Anna Mudeka: 'Moving to Norfolk was one of the best things I ever did'
- Credit: Denise Bradley
Anna Mudeka radiates the life and sunshine of Africa. Her enthusiasm for her country and continent is infectious, but so is her love of East Anglia.
After more than two decades in the county, she appears comfortably reconciled with the bridge between her cultural roots in Zimbabwe and her home in central Norfolk, where she brings the two together in her performance, creativity, lifestyle and outlook.
But as a musician, writer and performer, she also acknowledges how pandemic lockdowns brought a new focus and realigned the pace of her creative output.
Growing up in a modest bungalow in a township not far from the capital Harare in Zimbabwe with her grandparents Dennis and Anna, the work ethic of her grandfather and the musicianship of her grandmother became her inspiration.
Looking back, with little access to TV and radio, she reflects: “My life had so much joy; it was just full of life from when you woke up to when you went to sleep. We were encouraged to go and explore, to just be kids and be curious and have fun.
“We would usually leave the house after breakfast and go and play and play and play until it got dark or until we were hungry and then would come home. It was a fine childhood.”
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In a world of gadgets and distractions, she values a world of being outdoors.
“We had to make our own entertainment,” she added. “The word bored just did not exist.”
Coming to Norfolk
Her grandmother encouraged Anna, her aunt and her cousin – who were of a similar age – to follow a passion in music and be the first in the family to make it their career.
Anna first left Zimbabwe aged 17 to perform in Japan and then came to the UK the following year and has been here since.
She was part of a 15-piece dance troupe led by an ambitious director called King George, who would cycle for miles from the township into city to look for venues and opportunities.
During that time, the troupe appeared in three films produced by an agency ran by a white Zimbabwean, a mixed-race Zimbabwean, and an Englishman from Norwich, who eventually managed the dance troupe.
When his visa expired, he returned to Norwich and Anna came along to build her career from Norfolk.
“I knew a lot about Norwich when I was in Zimbabwe; I knew about Robert Chase and the game with Bayern Munich,” she laughs.
Calm and welcoming
“I am very grateful to Norfolk,” she continued. “I came here as an 18-year-old and had to find my feet and understand the culture, the food, the weather, the different ways of being.
“Had I arrived in London I do not think I would have survived. Norfolk is calm, people leave you alone, they know you are there, but the welcome I have had is incredible.” She found opportunities at Norwich Arts Centre and today the venue, along with The Playhouse and Theatre Royal, continue to support her work.
“They have embraced what I do,” she said. “I have to quietly laugh when young Zimbabweans write and say ‘how have you made it’, or the deeper question: ‘how have you made it in Norfolk’.”
She briefly moved to London in 1998, but was back in Norfolk the following year.
“It was either move back to Norwich or back to Zimbabwe – those were the two options - and I came back to Norwich and picked up where I left off and that is the best thing I ever did.”
Since 2016, she has moved away from touring with a seven-piece band and shifted the emphasis of the message.
“With the band, the message was always this happy sunshine African vibe but I also wanted to create something more meaningful, that challenged minds - not just the western mind but also the African mind - in terms of where do we sit with our own culture, and deep down what do I understand about living in two cultures, where did I belong?”
From that, she created her first one woman show, which is part of five shows that will develop in the next five years, to “tell stories of remarkable women who have achieved amazing things against all the odds.”
The first, Kure Kure, Faraway toured England in 2019, and addressed themes of identity, migration, assimilation and empowerment framed in the legends of her Shona ancestors and her own story of settling in the UK, from her childhood in Zimbabwe, the influence of her grandmother and the difficult decision to leave and pursue her dream as an artist in the UK.
“We are now in process of developing the second one woman show which is exciting, challenging, ambitious and scary,” said Anna, 45, who is Founder and Artistic Director of Tambai Promotions and a passionate ambassador for the arts and culture of the sub-Saharan continent.
Her heritage is reflected in her personality and in her work, and underlined by the African phrase “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, meaning that a person is a person through other people, and that remains a theme of her one-woman shows.
“We are attached to the culture of where we grew up and for me that culture is the umuntu culture, the human being part of that culture,” said Anna.
“I am sure we all come to those crossroads from time to time; for me it was trying to make sense of what is in the umuntu; what is she about - a mother, a performer and sister, is she a foreigner, is she a Zimbabwean. She is all of these things.
“I have met people from my culture who are probably too shy to say they are Zimbabwean, or embrace and be proud of this vibrant culture. I am unashamedly proud of it.”
That, she underlines, is conveyed through her performance.
Believe and breathe
As we chat over a coffee in the natural light of her home, she emphasises: “I am a musician. That is my first passion. I write music, perform and also teach.
“My genre is very much rooted in sub-Saharan African cultures, and though I am from Zimbabwe, I have been fortunate enough to work with dance troupes where I learnt music from other different cultures of Africa.”
All around are those links with Zimbabwe; with an Africa room in the house and world music constantly playing.
