Deva Mahal

By Hayley White

Reading time: 7 minutes

New Zealanders tend not to look to their own backyard when it comes to music. This makes it all too easy to miss seeing and hearing some of the biggest talents we have. I had the amazing opportunity to speak with one such talent. Deva Mahal has toured the world performing everything from jazz festivals to singing with Cyndi Lauper. She has performed with legends like Etta James and even alongside her own father in Michael Dorf’s tribute to Aretha Franklin, where she performed ‘Chain of Fools’.

Born with blues running through her veins and a voice like silk, Deva Mahal grew up as the daughter of iconic American blues singer-songwriter Taj Mahal. It may have been easier to follow in the same footsteps, but she says that it has always been important for her to forge her own path. “It was important for me to figure out what was right for me. Studying music, starting my own projects, producing shows, promoting my own work, writing, and performing live …. It just kind of built from there,” she tells me. “I've always studied the arts; I've always been involved in that way. I suppose in that way it felt natural and like a natural progression, you know?”

By Hayley White

Reading time: 7 minutes

New Zealanders tend not to look to their own backyard when it comes to music. This makes it all too easy to miss seeing and hearing some of the biggest talents we have. I had the amazing opportunity to speak with one such talent. Deva Mahal has toured the world performing everything from jazz festivals to singing with Cyndi Lauper. She has performed with legends like Etta James and even alongside her own father in Michael Dorf’s tribute to Aretha Franklin, where she performed ‘Chain of Fools’.

Born with blues running through her veins and a voice like silk, Deva Mahal grew up as the daughter of iconic American blues singer-songwriter Taj Mahal. It may have been easier to follow in the same footsteps, but she says that it has always been important for her to forge her own path. “It was important for me to figure out what was right for me. Studying music, starting my own projects, producing shows, promoting my own work, writing, and performing live …. It just kind of built from there,” she tells me. “I’ve always studied the arts; I’ve always been involved in that way. I suppose in that way it felt natural and like a natural progression, you know?”

Deva moved to New Zealand with her family when she was 17 and figured out that music was what she really wanted to do. She tells me that she initiated a handful of projects that got her started – a couple of which included a publishing company called Mahal Fan Productions and Soul Project: a non-profit organisation that works to create safe spaces for young girls and women of all backgrounds. She also set up a collaboration project with her friend and fellow artist Shiva Williams called Jazz on a Sunday.

“Then I moved to New York and kicked off a new project called Fredericks Brown. I started touring and performing internationally, began my solo project and signed my first record deal. That first record came out, which I toured the world with, and then I started putting out my own things, my own music, independently.”

When asked how she found her sound while trying to make her mark in the music scene and moving into independent music-making, she says that even now, the experience is ever-changing and ever-evolving: “Through life and experiencing things that I get excited about, sounds that I feel influenced by. Music I sought after as a youth, music I learned through study, and through practice. The music that continues to evolve and come out of my mind, my art. It is a continuous thing.”

It was only recently that Deva returned to New Zealand. This was in light of an invasive surgery that confronted and challenged her identity as a woman. Her songwriting changed completely by a need to heal her traumas and wounds, not just physical but also familial. In fact, the newest song she released just last year with her sister, Zoe Moon, was one that any sibling can relate to. ‘Sister’ is a song that talks about the strong bond between siblings; where you may not talk all the time and might not always get along, but you still love each other.

Deva says that this song was not a conscious thing, but rather was something she instinctively felt she had to do with her sister. Having lost a sibling, writing it with Zoe made sense. “It was exciting, it was challenging, it was emotional, it was a real exercise in building something with somebody that you’re really close to, that’s not just a friend. It’s your sibling, so it has a different dynamic,” she tells me. “But together, I think we fill the gap for each other. So, it was great experience and I’m really happy with what we created. I think it really connects to people; people really get it.”

Female empowerment and her experiences as a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People Of Colour) woman are also aspects of Deva’s songwriting that shine through strongly. One song that is possibly the most memorable representation of this is ‘Run Deep’. This song speaks directly about her experiences as a BIPOC woman fighting for what she believes in and the power that she holds. She tells me that those experiences and her music are inextricable. “I can’t wake up one day and not be a black woman, so my opinions and my experiences are always going to be from that perspective,” she says.

Something exciting coming up for Deva is her performance in cultural music festival WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance), in New Plymouth. As an internationally recognised festival, WOMAD works to bring together artists from around the globe in one big celebration of culture. She says it is one of her favourite gigs and has participated multiple times, but this year will be the first time as a solo performer. “It’s one of the few places you can go to and see music from so many different cultures and backgrounds, and so many different sounds, tones, and shades of music in one place. It’s open, and it’s really aspirational, the feeling that you have when you’re there,” she says. “WOMAD has gathered a wealth of diverse music from within its own borders. It’s an amazing opportunity to find music from all different places in the world.”

She says there is a wide variety of people in this country that do not really get the kind of attention and the stages to perform on that they deserve, and I agree. Deva tells me that it is an honour to perform at such an amazing festival as WOMAD and she is very excited.

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