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Business: Making Music

A singer from Zambia turns his attention to producing careers for others in the U.S. and from Africa. Mwawi Mfuni uses his understanding of the many different cultures in Africa to fuse new sounds and traditional songs at Point Z .


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Somali Bantu Infinity perform while Mwawi Mfuni (wearing orange in background) works
behind the scenes.
© Foreign Interest, 2009

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Point Z Studios

Creating the Sweet Sounds of Success

By Sherry Harbert, Foreign Interest


Mwawi Mark Mfuni does not listen for the sorrow of Africa. Though the sounds are familiar and constant, Mfuni hears the hope and talent that can change an entire continent. His vision to help foster that change is Point Z Studios, a Portland-based recording studio that nurtures local talent with an global outreach.


Located on the second floor of a downtown building decades behind the newer architecture featured throughout the city, Point Z Studios is beginning to make a future for many displaced artists and immigrants. Inside his customized recording studio, Mfuni boots up his multitude of computers, screens and sound systems to introduce his latest artists. He worked with 98 artists in 2008 and has added 27 new artists this year.


Mfuni calls himself the ambassador of music. It is an appropriate title that bares his work and commitment to local and immigrant artists. “I attract a lot of African artists,” he said as he opened tracks of the Congolese group, Sereya Brothers. “It’s such a cool experience.” Mfuni said he fused many sounds together to achieve what he wanted to hear from the group. “It’s Congolese music with contemporary jazz and different stuff.” He points to Patrick from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the keyboard sequence. “He’s amazing.” Mfuni clicks on more tracks that feature Patrick on guitar with Parfait, an artist from Benin. “His music is rooted in rhythm and blues with a French twist.”


His dream was forged at a young age in the copper mining town of Kitwe in north central Zambia. The country lies south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and shares in the mineral rich resources of the region, but is better controlled than their neighbor to the north.


Copper mines dominate the landscape and society throughout the region. Even some schools are run by the mining companies. Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) owned one of Zambia’s most preeminent secondary school, Mpelembe. The school, located west of Kitwe in Kalulushi, is a launching stage for successful Zambians. It opened in 1983 under ownership of ZCCM, but recently turned it over to the Zambia Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church. Mfuni, both smart and talented, earned his way into the school and graduated in 1996.


Looking for his opportunity was difficult after school. He managed to earn enough to attend a Sathya Sai School in India. A chance meeting at the school opened up an opportunity he didn’t expect. An American family decided to sponsor him to attend school in the U.S. “I’m African as poor as the gutter,” said Mfuni. “I didn’t have any opportunities. But, then I got it from my American parents.” The experience changed Mfuni’s life. He said his host family didn’t have much money, but cared deeply about Africa.


“They are just an average family. They’re not rich,” he said, beaming as he talked about them. “But they sent me to PCC (Portland Community College) for computer information systems.” The family’s generosity helped Mfuni create more than an opportunity for himself. It created opportunities for dozens and dozens more both in Portland and around the world.


During his time at PCC, Mfuni looked to find a local source for music. He began helping other local groups with performances and carried on that commitment when he transferred to Portland State University. The training created several opportunities for Mfuni. One was an internship at Intel and another was discovering an electronic means to continue his music. It began in a one-room apartment filled with electronic music equipment and computers.


“I love what I’m doing,” he said. “I started the studio myself with no money, no loans. Friends from PCC helped me paint this place. All I had to pay them is with pizza and soda. They still check up on me.” He keeps his old friendships and continues to forge new ones along the way. As the founder and owner of PointZ, Mfuni now leads dozens of artists toward their dreams. “I was working for the American dream. Now I have three recording studios and I own my own floor in this building.”


The Little-Big City of Portland

Mfuni likes Portland. He said the a city that offers a lot. “Portland is so diverse,” he said. “It’s small, but really huge in some ways. It’s what brings a togetherness in the African community.” He pointed to the Liberian Independence Day celebration as a perfect example. “Half of the people who attended weren’t Liberian, but they celebrated together.”Other communities also reach out to him. “The Congolese are great,” said Mfuni. “Everybody recognizes the oneness. We all strive to help.”


Mfuni said he finds it more awkward to tell others he’s not from the local area. “Really we’re all human beings. It’s really cool.” He appreciates the openness of Portland to some environments on the East Coast. “Now in New York, along the Atlantic Coast, you notice the differences in cultures. Most stick to their own. You never see them mesh together like here. It’s not a community like it is here.”


Mfuni described another event at a Senegalese church to further his point. The concert attracted people from Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and other countries. “Everyone was enjoying the music,” he said. “That’s why I appreciate Portland. That’s why I stay here.”


Though many Africans find a way to acclimate into the local environment, there are still many challenges. “People have a sense that we’re all far away from home. We know this is our new home,” he said. “So we’re all trying to make each other’s lives better. We educate each other and enrich the cultures.”


