Being Zaki: An interview with Toronto-based singer Zaki Ibrahim

06 Dec 2005

“That’s the one question that I don’t want to answer,” singer Zaki Ibrahim says as I ask her how she can be musically defined. Her music to the average ear accustomed to our traditional classifications is a blend of 70s Soul, Hip Hop, and Jazz. But as she reclines against her sofa and ponders the question some more, she finally offers a proper definition. “It is an interpretation of things that go through my head, the life that I live, the relationships that I have with people and the different things that I go through.”

The music she says “draws from all those things and also speaks to all those things.”

And all those things include the emancipation of the self as in the playfully funky song Grow or self-affirmation as in Take a Stand and also love and social justice, all delivered by a powerfully soothing voice, almost embracing at times, especially when she hits a chorus and carries it in the manner of Alicia Keys or Anita Baker.

Zaki Ibrahim is the daughter of the legendary South African percussionist, activist and storyteller Zane Ibrahim who among many other things founded one of that country’s first community radio stations: Cape Town’s Bush Radio. All throughout the tumultuous years of her childhood, music remained an important component of her family life; from the traditional rhythms and dances of her grandfather to the work of her father.

“As a child my Dad toured around a lot so we had all kinds of instruments in the house,” Zaki says. “It was a very musical and animated kind of family.”

During the Apartheid regime, Zane Ibrahim was exiled and Zaki spent her teenage years in Nanaimo, British Columbia which she remembers as a “very small town” where she says “there was not too much exposure to music outside of the home. So as soon as I had a chance to leave it, I left it.”

She left it for Vancouver where her musical career slowly started taking flight through contacts with DJs, producers and other songwriters.

“But I had been writing songs all along,” she insists. Through that work, came the early collaborations with emcees first in Vancouver, then Toronto, then South Africa where she connected with the critically-acclaimed band Tumi & The Volume. Last year when the band came to Canada on their first North American tour, she traveled and performed with them along with K’naan. The tour was put together by District Six Music, an independent music management company that Zaki cherishes because "they are just a wicked, wicked company" and for a variety of other personal reasons.

“The idea of District Six means something slightly different to me. There was actually a place called District Six in Cape Town where I had family. It was a very multicultural area with a mosque and a church literally in the same block and places where all the musicians used to hang out. There was a lot of music and there are also a lot of freedom fighters that came out of that area. So it kinda played into stuff that I was already on mentally.”

Over the years Zaki Ibrahim has worked with a variety of producers and emcees including Juno-Award winning Kemo of the Rascalz, DJ Serious and more recently Toronto’s own Nick Holder. She has also shared the stage with Bahamadia, The Pocket Dwellers and The Quartertones.

One of those collaborations with Citizen Kane is the song Lies [listen] included in the recently released Headnodz EP under the TreeHouse Records label. It tackles the many falsehoods that both our history books and our political leaders continuously serve us, reconnecting Zaki with themes that permeate her life.

“I’ve grown up in a political mind state. My politics are like by the people for the people, on that kinda tip. My mother is Scottish/English. In my household, politics, racial issues and knowledge of what South Africa is and the dynamics there, my color, awareness of what goes on around me, …I’ve had to deal with that all my life.”

Zaki’s single Daylight will be released in the UK by London-based label Headnodz at the end of this month. The album is in the works although there is no specific release date yet. Her plans for the future include expanding her musical horizons and working on various community improvement projects both in Canada and in South Africa:

“I want to continue to develop youth workshops on visual arts, music, appreciating and discovering your talent, self-expression, art for social change, music for social change. If you’re able to express yourself, it’s like therapy almost, to be able to put your talents to use.”

Zaki Ibrahim will be performing at the 2-year anniversary of District Six Music on Friday December 9th at 10 pm at The Revival (783 College Street). For more on Zaki, visit www.myspace.com/zakiibrahim

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