She is often referred to around the lines of, ‘that girl with that funny instrument who does the looping thing’ and this was the accumulation of my knowledge on Phia as I went to see her this October at the English Theatre Berlin. Shuffling within the bustling crowd that was fidgeting to see the final show of her tour, at first no-one I spoke to was particularly sure what the instrument she played was. ‘A mobiro,’ someone eventually said, nonchalantly. ‘From South Africa’. This created a momentary flutter of excitement in our corner of the lobby, and a little scepticism too. ‘It certainly doesn’t sound very African to me,’ someone said.
Amidst the wires and mics and lights, as Phia begins her set I crane my neck forward to get a better look at the thing in her hand that she introduces as not a ‘mobiro’ but a ‘kalimba’, a thumb-piano, a descendant of the South African ‘mbira’. The kalimba, with the dexterity of the cell phone generation, can be played with just one hand by plucking at the mettle strips that run across the wooden tablet, creating a sound like a xylophone or a little bell; but the sound is cleaner than a bell, and has more body than a xylophone. With her loop pedal, Phia records a melody with the kalimba, or a beat made with her mouth or hands, or sings an introductory refrain, and plays it back, allowing it to loop again, and again, throughout her song, as she adds layer upon layer, created with her hands, or mouth, or the kalimba. Phia isn’t the only one to use a loop pedal, or indeed to play a kalimba, but she’s one of few to use them together, and it is this unusual aspect to her music that brought many of us to the English Theatre Berlin that evening.
In her songs Phia expresses the relationship she has with ‘home’, which was Melbourne for her until she moved to Berlin – ‘this village’ – two years ago. As Lily Allen presented her home in ‘LDN’ with crack-whores and Tesco bags ...
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