Mfuni said he met a lot of friends through the Association of African Students at Portland State University when he was a student. “The group is so diverse and involved in many things. When you all come from different countries, you are all grass roots coming together.”


“Live” in Pioneer Square

Mfuni was describing how he sees everything so intertwined, when he suddenly brought up Dave Chappelle. The former Comedy Central comedian made a surprise appearance in Portland that brought thousands of fans downtown after midnight through Twitter, the social media network. It garnered broad media attention, but failed to make an impact with fans when the sound systems didn’t work.


“It was so crazy,” said Mfuni. “I was working with Dave. I was the sound man. I missed over 30 calls in just a short time when I was trying to set up.” While the audience remembers not being able to hear their favorite comedian, Mfuni points to a little known fact that prevented Portland’s first 2:00am comedy show from happening.


“The reason it was so crazy is that there was no electricity,” he said. “Pioneer Square shuts the power off after midnight. So we were trying to get sound connected with extension cords. When the square amassed thousands to hear Chappelle, the electrical issue was too much.” Chappelle was surprised by the attention, stating that he still must be famous, but he didn’t hang around for long. “Dave calls me his ‘Jamaican Scottie,” said Mfuni. “Just like out of Star Trek.” At least Mfuni impressed the main man of the hour.


From a Dream to Reality

Mfuni’s successes in the U.S. have been built with his passions and failures. He reminisced about his past singing in Zambia, “I won four state championships,” he said with a proud, yet sad voice. He discovered how difficult the music world can be when he volunteered to sing for a local AIDS campaign two years ago. After hours of work, he was told he wasn’t good enough. “They wanted hip-hop, yet my talent was in soul. They didn’t recognize that or understand. They just said I wasn’t good enough. That pissed me off when it was only a genre thing, not a talent thing.”


Mfuni continues to recall that moment and keep it fresh when he meets other artists. He is working with an Angolan woman who was turned down by a recent American Idol tryout he met this summer. “She made it through two rounds, but then was told she wasn’t good enough.” He asked if this wasn’t good enough as he opened one of her tracks. Her velvety voice meshed into the rhythms of Patrick’s guitar that could have been on any major label. Mfuni’s point was well made.


“People get thrown down to the curb in this business,” said Mfuni. “I want to open the door for people who are this phenomenal. It gives me great satisfaction to make a success of people who aren’t recognized by the mainstream.”


Building the Next Generation:

Mfuni is often contacted by youth who want to break into the music business. One of the most recent groups he works with is Somali Bantu Infinity or SBI. The group of four young men from Somalia, escaped the violence of their homeland only to wallow for years in a crowded refugee camp in Kenya. They and their families waited for years before being accepted into the U.S., of which they are grateful. One way to show their appreciation is through their music. Their smooth style of hip-hop doesn’t take the street approach found along the East or West coasts of the U.S. They’ve seen enough violence and misery. The SBI want to stand for something more, so they sing of positive futures, question the past and point to what they believe is important in life.


Mfuni’s standards at Point Z require a positive approach. Yet, he knows what many of his artists have experienced, so he invites them to share an expressive nature for those feelings and experiences. “The impact of negative experiences is okay to express in music,” said Mfuni. “It’s great to express it, but not to antagonize with it.”


Mfuni knows that art and emotions are the foundation for great music and outreach. “Sometimes you’ve got to put people in your shoes,” he said. “That’s what I’m striving for, to do something that helps people understand.”

Mfuni is quick to point out the media’s image in Africa is non-representative of people throughout the continent. “They always go to the slummiest places,” he said. “Yeah, Africa is poor, but they still find some sense of hope. They still find music. They still find joy.”


Mfuni wants people to know that poverty is not an indicator of talent. “The media show the poor, you see the wound, but that’s not the whole person,” said Mfuni. “That’s why I strive to help them express themselves--not to squeeze the wounds.” The work can mean years before his artists achieve a level ready for recording. But Mfuni keeps them looking toward the future, something they didn’t have in their homeland. “I want to change that, to show the good side,” said Mfuni. “I want to help them go from sadness to happiness.”


Brika de Tar is one of Mfuni’s artists he points to as expressing the pain of the past, but reaching out in hope for the future. “She was deceived and deeply hurt by one person,” said Mfuni. “Yet her music on her album doesn’t bitch about it. She expresses the closure. She lets you know how she feels. She lets you know what lies do. Then she goes on to tell us to move on and find a better life.”


Brika released her first album with Point Z in the spring and now is touring the U.S. and the U.K. with her soulful sounds. Mfuni met Brika when she was a regular performer in Nashville, Tenn. He convinced her to record her album with Point Z and now is working on tracks for her second album between touring. Mfuni admires that strength and beauty in his artists. He also takes pride in knowing he’s helping people retain some of their culture and allowing it to be shared with others.


