenes you experienced, what did you find to be so special about Melbourne's music scene?
I arrived in Melbourne almost 10 years ago after living overseas for a while in Europe and North Africa, where there was a freshness and a freedom. The scene here in Melbourne could be looked at as restrictive. There's not really a big enough scene to totally support different styles of non-Western music exclusively. So there's a lot of crossover; mixing of artists and styles of music. At first that kind of feels a bit washed out. It’s like not really jazz, or not really hip hop. Initially, it's difficult because it feels there’s more compromise involved.
But I think over the years, Melbourne's really defined its own style of music and has grown an identity because of the mixing of artists. It's been great to be part of that. Even within the African music scene in Melbourne, it's just a few Senegalese and a few Ghanaians and a few Sudanese, and they're more inclined to work together, where they wouldn't necessarily either in their home country, or even in a larger city, where there are really established scenes for each country.
Another great thing there’s a lot of live music venues, and hopefully, after COVID there still is. They are very vibrant people, the people of Melbourne, and they support live music a lot. There's a lot of smaller gigs, constantly going on. And in the last decade, I would say a lot of festivals have built up around the Victorian area, as well as in the city.
Audiences love categorising and sometimes find genre-defying music confusing. What has your experience been like sharing Digital Afrika with an Australian audience?
It's really interesting with Digital Afrika. It's dance music; even though it's very syncopated with complex parts, there are also very simple rhythms. It's 'house-y' in a way, so we've actually been able to talk to a huge audience in Australia, from people who like world music to people who just like raving and everything in between.
It's also a nice kind of vehicle. A lot of people that wouldn't have listened to traditional percussion are suddenly exposed to it through the dance genre. So it feels like we’re making little steps, educating people about cultural music through more popular forms of music.
What do you think would happen if radio stations explicitly played music of different cultural backgrounds for the next three months?
That would probably work! Pop music is the popular music that's put in front of people. They can see more of it because they're exposed to more of it. Hopefully, popular music does get more diverse in the future. A lot of popular forms of music actually started from African music; blues and jazz to, you know, R&B and hip hop.
Interestingly, it does feel like there is a bit more of acceptance of truly African music, and modern forms of African music. The Afro beats and all the kind of pop music coming out of Africa at the moment is definitely making a big impact on the world. It does seem to be the time for the African sound to make a push into popular music.
Over the last few years, what kinds of diversity have you seen within your music community?
Well, I've been going to Africa every year, and working with a lot of Africans. Last year, I received a grant from VicArts to do some recording in Ethiopia and North Africa. So, I'm really cultivating a bit more; not just the local Australian music community, but bridging more Australian world music with the world. I’ve been trying to move more into that role of being a facilitator of Australian music, collaborating with international artists.
But otherwise, as a percussionist, you can fall in and out of many forms of music and work with many different types of people. It's actually a very versatile area of music. I've worked with some great Indigenous artists and with Papua New Guinean, Pacific Island drummers. I've worked with West African drummers in more popular forms of hip hop and reggae. So yeah, my musical community is very diverse. I'm a real collaborator in the truest sense.
How do you think we can create a stronger sense of home for immigrants in the music community of so-called Australia?
I think that has come a long way. I did feel, when I first arrived in Melbourne, that a lot of the more established artists had more of a classical training; they were quite elaborate, theoretical players. Whereas now I feel like there's been a lot more interaction from musicians, immigrant musicians, who are masters of their own form. That scene of Australian orthodox musicians has embraced all the cultural players more. I think they’ve had to; it was a bit stale.
I think the Australian music scene is hungry for more colourful and cultural influences; especially in Melbourne. In Melbourne specifically, there are a lot of agencies and funding bodies that are empowering immigrant and ethnic groups to produce their own music, distribute and perform it. There could be more of that, because apart from musical processes, learning the business of it [is important]; how to build your profile and production skills and have a network of technicians working with you. It goes a bit beyond just the musical element.
Only a couple years ago, I got my first grant to produce music and I've been making music in Melbourne and Australia for more than 10 years. I went for a couple early on and didn't get them. There was a real language involved with it; professionals would write grants for you. Now, the grant bodies are moving away from that model, making them a lot easier to word and get your point across.
Do you think that you have experienced privilege as a male immigrant? If yes, how so?
Yeah, I would say that's kind of innate in the music scene, especially with regards to female instrumentalists [as opposed to singers]. It's just much more dominated by men playing drums and bass and guitars and horns, especially within the professional realm. I've never really thought about it much, until I travelled to Cuba and did some recording and studying over there for a couple months. Maybe it's their socialist background or something; the women are clearly represented [in roles such as] military doctors; it's very down the middle.
But interestingly, it was similar in music. There were just so many females ripping on the instruments. Just burning. I was just like, damn, there's so many girls on stage, not just singing, but playing percussion and bass. In the other realm of music, there's been a huge rise of female DJs in the last couple of years in Melbourne and across the world. So that’s definitely been a welcome change. Who wants to watch a dude up there dance to his own tracks and stuff? It's not as cool. Why hasn't this been a thing forever?
You use Future Roots as a stage name. What does that phrase mean to you?
Well, I was heavily into reggae music, and interested in the ideology around reggae music and most of Rastafarianism. I like that idea of going back to your roots and understanding where you’re coming from, and then your future and where you're going. So that's what it entails. But interestingly, after I'd started using the name I had this crazy vision, and I saw it as an acronym as well. To explain that, future is Forward Universal Thoughts Unifying Revolutionaries Everywhere. And roots is Respect Of Original Traditions and Symbols. I came up with that after I’d been using the name for years. It was a mind blowing minute for me. That really is what it represents, and I’m still trying to live up to that.
What would you have liked to have experienced differently as an emerging artist in the music industry?
Getting paid more money. I've never been into the “starving artists” thing. I didn't sign up for that. It's been very interesting in COVID. Our industry has been devastated. I'm up here, fortunately, at the moment in Byron Bay, and there's some opportunities to do some small performances. We've been doing some African dance classes with Digital Afrika. People can actually dance to our music [because of the] athletics area of legislation laws around COVID.
It's been interesting to see how important it is for people to have these outlets; to be able to gather in groups and dance and enjoy and be together. Maybe there'll be more value put on arts and culture in the future. We can’t say for sure, but I think people are really accessing the value of it, as it's been taken away from us.
What's a piece of advice you would give to your younger self?
I guess believing in oneself and not giving up on your own originality. I didn't really have an orthodox musical upbringing or career, but all the parts have made sense eventually. So you know, to believe in that what you're doing is valid, and will be important for something, somebody or even just yourself. I think when you're emerging as a young artist, self doubt comes through at different times. Whether due to believing in your art or trying to make ends meet. There's all types of challenges that come with being an artist. But I think it's worth the journey.
Keep up to date with Nui here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other First Nations people who have read this article.