It’s the start of Norfolk Black History Month. And high time we celebrated our present day Norfolk heroes. First up? Charismatic ambassador for the arts and culture of the sub-Saharan continent, Anna Mudeka
At the start of this year, Anna Mudeka had uprooted from her home county of Norfolk to London, ready for a nine-week run of the RSC’s acclaimed production of Kunene and the King at the Ambassadors Theatre in the West End.
Starring South African Antony Sher and John Kani, the live music and vocals came courtesy of Anna herself – the Zimbabwean-British multi-instrumentalist, actress, singer, writer and educator.
It didn’t quite finish its run, which was supposed to finish in late March, for obvious reasons: ‘The production was going really well as well and seven weeks in that’s when we had to close the doors for the foreseeable future – we only had two weeks left of the run.’
There was nothing else for it: ‘I came home,’ says Anna. Home is Southburgh in Breckland, Norfolk. And with two daughters, aged 10 and 13, home schooling loomed. Let’s just say it was an adjustment: ‘It took a while,’ says Anna. ‘I never claimed to be a teacher but you find your inner teacher hiding behind everything else.’ Although it was ‘challenging’, Anna says: ‘We negotiated our way around that.’
They live on a farm and so Anna turned to the land during lockdown: ‘I started doing a bit of gardening and growing fruit and veg – we’ve pretty much eaten from what I’ve grown at home all of this year.’
Any surplus became available by the roadside. ‘We set up a stall and the locals came and donated some money. It was quite exciting when somebody put in a 50p coin for five pears!’
In a sense, life’s ‘been quite full’, but what about work itself? ‘Theatre and music has been hit so hard you almost start to think actually I need to find a job!’ says Anna, who has an impressive CV. She is the founder and artistic director of Tambai Promotions; established The Mudeka Foundation in 2011 which supports orphans attending five schools in Zimbabwe; provides Drumming for Business corporate team building workshops – the list goes on…
In 2019 Anna toured throughout the UK over 45 dates with her one-woman production Kure Kure/Faraway, an epic tale addressing themes of identity, migration, assimilation and empowerment framed in the legends of her Shona ancestors and her own highly personal story of settling in the UK.
Reaching back to the Bantu migration some 5000 years ago from the Tanganyika and Baka tribal regions, Anna had got used to taking audiences on an inspirational journey to modern-day Zimbabwe, London and Norfolk.
The show pays homage to great ancestors of Zimbabwe with a focus on Nehanda – the powerful female warrior who united the tribes and led the first Chimurenga war in 1896-7. And Anna tells stories from her childhood in a free Zimbabwe – about the influence of her grandmother and the difficult decision to leave and pursue her dream as an artist in the UK. A history lesson if ever there was one, there’s a KS3 teachers’ pack to tie in Black History Month.
For performers like Anna, summer just didn’t happen the way it was planned, or the ‘events we should have done on the festival circuit, such as Latitude and Edinburgh. We’ve had to take a step back and think ‘what to do’?’
Anna’s applying for funding to tour the show outdoors next summer. But it’s difficult to plan ahead. ‘You just don’t know – everyday things change.’
She adds: ‘With everything moving online I was looking at how I could move my workshops and some of my performances online.’ It’s opened up a whole new world, literally. ‘All of a sudden you’re not just playing in Norfolk or London, you are playing to the world.’
One of her initiatives was able to continue with a bit of help: ‘We have been doing the African Choir for Norfolk which we set up last year. It was going really well, then lockdown happened.’ Thanks to Arts Council England, rehearsals were transferred online.
There have been positives to draw upon this year: ‘What’s been revolutionary has been the time to be creative, you know? For people in the show industry you are always trying to get the next pound – you don’t stop and be creative.
‘I’ve returned home and practised more of my instruments.’ Anna happens to be a highly skilled Djembe and Ngoma drummer and Mbira player (a Zimbabwean thumb piano) and is focused on keeping ancient instruments and techniques alive. So this year has given Anna something of a creative edge. So much so, she’s planning to release an album.
In the brochure for this year’s Norfolk Black History Month, Anna is lauded as a black hero of Norfolk: described as Norfolk’s foremost celebrity entertainer, officially the most inspiring women in the county, one of the most influential women in the UK and an award-winning businesswomen. Anna says: ‘It’s lovely to be recognised as a hero in Norfolk. It’s been wonderful doing my work here.’
On the front cover of the brochure is an image of George Floyd and the words ‘I can’t breathe.’ Get Anna on the subject of the man whose murder, on May 25, caused an outcry across the globe, and the ongoing #blacklivesmatter movement, and it’s a case of: ‘I mean, where do you start, really?’ On her Instagram page on #blackouttuesday June 2, 2020) she simply wrote: ‘Enough is enough.’
As the Norfolk Black History Month brochure states: ‘the brutal killing of George Floyd by the police has created an unprecedented awareness of what in the past has been a routine occurrence.’
Anna makes the point: ‘It’s made people get out of their comfort zone, even myself. I’ve really started to research deeper into the dynamics and the origins and I’ve started reading quite challenging books.’
One such book is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge, ‘a very uncomfortable title,’ notes Anna. But worth the read, none-the-less. ‘If governments are not doing anything what can we do to make sense of what’s happening?’
Closer to home in Norfolk, she says: ‘I’m grateful that we as outsiders are all intermixed into the county. I love this county. It’s got its different people with different opinions but on the whole I know where I can go and be myself.’
She adds as an aside: ‘I’ve just had my hair done (I had my dreadlocks cut off) at a new hair salon on the Dereham Road and the guy cutting my hair was Portuguese. He said ‘I love my Norfolk.’
That sentence resonated with her. She loves her Norfolk, too. ‘Look at Norwich market now – you can have Indian food, Moroccan food, Spanish food. The welcome is there, definitely. I’ve always felt that.’
She may be working away from the county for much of this month, but Anna says: ‘It’s lovely to come back and just shut the door.’
A performance recording of Kure Kure/Faraway is available for viewing on a password protected page of The Silver Social until October 22, and there will be a Q&A with Anna today (October 1) from 2-3pm on Zoom. https://annamudeka.co.uk
Cover image by Gideon Graylyons