“I believe and breathe in that culture so much but always say without the Zimbabwean culture I would not have met the many people I have met, so I think for me it is so important that I keep that heritage. That connection is really strong because it has actually given me so much of what I have been able to create.
“It is with the clothes I wear, the food I eat and there is a healthy Zimbabwean population in Norfolk now and if I just wanted to speak in my language for that day I can, and I have a neighbour who is from Zimbabwe.
“What works with Norfolk and all these different cultures, is that there are not areas where just black people live, we are intermingled within the county, whether in inner city Norwich or the outskirts, we are just dotted around and that is healthy.”
Hope and determination
A multi-instrumentalist, singer, writer and educator, who is proud to share the ancestral heritage of her native Zimbabwe through performance and workshops, the second one-woman show – Mama Afrika: Hope, Determination and Song - will tell the story of a famous South African singer “who used her voice to talk about the evil of apartheid.”
In it, Anna tells the life story of an iconic singer, songwriter and civil rights activist, charting her rise from the townships to a global star. The show features popular songs including Mbube, Pata Pata and Soweto Blues.
Before taking the show on tour in 2023, there will be performances this June at Norwich Arts Centre (June 14), Sheringham Little Theatre (June 22) and Eastern Angles Ipswich (June 25).
While Anna has a new excitement about performing again, she acknowledges how the pandemic re-shaped her approach.
“Lockdown gave us time to rest the mind,” she continued. “By that, I mean my life had been tours, recording in the studio and touring again, so I never had time to just sit and create.
“I really enjoyed that process of just focusing on the creation side of the music, so moving forward I found that I am able to support my projects in a way that also sits with my wellbeing as well.
“I know the time I need to take to refocus, re-energise, and this is the first year I have been able to do that in the mad crazy career so moving forward I am now planning a year ahead and that is giving me time to pace myself rather than just running all the time to catch up. What comes out is more polished.”
West End debut
Pointing to career highlights, she reflects on her debut in London’s West End with the RSC’s production of Kunene and the King, performing alongside Anthony Sher and John Kani at the Ambassador Theatre.
“That was a big highlight of my career, one I shall never forget.”
But as a teenager, working with Thomas Mapfumo in Zimbabwe when she was 17 and performing across the country was unforgettable.
“We were three girls from the same family who grew up in a township, working with the top man in Zimbabwe - we were suddenly celebrities.”
She is looking forward to her next show but acknowledges it will challenge her creativity.
“People will see a different side of my storytelling,” she said. “It is my role to tell stories, I am not an actress, and that will be a nice challenge and very exciting.”
Listening and learning
Within Norfolk she is working with the African Choir of Norfolk, the Norwich Pride Choir, school workshops and corporate groups such as her Drumming for Business sessions to encourage work colleagues to play together, but also listen to each other.
Her main instrument is the Mbira (a Zimbabwean thumb piano) but she is also an accomplished Djembe and Ngoma drummer.
“I have to laugh every time I put a drum in front of people, whether they are five or 95, the reaction is the same they cannot help it, they need to make a sound and when I see children in schools pick up a drum and transform to a child.”
In schools, she often sees children who may be withdrawn but find a new expressiveness through drums.
“It cannot all be academic,” she said. “How much of our life is affected by music, whether just listening whether you are sad or happy, music is grounded in the rhythm, the beat, in numbers, and the lyrics.
“The best questions always come from the children, they ask incredibly honest questions. Maybe we could learn from them, it would make the world a better place if we had the confidence to ask the questions that kids ask. There is something about them that fulfils what you do as an artist as a way to inspire the next generation.”
Anna aims to convey the culture of Africa, encourage people to see past stereotypes, and imagine the Africa she grew up in.
“There is something incredibly powerful about the soil of Africa and for me it is to inspire a child to see a different Africa and also take them on a journey. The music at the end is a little bonus, but the biggest part for me is describing Africa and also the questions.”
As with so many freelance performers, Anna acknowledges she looked for a Plan B in case the music did not return post-lockdown, and that saw her and partner Mark Gorton – who is in the poultry industry - establish an apple juice business and open a camp site on the North Norfolk coast.
“In between that, the charity I set up in 2011 to support children in Zimbabwe with education, the Mudeka Foundation, is still running and has been keeping me busy.”
The Mudeka Foundation now supports five schools, paying pupils’ fees, building bore holes for water, feeding children and providing sanitary products, with money raised in Norfolk.
She met Mark over a game of squash in Norwich and they have lived in their current home in the Breckland village of Southburgh since 2006.
With two daughters, Evie (15) and Carly (12), away from her music, she enjoys yoga, meditation, gardening and eating out.
“My favourite thing to do is take myself for a walk on a winter morning at Wells beach but I love my garden. I am very proud to say my family eats from the polytunnel all year round: I’m planting garlic, raspberries, salads, kales, and vegetables.
“If I just want my space, you will find me in my garden,” she tells me. “There, I can be anybody.”