Musician and academic, Ajoh writes about the resurgence of her passion for music while navigating inconvenient lockdown regulations.
I found my way back to my purpose and passion during a pandemic.
I first stumbled upon my musical talents when I was voted choir prefect of my class in Form Two in boarding school. I was 12 years old at the time. At first I wondered why my classmates chose me because I did not sing, or at least, I did not think there was anything remarkable about my singing abilities. My voice was so weak and it cracked all the time. I remember how my voice cracked when I tried to lead a song during Sunday mass. I was standing on a podium, in front of 500+ students and staff. I remember how they all tried to stifle their laughter (because we were in church after all) and I remember wishing I could literally melt into my shoes to escape the embarrassment. I remember crying on some Sundays because I had lost my voice during rehearsals on Saturday and now I did not know how I was going to lead the singing with no voice.
Despite several such incidents, my classmates continued to vote for me as choir prefect every year for 6 years straight until l I completed high school. Choir was a very competitive activity. Every class wanted to have the best choir in school. So my classmates and I started creating our own rhymes, so we could have the most unique choir. This is how I started writing songs and I was soon able to write songs by myself on topics that were not related to church.
With the lockdown restrictions, I had nowhere to go which meant more time on my hands.
After 6 years of countless vocal blunders of the kind narrated above, it became obvious (at least to me) that I had a gift, and all of the compulsory singing had managed to unlock that gift. I enjoyed expressing myself through music. I fantasised about performing on stage in front of huge crowds. When I was home during the holidays, I wanted to learn all the new songs that had come out while I was in school. I loved watching music videos on TV and imagining myself as the artist in my own video. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life and I was going to become a professional musician. My dad even paid for my first attempt at an album when I was around 18years old. That project never saw the light of day as I had to move to South Africa in 2011 to attend university.
After moving, things changed. Life got so tough, school got demanding and I found every excuse in the book to put music on hold. ‘Maybe after my Masters’, ‘no after the PhD’, ‘no when I have more money’, 'when I can sing high notes perfectly’ etc.
COVID 19 and the loss we’ve all experienced directly or indirectly further made me perpetually aware of my own mortality.
By 2019 I barely wrote any songs, although I would still have the occasional karaoke party by myself at home. I knew that I wanted to do music, it was part of my 10 year plan, but I had drifted so far away from it that I did not know how to start.
Then came COVID 19. I was just starting my second year of my PhD at that time. With the lockdown restrictions, I had nowhere to go which meant more time on my hands. My PhD seemed to be draining the life out of me the more I worked on it and I was in desperate need of something I could do that could nourish my soul. I tried a whole bunch of things to fill up the void. I took a fitness course, tried to be a motivational speaker, took a life coaching course etc but nothing seemed to ease the restlessness that spending so much time alone had created in me.
COVID 19 and the loss we’ve all experienced directly or indirectly further made me perpetually aware of my own mortality. I always knew I would die eventually, but the incessant death toll updates from the news, the stories from friends and people online who had lost loved ones to this disease made me hyper-aware, almost paranoid about death. I started seriously asking myself, “if I should die today, what would I regret the most?, what would my legacy be?” Among other things, the thought that I could die at any moment without doing the one thing I really believed I was placed on this earth to do was truly terrifying. In my 10 year plan, I was meant to start working on my music in 2023. But with so many people dying unexpectedly during the pandemic I couldn’t be so certain that I would be alive in 2023. I was so anxious which made it all the more harder to make progress on my PhD, hence even more anxiety and restlessness. I was not coping.
I don’t remember exactly what the final straw was, but one day in June 2021 I dug up all my old song books, picked up my guitar after God knows how long, and started playing my songs and making a list of the ones I would like to include in the project I had in mind to create. I started having sessions with Manasse Kaoma, a very talented guitarist and my friend, laying down the chord progression for the songs I liked while writing my music business plan. By July I had assembled a band and I was finally working on my debut project. It’s been four months since and I have completed about 80% of the work on what will be my first EP.
As much as it’s been an incredible journey so far, creating music (during a pandemic) is certainly challenging. South Africa has been in level 3 since I started recording in July until the recent level 1 alert that started in October. So fortunately, I have been able to work with musicians in the studio instead of virtually, as many artists have had to do. The main issue I faced was the 9pm curfew during level 3. Having to stop work because of curfew meant that I needed to book many more sessions on an already tight budget. On some days, I had to sleep at the studio because we worked past the curfew so as to meet the goals of that session. The 12am curfew has been better, although I look forward to a time with no curfews all together.
Working on my music has not solved my problems. It is actually the scariest and most complicated thing I have ever done
It is taking many tedious hours of work and basically all of my money and energy to run this project. It has been quite an intense few months juggling between the studio, my PhD, teaching and my other responsibilities and hobbies. Nevertheless, I am starting to understand what people mean when they say that there’ll never be a perfect time to chase my dreams. It will not be easy, but it will be worth it in the long run.
When I got home from my first studio session (which was 10+hours long), I could not stop listening to what we had done and I could not stop dancing, tired as I was. I was on a high for hours. I felt a surge of energy and a renewed excitement for life. I get the same high every time I come out of the studio. I feel re-energised and aligned in a way I have not felt in years. It seems that because I’m finally doing something that sets my soul on fire, every aspect of my life is benefiting. Even my PhD (the bane of my existence) doesn’t feel as draining as it felt at the beginning of the year.
Working on my music has not solved my problems. It is actually the scariest and most complicated thing I have ever done, but somehow that makes me feel like I’m on track. I have a long road ahead, I expect to be tested in many ways, but mostly, I cannot wait to share what we’ve created with the world. If it turns out that a long life is not in the cards for me, and I should die today, I would have died going after my dreams and purpose with everything I’ve got. Somehow, this rather dark thought has brought me peace during a truly chaotic time.