The singer-songwriter talks to Jo Frost about tapping into her Zambian heritage
Still only in her early 30s, Namvula Rennie has had an impressively peripatetic life so far. Born in Zambia to a Scottish father and Zambian mother, she’s lived in Switzerland, Kenya, the US and now the UK. “I’ve had quite a meandering adulthood, finding my way,” concedes Namvula. “But Zambia has been a constant.”
It’s this Zambian heritage that really comes to the fore on her debut album, Shiwezwa. She is named Namvula (meaning ‘Mother of Rain’) after her great-great grandmother who was known as the ‘priestess of rain’ in her village of Shiwezwa. “The name is so powerful,” says Namvula, talking about her highly esteemed relative. “It’s about recognising the people that I didn’t know but who are still in my blood. What I know of them is a source of strength and inspiration.”
Namvula was ready to jack in any aspirations of a music career when in her early 20s a so-called “well-meaning” boyfriend told her she was too old. Instead she pursued a variety of other work, including photography, curating events and programming. “I felt like I was suffocating,” she says. “I would go to work, come home, stay up until 2 in the morning writing songs… I reached a point where I was so unhappy, I thought if I don’t try this now, then I might never try it, so I took the plunge, quit my job, and I went back to Zambia.”
This turning point happened in 2012 when an eight-week visit ended up being six months. “It changed everything,” says Namvula. “I was still very much searching for my identity. I didn’t intend to write most of the stuff for the album out there but that’s what happened. I just lost a lot of fear.”
There’s a soulfulness to Namvula’s voice; one that sounds well-travelled, having picked up many influences along the way. Indeed she sings in English, French, Portuguese and Lenje, her family’s local language. One of the songs in Lenje is called ‘Nsalamo’ written about her great grandmother who left her husband after he essentially treated her like a slave. “Apparently one day she carried her two children back to her village, it would have taken her five days to a week,” says Namvula. “When I hear that story, I look at my mum and I think, this is the kind of woman that you’ve come from, whose blood is in your veins.”
Namvula’s Scottish connection originates from her father who was born in Montrose. “Emotionally I feel less connected to the place,” she admits, “but I definitely have a strong interest in it.” She’s certainly curious about the wealth of tradition her Scottish heritage offers and is thinking about a future project exploring the folk traditions of Zambia and Scotland.
In the meantime, Namvula’s focus is on Zambia where she’ll return in December. She also hopes to finally visit Shiwezwa, the home of her namesake. It will undoubtedly be a gratifying homecoming, revisiting the roots of her album. “I just feel really proud and happy that it’s true to who I am.”