Mtali Banda w/ Kimaya Diggs

The Iron Horse (18 Center St., Northampton, MA)


Mtali Banda w/ Kimaya Diggs at The Iron Horse on Saturday, May 25 2024

The son of a Malawian refugee father and an African-American mother, all the sounds Mtali Banda was exposed to growing up can now be heard in his music. Music was always there. Mtali Banda’s first tour was at age ten, singing in a gospel choir (his mom was the director) traveling from Washington, D.C. to Maine. More than the singing itself, the musicians accompanying the choir captured his burgeoning imagination. He knew right then what he wanted to be.

Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Mtali spent the bulk of his early years in Madison, Wisconsin, before moving to Atlanta, Georgia as an adolescent. In Atlanta, he switched from his first instrument, clarinet to saxophone and began cutting his teeth in the city’s cutthroat school marching band environment. ‘If you’re good enough in middle school they’ll let you play in the high school band,” he says. And that’s exactly what happened. “It’s a sport down there. You gotta have swagger.”

When Mtali was 15, he and his mother moved to Brockton, Massachusetts--a poor working class immigrant city just south of Boston--where he began to study jazz much more formally. At 18, he moved to Haifa, Israel, where he served at the Baha’i World Centre. He was able to connect with the Israeli jazz music scene, as well as reconnect with his gospel roots and refine his sound.

When he returned to the states after a two year hiatus, Mtali brought these lessons, swagger included, with him, where his career as a bandleader, instrumentalist, and songwriter has taken root. It is a music existing outside of codified genres, balancing invention and tradition. The ingredients span jazz, funk, soul, folk, r&b, and hip hop, but also travelogue, memoir, and family history.

These elements have combined in the work he’s done with The Oneness Project, his avenue for his exploration of personal history and Black experience in America. Visits to Malawi formed the basis for the song cycle Homegoing, a deeply felt collection both of and about the country from which his bloodline springs. Playing music there, he felt at home. “It’s because I grew up playing Black music here,” he says. “I can’t play classical. I have too much backbeat in me.”

Written by Matt Krefting



Musician Kimaya Diggs navigates her world with stories. Penning her first one-woman show as a little kid, she’s published fiction, earned a Callaloo fellowship for poetry, and works days as a speechwriter—not to mention the accolades her songwriting’s earned, including a New England Music Awards nod, gigs at legendary folk haunts like Club Passim, and appearances at Green River Festival, Rubblebucket’s Dream Picnic, and the Emily Dickinson festival. “I’ve always thought of my writing and music as one thing—connective storytelling,” Diggs explains. But while her mother was sick with a twelve-year illness, Diggs felt unable to share the whole truth. Her first LP, 2018’s Breastfed, was largely about her mom, but it wasn’t until her passing that Diggs was free to use songwriting to process. “Sharing my grieving experience has resonated with people; they’re excited to hear something that’s not all good,” notes Diggs. To help cope, Diggs and her husband Jacob Rosazza—also her musical collaborator—rescued an ex-racing dog, Quincy. Though they shared only two years together, caring for the traumatized animal helped Diggs find purpose. “Having him was challenging, but at the same time, he’s why we survived the first year without my mom,” offers Diggs. “It was special to get to love a creature so much—because of, in spite of, and in addition to the challenges he came with.” Losing Quincy gave her greater insight on heartache, so she named her newest album after him.

Born and raised in Western Massachusetts, Diggs boasted an expansive musical résumé when she was just a teen. She grew up playing piano and cello, and sang in a trio with her siblings, the Diggs Sisters. Only a high schooler, she learned a range of vocal techniques—choral singing, musical theater, and improvisation among them. “Western Mass has given me a lot of the primary figures in my life who put me on this path—people who pushed me out of my comfort zone,” acknowledges Diggs. After touring internationally with polyphonic singing group Northern Harmony, Diggs left Massachusetts to study opera in Philadelphia. When she moved home in 2015, she began performing her own songs on guitar, falling in with a diverse crew of musicians: contemporary folk artist Wallace Field, psychedelic electropoppers Sun Parade, and LuxDeluxe, an eccentric, beloved rock outfit featuring Rosazza, who helped to record Breastfed.

