Noisettes have African spirit

Why does the neo-psychedelic blues-rock of English trio Noisettes sound so feral on the new CD, “What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?”

It could have something to do with the upbringing of bassist-bandleader Shingai Shoniwa, who was born in London, but spent a good part of her childhood roughing it in the African bush. Her mother hailed from Zimbabwe and her grandmother from Mozambique, but Malawi was where she resided, and where she got chased by rogue elephants.

Shoniwa recalls, “You kill what you eat — you actually hunt your dinner. Boys start hunting with their fathers at 10, 11, but I was a girl so that wasn’t cool — all I helped hunt was a bird, one pigeon and that was it for me.”

Everyday chores in Africa proved a challenge for the city slicker. Just like in “The Jungle Book,” she says, “You had to fetch water, on your head, first thing in the morning … and the other kids all laughed at me, because I was this kid from London who couldn’t hold a jug up for longer than a couple of minutes. But I learned pretty quickly, and today I can balance pretty much anything on my head. Even a suitcase. I was walking through an airport just the other day, really bored, so I decided to balance my bag.”

Her brassiness served her well. Especially back in Britain, where she trained for the circus, but eventually settled for writing her own two-hour musical in college, revolving around 1930s Harlem. Naturally, she jumped at the chance to form a band with her theatrical collaborator, guitarist Dan Smith and — after adding ’60s-throwback drummer Jamie Morrison — Noisettes was born.

For influences, Shoniwa looked to her past, most notably African artist Thomas Mapfumo and his guitar transcriptions of the m’bira, a thumb piano dubbed the “Telephone to the Spirits” in local lore.

Although much of “Mr. Wolf” is big-city rooted, Shoniwa tried to infuse it with spirit of her tribe, the Sokha, and the animal spirits that guide her. And now that her band — which hits San Francisco’s Popscene later this month — is catching on, she’d love to squeeze a few African gigs into her busy schedule.

“Because it was always quite sad to get back on the plane for England,” she says, “after you’ve been surrounded by wild animals and trees and nature in the most intimate proximity.”

Noisettes with The Maccabees

Where: Popscene, 330 Ritch St., San Francisco

When: 9 p.m. June 14

Tickets: $10 to $12

Contact: www.popscene-sf.com

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