Carol on regardless

Appearing alongside Yamikani Mahaka Phiri (right) in Swingin’ Christmas are, from left, Tracey Lee Oliver, Cito and Pixie Benne . Picture: Supplied

Yamikani Mahaka Phiri is a young vocalist, fresh out of the Wits School Of Dramatic Arts, who will appear alongside Cito, Pixie Bennett, Tracey Lee Oliver, Martin Rocka, Adam Howard and the Johannesburg Big Band at Swingin’ Christmas, a one-night-only event celebrating the festive season at the Lyric Theatre on November 30.

Phiri is being trumpeted as an “exciting discovery”, which is all very well, but as far as he’s aware, he’s existed before now…

“It feels like I’m starting from the bottom again,” laughs Phiri.

“When you’re in matric, you feel like you’re top of the pile and then you go to varsity and have to work your way up for four years. Now, in my first job as a professional, it’s back to the start again, with me being introduced to a new market, rather than the people who know me at Wits.”

Phiri has appeared as a student in a number of productions, some of which have done well and some of which have been received with less enthusiasm.

What sort of impact will bad reviews have early on?

“I really want a good review for my first show,” Phiri says, not unreasonably.

“But whatever is said is going to hit me hard. So far, as a student, I’ve always personally had good reviews, so I’m kind of expecting that, but I know that might not be realistic. There’s always been a safety net at Wits. People could always use the fallback comment: “Oh, it was just a student show.” I won’t have that now.”

Starting off in a show as one of four featured vocalists backed by a big band: is this a challenge or a secure place?

“I am safe to some degree,” muses Phiri, “because I have the other three guys around me, and they’re looking after me, in a way.

“The music in this show is spread out well – everyone gets their moment. But the songs I love the most are the group songs. I love harmonies.

“The solos are a bit different. I don’t want to indulge in my solos, but those are the times when an audience can tell if you’re the real deal or not.

“I had some good advice about how to handle those situations recently. We did an improvisational Shakespeare production at Wits, and the facilitator told me that I must have respect for both the work and the audience. So I’m keeping that in mind for this show – Christmas songs are important for a lot of people.”

Have there been any challenges for Phiri as he acclimatises to the professional environment?

“At the first rehearsal for Swingin’ Christmas, everyone else knew each other, so there were lots of hugs and inside jokes, and I just sat in the corner. And it was the first time for me working with the kind of musical director we have here, figuring out who will be following who and all the rest. I’m still learning.”

Have people’s reactions to Phiri changed now that his name is on a poster at a venue outside of the Wits campus?

“Some reactions have shifted slightly,” he admits, shyly.

“People say: ‘Oh, you’re in that show – hi!’ But otherwise there are no major changes yet. I don’t have a set training schedule. I’m always singing; my neighbours must hate me. I do have a direction, but I haven’t thought about that programme yet, as I’ve been concentrating on my education, and I’ll still be studying for a Masters degree.”

Studying has to end at some point. Is there a sense among students at the Wits School Of Dramatic Arts that a successful career is inevitable, or are the obvious challenges taken into account?

“I imagined being an out of work actor for a long time,” Phiri laughs.

“This show was a surprise. A lot of students live in a fantasy world. I’ve been lucky enough along the way to be involved with Gina Schmukler and Adele Strombeck, and they’re always shouting at me and telling me it’s not going to be easy.

“I think what will happen going forward will be more in line with my original vision. I’ll have to go to a lot of auditions; really build that muscle.”

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