“If I hadn’t chosen music as a career then I’d probably be a full-time farmer,” James Sakala tells me. James was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and moved to a farm in Mkushi in Zambia at three years old. He grew accustomed to farm life and the quiet countryside. Growing up James never considered music as a career though he always loved it. He recalls listening to a lot of reggae artists growing up, most especially Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. He also listened to a lot of Oliver Mtukudzi, PK Chisala and Yvonne Chakachaka.
James is of mixed Zambian and Zimbabwean heritage and though he grew up in Zambia he feels Zimbabweans have accepted him and his music. “Being born in Zimbabwe has given me an advantage of being accepted by Zimbabweans. It helps that I easily communicate with them because I’m able to speak some of their languages.” James sings fluently in Nsenga, Chewa and Bemba. He also sometimes sings in Shona, Ndebele, Tonga and Zulu.
Influenced by both old school African musical styles and modern pop, James sees his music as a bridge between the two. “I try by all means to keep it authentic so as to preserve the culture and customs for posterity. I call my music Afro jazz-kalindula but I categorise it under ‘world music. It carries life stories and spiritual inspiration,” he says.
In 2007, while in Mkushi, James met singer K’millian. He is a fan of K’millian’s work and had followed his career over the years. The chance encounter led to James working with K’millian as a backup singer. This was James’s entry into the industry and he never looked back. Unsurprisingly, when I ask James what his career highlights are, he first mentions meeting K’millian. This meeting, after all, changed the course of his career and his life. James went on to work as a backup singer for other artists besides K’millian.
Being a backup singer came with highs and lows. It sometimes involved working without pay. Ultimately, James used his time as a backup performer as a learning experience and never complained about the money, or lack thereof. “Being a backup singer taught me a lot of things, from the technicalities of the music business, patience and perseverance and how to conduct myself as a professional in music,” James says.
Three years after he met K’millian James started working as a producer and songwriter for So’ Good Entertainment. This allowed him to meet several other musicians and make connections to further his career. As with being a backup singer, it was another invaluable learning experience and another career highlight, he notes.
Another career high point for James was landing a record deal with Blazer Studioz in 2013. It was through Blazer Studioz that James released his debut album, Insale, in 2017. It was a labour of love that was four years in the making. James had already made a name for himself before the album release through his collaborations with other artists and live performances. There was much anticipation from audiences and critics awaiting his first studio album. An amalgamation of the traditional with the modern, Insale fuses Afro jazz and kalindula, a classic Zambian genre.
The year after James landed a record deal he got his first ever endorsement deal as Proflight Zambia’s ambassador along with Kanji, Cleo Ice Queen, Chef 187 and Kiki. The Fly5 gig involved travelling across Zambia, highlighting the best of what the country has to offer in terms of music, tourist attractions, food and culture.
When I ask for one final career highlight James mentions performing at the Stanbic Music Festival in 2014. The festival is one of the biggest events on Zambia’s entertainment calendar. Performing there was exciting enough but it holds added significance for James because the festival is where he met Oliver Mtukudzi, who would later become his “mentor and father in music.”
Mtukudzi heard James sing at the festival and was so impressed by the performance. He approached James and thus a friendship and professional relationship was born. The pair stayed in touch and were in constant communication. In 2016 they collaborated on a song titled ‘Tura Mtoro,’ which means lay down your burdens in Shona. The song features on Insale.
James tells me that ‘Tura Mtoro’ is one of his favourite songs he’s ever made. Besides the fact that it features Oliver Mtukudzi, one of Africa’s most legendary and beloved musicians, James loves the message behind it. “The song encourages the passing on of customs and traditions to future generations. I’m asking an elderly person, Oliver Mtukudzi in this case, to teach me how to use music to preach love and peace to my generation and in response he tells me to use kalindula.” The late Mtukudzi was a fan of kalindula, something he stated in a 2018 interview with Nkwazi. In that interview he also noted, like James, that ‘Tura Mtoro’ was one of his favourite songs.
James tells me of another personal favourite song from his discography, ‘Mukampokele.’ The song delves into some of the struggles that come with being a musician. “In the song I’m asking people to welcome me and give me a drink and a place to sleep. The journey of an artist is never easy and people don’t see the struggle and effort when you finally start putting out your work. That is why it’s easy for them to criticise anyhow. This song is basically a letter to the people that support music.”
While the struggles come with the territory, James has persevered and emerged as an important voices in Zambian music and is enjoying his time in the limelight after many years spent supporting other artists.