Actor & Musician Idris Elba On Making the Album

When I decided to go to South Africa to record mi Mandela, I contacted some producers to help me express my ideas. Several musicians came with me from England, including Ben Hudson, George the Poet, Maverick Sabre and Remi Rabaka, and when we arrived in Johannesburg we were lucky enough to work with a local producer called Spoek.

Spoek acted as a conduit for our ideas. He introduced me to some really fantastic musicians who formed a sort of house band who would be with us during every session. There wasn’t a set way of writing, but we’d often start by me telling everyone about my time in South Africa making Long Walk to Freedom. That would lead to other conversations and then everyone would fraction off into groups to work on beats and idea. I’d float between them, give my opinion and jam a little, and eventually songs would emerge and evolve.

At first we spoke about having a lot of South African house producers because I wanted that vibe on the album, but I also thought that sticking to one sound would really limit all of the ideas that I wanted to express.

It was also really important that we struck a balance between South Africa’s young talent and the nation’s musical legends. For example, we had The Mahotella Queens come in. They have an old-school, three-part vocal harmony sound which they practically invented, but we had the idea to team them up with Aero Manyelo who had produced this beat and he was like, “I really want them to sing on this. I’ve never heard them sing on anything like that.” It was a bit nerve-wracking because house music to traditionalists in South Africa is not considered music. But they’re legends and really humble and it worked out really well.

We had so much great local talent involved: as well as Aero and The Mahotellas, there was Thandiswa Mazwai, an amazing singer; Phuzekhemisi, who’s a Zulu guitarist who’s sold so many records; Macho, a young whizz-kid producer; and many others. Plus we had the likes of Maverick Sabre, Mumford and Sons and James Blake from England, and even Cody ChesnuTT. We were blessed with a lot of talent.

One of the best songs, Home, started out as an unreleased Mumford and Sons track. We played it to the musicians but not everyone got it at first. I had a moment of panic, but I explained that I interpreted it as a love song that really spoke about Nelson and Winnie’s relationship. Ben Hudson, the genius that he is, broke the song down to its components which inspired everyone, and then Maverick Sabre started singing it and even he hadn’t realised before that his voice really lends itself to folk. And it just continued to evolve. The best part of the song is when Thandiswa jumps in with “Spin me round just to pin me down on the cover of this strange bed.” What does that mean? To me, that’s a metaphor for what happens to you when you fall in love.

I’m well aware of the stigma that comes when an actor works on music. I hate that preconception, but the only way to fight it is to be completely honest about it: this is who I am, this is what inspired me, this is what the album is about. I’m not hiding behind any gimmicks. It’s been a really long journey to release this album – I spent almost a year playing Mandela – and I’m really excited that people will finally be able to hear it.

Idris Elba Presents mi Mandela is released on 27th November. Pre-order it here –http://smarturl.it/miMandela

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