Mfuni hopes to share his artists with the world in the future. He plans take 10-15 of his artists on tour in Africa to give them the opportunity to share their talents and to give those in the audience hope. “It’ll be youth-awareness concerts,” said Mfuni. “My hope is to push the levels with all my artists.”


Sharing Behind the Scenes

Mfuni is opening the music world to more than his current artists. Besides his staff and weekend crew, he works with high school students who would otherwise never see the inside of a recording studio. Many of the students he mentors have already faced difficulties in school and life. Mfuni gives them an opportunity to experience success in a creative environment.


He usually works with a group of five or six interns from local high schools. He first teaches them basics in music theory, then lets them explore their interests by working on actual music projects. Point Z’s Spin Academy includes mixing tracks, designing graphics for marketing, videos and tracking recordings. “One of the girls who really loved it is coming back to do video production,” said Mfuni.


“They are in the forefront of the work,” said Mfuni. “They always get to see the outcome and that’s important.” Mfuni makes sure they get to see their work and receive credit. He understands how important it is to create genuine links with his students. He possesses an acute awareness of what they need.


His students are considered most at risk of dropping out. “These are the kids who have had problems,” said Mfuni. The students come from Portland and the surrounding areas. During the summer, he worked with a group of students from Oregon City. The group is bused to Point Z Studios two times a week for five-hour sessions. He says that at first most students show very little motivation, but as he works with them they begin to see potential. “A lot of them will want to come back for more. They really get into it.”


Mfuni takes them through stages, beginning with a realistic talk on the music industry and life. “I have a big brother talk with them,” said Mfuni. “I see where they’re coming from and all the different experiences. I try to figure out where they’re coming from, then give advice to help out.”


His techniques open new worlds for youth who see little in their futures. Mfuni proudly shows a few YouTube videos and other student creations that make a difference in their lives and at Point Z. “It makes it so cool,” said Mfuni. “That’s what I want to do.”


Mfuni’s business ethic fits more into the nonprofit track, but Mfuni’s vision reaches toward corporate social responsibility. “A lot of people just want to make money, “ he said. “I want to make money to help.” Mfuni said people will tell him to go nonprofit, but he wants to point the way to a new ideal. “I want to show people that you don’t have to be a nonprofit to help. I don’t want to do this because the government says that you have to do it. I want to do it because I want to help.”


Point Z will soon be a one-stop studio for artists. Mfuni envisions an environment where artists can receive everything from a photo shoot and a recording contract to a concert package and public relations kit.


A Merchant of Many Trades:

Mfuni is as diverse as the people and cultures around him. He recently launched an online shopping mall to help people sell and buy new and used products. “With the economy today, I wanted to offer something that can help people earn a little money.”


The mall, Wagula, allows people to sell products at their convenience. He got the idea while attending Portland’s Saturday Market, a weekend fair for artisans and other entrepreneurs. Mfuni said most of the people he knows aren’t able to commit that much time outside their work and family to sell their products, so the online enterprise gives them that access.


Mfuni said Wagula will offer an entire package of services, from web presence, to banking and shipping. There will even be tracking on the shipments. He said he designed the commercial end of it to hold onto the money until the items shipped so the buyer and seller are protected.


“I want to make it inexpensive for them,” he said. Mfuni has been working on the project for over 11 months. He’s been asking people what they wanted in a site, then taking all those needs and wants and putting them into a user-friendly site.


According to Mfuni, one of the benefits of the site is access to merchandise not usually available in the U.S. “I always hear people say, when you go back to visit get me this.” Mfuni wants Wagula to offer it online. “Before, if I wanted a Zambian t-shirt, I had to ask someone going to Zambia to pick one up. Soon, I’ll be able to buy it online.” Mfuni said some African stores sell at such high prices, that many Africans can’t afford to buy the items. He wants to offer them reasonable prices.


Mfuni also sees the potential for selling music on the site. He’ll feature all his artists through an exclusive arrangement with CD Baby. He likes the CD Baby because it doesn’t take all the profits out of the artists hand. “The music industry takes a huge chunk,” said Mfuni. “Most companies take at least 35 percent. Then the artist has to pay the marketing and advertising costs. Some artists end up owing money to the music company.


There are so many African artists that are talented and just want their music out there,” said Mfuni. “They don’t want the headaches of marketing. All they want is a little money back. It’s the music that’s important to them. They want to share it.”


Mfuni continues to share his support and expertise with the community. He provided the entertainment and music for Portland’s Day of the Africa Child event which featured the Somali Bantu Infinity and other local groups this summer. He gathered Team Wagula for the annual Komen Portland Race for the Cure, an annual event to raise money to end breast cancer. He continues to help local refugee groups with private events to help them keep some of their culture alive. Mfuni wants to make sure they can share their music and dreams.


October 12, 2009

© 2009, Foreign Interest

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