Theo Thomson: Reinventing the wheel
He began on a shy note but, as he grows into his art, triumph is certain.
In fact, his glamour, which is enveloped in humility, has reached the corridors of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) right where its head offices are based, the United Kingdom (UK).
On Wednesday, right after coming out of the BBC studio where the news interview was being conducted, he hinted at his next course of action.
The man is none other than Theo Thomson.
“Flow changed. Same name.
“Fresh off the BBC interview. It’s time for new music,” said the soft-spoken artist.
In the interview, he introduced himself to the global audience and, in some moments, enchanted the listener [of the BBC] with good-humoured anecdotes.
He indicated, for instance, that, in the music industry, success is an inter-culture; it has to be cultivated.
Those who focus on a local audience, while throwing the needs of potential audiences globally, programme their minds to be narrow, thereby inhibiting creative thoughts.
Not with Thomson, who repeated that “It is time for some fresh music”.
Gauging by themes he has explored in the past, he is likely to, again, explore the mystery of life by playing around with the themes of love, hope, courage and, in short, how to make the best out of life without giving the world a hint that there is suffering in the world.
In so doing, he will be exploring familiar territory.
What is his familiar territory? The English language, if language were a territory, that is.
This is because, officially Malawian but with very little to identify with Malawi’s local languages in his lyrics. This has made it easy to paint artist Theo Thomson as a mysterious figure hiding behind a stained glass-window.
This picture has not been helped by the fact that R&B dominated his earlier songs. Maybe he concentrated on such a genre in a bid to appeal to everyone in a globalised world.
But, still— especially to the culturally-sensitive music lover— his lyrics seem to coil back and again, trapping the listener in a mesh of genres perfected by foreign artists. This, in a way, shows that he is good at his game.
The solace, over the years, has been that, to the attentive listener, Thomson’s message has been very easy to understand— often not requiring a complicated listener with an eye for hidden details.
But Thomson seems to have outlived the stage where he was focusing more on his game than enchanting the audience. Now that he seems fully developed, he is ready to take on the world.
It must be ironic that, for someone born in Blantyre, it had to take a group from England, the UK, to convince him that he had a life in music.
“My music development came from being in a group in England where I underwent dance tuition as well as song writing lessons. I am inspired by artists, other musicians, nature, people— anything that triggers an emotion in me is [a source of] inspiration to write and artists like Justin Timberlake, Prince inspire me a lot musically,” Thomson says.
Despite being inspired by the likes of Timberlake and Prince, Thomson has always wanted to keep tabs on his culture. Starting off with ‘Gypsy’ as his first studio album, it was clear that Theo wanted to remain connected to his Malawian identity, as evidenced by the fact that the ‘Gypsy’ album included songs such as ‘Kutentha’. The others were, as expected, in English and they included ‘So Amazing’ and the title track itself, ‘Gypsy’.
He then went back to recording studio and the product was ‘White Elephant’, marking his second foray into album-release business.
Surprisingly, Thomson indicated that he wanted his music to appeal to everyone— unlike in the past when his lyrics were deemed too classy, if not detached, to appeal to the cotton, vegetable, fruit or tobacco farmer.
Just that Theo has always reconciled the need to get back to his roots while on his way to the top. In other words, he wants him and everyone to rise up together to the top— which may be the international music market that has proven elusive to the majority of Malawian artists over the years.
He indicated, previously, that his strategy [of reaching out to all manner of people] is simple: “By simply being present, making music and myself accessible….”
Of course, this does not mean he will spread his wings all over— doing ingoma this, Manganje that; mganda this, beni that; far from it. He is likely to remain very much the Afro-R & B singer, though he wants to appeal to the uncomplicated music lover on the local scene.
“I stick to my strength [by singing in English]. I have never felt too pressured about that [aspect of singing in local languages]. To me, good music is good music.”
Thomson seems to have searched far and wide, as evidenced by what he did in ‘The White Elephant album’. Actually, the title is drawn from an old tale in Thailand.
“It is basically the story of the white elephant in a room’. It’s a tale about two villages in Thailand. Roughly, the story goes thus: A small village gave a big village an elephant and the elephant attacked the big village, leaving the big village vulnerable to attack from the small village,” Thomson points out.
There are timeless songs in the 15-track album, including songs such as ‘Magic’, ‘Where Do We Go’— which depicts a situation of quandary, which happens in life often when one is not sure about where to go.
The other one is ‘Maybe Tomorrow’. The refrain is memorable because of its localized accent— probably because Faith Mussa collaborated with Theo in the song. In the lyrics, a persona tells a lover to come closer. Forever. Never to go away.
Another track is ‘Awake’ [featuring Fatsani Kalonde] and ‘Wings’, a love song that addresses the issue of empowering women every time.
“It [‘Awake’] also talks of my own battle with music itself,” Thomson says.
Apart from music, he is a health advocate. He is one of the artists that have done their part to raise awareness about cancer.
“My grandfather passed away due to cancer. So, we go to the cancer ward [at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital] often. We are raising awareness on cancer.” That is the man Thomson for you.
So, even as he works on a new project, he will still be coming out of the studio to poke his nose into cancer issues; to ensure that people prevent it, and that those that have it are accorded all the care they deserve.
That is how artists can stretch other parts of themselves than the voice they employ in their songs. Call it multi-tasking the Theo Thomson way.