The first song Diggs wrote for Quincy was “I Hafta Try,” a pop number with bouncing synths and guitars. From a mouse-infested apartment, Diggs composed on ukulele—“because it fit under the bed,” she deadpans. “I was struggling, not able to be a good friend or partner or family member. What inspired that song was gratitude for the people who stuck with me.” Next came “Bloom,” full of sage bass pulses and playful vocal leaps, written about Diggs’ November ritual of planting bulbs for her mom’s birthday. She learned that the first frost kickstarts flowers’ growth, recontextualizing the necessity of rest. Written before vocal surgery, “Bloom” also transformed Diggs’ guitar technique. “I couldn’t talk, and had to do 150 sessions of speech therapy to sing again,” recalls Diggs, frustrated when she couldn’t vocalize ideas. On a parlor guitar, she picked out melodies, transforming her relationship with lead lines. “That time of silence was a guitar awakening for me,” she muses. “If You Love Me,” Quincy’s purposefully ornamented first single, came from a hike Diggs and Quincy took after her mom died. “I got severely lost and had to wander,” she remembers. “It was early spring, with light coming through the leaves, which I wanted to capture.” To do so, Diggs conjured “the spangly, sparkly sounds of Corinne Bailey Rae.” Several songs are co-writes with Rosazza, who gifted Diggs chord changes to inspire her. And “True Eyes” was wholly written by Rossazza, featuring his double bass performance alongside suspenseful organ and triumphant drums.

To record Quincy, Diggs turned to LuxDeluxe again, some of whose members served as her band. “I’ve known them for fifteen years; it was a special experience, and made me closer to people I care about a lot,” she reports. They commenced tracking at Springfield’s Ghost Hit Studio in February 2020, resuming at LuxDeluxe’s mill building space later that year. Diggs’ clear visions guided her—the jazz-futurism of KAINA and Raveena, Tess Henley’s piano virtuosity, the vocal daring of Keely Smith—and the studio proved perfect. “It felt like a sanctuary,” gushes Diggs, listing dozens of guitars, rare keyboards, and a vibraphone, all of which she performed. “My live performance is guitar-heavy, so I wanted the recording to have that keyboard-centric sound,” she explains; an old Wurlitzer was essential to channel soul legend Donny Hathaway. Amid the spacious groove of “But I Do”—about finding beautiful parts of love inside pain—she employed a backing vocals approach borrowed from D’Angelo and Marvin Gaye, stacking loose, atmospheric harmonies. She arranged strings on the clarion “I Thought You’d Choose Me,” and her father, a jazz flutist in his youth, returned to the instrument for heartfelt solos on various tracks. Diggs also praises her collaborators’ contributions, particularly Jake Manzi’s backing vocals, and Caleb Rosazza’s production wizardry on the candy-sweet funk of “Follow Me.”

Quincy marks Diggs’ evolution as a producer—one that’s capable of pulling her collaborators out of their comfort zones, just as her mentors did for her. “This is a soul, folk, and R&B album, and everyone who worked on it is a true indie rock person,” she laughs. “I knew what I wanted, and I’m so happy with how it came out.” Diggs’ own health also shifted her approach to production. “I’d been dealing with chronic illness, and found out if I couldn’t get treatment, I likely wouldn’t make it to 60. What do I want to do if I only have that much time left?” she asked herself. Out of this scare—now better managed, thanks to an autoimmune diagnosis—came a new mantra: “You can do whatever you want.” This philosophy steered Quincy, from guitar lines to artwork to touring plans. “My mom had concrete goals she didn’t accomplish because she had so many things she thought she had to do, and I don’t want that,” Diggs emphasizes. “This album is underscored by me reminding myself that nothing is guaranteed—except trying to find happiness.” Though born from intersecting arcs of grief, Quincy is a joyful album, a story masterfully told in an agile, open-hearted voice that could only come from Kimaya Diggs.

— Sadie Dupuis