DJ Natalie Wamba to shake things up at Zirot Tarbut

The new “arts-infused festival” was initiated by the Jerusalem Development Authority, together with the municipality and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry.

 DJ WAMBA goes with cross-cultural interdisciplinary flow. (photo credit: Shoham Efrati)
DJ WAMBA goes with cross-cultural interdisciplinary flow.
(photo credit: Shoham Efrati)

In addition to the other very human woes and tribulations, the past two years have not been easy on purveyors of cultural fare, across all market sectors. Hence, the forthcoming Zirot Tarbut (Cultural Arenas) rollout is one right royal boon for Jerusalemites and visitors from elsewhere around the country.

The new “arts-infused festival” was initiated by the Jerusalem Development Authority, together with the municipality and the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry. It kicked off yesterday (February 24), and continues today (February 25), with plenty in the way of top-notch entertainment line-ups over the next two Thursday-Fridays all around town.

The stellar rollout includes such industry leaders as veteran singer-songwriter Ehud Banai, comedian-actor Moni Moshonov, rocker Dana Berger and Mizrahi singer-songwriter Amir Benayoun. The musical fare should appeal to a broad consumer catchment area with rock, liturgical, ethnic and pop offerings to be had over the next three weeks. But it’s not just about the music. Dance, theater, calligraphy, poetry, street art and video art are also right there in the Zirot Tarbut mix.

The venue selections also run the gamut of the usual suspect category through to al fresco urban berths and some surprising host facilities. The inclusion of the Jerusalem Theater and Hansen House won’t surprise many a cultural patron nor, possibly, will Zion Square. But the Ben Zakai Synagogue in the Old City is not a regular music festival berth in these parts, and the Rockefeller Archeological Museum in east Jerusalem is not exactly on the city’s usual music beat.

THERE IS plenty to appeal to the senses in DJ Natalie Wamba’s slot at the Rockefeller Museum on March 3 (8 p.m.). The show features in the Rhythm and Movement section of the festival program, and includes operatic vocals and dance.

 THE JISH trio with veteran singer-songwriter Ehud Banai (R) plays the Jerusalem Theater, March 11. (credit: Courtesy JISH) THE JISH trio with veteran singer-songwriter Ehud Banai (R) plays the Jerusalem Theater, March 11. (credit: Courtesy JISH)

Fortysomething Wamba has been performing around the world as a vocalist for over two decades, drawing on her expansive cultural baggage to deliver a diversified repertoire that feeds off all her manifold personal backdrop.

Wamba was born in the Republic of Congo to a Jewish Israeli mother and a Protestant Congolese father who worked in the diplomatic corps. As the political situation in the African republic deteriorated, in the 1980s, it became unsafe for the family to stay there and, when Wamba was seven, they relocated to France. The youngster began imbibing the sounds, smells and rhythms of her new home before her artistic consciousness took on several new dimensions, four years later, when the family made aliyah.

Her father’s extensive record collection had already set the scene for Wamba’s continuing musical explorations, as she wrapped her inquisitive ears around the beats and textures of Congolese traditional music, Western classical music, gospel choirs, blues and jazz, and funk, as well as the sultry sensibilities of Indian meditative music.

Wamba has been sonorously exercising her vocal chords since childhood. She performed at school ceremonies, took part in a slew of youth movement productions, and further honed her skills when she served in an Israel Air Force band.

She says she has always looked to share her variegated cultural upbringing with others. That led to a career move. “I am mainly a DJ now,” she explains, adding that she is not about to give up on her original craft. “I combine singing with that.”

She feels the new pathway of expression helps to complete her multi-pronged artistic picture. 

“I started as a DJ around three and a half years ago. I really dived into it. It is amazing. I started a new sort of genre with Afro-house, techno and world music, all together. They simply combined all the facets inside me. It is a natural fusion for me.”

That sounds like a solid springboard for any artist to use to take their line of trade into new areas of creative pursuit.

The decision to open up an auxiliary professional avenue was spurred by a new musical interest, and the desire to strike a fine organic balance between materials that appealed to Wamba, from across a wide sweep of disciplines and cultural milieu. 

“I knew I wanted to create and, for quite a few years now, I have been interested in electronic music,” she notes. “That area has developed a lot over the last 10 years.”

The latter appealed to Wamba particularly due to its expanding reach. “When world music came into that, and they also began including live instrumental music, that really excited me. I really got that.”

