This is Part Four of a six-part series on South African Vocalists
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When she was a teenager a few years ago, Natasha Meister strolled into a hazy bar in the country of her birth, Canada. She and her elder sister, Cherie, were there to perform in a music competition.
The sisters had been singing gospel music since they were toddlers. But, unbeknown to them, they’d signed up to compete with some of the area’s best amateur blues artists.
The awestruck teens walked into a crescendo of electric guitars, growling vocals and leather clad men singing about unfaithful women, liquor-soaked nights, murder, redemption and lost love.
“We didn’t know it was like a full on blues competition with full on blues bands and everything, and we came on [stage] doing our gospel music! People were like, ‘What’s going on?’ That’s when I heard the blues for the first time,” said Meister.
Amid the smell of beer, sweat and personal pain, she underwent a life-changing experience.
“I remember watching a guy who was in his early 20s. He was playing amazing blues guitar with this amazing band, and people were just cheering and getting off on it, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to do that….’” Meister recalled.
Encouraged by her father, who bought her an acoustic guitar and taught her some basic chords, she began her blues education. She plunged into the works of legendary American blues guitar maestros BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Buddy Guy, and soul divas Aretha Franklin and Etta James.
These were her teachers.
“I’ve never actually gone for proper guitar lessons or vocal lessons. I’ve just listened to a lot of music, and it’s just all about the feel and the groove. It just has to feel good and that’s what it’s always been about for me,” Meister said.
But it’s two different things to love singing the blues and playing electric guitar as a teenager and actually doing it to the point where you become the first woman in Africa to be endorsed by legendary American guitar company, Fender.
Yet this is exactly what the 21-year-old Meister, based in Cape Town, has achieved, placing her in illustrious company. Many great guitarists have used, and continue to use, Fenders – including rock music’s holy triumvirate of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.
Not that Meister for one second believes that she deserves to be in this pantheon of guitar masters.
“I’m still learning; every day I learn something new. Playing guitar and singing are my passions. I honestly don’t know where my skill came from. I’ve just been given this talent and I’m using it; that’s all I can say,” she told VOA after a recent rousing performance.
Sadness and suffering
Meister feels the electric guitar is an extension of her body and uses it to enhance her humanity.
“I love playing the guitar, and electric guitar especially, because it’s the best way for me to express my emotions – whether frustration, anger or joy, the guitar for me is the perfect instrument to do this.”
In “Drowning,” a key track from her debut album, Half Way
, Meister sings in a sultry tone similar to that of internationally acclaimed vocalist Norah Jones, “I just can’t think of anything better / Than sitting here on the floor / In the dark / Humming this tune / And strumming my guitar.”
Singing and playing guitar also allow her to channel sadness and suffering.
“Once in a while / I just don’t care / The pain is hard to bear / Now suddenly I’m scared…. I’m half way on my way / To nowhere,” Meister sings on the title song of her new record.
“A lot of people ask me how can I play the blues, how can I understand the blues when I’m only 21? You know, I haven’t been through all these hardships in life but I mean I have my own little hardships and I also get sad sometimes,” she explained.
Meister described Half Way
as blues, with a bit of pop and rock added. “I’m kind of experimenting with my sound at the moment,” she said.
The album is a mellow mix of easy-on-the ear blues that accentuates her rich, pure voice and her languid, almost liquid guitar playing. Her guitar work is never flashy.
Her lyrics speak of the joy of a new relationship; regret at a failed one; self-doubt but also optimism and hope. What always shines through in her songs is her belief in music as her savior, her shelter from harm.
Meister clearly has her own style but acknowledged that she’s tempted to model herself on a modern-day blues hero. “I’m a huge fan of John Mayer; I think he’s got one of the greatest feels for blues guitar,” she said.
Meister is extremely attractive and exudes confidence, and she could easily don a figure-hugging outfit, perhaps as a gyrating, pouting member of a girl group selling records based on their sexy appearance rather than any superior musical talent.
She acknowledged, “I’ve thought about like going that totally commercial route, like all about body image and the dance and techno stuff you hear on radio every day; you know, like I could make lots of money and I could hit the big time real quick….”
But she hastened to add, “I’d be selling myself short and that’s not what I want to do. I’d rather take the long road and do what I love and see what happens, without becoming something I really am not…I don’t think I’ll ever move completely away from the blues. There’s just something so pure about it, as a musical genre. It’s just such sincere music.”
Right now, Meister and her band are performing all over South Africa, wherever they’re able to get gigs.
“I don’t want to sound brash, but we are hoping to go international, to go overseas to play in Germany and maybe even the United States. We’ve received good responses from both those countries,” she said, smiling.
Currently, Meister’s immersed in writing new material.
“It’s very exciting and I’m hoping to get a second album out soon. Of course I’d love to be signed by a record label, if the opportunity ever comes along, but I wouldn’t want that to mean that I have to change my sound in a major way,” she said.
One of her favorite songs on Half Way
is “Safe in the silence.” But, standing on a stage in front of hundreds of festival goers, her guitar moaning deliciously and her honeyed voice washing over the crowd, it’s unlikely that Natasha Meister ever will be.
Listen to profile of South African vocalist Natasha Meister