Since 2012, Heather Maxwell has been the producer and host of VOA’s award-winning radio and TV program Music Time in Africa. The singer-songwriter pours her love for music into the show, which was founded in 1965 and is VOA’s longest-running English language program, and she aspires to climb to great heights in the music industry. Armed with diverse talents, self-confidence and a sheer determination to succeed, there appears to be nothing that can block her road to success.
Does your show focus on West African music?
“My show does not have a particular focus on West African music. It is pan-African all the way. A recent feature artist, for example, was the Debo Band – an Ethiopian-American 11-piece band. I lived in West Africa for several years and wrote my Master’s and Doctoral theses on Malian popular music. I speak French and Bambara, two languages widely spoken in West Africa. But since hosting Music Time in Africa, I’ve been exploring and presenting music from across the continent and the diaspora.”
You’ve interviewed many musical groups and performers as part of the show. What are some of the more memorable moments from those interviews and from the artists that have performed in the VOA studios?
“Every interview is memorable in its own unique way so that’s a hard question to answer. The better the musician or vocalist, the more memorable the interview. That’s really the bottom line. It’s always about the music first. My interview with Oliver Mutukudzi comes to mind, as well as artists such as Mokoomba, Sousou and Maher Sissoko, Bassekou Kouyate and Noura Mint Seymali.”
I understand you perform worldwide in your work outside of VOA, especially in Africa, with a host of notable musicians. What genres of music do you specialize in? What instruments do you play?
“I am a singer-songwriter. I use piano and a two Malian instruments to compose with: the kamalen n’goni and the balafon. But I’m first and foremost a singer. I was formally trained in classical and jazz but grew up singing in my family’s gospel band. Then I started living and studying music in Africa, so all of these experiences fold into the kind of music I end up writing and singing. I’ve recorded traditional songs in Bambara, Afro-jazz, classic jazz and other things I can’t put in any category. I love the classics though: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn on the American side, and then African/World music classics like Miriam Makeba and Cesaria Evora.”
What you have learned from that experience that you’ve applied to your work at VOA?
“As an artist, I’ve transferred the crucial skill of delivery; from the stage to inside a radio studio just alone in front of the mic, and in front of TV cameras or my iPhone camera. Each one is different, so that’s been a fun challenge. I’ve also learned that having an ear for talent is a talent and a skill in itself. I’m able to hear artistry and excellence in music and select my playlists accordingly. Not a lot of people are able to distinguish great music or great raw talent from mediocre or even bad music or talent.”
Originally from Flint, Michigan, you began singing at age 7 with your family gospel band, touring and competing in talent shows throughout the state. Who influenced you to become so involved in music at such a young age?
“My faith in God and my mother.”
What made you so passionate about music?
“I don’t know. I’ve always been this way since I can remember.”
Did you know at that time that you wanted a career in music?
“I’ve always done what makes me passionate. Sometimes that gets me into trouble! And hardship! We didn’t talk a lot about careers in my family when I was growing up. I just kept doing musical things and somehow it turned into a career.”
When did you become fascinated with African music?
“When I was in college. I was studying opera in the Music Department at the University of Michigan. I wanted to learn about how other people around the world did music. African music was the most appealing of all of the music I listened to from around the world. Hearing the music of West Africa, in particular, and reading about how integrated it was in so many facets of community life, made me want to experience it for myself. I literally followed my ears to Africa.”
Why did you decide to enter the ethnomusicology program at Indiana University and devote a decade of study to African music?
“No other interesting job prospects presented themselves to me at that time. I had a baby. A decade of studying music seemed like a great option.”
It’s clear that you love your work. How important is it for an employee to be happy with what he/she is doing?
“It is everything. If I wasn’t doing what I love here, I would go somewhere else. When you’re a creative person like me, you need to be creating at all costs.”
How did you wind up at VOA?
“The ethnomusicology community is small. We all know each other and who has what specific skill set. Fortunately, I had the unique skill set that VOA was looking for in the host for Music Time in Africa.”
How important is it for VOA’s audience that viewers/listeners are exposed to African music and these musical groups?
“It is crucial. One of the greatest gifts that Africa offers the whole world is its music. Many of the world’s current music styles and genres such as blues, jazz and hip-hop all have roots in Africa. Popular dance crazes that “go viral” – from Beyonce to Shakira – are often first discovered on YouTube clips from Africa. The African music and groups that I present are fun. They attract young audiences and really engage them in a way that really facilitates that human, cross-cultural connection. New stories don’t often do that.”
What has this opportunity at VOA meant for you professionally and personally?
“This opportunity has presented me an open ceiling, a ceiling with no roof. I keep wanting to climb higher and higher and use different ways, different angles to take each step up. The higher I go, the more people I reach. It’s beautiful.”
What’s next for you?