Considering the dizzying stretch of the sounds to which she was exposed in her formative years, that figures. “I liked the electronic kick and I was also able to fuse that with live playing, and singing, and using verbal tools and downtempo [a category of electronic music]. I am in the middle of all that. I am having a lot of fun getting into that.”

IF YOU’RE going to carve out your own niche in the arts field it helps to bring your personal narrative into your professional equation. It is fine to try to wow your audiences with scintillating technique to begin with, to grab the public’s attention. But if you are going to sustain some degree of mass appeal you have to keep the consumers interested and on board.

That generally requires fueling your output with something unique, something that no one else has. In short, that’s your bio.

As Brian – the titular pseudo-messianic character in the Monty Python blockbuster Life of Brian – sagaciously observed, we are all individuals. No one else has lived our life. And when it comes to relating personal storylines through art, Wamba has a head start on most of us.

“All the cultures I have experienced, in one form or another, all of that comes out in my music, and in the lyrics I write and the sounds.” she says. “Today, with all the fusions around, that is tailor made for me. For me that is natural. There are the African sounds I heard up till the age of seven. Then I got into French European music.”

There was more in the personal evolutionary pipeline. “Then I moved here and got into Israeli music,” she says, noting that it was about more than the music per se. “I got into the language here. That was really enriching for me. And now I am getting all of that out. Now that is coming out in my work.”

Language is a powerful engine behind any musical exploit, even one that does not involve lyrics. Each language has its own inherent musical textures and rhythms which must, definitively, impact on both the creative process and the onstage, and recording studio, delivery. In Wamba’s case she has more than her fair share of linguistic underpinning, taking in French, English, Hebrew and Lingala, the Bantu dialect her father spoke. She says that filters through her work, even though it took her some time to connect with her paternal vernacular. 

“That evolved over time. At the beginning it was more French. I don’t sing in Hebrew that much. For some reason I didn’t get on with [that] groove too well,” she chuckles. “But French is natural for me, and English. And then I began to explore Lingala.”

Thus far, that has worked well for Wamba. “I don’t speak much of the dialect, although I am learning it. But, over time, I felt an increasing desire to learn the language and to sing in it. I heard my father and other people speaking it when I was small, so it is not foreign to me. The consonants are different, and the [musical] scales are different.”

Wamba says it is very much a matter of letting go, and of finding a happy mean between her native form of communication, and those she picked up along the way. 

That suits her latest means of musical outlet. “To me it all sounds seamless, and that has become popular in African and electronic music.”

She continues to cast her artistic net far and wide. That can also include Indian music. Wamba does not just spin discs for her audience’s listening and hoofing pleasure, she embellishes the recorded sounds with her own vocals. 

To the layperson DJing and singing seem like two very different activities that, presumably, reference contrasting emotions and techniques. I stood corrected on that one. 

“For me they are exactly the same thing. When I sing the music surges through my veins and lungs, and then out. As a DJ, I dance with the ‘instrument’ – with the button or CDJ [a specialized digital music player used by DJs] – and I am swept away with it. I sing and I am completely enveloped in all of that.”

Wamba has learned to trust her instincts, and that has enabled her to relinquish control over the final product, at least to a degree. That makes her open up to all kinds of creative adventures, such as the one coming up on Thursday. “When they suggested I work with the Israeli Opera and Vertigo [contemporary dance company], I thought, why not?” she laughs. “I thought it could be really cool.”

It promises to be an entertaining venture that should appeal to all kinds of tastes and cultural leanings. “There will be opera singing, and I’ll come in electronic music and Afro groove.”

Spontaneity is very much key to show the narrative. “Everything will be live,” Wamba explains. “I will create the rhythms and mixes while we go along. I will sing together with the opera vocalists. It is very exciting. I have never done anything like this before. It’s going to be crazy. I am really curious to see how it all works out.”

It is fair to say that Wamba’s entire life has led up to this juncture, whereby she is able to accommodate seemingly vastly divergent artistic disciplines. 

“They say that kids who grow up with more than one language often take time to start to speak but, when they do, there is no stopping them. They are also able to take on new languages far more easily at a later stage,” Wamba observes. “I think that has helped me to absorb ideas and feelings and put them out there through my music.”

She also believes it helps her convey her feelings and experiences to others. “For me DJing and singing is the same. The music passes through me and I dance with it, and then sing it. That helps me to feel freer as a DJ and to communicate with the audience. 

“You have to listen to yourself and then go with the flow.” 

For tickets and more info: *6226 and zirotarbut.itraveljerusalem.com/