It’s been a long, winding road for jazz vocalist Joanna Majoko – one that begins with Flin Flon and northern Manitoba.
The 30-year-old singer is currently building an impressive resume in Toronto’s jazz scene, featuring on several records both at home and abroad.
Originally from Zimbabwe, Majoko first came to Canada in 2001, moving to Flin Flon. After making the move across the Atlantic, Majoko discovered live jazz performance and the rest, as they say, is history.
Coming to Canada
Majoko moved from Harare, Zimbabwe with her family in 2001 when her father, a metallurgist, was hired by HBM&S in
Harare and Flin Flon had little in common on any level. That’s something Majoko and her family found out the
“It was a huge culture shock. It was a culture shock, geographical shock, weather shock, everything. It was literally overnight,” she said.
It’s been a little more than 16 years since Majoko and her family moved to the area, but she still remembers the first drive to her new home.
“When we arrived in Flin Flon,
it was three in the morning in the middle of November. Coming from plus 40 weather, humid weather to a cold you’ve never experienced before. It was pretty intense,” she said.
It took Majoko and her family time to settle into their new home. In school and in the community, Majoko received arched eyebrows from fellow students and a lot of questions.
“There were very skewed thoughts of what Africa was like,” she said.
Sometimes, the questions took a darker turn.
“I definitely had racist moments, but I think that was based out of ignorance and not out of actual racial hatred. It was mostly kids in school.”
Feeling different in her new home, Majoko found an outlet, something she had limited access to in Harare – performing arts.
“I was a very shy individual, especially in Flin Flon,” she said.
“Even though I never thought music would become my main focus, I was very much involved with everything I could get my hands into. There’s definitely a lot of fond memories when it comes to music and Flin Flon.”
In her five years in Flin Flon, Majoko took part in every artistic production she could, including choir, jazz band and dinner theatre. Before she and her family moved to Thompson ahead of her senior year of high school, Majoko had a number of local and regional productions under her belt.
After Flin Flon
Graduating from Thompson’s RD Parker Collegiate with the Class of ’05, Majoko headed to Brandon University as a pre-law student studying political science.
That changed when, in her last year of undergraduate study, she took an elective course on the history of jazz. That decision ultimately led her to shift her dreams from the courtroom to the stage.
“I absolutely fell in love with the history of jazz as well as the tradition of it,” she said.
“I asked the director of the music school if I could sit in on a few of his classes or ensembles. I switched from political sciences to music in 2009 and proceeded to take it very seriously.”
After moving to Winnipeg to study music at the University of Manitoba, Majoko began her musical career in earnest, working as a jazz vocalist during her studies.
A year ago, Majoko made the move from Winnipeg to Toronto, hoping to use her new home as a launching pad to a larger audience.
“I made the move to Toronto for many reasons, but the main one was more opportunity in the music business, more diversity within the music business and people around me for inspiration and more access to the world.”
While the big move has meant a change in mindset, it hasn’t meant a change in contact.
“I still have my Winnipeg number because the phone plan is cheaper,” she said with a quiet laugh.
Majoko is currently taking part in a month-long residency at Toronto’s Poetry Jazz Café, a music venue located in the heart of the city’s historic Kensington Market.
At the café, Majoko has performed original music to a new audience every night.
“It’s become an avenue for me to write and perform music in a live setting with a band and an audience and see how receptive they are to the style I’m going for,” she said.
Since her move, Majoko has gone international, working with several American musicians and performing in France and New York City.
One project saw her working with Ulysses Owens Jr., a drummer, bandleader and Juilliard School of Music instructor with two Grammys and four Grammy nominations to his name. The project is called Songs of Freedom, which will be taken on a cross-US tour later this year.
Meanwhile, Majoko is also trying to get in touch with the musical roots of her homeland, learning the traditions and music of Zimbabwe.
That’s meant a crash course in the country’s musical heritage, from jazz to ’70s chimurenga and sungura music to the present day. It has included learning how to play the mbira, a traditional African piano-like percussion instrument played with the thumbs.
“I am slowly trying to incorporate my Zimbabwean heritage into the musician I have become now, very jazz and gospel influenced. I want to add the sound of Zimbabwe and the sound of Africa into my music,” she said.
“I wanted to be closer, in a sense, to my people. I don’t know a lot about the musical tradition of my own heritage. I was just never brought up with that knowledge.”
Recently, Majoko has been featured on a special holiday track with fellow Canadian jazz musicians Suresh Singaratnam and Stu Harrison. The song, called “A Canadian Christmas,” features Majoko and company waxing poetic about the multicultural identity of the country at the holiday season.
“The song that he [Singaratnam] wrote celebrates the diversity of Canada and recognizing all people, gender, orientations, stuff like that,” said Majoko.
While the future looks bright for the former Flonner, she said the place where her love of jazz truly began was in the cold, rocky terrain of northern Manitoba.
Majoko cites former Hapnot band and choir instructor Lisa Aune and Crystal and Mark Kolt as people who helped her get to where she is today.
“My exposure of what I knew jazz to be began in Flin Flon,”
“I would not be the jazz musician I am now had it not been for my time up north.”