Session musicians and backing singers are the unsung heroes of the music industry. They are the supporting music acts whose role on both stage and studio hasn’t really been appraised, let alone appreciated. During live performances, press interviews and awards ceremonies they are seldom acknowledged by the lead singers and bandleaders. Occasionally a session musician or backing vocalist would release a gem of an album which unfortunately would go unnoticed.
But true to their selfless calling and unwavering dedication to their craft, time after time they return to recording studios to contribute to the bandleader’s next project. Being a background musician is indeed a thankless and unheralded role. But in fact they are the true stars of the industry, the mainstay of both the live and recording circuit; very much instrumental in the success or failure of a lead artist. They are always waiting in the wings – ready to be called for the next gig or studio engagement.
One of the session artists’ greatest assets is artistic versatility – their ability to navigate seamlessly across diverse idioms and media that include theatre, film and radio jingles. Without their artistic input producers, soloists and bandleaders are simply unable to craft those best-selling and award-winning masterpieces. One artist has decided to formally acknowledge backing singers and session musicians by launching music awards in their honour. And it is none other than the Princess of Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who recognised their selfless but essential role in the music industry.
“These are special artists who bring variety into one’s music and enhances one’s artistry,” she says. “Without their input I don’t think I would have made it as a recording and stage artist. I was young and inexperienced when I became a professional musician and they were there to guide me. I owe my success to them. Today I look back and appreciate their guidance. It has been ten years since I conceived the idea of honouring them.”
The result is the Backing Vocalists and Session Musicians Awards (BVSM Awards), to be launched in September (Heritage Month) this year. “Their personal and professional contributions have over the years created opportunities of pride and musical excellence and the awards will be a way of honouring them, fostering pride in their own artistic creativity, providing national exposure and celebrating their gift of music with fellow South Africans and the wider world,” she says.
Apart from their gift of song, backing singers are blessed with a sharp ear for harmony, she says. “Backing vocalists are skilled in hearing harmony lines over and around the music and can vocally reproduce what they hear to create harmony vocal line requiring written music sheets or direction from the songwriter or producer,” she explains. When she ventured into the industry as a 20-year-old singing sensation in 1985, township pop was on the rise, thanks to dynamic performers such as Chico, Brenda Fassie and Cheek To Cheek.
But Chaka Chaka took it to another level and provided the professional rivalry that until then Fassie didn’t have. As a young and shy songbird she enjoyed the backing – in every sense of the word – of a formidable and seasoned line-up of session musicians like Teaspoon Ndelu (sax), Wings Segale (vocals), Al Etto (keyboards), Jaws Dlathu (guitar), Zoli Bacela (guitar), Vusi Khumalo (drums) and Attie van Wyk, who played keyboards and was also producer and songwriter.
Van Wyk wrote and produced I’m in Love with a DJ, the 1985 hit single that launched Chaka Chaka’s illustrious career. It turned gold within a week of its release and went on to sell over 80 000 copies in the next few months. Sadly, some of these musicians have since passed on and she hopes to honour them posthumously. She fondly remembers the late Wings Segale, who gained fame in the mid-1980s as lead singer of Afro-funk outfits, Varikweru and Thetha. Segale went on to become one of the prominent session musicians of his generation.
Another special musician she intends to salute with a special award is her dear friend and long-time backing vocalist, Phumzile Ntuli who died of malaria in 2004 after a tour in Gabon, West Africa. Chaka Chaka hopes her awards will also accord an illustrious bevy of backing vocalists their rightful place in the history of South African music. These include Mandisa Dlanga, Beaulah Hashe, Faith Kekana, Stella Khumalo, Khanyo Maphumulo and Marylin Nokwe. Some like Girly Mafura, went on to become solo stars in their own right.
“The purpose of the awards is to provide greater opportunity and recognition for backing vocalists and session musicians,” she continues. The awards event will be staged annually on a date separate from the South African Music Awards or any other event that currently recognises contribution by successful music artists. Preferably this date should be during the month of September when South Africa celebrates Heritage Month. The first event will be held in Johannesburg and thereafter provinces will be given an opportunity of bidding for the event, with successful bidder hosting the event.
Categories of awards
The awards will cover a wide range of genres including jazz, hip hop, gospel, maskandi, mbaqanga, boeremusiek, gospel and kwaito. They will also consider gender parity as well as recognising the golden oldies from the past decades – 1960s to 1980s – while also taking into cognisance the growing talent in contemporary music. The following categories are being considered for the awards:
· Best Female Backing Vocalist (studio and live)
· Best Male Backing Vocalist (studio and live)
· Best Session Musicians
· Best Lead Guitarist
· Best Bass Guitarist
· Best Brass Section and Drums
· Lifetime Backing Vocalist (male and female)
· Lifetime Session Musician (male and female)
· Best Backing Vocalists of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s (males and female)
· Rookie of the Year – Backing Vocalist (male and female)
· Rookie of the Year – Session Musician (male and female)
WHAT FELLOW MUSICIANS SAID ABOUT THE AWARDS
“It has always been my dream to see backing singers and session musicians being honoured in this manner. Yvonne has been talking about launching these awards for years, but I was sceptical. I respect her for this noble initiative because we are the engines of this industry.” – Faith Kekana, seasoned backing singer. She will back Angelique Kidjo during a Miriam Makeba tribute concert at Carnegie Hall, New York later this year with fellow backing singers Stella Khumalo and Zamo Mbutho.
“I have worked for years with Yvonne and I know her as a person who always strives to do things to the best of her abilities. She likes to associate herself with success. Therefore I have no doubt that she will achieve this feat. I believe it is a great idea although personally I don’t support music awards. But Yvonne has my blessings.” – Rollins Lolo Mankge, pianist, multi-instrumentalist and composer who has performed, recorded and toured extensively with the Princess of Africa as a sideman before launching a solo career.
“This is the best thing that has happened to us backing singers. To be acknowledged by a successful and well-travelled musician like Yvonne means a lot to us. I wish other successful soloists and bandleaders will think like her because we have been instrumental in crafting their careers.” – Mandisa Dlanga, singer and dancer who has worked with an array of local and international artists including Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Johnny Clegg, Hugh Masekela, Stimela, Jennifer Rush and Paul Simon. She recently released her debut solo album titled The Dawn.
“Yvonne Chaka Chaka has always been a person who takes musicians into heart – not only recording artists but session musicians as well as the people who actually make music sound good especially for the lead singers because without session and backing musicians there’s no good music. She is someone who has always looked after fellow musicians emotionally and financially while at the same time mentoring young artists about the business of music.” – Bernice Boikanyo, drummer and bandleader who has played with Yvonne Chaka Chaka as a session artist.
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Issued by JT Communication Solutions on Behalf of Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Backing Vocalists and Session Musicians Awards (BVSM Awards) #BVSMAwards