Jonny Vilakazi – back me up
01 January 1970
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Aphiwe Manono: Welcome back to Old Mutual Live Radio, I am in conversation with a vocalist and a conductor and vocal coach, Jonny Vilakazi. If you missed the first segment, we spoke about what music means to him and how he actually got into the music business, so now we’re going to get into the nitty gritty of it all.
It all seems like lights and action, camera-action Jonny, but I’m sure there is so much preparation that goes into working with the big names that you have worked with. What actually goes into putting on a show, a world class show, if I may say?
Jonny Vilakazi: Well, you know, the standard is, it’s a lot of rehearsals, not just rehearsals but like hard work because people can sit and rehearse but not really get anything done. The rehearsal, it takes a lot of understanding, it takes a lot of, it’s the proper execution and interpretation of music because like I said, it’s very important that you have the attitude. The proper attitude or the skill to execute and to produce what is required of you at that particular time, with that particular person that you’re working with.
So it takes a lot of rehearsals, a lot of interpretation, a lot of improvisation, because you need to feel, music is all about feeling, you need to feel it in a certain way and express it the best way that you can. Like rehearsals, in a nutshell, it’s all rehearsals, but just a bit more than that and ja.
AU: Can you tell us a bit more about the artists that you’ve worked with and which of those you have enjoyed working for the most.
JV: Okay, so I’ve got a very big gospel background. I’ve worked with a lot of, and I still work with a lot of gospel artists, but they’re very underground, so they’re not that much accomplished in a way, if I can put it. But when I started doing music fulltime, when I started working with the big names or the big shots in the country, the likes of Nontende, to name one, but there are quite a number, those are so amazing to work with.
Tough out there for backing vocalists
AU: Now, of course it sounds all good and proper and well that you’ve worked with some of these artists, but some of the issues that backing vocalists have are that, it’s tough. You have artists that are booked for gigs and they get paid large sums of money to put a show together and you find that the backing vocalists are not even getting a quarter of a percentage of what the artist is taking home. Have you experienced this in your musical career?
JV: Well, you see, for me, in all honesty, I think they’ve got every right to do that because they are the artist at the end of the day. I believe if you want to, it’s up to you to get to the level they’re at, or if you want to earn half of what they are earning, then you must just do what they do. Actually I do agree with it, I feel a lot more could be given to us and a lot more recognition could be given to the backing singers, especially because they hold the music down.
You find that half the time, it’s going to sound very arrogant or very over confident, but the backing singers will actually outshine the artist. They go the extra mile, do you understand, because artists are very relaxed, they’ve got the albums, they’ve got the DVDs, they’re on TV, definitely, so in a way they’ve made it, they don’t have to prove themselves anyhow.
The guys, they just make the whole thing look and sound so amazing, so yes, they deserve way more, but over and above money, I think it’s the treatment that I would actually question, or challenge them to just up the salary a bit. Over and above the money, for me, it’s the treatment and the respect that the artist needs to give to the backing singers that he’s working with, because they go that extra mile and they hold the music down.
They respect it and they do exactly, because artists are demanding and course, rightfully so, they need to be because for them to get what they want. They’ve got this idea that they’re going to toss down your throat and say, you need to execute it this way. You need to do this, you need to look this way, you need to dress this way, whatever, and you go.
Each and every thing they give you, you sing whatever they want you to sing. You look whatever way, you do whatever dance moves, you wear in whatever way they require you to look like on stage. I think if they would just respect them more and acknowledge them. The money, it’s just the cherry on top, but the treatment, the business side of it, can be more respected. I feel we can be very conscious, like we can just go places, it will be a far better industry.
AU: Now, let’s talk about the way South Africans value or treat their own music. Do you feel like South African music and musicians are getting as much support or enough support from fans in their own homes? Or do you feel like South Africans are still looking to the west for inspiration?
I heard you mention, the reason I’m asking this is because you mentioned Beyonce as your ultimate vocalist, which is fair, and it’s good and it’s your own opinion. But do you think that if a person could just make an African artist their idol, then South African music could take off and reach levels that it has never reached before?
Do South African artists need more support?
JV: You see it’s a bit of both. I feel, number one, the country as a whole, is not giving the proper support that other people have in other countries. I had the privilege of travelling to two countries last year, Scotland and China and I saw how the artist industry, the music industry, comedy, actors and everything, how they get so much support. How they make such a proper living from doing what they do and actually they don’t need to do half the work that we do.
AU: Let’s go back to for example and move around.
JV: For example a normal session vocalist or a backing singer, like I am, who does exactly what I do, except in New York. Who does your Thursday club gig, who backs a few big artists, they earn a proper living. They’ve got a proper monthly salary, they can afford to get a proper car, get married, have a big house.
Meanwhile us, we’re just living from one gig to another. I think the struggle in our country is so big in the arts and I think on the other hand, the artists and the musicians themselves, need to really promote what they do.
It’s still very much about that, still about the lifestyle, about what you wear and not about the music, which is why I’m going to refer back to Beyonce, there’s very little that you know about Beyonce other than it’s all about her and the music and what an amazing vocalist she is and what her points are. I think people need to concentrate on the brand and you need to get the support from the government, from our country.
We’re just so out there out hustling, for you to make a proper living and to be big and serious in our country, you either have to be a doctor, you either have to be a nurse or be a policeman. If you’re doing music, it’s like it’s a hobby. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle and a job, it’s a business, that’s what it is.